Interviews / Sustainability & the arts

fanSHEN and Cheese

fanSHEN works through theatre to help people imagine what they haven’t thought of yet. So who better to put on a play about the environment, the financial crises and cheese, performed in a non theatre venue on Oxford Street and powered by the public? Read on for a interview with the artistic directors of fanSHEN, discussing how they came across the play, why they were drawn to it and their approach for creating a unique production.

How did you come to be involved in this unique production?

We were sent Cheese by Nic Wass, who, at that time, was Senior Reader at the Royal Court. The Court were not going to produce Cheese but Nic saw something really distinctive and exciting in Nikki Schreiber’s writing, and, knowing our work, thought that it might appeal to us; the play demanded the combination of detailed character work and bold visual aesthetic which characterizes fanSHEN’s productions. That was 2010 and after three years (on and off) thinking about the play, emailing with Nikki (who is currently based in Dubai) and other plotting and scheming, we’re finally ready to make it happen.

 Why did you want to do the project?

We’d never read anything like Cheese before. It is set inside a giant Emmental for a start, and that appealed to our sense of humour. It is something that people remember – you have a conversation with someone about the project and six months later they will ask you what is happening with ‘the play in the cheese’.

But what really appealed to us is that fact that it is an incredibly dynamic and theatrical exploration of subject matter that could be really dry – the financial crisis. You don’t need to know anything about the financial crisis to enjoy or understand the play; at its heart it is a story about risk and terrifying choices and, eventually, hope. In choosing to write allegorically, Nikki has moved away from a literal, reportage-type approach; instead she is exploring the events causing the financial crisis in human, behavoural terms. There is a lot more space for humour and wild theatricality than a TV-style trading floor drama would allow. Of course, if audiences are familiar with the economic background they will read the story on that level, enjoying, for example, the parallels between Dairylea cheese triangles (some good cheese, some other ingredients) and the packaging of bad debt!

Cheese is also a very non-judgmental play. Since 2008, we have seen this narrative of the demon banker emerge. Of course, there were some people working in the financial services industry who took some seriously irresponsible decisions but if we only focus on these scapegoats, we are at risk of missing the bigger picture. It is this which Cheese explores, asking ‘what was the environment that cultivated this sort of behaviour’? Cheese is not a banker-bashing play, it is much more morally complex than that. This is a great challenge as directors and an exciting provocation to make to audiences.

How are you thinking of approaching it?

When we decided to produce Cheese, we knew that we had to do it in the centre of finance (the City) or the centre of commerce (Oxford Street area). These are places where money is made and spent, and where the impact of the crisis first became apparent, firstly to people who follow the markets, and then to a wider group of people who saw major shopping chains go bust and shops become vacant. The play itself never mentions the City by name; by situating the production within this context, we felt we were adding resonance to the story while also respecting its lightness of touch. The venue is an empty property on Oxford Street, itself a byproduct of a property market that has been seriously affected by economic contraction.

We really enjoy performance in non-theatre settings which responds to the architecture of the building where it is taking place – why simulate another black box studio when London has so many of them already? Our venue was an administrative building. It is not some vast warehouse, soliciting a post-apocalyptic version of The Road sculpted in Jarlsberg. It is the sort of building where people worked in offices, met clients, swore at photocopiers and met at watercoolers. It is the perfect setting for Cheese.

The frame for our production is an office, an office in 2008 which has been nearly all packed into boxes – the audience presume that the company has gone into administration. Three employees are left, tasked with the last odds and ends of packing up. Among the boxes of defunct Ethernet cables and other random objects that have accumulated in the office (no one can quite remember where the blow-up shark came from), they perform a play. Like Marat/ Sade or Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, the audience reads stories on multiple levels: one, explicit, articulated by what the characters say and do is set in an allegorical cheese; another, implied by the visual setting, is about the financial crisis.

Recently our work has explored territory around environmental justice – earlier this year, we did a project where audiences pedaled bikes to provide electricity for the show’s soundtrack. With Cheese, we’re partnering with pedal-power experts Magnificent Revolution who are building customised exercise machines which generate power; people working out on them which will charge enormous batteries that the show will then be powered by. Over the three-week performance run of the show, the machines will be resident in three different gyms and community centres in the centre of London (see The Locations section).

As well as getting power for our show, this element of the project gives the people using the machines an opportunity to conceptualise energy in physical terms. Boiling a kettle isn’t just plugging something into the wall, it involves the same amount of energy as pedalling or rowing for X minutes. It also gives them the chance to earn money off their ticket: we pay them, according to a domestic electricity tariff, for the energy that they are ‘contributing’ and they get to watch a production that they have helped make happen! The technology complements the subject matter of the play, which sees the characters seek alternative models to prevalent social, financial and environmental norms. As well as raising awareness around electricity usage and piloting an audience development model, it allows fanSHEN to continue our exploration of making ‘greener’ theatre.

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