Interview: Tamzin Paskins on the Gaea Theatre Festival

From August to November 2011, Giant Olive Theatre Company will be celebrating women playwrights, performers, directors and designers as part of the Gaea Theatre Festival at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre. The Festival’s dynamic and innovative programme also re-launches the Kentish Town venue as a major player on the London independent theatre scene, following its closure at the end of January for extensive refurbishment.

The pieces performed during the season will explore women in conflict, love, science and incarceration and involve artists from the UK and abroad. They range from Zoe Mavroudi’s Beauty is Prison-Time, about a prisoner who takes part in a beauty pageant, to Shelagh Stephenson’s An Experiment with An Airpump, which marks the return of director Liisa Smith to the Lion & Unicorn from the Estonian National Theatre.

Giant Olive Theatre Company was founded in August 2008 by George Sallis and became resident company at the Lion & Unicorn later that year. Since then, it has received two Time Out Critics Choice awards and welcomed its first patron, highly respected actor Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey).

One day in late May, over a coffee in the Lion & Unicorn’s beautiful new bar, Tom Wicker met with artistic associate Tamzin Paskins to discuss the festival, the triumphant return of the theatre and the mythic giant olives of George Sallis’s childhood…

Tom Wicker: Why have you decided to hold the Gaea Festival now?

Tamzin Paskins: Well, we’re open again at the Lion and Unicorn! Last year, we had a huge battle on our hands. We were the resident company above a pub that was dilapidated and falling apart, so we spent a lot of time trying to preserve and save the theatre. We came to the end of that process when Geronimo Inns acquired the building. When we hit the end of January, we had our closing gala curated by Antonia Franceschi, Giant Olive’s head of dance, with contributing choreographers Mark Baldwin from Rambert Dance Company, Richard Alston, performers from the Royal Ballet and poetry directed by Patsy Rodenburg. Our first thought afterwards was, “Oh my God, we’ve saved the theatre but what’s going to happen with the programme now we’re going to be closed for so many months?” So we got in touch with a lot of the people we wanted to work with, as well as those we’d worked with in the past and had thought were just brilliant, and asked: “What would you want to bring to our re-launch?” And a lot of the voices that came back were female, suggesting some absolutely fantastic plays, productions, and dance and music projects.

I’d just found out that I’d be having a little baby and there were all these wonderful women jumping up and down and giving us wonderful ideas. So it just seemed as though all these forces were conspiring to form this great festival that we’re now calling Gaea. We’re going back to the Greeks, to the notion of Mother Earth and growth, sexuality and power. We’re spotlighting strong women, their ideas and their gusto, in a repertory programme full of passion and storytelling.

TW: Are you trying to hit a particular note with your choice of plays and shows?

TP: Gaea came out of a positive charge of energy and excitement. Antonia Franceschi put together a fantastic closing gala evening in the pub, as it was, and now we’re back. Yes, Zoe Mavroudi’s Beauty is Prison-Time is about a woman who’s incarcerated, but there’s humanity and humour in it. It’s about a woman in prison who enters a beauty pageant. Zoe based it on a documentary that she saw while she was in New York. It’s a wonderfully light piece. Shelagh Stephenson’s An Experiment with An Airpump touches upon women in science historically and in a contemporary setting. Women in science have done fantastic things. We have a consultant, who works in the Department of Health, who is going to workshop with the actors to give them a sense of what’s going on in progressive medicine at the moment because the play touches on the ethics of gene therapy and, historically, what we could learn from dead bodies. It’s also a great detective story.

TW: So is good storytelling the central aim of the festival?

TP: Yes, it’s what I hope will unify it. Aside from the energy of the artists, strong storytelling is what Giant Olive is about. You could peel all the plays we’ve picked down to their basics and say, yes, it’s about a victim, or someone in prison, or a scientific mystery, or a body in a basement; but fundamentally they’re great stories. Some of them are short and some of them are full-length. Caroline Horton’s piece, I’ll Show You Mine, is a really endearing coming-of-age tale with clowning elements and dance. It’s based on Raphaële Moussafir’s short story ‘Et Pendant Ce Temps-Là’ the second part to ‘Almost Ten’, performed in 2009.

