Standing in line at a Soho cafe, I see three figures emerge – hair streaming down their faces and pools of water dripping in their wake. Clutching my own sodden map, I’d been approaching other rain-shelterers – “are you Antler?” – but when I see the weatherbeaten trio, I recognise them immediately. Perhaps it’s because the last place I saw them wasn’t a corporate coffee chain, but an imagined arctic landscape. Performing its devised piece, Where the White Stops, the company brought a charmingly childlike, physical blizzard to Edinburgh’s Underbelly last August. After touring several London and regional venues, the show is now coming to A Younger Theatre’s INCOMING Festival next week at the New Diorama.
“It’s the archetypal quest narrative”, Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart says, once we’re huddled round lattes, along with fellow company members Richard Perryman and Nasi Voutsas. “The story’s about a girl leaving her village in an arctic world, and trying to find where the white stops,” Perryman elaborates. “Once she’s left her village she realises ‘oh fuck, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing’.” Inspired by a number of folk tales and fantasies, Crab’s journey involves a “blood-soaked noose,” the ominous presence of a beast, and a companion called Wodwo, a “child of the white”.
But the piece has resonance beyond the frozen tundra it so vividly evokes. “The overriding theme we wanted to explore was a sense of feeling incomplete,” Woodcock-Stewart considers, reflecting a culture of “everyone constantly reaching for this thing that they can’t quite pin down. You think, ‘when I get my theatre company, or an amazing London venue, that’s when I’ll be happy’, but then it’s ‘actually it’ll be when we have a West End transfer’, or ‘when I find the right person to marry and have a family’; you’re always reaching for the next step.”
“We kept coming back to that,” Perryman reflects. “Are we fulfilled?”
Antler Theatre formed when the three were training on East 15’s Contemporary Theatre course, along with Daniela Pasquini – the group’s fifth member Daniel Ainsworth joined in 2013. “The course’s main focus is to train companies to make work together,” Woodcock-Stewart explains, which they did. When the girls and boys’ groups wanted to take their graduate shows to the Fringe (This Way Up and Maria, 1968 respectively), they decided to merge and form one company. “We did a workshop with Ed Collier from China Plate, who got us together and said, you need to sort yourselves out: what’s your name, manifesto, elevator pitch? So we came up with the worst names you’ve ever heard. Horrific.” They eventually leapt on the image of a deer, “because they’re so light and joyful, and the way they move embodies a certain playfulness. Antlers seem to grow like trees, and we love that visual of ideas growing from the head.”
Its practice has since branched in some interesting directions; inspired by companies as diverse as Little Bulb and the Schaubuhne, it’s even dabbled in film-making. Antler’s first productions “had quite a different feel,” Perryman says, “since they took place in a modern world. Where the White Stops is the most physical show we’ve done, and also the most ambitious in its story-telling.” The company is constantly changing its structure and approach to theatre-making; when Woodcock-Stewart directed the devised piece This Way Up, she would “put two people in a scene and use a lot of the stuff they improvised. But with Where the White Stops [directed by Perryman] it’s harder. We once improvised a scene with Crab and Wodwo – very colloquial, like ‘good morning!’ – but had to take it out – it’s not of that world.”
“We started devising without a director,” Perryman explains, “trying out different things – then after a couple of months when it was getting clearer who was going to play which characters, I stepped out of it to try and put together everything we’d been messing about with.”
The company is also moving towards a more minimal aesthetic. “Part of what we’ve been doing in workshops is exploring the dynamics of what you can make with not very much stuff,” says Voutsas – while its previous productions have required 50 cardboard boxes, a sofa and bales of hay, “we can carry this show around in a bag and just do it”. This is a practical, but also artistic, consideration; “it’s always more exciting for your audience meet you halfway,” he reflects, considering theatre’s necessity for imagination, “making them ‘see’ the piece without seeing it.”
The show that will be seen at INCOMING has grown significantly since its Fringe debut. “We felt like in Edinburgh we were only about halfway there,” says Woodcock-Stewart. “We went back to the drawing board really,” adds Perryman. “Some of our feedback suggested the subject’s not as obvious as we thought. So we’ve made cuts, changed a couple of scenes, and tried to make Crab’s story really clear.” Woodcock-Stewart also “loved performing at New Diorama before, so it’s great to be back. This is the first festival that’s really appealed to us, because it’s directly for this group of companies that are … emerging.” How do you feel about that word? “It’s like,” she laughs, and pretends to be a small animal peeking out of a hole, “hello, can we come out now?”
Where the White Stops is part of A Younger Theatre’s INCOMING Festival, on 25 May at 7pm. For more information and to book tickets, visit the New Diorama’s website.