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Eloïse Poulton: Bad Aunts

By | Published on Thursday 1 August 2019

‘Bad Aunts’ – a co-creation by Eloïse Poulton and Elinor Lipman, produced through their company Untoward Productions – sounds like a really interesting mixture of comedy, theatre, chat show and improv, and I am really keen to see it.

It’s not just the fact that it sounds like such an interesting mash up that makes it enticing, it’s also the fact that the pair have chosen to create a show which is about – and performed by – a trio of women over fifty, which is a demographic that can end up unfairly marginalised when it comes to opportunities in the entertainment business.

To find out more about the show, the cast, and how it all came together, I spoke to company founder Eloïse.

CM: Can you start by telling us the premise of your show? What happens in it?
EP: ‘Bad Aunts’ is an interactive sitcom chat show starring three women over fifty. Maz, Jo and Dee live together and they are all at crossroads in their lives: dealing with a marriage breakdown, bereavement, job hunting and job rejection – but they’re all trying to find their voices again.

The show happens in Dee’s living room, and the audience are part of the action, participating in sections of the show like Agony Hour, when the Aunts solve their problems! There’s a special chat show voice-over by Steve Frost. Plus, every show, a different comedian drops by as the local Postie for five minutes of improv. It’s a real celebratory mishmash!

CM: Can you explain how sitcoms and chat shows helped to inspired it, and why you wanted to create a show on this basis?
EP: We were definitely inspired by sitcoms and chat shows we grew up watching, like ‘The Graham Norton Show’. But we wanted to make something with a twist to be a bit more of a comment on the genre, like ‘The Mrs Merton Show’. The majority of Saturday night chat show hosts are male, so we thought we’d change this up a bit!

There are some brilliant shows starring older women, like ‘Grace and Frankie’. We thought colliding genres would excite audiences.

CM: How did you go about putting the show together? How did your creative process work?
EP: The script has gone through the process of being demolished and rebuilt several times as, when new writing comes into a rehearsal room, the actors are active in fleshing out their characters. We have worked very collaboratively and the result is a melting pot of ideas from a full company.

CM: It’s obvious that you’re keen to combat ageism, but can you explain how you are doing that through this show?
EP: The clearest way we are combating ageism is by being unapologetically visible, bold and human. The show is less about being ‘older’ and more about life experience. How life can be exciting and novel whatever age you are – as long as you have people with whom you can share it. It is important that we are putting three older female actresses centre stage, yes; but it’s more important that their stories are as much about identity as in a coming-of-age drama.

CM: Do you think it’s possible to create real changes in attitudes through this kind of show?
EP: Everything has to start with talking. Laughter, now more than ever, is an important force to bring people together – not in spite of their differences, but because of them. Knowing and appreciating different people is the best way to change attitudes for the better. ‘Bad Aunts’ celebrates community through comedy.

CM: Do you find that ageism in media like comedy and theatre disproportionately affects women?
EP: We have spoken to a variety of women in the industry through our podcast discussions and this does seem to be the case. It’s a brutal industry which is very based on patriarchal ideals. Unfortunately, being young and attractive are often central to success and survival. These ideals don’t benefit anyone, but benefit women least of all. Visibility is the best way to change these attitudes.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about each member of the cast?
EP: I thought it would be better if they told you themselves…

Penelope McDonald, ‘Dee’
I’ve been in ‘the business’ for forty-two years and I’ve only ever worked with people of different ages; in fact, the whole gamut of generations. And it’s totally unimportant. I neither notice nor care about how old a colleague is, I care about whether they are a joy to work with. I care about their talent, their abilities, their people-skills and respect for fellow professionals, their creativity, their willingness to share and explore sensitively and caringly, their commitment to a project and willingness to work hard. I respect both Ellie and Eloïse for all these things. There are other directors/producers/etc. of a much greater age who I have absolutely no respect for at all and, in fact, to be honest, would happily drop-kick into the nearest canal!

There are many days when I still feel like the baby of the company because I never stop learning and, actually, the more I work with brilliant young creatives, the more they teach me.

I strongly believe that theatre is a powerful tool for helping people address problems. As for comedy – is there a better release? At one point in my life when I was gong through such a difficult time and was incredibly low, my big brother took me to see Slava’s Snow Show – a magical and indescribable experience created by a Russian clown. I’ve never forgotten how it lifted me and how I smiled and smiled for the first time in ages.

Denise Stephenson, ‘Maz’
It’s been great fun to work alongside two other women of my age, which doesn’t often happen, and to be making a piece of theatre about our lives.

I work with younger and older people all the time, that’s one of the great things about theatre, that you’re always meeting and working with diverse groups. What’s exciting about this piece is that it’s about older women and created by two young women. I think we were all impressed by Eloïse and Elinor from the initial audition, what they lack in experience they make up for in their intellectual capabilities, scrupulous attention to detail, tremendous energy and of course their writing and directing talent.

Comedy is always a brilliant vehicle to highlight something you’re passionate about and I use it a lot in my own work and theatre of course can be a great tool to start a conversation. Eloïse and Elinor observed correctly that stories about older women are rare and that is a reflection of the agency older women are given in our culture. By making a piece which centres on our lives and is also fun and a little bonkers hopefully goes some small way to address this. They created three very different characters who are all quite different from us and that has been fun to explore. The issues that older women face are addressed in each character’s story but perhaps the most important message is we’re just the same as we always were “we just give fewer shits”!

Vivienne Soan, ‘Jo’
I’ve always been interested in people and have always played the fool. I’d love nothing more than to have a really comfortable sofa to sit on and listen to people with more problems than me!

Throughout my adult life, generally in public places – buses, tubes, trains, planes and sometimes Pret a Manger – people I’ve never met before choose my face to tell their life story to. I listen, absorb, and go home glad to be me (but as a professional I actor sometimes go to work and I be them!).

As thespians, we tend to always work inter-generationally but on this occasion it is wonderful to get up close and intimate with the workings of the young mind. Bringing back memories of attitudes past and present.

CM: How long has the show been in development? Where else has it been performed?
EP: The show has been in development since January this year – not very long, considering it had a sell-out three night show at the Brighton Fringe three and a half months later! We also did a London preview at Camden People’s Theatre on 27 Jul.

CM: What hopes do you have for it in the future?
EP: Bad Aunts responds to its audiences and every show is different because of their input. I hope that we can tour it round the UK and meet different communities, to continue the life of the show.

CM: What made you decide that this would be a good show to take to the Fringe?
EP: Because it’s a lot of fun and has a broad audience appeal!

CM: What has your previous experience of the Fringe been?
EP: We’ve all been before in various capacities – as actors, writers, directors, stage managers – but this is our first time as a full company.

CM: What are you looking forward to about being in Edinburgh for the Festival?
EP: We are most looking forward to being surrounded by art and by enthusiasm for art being made! We can’t wait to meet our audiences and the hundreds of thousands of people passing through Edinburgh. And it will be wonderful to chat to other companies and see their shows.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after the Fringe?
EP: More Madness and Badness. Watch this space…

‘Bad Aunts’ was performed at Gilded Balloon at Old Tolbooth Market at Edinburgh Festival 2019.