Q&A: The Paper Birds

Dynamic female company The Paper Birds comprises Artistic Director Jemma McDonnell, Creative Producer Elle Moreton and Outreach Director Kylie Walsh. After their first show, A Smile Fell in the Grass, featured in the National Student Drama Festival, the company formed in 2003. Nine years on, it is made up of three of its founding members, and makes devised, visual, physical theatre that often tells and prioritisies the stories and voices of women. Current show Thirsty is an exploration of the binge drinking culture in the UK and is currently touring the country. Jemma McDonnell details why the company decided to tackle our love affair with booze on stage and how it gathered material for this part-verbatim drama which fuses live music, sore heads and bruised knees.

What was the inspiration for Thirsty?

As big drinkers ourselves, Kylie and I were interested in the reputation our nation has for drinking and wanted to explore some of these stories in order to question why drinking is such a large part of our culture and day to day life. We had been reading a lot in the papers about women drinking too much. As women about to turn 30, we began to question our own drinking habits and ask, “When is too much?”, “Why do I drink?” and, “Is heavy drinking more acceptable for men than for women?” We wanted to explore these questions and the possible answers.

We set up a blog and on-line questionnaire and had lots of very honest people fill them in or send us their stories. We also bought a mobile phone, had business cards made and set up a “drunken hotline” – a phone number that people could ring when they had had a few drinks and leave us a voicemail.

Do you feel a sense of responsibility towards those who contributed their stories?

All the contributions were anonymous so nobody’s identity is revealed in the show. There is always a sense of responsibility when you are telling other peoples stories and even more so if this is in a verbatim format. Yes, we take this very seriously.

What is the performance style of Thirsty?

Thirsty uses a combination of live music, movement, imagery and physical theatre in order to tell its stories. The show straddles a number of theatrical styles as it uses performance and non-performance, it moves in and out of narratives and is fairly fragmented in its style.

Does the fact that you are a female company prioritising women’s stories affect the way you present your work – or the way it is received?

No, I dont think the reception or perception of the work is any different. The subject of binge drinking is of interest to both men and women, and is addressed as such. The fact that the work is made by women, so we are discussing this from our point of view,  should not isolate or exclude any proportion of the audience.

Do you feel binge drinking has become particularly associated with young women today?

Yes. First and foremost it is associated with young people, but there is also a tendency to link binge drinking with the working class, and of late in the media concerns about young women drinking too much.

We didn’t want to preach to the audience, we take a very honest approach and begin by confessing our own drinking habits. We received such a range of stories, some funny and harmless, some very dangerous and worrying. We present a range of these stories so that the show does not glamorise drinking or indeed condemn drinking.

I think theatre is a very powerful tool for social change. I know that sounds dramatic, but when we were touring In a Thousand Pieces, our show about sex trafficking, we would speak to people afterwards whose eyes might have been opened, whose attitude might have altered. This is change, right here. It might not be a massive movement or revolution, but it is a change in someone’s outlook and a change in their actions will follow.

You regularly deliver educational workshops. Is this an important strand of your work, to engage with young audiences?

Yes, since forming in 2003 we have been working in schools, colleges, with youth theatre groups and universities. Young people seem to really engage with the work, and as someone who started going to theatre at a very young age I think its important to acknowledge and encourage younger audiences.

Thirsty is touring the UK until 2 April. For more information and to book tickets, visit The Paper Birds’ website.

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