Interview: Devils Festival

The Print Room’s Devils Festival is a showcase for new work by four talented young artists who, for the past year, have been resident at the west London venue as ‘Printer’s Devils’ –which, appropriately, was originally a slang term for the apprentices in printing houses. The devils are Dan Ayling, who is directing Martin Crimp’s collection of three short dramas, Fewer Emergencies; Hubert Essakow, who has devised a Haiti-inspired dance piece entitled Kanaval; Jeff James, who is staging Swan Song, Anton Chekhov’s first play; and Petra Jean Philipson, who has created Of The Things We Do Not See, an all- encompassing sound installation.

Cultivating and encouraging this diverse group of two directors, one musician and a choreographer has been a central aim since the Print Room opened as a performance space last November. As co-artistic director Lucy Bailey explained to Exeunt at the time, “When you’re starting out, it can really help to feel part of a community. [These people] are just at the point where they can learn from and support one another. We can’t afford to pay them, but we can offer them a space to develop their ideas, for nothing, and help them find financial backing where we can. Hopefully we will be able to hold a Devils’ Festival next year.”

Seven months later, on the eve of this aim becoming a reality, I went to the Print Room to discuss artistic inspiration, creativity on a shoestring budget and the power of performance with designer and Print Room co-founder Anda Winters as well as three of the Devils, Dan Ayling, Hubert Essakow and Petra Jean Philipson.

Tom Wicker: Has the idea behind the Printer’s Devils changed at all in the past seven months?

Anda Winters: No, I don’t think so. We’ve stuck to what we said. And these guys have created something very powerful, let me tell you.

Tom Wicker: Dan, Petra and Hubert, how did you come to be involved with the Print Room?

Dan Ayling: I’d assisted Lucy on a number of plays at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Lyric Hammersmith, Sheffield Theatres and Hampstead Theatre, so I knew her that way. She’d also seen a play of mine that she’d liked so she invited me to come and see what was going on here.

Petra Jean Philipson: My connection was Nell Catchpole [who co-founded with Bailey musical performance group the gogmagogs]. I knew Nell well and had talked to her about wanting to develop my work in a theatrical way. Lucy saw me sing a gig, liked my performance and gave me a call.

Hubert Essakow: [Composer] Errolyn Wallen did a show which I created a piece for.

Anda Winters: Errolyn is a friend and when I saw Hubert’s work I thought, hmmm, here’s a genius.

Hubert Essakow: (laughing) Please, continue!

Dan Ayling: I think that the approach that the four of us have is complementary. We worked well in the mix that Lucy wanted for the Devils.

Anda Winters: Obviously, talent comes first; but personality is extremely important, too.

Tom Wicker: Do you think that what the Print Room is trying to achieve with the Printer’s Devils is unique?

Dan Ayling: Absolutely. I don’t know of anywhere else that offers a small group of people the chance to do what we’ve done here. Of the four of us, Jeff James and I are from the theatre world, Petra is from the music world and Hubert’s from the dance world. Being able to collaborate is really exciting. At the end of last year, Petra, Hubert and I did a project together, which is exactly the kind of work I want to be creating. I don’t think there’s anywhere in London that’s so cross-disciplinary.

Tom Wicker: The name ‘Printer’s Devil’ has practical as well as creative connotations. Has learning a different craft been an important part of working together?

Petra Jean Philipson: Definitely for me, musically. For example, I’d never performed in the round before [as was the case with City of Lost Angels, the theatricalisation of her album Notes on Death, which was performed at the Print Room at the end of 2010]. The musicians couldn’t see each other or take cues and I was in the centre of the room, on a podium, when usually I’d be at the front of the stage. It was also a voyeuristic view of the performance. I’ve been completely challenged by having a more participatory role. It’s been interesting and brilliant.

Dan Ayling: And doing it in the round came out of my staging ideas for the piece. Also, musicians and dancers approach things in a very different way to actors, so it’s nice to get a glimpse into those other worlds and see how things can come together. As one of the critics said, the Print Room has really established itself as a place that’s strong on design; it’s got it fantastically right in terms of the visual element, which is what’s really exciting.

Tom Wicker: How did you decide on the festival’s programme?

