TRANSPARENCY: A female gorilla’s journey to the stage

In this blog post, Klein Blue’s Sophie Ablett gives us an insight into all the hard work that went into their new show and the rejection that comes with it.

Are There Female Gorillas? is playing on Fri 31 May – Sat 1 June at 7:15pm as part of our Calm Down, Dear feminist Festival. Click here for more info.

I wanted to write about our show, Are There Female Gorillas?, about its importance, its themes of body hair and female bodies, its humour and absurdism. But I started to think about the process and the development of this piece of joyful weirdness, and that is its own very important story.

We’ve probably all read Lyn Gardner’s article by now. And the follow up article. The conversation is happening. The fact that the Damsel show relied on some 7 grand of individual giving. Mystery money. The fact that the financials are so stranglingly impossible even for the relatively wealthy and well-connected. The fact that maybe we need to think properly about access and act on those thoughts, create genuine pathways.

Well part of Lyn’s advice was transparency. Transparency transparency transparency. So here goes.

Grace (co-writer and co-performer of Are There Female Gorillas?) and I met working together on a feminist scratch night called The Female Gaze in June 2017. I was performer, she was director, and the piece was another weird one, in the best way. Think Youtuber and cannibalism.

We vibed. We found we had that similar go-get-things outlook. We started searching for opportunities, first applying for something at The Bunker with a piece I’d written about a girl with four legs. No joy. Spoiler alert: this transparency thing involves a lot of retelling of rejection.

I can’t even recall all the other mini things we applied for that Autumn and didn’t get, but finally one stuck. The Etcetera had done a call out for its Black Box Festival. The deal was sweet: one night, no hire fee, 100% profit take home. And the application was simple. Essentially a paragraph about the proposed show. We sent in an idea – a girl and a gorilla handcuffed together – and our intended themes – the animalistic side of women that is so often squashed. That was it.

Early December 2017 we finally got that elusive YES. The show was January. We had just under 6 weeks which included Christmas/New Year when Grace was home in Sheffield and I was off to my family in Liverpool. Goes without saying really that we both also had other projects running simultaneously and were working our money jobs. I also ended up getting an acting gig and flying off to Tokyo for a week. All this to underline that the time we had to create this show at all was hugely limited.

But we did it. We worked every hour we could. We narrowed the topic to female body hair, we started playing with spoken word, clowning, live waxing and a Spice Girls dance. Obviously. We worked in my Mum’s house (this was my privilege in action — I lived with my Mum for several years after uni and only paid her baby amounts of rent). And somehow the day before the show, we added final touches to a 40 odd minute work-in-progress version of Are There Female Gorillas?.

It was awesome. The first piece I’d ever co-produced, co-written, co-performed. And we sold reasonably well and could keep the profits. £105. £50 went on reimbursing ourselves for the outlay for the gorilla costume and other props; and then Grace and I paid ourselves a royal £27.50 each. Glorious.

Because the feedback had been so strong and we’d fallen a bit in love with the show, we continued development and found our next home: The Drayton Arms. Now here is a pub theatre which is really doing some amazing things to support up-and-comers. Audrey Thayer had posted a callout on BOSSY (feminist facebook arts network) about 2-night Sunday/Monday runs. Again the deal was dreamy — get 25 punters through the door, and all the profits are yours. Whether those people are comps, concessions or standard ticket buyers, as long as there are 25 of them, you’re golden. This is a pretty amazing model — it works for the pub, as they can assume a certain number of those people will buy drinks or even food at the pub (the food is great FYI), and it works for the artists because there is no financial outlay.

We got to work on redevelopment. Again, the juggling act of writing and working on other projects, doing the day job, being thrown auditions and tapes and jobs by my agent, began. The struggle to find rehearsal space, to put together little marketing campaigns, and produce the show, all happening alongside the redevelopment of the play. It’s astounding how even a small 2 night-run requires a heck of a lot of production hours. You have to think about tech, marketing, discount codes, focus groups, photo shoots, poster design, sales, papering, programmes, if you really want to sell seats. And then you have to look future-wards and send out a gazillion invites that you get precious few responses to. It is an absolute slog.

Ali Wright

It came to the show and we were both a little knackered from the run up. But the show shone this time. It had come into its own and we got the all-important 4 star reviews. None of the theatres who had said they were going to come did, but one of my agents came and was incredibly supportive and positive, so we at least lived in the glow of that and the warmth of the audience’s reception. We got the money (£527.70), covered expenses (£63.90), paid ourselves a fee (£127.50) and kept the majority in a pot for the show’s future life.

For weeks afterwards we mulled over what we wanted to do with it next. We both knew that the production side of things was becoming overwhelming. You can’t be everywhere and do everything; we needed someone else. So the producer hunt began. And we struck lucky, very very lucky. On OVconnect day, we got several responses to a producer callout, and ultimately landed with Liam McLaughlin who was just finishing the resident assistant producer scheme at Theatre503. He was efficient, responsive, hardworking and a delightful human. Ideal.

He also provided a more direct line to Theatre503. I had had a short play on there the year before and was keen to develop that relationship. So the Theatre503 period of this show began. We sent the script. They said they’d read it and be in touch. We waited. And waited. Liam chased. There was a mini email screw up and ultimately we got the rejection we’d been waiting for. They loved the concept, but they thought the script needed work, and thought it wasn’t right for them as a venue. All things that were incredibly fair. And things which we started to realise were really true — we were weird and we liked being weird, and Theatre503 was maybe not the ideal home for us.

