The World is Listening

Amy Hydes on music and theatre (and blood and guts and gore)

This Thursday we're throwing back to Mayfest and the wonderful world of women in theatre.

Amy Hydes is a theatre-maker, music-lover, actor, comedian, clown and writer. She's got a lotta hats. We caught up with Amy to find out more about theatre, music and the benefits of collaboration.

You've studied drama, English and clowning in Bristol, London and Paris. Do you think you could have built your career with a less formal eduction?

I think it depends what theatre route you want to go down. Unfortunately, now, if you're from a low income family it's very difficult to be an actor in the traditional sense. Cuts in arts funding and the expense of training make it very hard.

There are some incredibly talented actors out there but if they can't afford to go to drama school they're not going to be put in front of the right people. That's not to say you can't be plucked from obscurity but there's a lot of nepotism.

You used to live in London but now you're back in Bristol. What called you back to the South West?

It's hard to be an artist and sustain yourself. There are many brilliant actors out there but they don't have time for castings because they're doing six different day jobs. That's where collaboration comes in.

Collaboration makes it much easier to build a career. And it's so much easier to collaborate in Bristol because people go on their instincts more, they take more risks. You don't need a piece of paper that says you've been to a particular place to get you in the door, you just need to be curious.

Tell us about one of your favourite collaborations.

I work with [fellow theatre-makers] Giulia Bianchini and Grace Swordy on an immersive theatre project called The House Party Collective.

Coming from my passion for music as well as theatre, I wanted to create something where the two went hand in hand. So I rang Giules and said I wanted to do something in a house where live music and musicians were a part of the piece.

Our first show was at my house in Easton. We had five different groups all attached to a character. Each group had to meet in a secret location bearing a gift for their hosts, who were throwing a celebration when their brother turned up to fight for ownership of the house.

It all ended in a showdown in the form of vegetable poker. There was a lot of tension but it was just ridiculous really, born of the idea that adults don't play enough. Live techno and violin played throughout as the story unfolded.

We did our second show at the Stag and Hounds at Christmas and we're now looking for a venue for our third.

So you set out to marry these two passions. What, if any, conclusions did you draw about the relationship between theatre and music?

I think they're shared experiences. Good theatre often makes you question things. You come away feeling like something is buzzing inside you and you definitely get that with music too. Both theatre and music are about stories and journeys. That's why they go so well together.

As well as a theatre-maker, you're an actor, a writer, a stand-up comedian and clown. What are your experiences of being a feminist and a woman in many a man's world?

I think women in comedy especially are massively unrepresented. But it is getting better. When I first started doing gigs I'd be the only female on the bill. I remember one performance where the audience had to vote for who was best and they chose me. The MC came on to announce the winner and said, “Who knew the winner could be a female? Very strange, but here she is...”

What a dick.

Yeah, it was horrible. Some of the men on that bill had really sexist, politically misinformed material but I never see female comedians off the mark like that and I think that's because we have to work harder on our material.

That's definitely the case in theatre too. Women feel they have to prove themselves more. If you're entering a room full of men, even if it's only subconscious, you're automatically on the back foot.

What can be done about that?

With theatre the root definitely lies in more writing for women. We need to champion more female playwrights right from the grass roots. This is happening at places like Soho Theatre where they have a really good literary department and women are coming through, it's just taking a little bit longer.

But it isn't just gender inequality is it? The bias from boardroom to stage leans towards white, middle-class men. Having studied in Bristol, London and Paris, what's your take on diversity in the theatre?

Theatre is a middle class game now but that's just one strand of it. There's a lot more diverse and interesting art to be found outside the four walls of a theatre. The silver lining in the cloud of scarce funding is that artists are pushed to find alternative spaces, which can lead to far more exciting, sensory work.

Diversity also means talking about difficult things, like the refugee crisis. My friends run a community called Now We Make Tomorrow, a collection of artist's responses to the crisis. There are no rules about form, the work could be a painting or a poem, but they're gathering art to create a diverse picture of what's going on around us.