TW: It’s interesting to note how many of the pieces are international in origin or outlook. Is this deliberate?

TP: I went to a very international drama school, the London International School of Performing Arts, which was based on the Lecoq style. It was about taking people from South America, North America, Spain, everywhere, and mixing them together, taking away their texts and seeing what happened. I think a lot can be accomplished by looking at different cultures to shake up traditional storytelling. For example, I’m fascinated by Liisa Smith, who’s directing An Experiment with An Airpump. She’s not afraid to have a very strong opinion as director and she’s keen to take the London Fringe scene to Estonia, where she was born, because she feels there’s potential there. Caroline Horton studied at the Ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris and is working with a French author; Zoe Mavroudi is Greek, has spent a lot of time in New York and is currently working with an American director. These infusions and collaborations create exciting theatre.

TW: How did you approach programming the festival?

TP: We were in a unique position. We’d saved a pub and saved our theatre. When February arrived, George and I went to France with a suitcase of plays that had been sent to us. We had the tremendous luxury of being able to read, think and cherry-pick. We had the time to consider how everything would fit together. Beauty is Prison-Time went well with Jane Shepard’s Nine, which is about two women locked in a room. And these two adult stories balanced neatly with I’ll Show You Mine, which Caroline will start rehearsing next month. She’ll be working with a female director on how to play a child. We’ve yet to announce the details of Antonia Franceschi’s piece. She was the ballerina in the original movie of Fame and she’s a fantastic choreographer. She’s always challenging us to see things in a different way and strive for the best quality.

TW: Does Giant Olive have a specific artistic policy?

TP: One of the things we’ve been asked is, “Who are you? Are you new writing? Are you dance? What are you?” We don’t like to be put in a box. We’re not writer-led or director-led; we like to combine really strong and passionate artists and put on really good stories that we hope audiences will enjoy. Giant Olive produces the majority of the shows that go on at the Lion and Unicorn and we make sure that we work with companies who are on the same journey as us. We like stories that will wake people up a bit.

Recently, we saw Kneehigh Theatre’s production of The Red Shoes. We sat on a bale of hay and I was absolutely captivated. It was storytelling at its most essential. There was something about its innocence that shook me.

TW: Where does the name, “Giant Olive”, come from?

TP: George is half-Greek. As a child, he used to go these big family lunches, which were chaotic and noisy. So he’d take some olives from the table and hide under the table. One day, his uncle John said to him: “Georgie, if you’re a good boy, I’ll take you to our land in Cyprus, where we’ll walk up the sacred path to where the giant olive tree grows.” So every Sunday after that, whenever they’d go for lunch, George would say to his uncle: “Uncle John! Uncle John! Can we go and see the giant olives?” And each time, his uncle would reply: “No, your mother has told me that you’ve been a naughty boy this week.” This went on for years, until George was about ten and realised that he’d been spun a story. There was no giant olive tree. So, as an adult, he set up the Giant Olive Theatre Company as an act of defiance. Because why shouldn’t you be able to find your mythic olives if you really want to?

TW: What’s next for Giant Olive, once the Gaea Festival has finished?

We have so many ideas, it’s ridiculous. A few years ago, we produced Dark Tales, based on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. We have something a bit sneaky up our sleeves for this year that may go back to that form of storytelling. You never know! And in 2012, there’ll be more Dickens, firstly because it’ll be his bicentennial year and secondly because Giant Olive has always enjoyed putting Dickens’ stories on stage – not to mention that as a boy he grew up in Camden Town. We also want to do some more dance pieces because they work fantastically in the intimacy of our theatre. In July 2009 we had a show called Pop 8, which was dubbed “Top-class ballet down the boozer” by the local press; and there’s something about seeing the sweat and the movement that makes you tingle. There’s something about the sensory experience of this venue that’s amazing.

We now have a place where an audience can come and have lovely food and good company downstairs, and then go upstairs and into our world.

For more information on the Gaea Theatre Festival Programme, see:

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