Inclusivity and diversity with Jo Sargeant and Clare-Louise English from Hot Coals Theatre
Hot Coals Theatre is a clown, mask and physical theatre company that provides a highly visual and inclusive experience for people from all backgrounds and walks of life. Inspired by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, the creative team address hard-hitting issues with the gentlest of touches, captivating the hearts of spectators through their richly atmospheric storytelling. We were lucky enough to speak with writer and director Jo Sargeant and Clare-Louise English about their latest production, My Darling Christopher, and how it came into fruition during lockdown.
Hi Jo and Clare-Louise, thank you very much for speaking with us at The Upcoming. Congratulations on such a beautiful production.
How did you come across Clive Davis’s story and what compelled you to make a film about it?
Jo Sargeant: I first met Clive during my Level 3 BSL class when he came in to tell us his story as practice for our receptive skills. I was completely captivated from the start. How he had to adapt, how his mother Dorothy had figured out how to communicate with him when he couldn’t see or hear in hospital by writing on his hand, and as he went on, I could see the whole story like a movie in my head. It was at that point that I spoke to Clare and said, “We need to make this film!” But of course, we had never made a film, so we thought we would start by making the theatre production, “A New Way of Life” first! Now, of course, everything has come full circle because of lockdown, and we have made “My Darling Christopher” meaning we’ve been able to dip our toe into filmmaking, taking our theatrical knowledge to the screen. It’s been terribly exciting!
Clare-Louise English: Yes, it’s so funny how we’ve ended up coming back to the original idea. It’s given me much more confidence that we could make the full film in the future, though I think we’d still like to see it on stage too first!
The piece uses unique theatrical language that is also very inclusive of those who find themselves on the margins of society. How important is diversity in the work that Hot Coals Theatre produces?
CLE: Inclusivity is at the very heart of our work – it informs what we make, how we make it and the process of making it. In regards to our “unique theatrical language”, we use a combination of visual storytelling, the likes of which you would find in a silent movie, and theatrical magic: using the lighting, the set and the sound to take the audience on a journey. It’s quite a detailed process, as access is intrinsic from the beginning for us. We don’t make a show and say “Right, now we have made it let’s add on the access.” For us, access is a huge part of the language itself, right from the very beginning. For My Darling Christopher we applied the same process, but this time we had even more toys to play with and more “rules” to break.
JS: As a company, the stories we tell tend to be hard-hitting with human subjects, telling stories that focus on topics that affect people from all walks of life, such as old age, loss and grief. So, although to date our shows have only included ourselves as a double act for the final piece, during our research and development periods for a show, we like to work with a diverse group of artists including deaf and hearing to gather a variety of perspectives so that our stories hit the right notes for our hugely diverse audience.
What was it like to make a film during lockdown?
CLE: It’s been quite strange. At the beginning of the year, we thought we would be making a full-scale theatre production for the RADA Festival – then we found ourselves making a short film instead! The process has been a huge learning curve for us, having never made a film before, but it’s been so rewarding. We knew we wanted to bring everything we’ve learnt over eight years of making accessible theatre to this project, so we just had to think of how it transferred from one medium to the other.
We had already done a lot of the background work for the theatre piece before lockdown was on the cards, including interviewing Clive, doing historical research and we’d also done R&D with actors at the end of January, so we had lots of material to draw from.
Once we’d decided the film would take the form of a letter, this gave us a clear structure. After that, it was a case of writing the initial letter then transferring it into a film script and a shot list – all new areas for us!
On a practical level, there were lots of new things to think about: social distancing on set, using taxis instead of public transport, limiting the number of households on set and much more besides.
My Darling Christopher shows us that there is an element of symbiosis between the cinematic and theatrical worlds. What are your thoughts?
CLE: Yes, we certainly think they can inform and borrow ideas and techniques from one another, and by working across both forms, they both benefit. Ultimately, I think if you are a good storyteller it shouldn’t matter what medium you’re working in. It so happens we’ve developed our skills as storytellers in the theatre, where your audience is right there in front of you, so you learn a lot from them, and you’ve shared stories with them. For us, we feel this gives us a greater understanding of our audiences and how our stories land. I think this experience has helped us to adapt quickly to film and enabled us to feel we can still be free to experiment. Obviously we have loads to learn from a technical point of view, but we’ll get there!
JS: Yes agreed, the two certainly feed into each other. Also, I’ve always felt that Visual Vernacular (VV), although it is clearly a theatrical language and technique, has such a cinematic quality to it. It was great to be able to test that theory!
How have your experiences at RADA’s MA Theatre Lab shaped your career as creatives?