And it's about the bits in life that aren't pretty. The blood and the guts and the gore and the fear. The fear we all have bubbling up and down inside us all the time. Feeling the fear and seeing the fear and admitting that we all have it, we all feel it and it's nothing to be ashamed of.

What advice would you give to a young female performer at the start of her career?

Follow your instincts and be open. Everything’s more liberated now. You don't need to be married or own a house or have a kid by this or that time, or ever. You don't need to feel guilty for not achieving someone else's version of success. You don't have to pigeon-hole yourself socially or artistically. Just be adventurous. Do what makes you happy.

Hear, hear.

If you missed us the first time round, throwback to the The World is Listening on Mayfest Radio:

First published on theworldislistening.co.uk

Salt, a not-so-quiet trauma

My first step towards Salt, the compelling new solo show from Leeds-based artist Selina Thompson, is wrong-footed. Miscommunication has the friend I'm going to see it with thinking it's on at Tobacco Factory, so we decide to drive. But it's on at Arnolfini. In the centre of Bristol. At 6.30pm. On a sunny Friday.

Needless to say we arrive late.

As we stumble blindly through the stalls, Thompson is already on stage wearing safety goggles and a white colonial-era dress, smashing away at a lump of, what is presumably, salt.

I got a free ticket to review the show. As we sit down I can't help but think, Shit.

But then Thompson starts talking again and my fleeting panic about what we may have missed dissolves.

The woman is incredible. Only a month since the experience(s) upon which Salt is based, here she is bold as blue sky, on a stage, telling the world what happened to her. What has always happened to her.

So what did happen to her, exactly? Well, in partnership with another artist she retraced a well-sailed route of the Transatlantic Slave Triangle, from the UK to Ghana to Jamaica and back again.

She sets out to journey deep into the past in order to understand some things that are at once intangible and very, very real.

Racism. Diaspora. Grief. The unresolved shame of many nations. There are some pretty heavyweight themes running through this work. Thompson is nothing if not ambitious.

She begins to lay out the pieces from the once-whole lump of salt. Each piece is slightly bigger than the last and represents both the characters on the ship of the first leg of her journey (described by Thompson as a "quiet trauma") and a centuries-old chain of which she, a dark-skinned black woman, forms the weakest, smallest link. A chain in which she, a dark-skinned black woman born in another time and place, would have been tied and beaten and raped and drowned.

That may sound hyperbolic. It is not. Some of the stories Thompson carries back with her, the insults she endured, the way she was made to feel as a direct consequence of her blackness, may sound (if you are not black) like they're from another time. But, shamefully, that simply isn't true.

There is a rawness to the work, in every sense of the word. Over a post-show drink another friend says she felt it wasn't fully formed. More of a sapling than a tree. She certainly has a point.

As a piece of theatre is does feel a little raw, undercooked. Thompson's words are strong and firmly glue the piece together but the way those words manifest on stage does feel like a work in progress. It would be interesting to see again in six or so months time.

It is also, of course, emotionally raw. Thompson is at times breathless not just from the effort of repeatedly taking a sledgehammer to salt (there is more to the show than this by the way) but the weight of it all too. The sheer, physical weight of a lifetime of racism and a centuries-old system which is not gone but all too easily forgotten.

And ultimately it's the rawness of her emotion that makes this work so impressive. Her vulnerability is a weapon and a shield. She stands alone, boldly claiming a space in a world that would – as her journey at times brings into painfully sharp relief – have her disappear.

She peels back her skin and says, Here. Look. This is how my insides are.

That takes courage of the highest order. And what is art if not the junction at the crossroads of courage and vulnerability?

Despite any theatrical polish she may yet apply, Thompson's show is unforgettable.

Selina, we salute you. Keep doing what you're doing.

First published on theworldislistening.co.uk