Next stop VAULT ’19 application. Perfect, we thought. Liam had produced there before. I’d done my first spoken word performance at their UN HeForShe Fundraiser that year. And this show, this funny, silly and experimental show would surely be ideally at home in VAULT’s atmosphere. Even the idea of an underground space serving as a mysterious home to the Girl/Gorilla creature seemed a great fit.

This ‘No’ was a tough one because I’d spent several months being told by fellow theatre-maker friends that the show was perfect for VAULT. And I worked that application to the bone. I was at a networking event run by Project Ovation when I first started hearing that VAULT offers were out. Cue gut punch. Upshot is that weeks and weeks later, after it became painfully self-evident that we were not being programmed, VAULT finally sent an official rejection email.

And I know, I know I know I know that so many shows apply, so many shows that are great don’t get programmed. But I’d thought this was the one. We were so ready. Our VAULT version of Arts Council was primed for takeoff. And so I was surprised and I was bitterly disappointed.

And part of the frustration here is that you have no clue what your application was lacking that other applications did have. Without any kind of feedback, progressing seems impossible. I recognise the impossibility of providing feedback (although I would point out that one of VAULT’s team did offer to give feedback — we tried to take her up on that offer. We are yet to hear anything.), but it is important to note the catch 22 and sheer demoralising impact of this; if you create what you think is an ace application and it doesn’t work out, how do you know what you should do differently next time?

But it wasn’t all bad. Right from May 2018 we’d had a dialogue with the wonderful Camden People’s Theatre. They’d expressed interest in the show, though there was no clear path as yet as to how it would find its way onto CPT’s stage. Fortunately, it wasn’t long after the VAULT disappointment that we were offered a slot in CPT’s Calm Down, Dear Festival 2019. Sure, we would have to wait until the end of May 2019, but this show, this beautiful hard-fought-for show, would go on again. We wanted more and we found the perfect accompanying dates in Brighton Fringe Festival. Suddenly we had ourselves what we have been flatteringly titling a mini tour.

In the midst of this, we’d set up a theatre collective alongside two other female theatre-makers through which we’d run the show: Klein Blue. We launched online September 2018 and then had a launch party at Old Street Gallery in November. We each poured money into the launch event, curating an art exhibition with photography prints, art films, drinks etc. The event was a fundraiser and we ended up with a slim profit for the collective’s first joint show Getting Less Lonely — another outing to the Drayton Arms in January 2019.

I say all this to try and give some context of the busyness that surrounds a show and the efforts to put a show on. I am an actor, writer, spoken word artist, sometimes dancer, sometimes producer, and a tutor. I do not take weekends. I do get to do what I love. But it does take its toll.

February 2019 the work intensified. Brighton required multiple registration fees — we were fortunate that we had Klein Blue profits to cover these. Then Arts Council. The big one. This was essential — we wanted to be able to rehearse the show properly, to stage the show properly. Previously our tech had been entirely dictated by budget restrictions — the first time we did the show, we used onstage lamps because we couldn’t afford to pay for a technician. But part of the point of doing the show again was to learn more and to develop, and that meant doing everything on a slightly bigger and more professional scale.

Anyone who has done Arts Council applications, and adhered to that brutal word count, knows the pain. 6 weeks later, when I got an email telling me to go on Grantium to review the application’s status, I had assumed it would be a ‘No’. Maybe I’d just become accustomed to ‘No’s, or maybe because we’d budgeted time to reapply, I assumed we would need that time. I had invested so many hours into it that when I finally figured out it was a big fat YES, I cried. I screamed. I cried again. I literally jumped for joy. This means a lot to me. My work means everything to me.

Pre-production sprang into dramatic action. Recruitment began in earnest: director, designer, assistant stage manager, an almost impossible hunt for a PR company who were available. Rewrites of the script were ongoing, logistics needed booking, posters needed redesigning, photo shoots needed arranging. Klein Blue was formalised as a company so a business bank account could be opened, so I could stick all the money in there as opposed to my personal account. All the engagement plans around the play needed organising: the workshop series, the online art gallery. The crowdfunder running alongside the Arts Council money needed tending to, the company’s social media in general needed growing, we needed to generate more sales of special tote bags designed for our fundraising stream and for raising money for The Fawcett Society, the charity we’ve been supporting. There is so much involved it is hard to explain fully. Meanwhile, Grace was doing her masters, and I was in pre-production for two films. The juggling act was spectacular.

Then at long last, a full year after the last show, after Liam had joined the team, we made it into the rehearsal room, the best place to be. Sure, the admin, the mess, the stress is still hovering outside the door, but inside that room, finally the space to breathe, the space to perform, play and explore exists. The show improved exponentially. Grace and I are tired but happy knowing that we have something special that has finally begun to blossom.

I am happy. But I do want more. Alongside all the other many many responsibilities, we have been emailing theatres, emailing people, emailing companies trying to get them to engage with us, see us, see the show. Because when you create something devised, particularly something as wacky as a girl and a gorilla handcuffed, a script is never adequately going to communicate the electric essence of this piece. They need to see it.

Thus far, we have one theatre booked to see the show. We have one publishing house that are coming because of some formidably tangential networking on my part. And, again, I know, I hear you say, that it’s the same for everybody, theatres are busy, they can’t all come to see everything. But I want more. I will not stop saying I want more. Because I have invited theatres and people who specifically say they are looking for up-and-coming artists. Because I seriously want to know how you move beyond this point. If I make something great, fund it, stage it, but can’t get any gatekeepers to see it, what do I do? I’m impatient, I know, but I won’t stop asking for more.

I started writing this on the tube on the way to leading a pay-what-you-can spoken word workshop. I slept through 2 hours of my alarm ringing out loud and am now an hour late for my own workshop. Yeh I’m tired. I’m exhausted.