My search for new voices in theatre continues this month as I put the spotlight on a production called Outside. Written and performed by Gabrielle MacPherson, the play focuses on Willa, who is trying to leave her house for the first time in 30 years. What dark revelations are about to come to light?
If you attend a performance at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington, London, on November 18-20, you can find out what happens to Willa. Outside already startled audiences at the London Horror Festival last month and at its streaming debut earlier this year, garnering an Offie OnComm nomination.
Gabrielle MacPherson and I spoke on Zoom one crisp and cold morning about how she navigated the shift from virtual to in-person productions this year as a writer and performer. MacPherson is a co-founder of Degenerate Fox Theatre in London. As an actor, her appearances include Fokin’ Bring It On Lads (Vault Festival), The Dirty Thirty (Rosemary Branch Theatre), What’s In The Box?, Our Time (Haringay Shed) and The Beasts (Courtyard Theatre).
When you wrote the script for Outside, did you write with livestream in mind and then tweak it for the stage?
I started writing it before all the lockdowns in the U.K. I finished it during the pandemic. Definitely I wrote it to be in person, live on a stage. Then it went through a whole rewrite for the streamed version. I’ve rewritten it again for these performances.
How does doing these rewrites draw on your creative energy and flexibility?
I’ve never written for streamed theatre before. Obviously, we didn’t know we were ever going to have to do that. It was a great challenge! I think there were moments I missed because there are some audience interaction which work way better when there are actually audience in the same room with you. It was brilliant to work within the hybrid of theatre and screen, which is what it became.
I notice you’re working with Minty Fresh Productions, founded in 2015 by Adwoa-Alexsis Mintah. As someone within the industry, would you agree that the theatre scene is shifting?
With what the theatre industry has just been through, there is a need to get people back into theatres. The safe option is to put shows on that have been on for 20 years, or to put on the classics. While there is room for that, there is also room for new voices, new writing, and new work.
The world has changed so much in the last 18 months. It really depends on what day you speak to me. At the moment, it feels like there are steps being made. I know of brilliant theatre makers and practitioners that are doing so much fantastic work to create space for new voices and more diversity within the industry, but nothing is perfect. There’s still a long way to go.
What’s essential to keep in mind when you’re acting for a solo performance?
It was interesting doing it streamed because there was no feedback from an audience. The first time I did it in the room, there was the person doing the tech, the two people behind the cameras, and my producer from Minty Fresh. What keeps me focused, now doing it in front of an audience in a room, is being able to see them. You can look into their eyes. You can feel when moments of light relief, moments of heaviness, and gravitas of certain situations we talk about in Outside really hit audience. That’s what helps [me] to keep focus and in the moment.
Willa is an amazing character to play. Her thoughts run through her head so quickly. She has so much to say that she demands I stay in character with her. If I even drop concentration for a second, I don’t know what would happen. Let’s hope I don’t. [Laughs]
You’re working on this show with your director, Laurel Marks. What do you enjoy about collaborating with her?
Laurel is the most generous director and artist that I’ve worked with. She makes sure the room is safe. She’s very straightforward in our conversations, both within her direction and [in] her feedback. We laugh, which sounds strange, because the subject matter and themes in Outside are quite dark. She creates such a safe space that we laugh so much. She has come to Outside with such an understanding, that she has taken it to new heights that I’ve not even thought of. She’s fantastic.
As an art history major, it’s not lost on me that the Rosemary Branch Theatre used to be a Victorian music hall. When these spaces retain some features from way back, how does that enhance the ambience of the production?
The Rosemary Branch is such a special theatre [with] an amazing pub underneath. They work so brilliantly together. Even when you walk up to the Rosemary Branch, it’s such a brilliant and interesting place to look at from the outside. It has retained so much of its personality and influences. There are moments when if the floorboard creaks, was that meant to happen? Not meant to happen?
It is just a brick wall away from the outside, but you totally forget. It’s almost like bringing the outside in, which is what Outside is about. There are people outside the room who are also trying to have conversations with Willa. It’s going to be beautiful to play it with the outside just being a wall away.
Willa has been inside for 30 years. We haven’t been inside that long, but what’s a parallel we can find in her story for our situation?
As I said before, I started to write Outside before I knew anything that would transpire over the last 18 months. It was interesting to be going through rewrites while we were locked down. The parallel would be—I don’t know if anyone who may come to see Outside has experienced this—but the moments of finding joy in the tiny and mundane things, Willa does that. She has such a different view of the world [from] such a specific and sheltered life. Things that excite her feel quite everyday to us. I definitely felt moments like that as we were getting to the three-month mark of being locked down. I found things funny that I probably wouldn’t have found funny if I’d been working full-time.
When I greeted you on Zoom, you mentioned you taught at a Shakespeare workshop prior to our call. What’s it like working in theatre education?
I work a lot within community theatre, facilitating and leading workshops. It’s been great to get back to working with the same community groups and companies, because we work with young people. We bring theatre, story-telling, and drama to them. They have more time to explore, take risks, and fail because it is a safe space. That is invaluable to all of us as humans, especially young people exploring theatre whether it’s an option for their future or out of development within education. I feel like the conversation and training available now are fantastic. It only helps us become better theatre makers and better facilitators and leaders for workshops.