ED2013 Interviews ED2013 Theatre ED2013 Week2 Edition

The Paper Birds: Perspectives through the ages

By | Published on Tuesday 13 August 2013

The Paper Birds

As they celebrate their ten year anniversary, The Paper Birds have become quite a mature theatre company, and in their latest production it is the ageing process that is under the spotlight. ‘On The One Hand’ is an enlightened and enlightening piece that looks at ageing through the eyes of women of various different ages, based on the stories and observations of numerous women of different generations. We spoke to the company’s Co-Artistic Director Jemma McDonnell to find out more.

CC: In ‘On The One Hand’ you’re exploring ageing from the perspective of women of different ages. Where did the motivation for this piece come from?
JM: It was mainly turning 30 and everyone asking if I was going to have babies now and get a mortgage! I started thinking about the expectations and roles we are supposed to fulfil throughout our whole life, and began to look at ageing as a life-long process. The show examines growing older through the eyes of women who are very different ages and at different points in their lives.

CC: You spoke to a lot of women about their experiences to inform this piece – how did you select those people, and what form did the research take?
JM: We asked for women to volunteer. We began interviewing women – our youngest was 12 and our oldest 92 – asking them a series of questions about what it means to be their age. Sometimes I would speak to the women for hours, just listening to their stories, and it was fascinating. We would then begin to try to stage some of those stories or try to find ways to present or explore the stereotypes of certain ages.

CC: How were the real life stories you uncovered developed into the piece we can now see? Are any of the women in the piece based on specific people you spoke to?
JM: Because we met so many women we could not include all the stories and experiences that were shared. The characters that now exist in the play are often an amalgamation of a few women that we met and many of the stories they told us are referenced but not told in full. Some of our shows before this one have included verbatim material, but we don’t call this show verbatim as the script was shaped around so many women.

CC: I know you initially worked with ten women over 60 on their stories, but then extended it out to take in the ageing thoughts and fears of women of all ages. Why did you do that?
JM: When people think about ageing they tend to think of being elderly. The reaction to this is normally negative as well. We wanted to look at ageing throughout life, with old age itself being just part of that journey. We change a lot throughout our life, and often when we look into the future we are limited in how far we can see, how far we can imagine ourselves. I don’t think about being elderly, I think about ageing and I think about being 40 or maybe 50. It felt important to look at the whole emotional and physical journey we take as we age.

CC: The Paper Birds are known for creating theatre that responds to current social and political issues; does this piece fit into that ambition?
JM: I think it is political. There are a number of obvious political issues surrounding the subject of age that the show touches upon, but the main thing for us was looking at the ‘roles’ that women are expecting to take on throughout their life: daughter, wife, mother, business women, carer, so on. We also wanted to address the lack of parts on TV and in theatre for women over the age of 40.

CC: You’ve collaborated with Northern Stage on this piece, and are performing it at their Fringe venue at St Stephens. How did that partnership come about?
JM: Northern Stage have an award called Title Pending, which they present to a company or artist who has an exciting and engaging idea for a new piece of theatre. After a workshop weekend and interview sharing our ideas on ageing, we won the award and then had the opportunity to spend some time in their building developing the show. That was the start of a fantastic relationship!

CC: The Paper Birds have now been producing theatre for ten years. Has your process – artistic or as producers – changed over the decade?
JM: We are constantly changing, we try to remain brave in our decisions and make work that is important. This year we wanted to write some roles for older women and see women of different ages on the stage together, and next we want to make a one-woman beat-boxing show! The ten years have taught us a lot, but most of all we try to let the work lead us.

CC: Does it get easier as you become more established as a company, or do new challenges emerge?
JM: Some things have become a little easier. There was a point where we used to make our own sets and now we have a wonderful designer who does that for us. But I would say that there are always challenges even after ten years; making a show – from finding the money and the collaborators to just MAKING the show – is never easy.

CC: Is the Fringe still a good place to present innovative theatre of this kind?
JM: Yes, there is an audience at the Fringe who are willing to take risks and this is incredibly important. There are visitors to the Fringe who go and see companies they have never heard of and the Festival needs this type of audience – otherwise it just becomes about the famous comedians.

CC: We’re approaching half-way point at the Festival. Are there any other productions at this year’s Festival that you’ve seen that you’d recommend?
JM: Gecko’s ‘Missing’ is wonderful. We have also spent alot of time watching a number of other shows at Northern Stage at St Stephens, and have enjoyed all of them. The programme at St Stephens is very rich and diverse and all the shows extremely engaging.

‘On The One Hand’ was performed at Northern Stage at St Stephen’s at Edinburgh Festival 2013.

LINKS: www.thepaperbirds.com

Photo: Mark Dawson