Dan Ayling: We were given free rein to come to the table with our ideas. I’m directing a Martin Crimp play [Fewer Emergencies], which came to me via a circuitous route. I had four or five projects which, for various reasons, we couldn’t get off the ground. So I was looking for something that would fit the right bill. It needed to be about 40 minutes long and have a small cast, which sounds practical and mundane. But it also had to comment on the world today; it needed to have an urgency about it. I wasn’t about to do the umpteenth revival of an Ibsen, partly because it wouldn’t fit the festival format but also because what I chose had to say the right thing. So I jumped through many hoops and ended up on a podium!

Petra Jean Philipson: Mine was predicated on the fact that, originally, I thought I’d be repeating City of Lost Angels. Because there was so much to do last time, I thought, ‘Right, I’ll do something really simple that I can prepare way in advance and won’t be stressful.’ Also, I was really interested in taking the opportunity to do something that wasn’t singer-songwriter based; to do something more abstract.

Hubert Essakow: I was inspired to create my piece by Leah Gordon’s book of photos, which is all about masks and the people of Haiti. That was my starting point. I was also watching a film made by Maya Deren’s in 1941, called Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, which is about ritual and the whole tradition of voodoo.

Tom Wicker: It seems to me that what unifies all four pieces is how multimedia they are. Would you agree?

Dan Ayling: That’s the connection. It’s about presenting an eclectic mix and saying, ‘Look, we can do all of these things and do them well.’ That’s what makes the Print Room exciting. It’s not just a theatre or somewhere to have a gig; it’s a proper performance space. And that’s why it’s exciting to have an exhibition like the one of Leah Gordon’s photos at the same time. It says that we work in all of the arts.

Tom Wicker: You’ve had to produce your pieces within a tight budget. Has this made you more creative?

Dan Ayling: Oh, totally. It’s incredible what you can achieve with a constraint. It makes you creatively agile. You have to think, ‘What do I absolutely want? What’s the most important thing on the stage?’ Is it a texture or a particular colour?’ You have to decide what you want to put your money into. It’s a virtue in a way.

Tom Wicker: What do you hope that audiences will get out the festival? Each piece is very much about subjective engagement, isn’t it?

Hubert Essakow: Dance is quite an elusive language and has incredible power; the power of movement. Just watching someone move is ritualistic and instinctive. There’s something quite spiritual about it. I was greatly inspired by the photographs and the film and I want to transport an audience. There isn’t a particular narrative to it; I just really want to show people the power of dance.

Petra Jean Philipson: You can go away from a performance that’s moved you and feel really changed. My piece is about possibility of sound-healing. I actually trained as a sound-healer after being a musician for a few years and I’m really interested in sharing that. Some people have sound treatment and it does nothing; it doesn’t go in and it doesn’t affect them. But for some people, five minutes of it changes their lives; they don’t need drugs or to have to go to the doctor or to spend hours meditating. I feel quite evangelical about sound healing and I think that the arts are a really interesting way of filtering it to the masses.

Tom Wicker: So not only are you blurring the lines between theatre, dance and music but between disciplines as well?

Petra Jean Philipson: Yeah, between art and health and education. I started out with fine art, then music and, now, with this installation, something I’ve studied as well. It’s all come together for me in this piece. It’s like, ‘Whoah, dude, it all makes sense.’ I’ve fulfilled a life’s ambition.

Tom Wicker: In folklore the term ‘Printer’s Devil’ also refers to a mischievous spirit that would disrupt the order and routine of a print shop. Has dealing with the Devils challenged you and Lucy, Anda?

Anda Winters: Well, first Lucy and I had to learn how to deal with each other! But as for working with the Devils? I’ve enjoyed every minute with every single Devil. They’re marvellous people, full of warmth. And they have so many ideas. It’s like, you know, opening a can; it’s wonderful to see. I was glad that Petra did something new in the end because I think, ‘What’s the point of doing something you’ve done before? You can’t have the same idea twice.’ And this installation is so different to what she’s done before. And with what Dan, Hubert and Jeff are doing as well, I’m already thinking: ‘More, more, more – when can we have the next project?’

The Devils Festival is at the Print Room until 2nd July. For tickets and more information, visit the Print Room website.

 First published by Exeunt Magazine