JS: Our time at RADA’s MA Theatre Lab was an extraordinary and wonderful one. Of course, most importantly, had we not done the course, Clare and I may never have met, so our journeys would have been quite different. But it also gave us the tools we needed to make theatre from performing and writing to producing. It really was quite a stroke of luck as well, because Clare and I were only paired up to write together for the first time for our final term project, which was where we discovered how well we worked together, and fundamentally moulded our approach. RADA has also been incredibly supportive of us from the get-go as a company and we really couldn’t be more grateful for our time there and since.
CLE: I totally agree. RADA has been instrumental in shaping our careers and our company. For me personally, it was also the first time I accepted myself as a deaf person. I was born hearing, but I lost my hearing as a teenager and basically hid it as much as possible until RADA gave me the opportunity to start again. By being open with my peer group and tutors about my deafness for the first time, it somehow unlocked a world of theatre for me, and I have RADA to be thankful for that.
What was the casting process like?
JS: As My Darling Christopher was created as a response to a larger project, we were due to make this summer called A New Way of Life, we already had most of the cast ready to make the show in June. However, in our shows so far Clare and I have been the sole performers in the final piece, but we bring various artists in for the R&D process. These R&D’s are where we get to work with a variety of people through open calls for artists to be involved. This avoids the awkward and artificial setting of an audition and we get to work with a vast cross-section of artists at their best. We are also able to pay the artists for their time. This means we are continually expanding our network and when projects come up we have a pool of actors we can look to.
CLE: Yes, as Jo says, thus far we’ve never gone in for the traditional casting process, we like to gather people up as we go along! The same goes for our technical teams; we meet people through recommendations and after seeing their work we then “collect” them. We’ve been lucky enough to work with some fantastic artists over the years, many of whom work with us again and again.
Could you tell us more about the projects you currently have in development?
JS: Oh, we have a lot of projects up our sleeves at the moment. Theatre wise, we have: A New Way of Life, which will be the full story of Clive’s life, of which My Darling Christopher is just a small section, and thanks to the emergency funding we have been able to continue working on a show called Earshot, which will be our first ever text-led piece. In this show we will combine our style of visual storytelling and clown with creative captioning and projections as well as something we are calling Visual Foley, meaning a Foley artist makes the sound effects live on stage. This show explores the character of Doyle who has a rare condition called Hyperacusis, which means he is extremely sensitive to sound. Doyle lives in an apartment surrounded by his neighbours who are driving him mad with their everyday racket and we hear his gradual decline. It’s a brilliant, dark comedy by Morris Panych, and we are really excited to bring it into full rehearsals once lockdown is over.
CLE: Film-wise we also have a couple of projects. One is a project called Talking Bodies that is a response to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, which was on BBC during lockdown. The difference with this project is that we will be using deaf and disabled artists to write, perform, direct and film the whole series of monologues. We have also commissioned a pilot film called A New Kind of Normal that we’ve just finished, and we have a very new project which is so hot off the press I daren’t tell you about it yet! And lastly, we are sending My Darling Christopher to festivals, which is super exciting… so yeah we are pretty busy!
Who are your biggest inspirations?
JS: We are hugely inspired by a lot of physical theatre, clown and mask companies, but really, we would have to say the silent movie era has been the biggest influence on our work. Especially Charlie Chaplin, not only because of his talent as a clown and storyteller, but because of the types of stories he told, and the way he approached such hard subjects with the lightness of touch, allowing both laughter and pathos into his work.
CLE: Yes. Also, the way he worked across all elements of his films from performing to composing the music to editing, he had a real handle on his vision. I feel we have that same desire to move across different parts of our projects from writing or devising to performing and designing. I think this gives us a way of making sure that all parts of the storytelling process are pulling together and feeding into the overall vision… or maybe I’m just a control freak! Oh, and I would have to say that we are inspired by the people we meet, the conversations we have and the artists we work with, all of which feed into our stories and how we tell them.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger selves what would it be?
CLE: I think I would tell myself to calm down and not try to do everything so quickly because the right things will come to you at the right time! And something that I’ve learnt recently is to enjoy the journey, but I probably wouldn’t have listened to myself.
JS: I’m not sure I would want to go back and give myself any advice as I’ve had the journey I’ve had, and I wouldn’t want to change it. No regrets!
When can we expect to see the My Darling Christopher documentary?
JS: Well, we have made a little “making-of” documentary that accompanies the film on the HomeMakers platform now, so people can watch that too. But the real hope for My Darling Christopher is, in addition to the full-length theatre production which the short film came from, we would love to make the full feature film, or perhaps a miniseries…
CLE: Shh Jo, that’s top secret!
Thank you for your time!
Read our review for My Darling Christopher here.