Feature: Outsiders, dodging stereotypes and honesty in MOTH

AYT’s Rachel Kevern speaks to Piers Black-Hawkins, co-founder of award-winning Ransack Theatre, about how the company have maintained the unique allure of theatre throughout their work, and why MOTH – their upcoming production at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre – will be no different.

With hundreds of Oscar-winning films ready and waiting to be streamed online for free at the touch of a button, what is it that continues to draw us to the theatre? In this age of instant-gratification entertainment, perhaps live theatre must do more to remain both relevant and appealing to its audiences.

“I feel like you have to create something that’s a completely different situation to just sitting back and watching a piece of art happen and then leaving”, says Piers Black-Hawkins, asked about the challenge of attracting people to the theatre. Ransack are known for their intuitive site-specific work, and Black-Hawkins tells me that they have always “tried to make work where it couldn’t happen anywhere other than that space or time. It has to feel live – like, electric live.” Whether it’s a site-specific performance or a piece like MOTH that will be performed in a theatre space, this ethos is present throughout their whole process – from giving their actors freedom and not striving for overly perfected or ‘tight-drawn’ performances, to focusing on live elements and creating work that’s immersive. “I think that’s what I want people to come away with – to feel like they’ve done something that’s three-dimensional and a proper experience”, explains Black-Hawkins, before adding that the audience plays a huge role in making each night unique, almost taking on the position of another character in the show.

This will be the first time that MOTH, written by one of Australia’s foremost emerging playwrights Declan Greene, will have been brought to the North West, and Black-Hawkins explains that he was instantly drawn to the play. “I was in the National Theatre bookshop and I remember picking it up because I thought that the title was really cool and I liked the front page, and I stood up in the shop and read the whole thing, from front to back”, he says. “It’s not like I got it all straight away”, he admits, “but there was something in it, a little spark, that made me think ‘this is something that I need to spend more time with’”. The two-person play, which Black-Hawkins says offers him something new every time that he reads it, focuses on the characters of Sebastian and Claryssa, and has been marketed as “a fast, funny and heart-breaking story about two young people with nowhere to go.” Although Sebastian and Claryssa are the ‘unpopular kids’ on the outside of the social circles at their school, Black-Hawkins is keen to stay away from stereotypes. “As soon as you say ‘she’s the emo and he’s the nerd’ they’re not people anymore”, he explains, going on to expand on the dangers of over-simplifying characters to stereotypes – “even the lesser characters like the bully and the mum are really well-drawn characters, in just a few lines, and you get a really good idea of who that character is and who they could be, and it’s not a stereotype at all, as far as I’m concerned.”

Although a two-person show, the actors don’t multirole to play the minor characters in the way you might expect. “What’s interesting about it is that they come into contact with loads of different people, but they do impressions of those people,” Black-Hawkins tells me, “so it’s not like actors playing lots of different roles, it’s the characters of Sebastian and Claryssa doing loads of different impressions.” This gives the characters themselves a certain degree of control and power, and allows the audiences to gauge Sebastian and Claryssa’s feelings towards the people that they’re meeting through the way that they impersonate them. “The characters can kind of exaggerate this part about that person that they don’t really like,” he explains, “like, there’s a bit where Claryssa plays Sebastian’s mum and she basically makes her cry loads, so she’s kind of taking the piss out of Sebastian rather than doing an accurate representation of what the mum’s really like.” In a way, he tells me, these impressions are reminiscent of “when you were little and you’d be like ‘okay you be the princess and I’ll be the pirate’ and then off you go”, and allow the actors to “do about a hundred different things”, adding a new dimension to the play as well as introducing a huge entourage of different characters through the eyes of Sebastian and Claryssa.

These eyes, as the “outsiders” of society, may be ones with which the audiences can empathise. Many of us have had moments when we’ve felt as though we don’t fit in or aren’t the same as the people around us, and Sebastian and Claryssa could be seen to capture these feelings to a heightened degree. “There are two big parts to that question”, Black-Hawkins responds when asked if he thinks that audiences will find it easy to relate to the two main characters – “I think everyone knows what it feels like to be young, you’ve got a million hormones and you’re super up one minute and super down the next minute, and you’ve got all of these emotions and they feel really extreme, but your response to them is really instant.” He goes on to explain that he thinks that these quick, perhaps unprocessed responses lead to a really honest account of how you’re feeling all of the time. “I think everyone can relate to that, whether you used to feel like that or whether you’ve still got that burning a little bit inside you”, he says.

Black-Hawkins tells me that the second big part of the question is one of the reasons that he continues to be so interested in the show, and it’s the way that it takes on a lot issues with young people and mental health difficulties, without presenting them in it. “It’s a very honest portrayal”, he tells me, “It was never ‘this is a show about mental illness’, but there’s definitely a lot of that in there. It doesn’t present these people as people who need to be protected, it’s just a very clear and honest conversation about what it means to feel like that.” In a time when the level of mental health difficulties among young people is at an all-time high, and NHS funding continues to be cut as the problem grows, this important subtext running through the play is another with which many audience members may be able to relate, or at least recognise.

With a highly accredited team on board, including stage designer Frankie Bradshaw (Winner, Off West-End Award 2016, Best Set Design), sound designer Mark Harris, and lighting designer Matt Leventhall among others, the show promises to be an immersive visual feast as well as a moving and emotive piece of theatre.

MOTH is playing at Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester from Thursday 13th – Saturday 22nd April. Tickets are available from https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/hopemilltheatre