The latest show from theatre company Jordan & Skinner, At a Stretch, comes to Eden Court on Saturday. A non-verbal LGBT love story, it features sharp physical comedy, exciting choreography – and a lot of elastic. The show’s co-creator and performer Melanie Jordan spoke about the challenges of putting together a non-verbal show, engendering discussion of queer relationships, and the best responses the play has had...
I suppose I should first ask how At A Stretch came together? What gave you the idea to create this show, how do you tell its love story, and – after watching the trailer – how on earth did you get the eight billion pieces of elastic that seem to have been required for it?!
At A Stretch began life in 2014 as a short sketch exploring a same-sex relationship comedy for kids. Since then, it has grown to become an hour-long show following two characters who find each other, fall in love and then have to figure out how to share their lives with someone. The comedy remains, but the show now explores relationships in a deeper way.
It is important that the relationship is between two women. But, equally, this could be a romantic relationship between any two people – their gender is irrelevant to the story.
We tell the story through physical theatre, dance and comedy – the show doesn’t have any words in it. We use visual metaphors to express the emotions and situation of the characters. The main visual metaphor in At A Stretch is the elastic.
When our characters meet, they magically and unexpectedly become connected with brightly coloured neon elastic. Each time they meet more elastic forms between them until the entire set is completely webbed with elastic.
The elastic represents the invisible ties that keep us connected to another person, the reasons we are close to people in our lives. These reasons can be both lovely and difficult.
At A Stretch shows all sides of a real relationship; which take work and can be tricky. It was important to us that our story wasn’t a fairytale happily-ever-after. We wanted to explore what happens after the happily ever after, how that takes work and commitment.
Alice Wilson’s incredibly designed costumes connect the elastic between the characters. Then, it spreads to the whole set to become a giant neon spider web within a climbing frame. The characters can jump through the web, play on it and get tangled in it.
Alice’s design means that the elastic can appear and disappear by magic, so I can’t give away any secrets on how it works!
At A Stretch is a non-verbal production – keeping in the oeuvre of Jordan & Skinner’s house style. Can you tell me how you’ve managed to tell this story in a non-verbal manner? What were the challenges in putting together and telling this non-verbal love story?
Our previous production, Sanitise, was also wordless, using movement and facial expression to show a character’s inner thoughts. Each movement is precisely & carefully choreographed, so the audience can easily follow what is going on.
The benefits of having no words mean that the actors can express innate and complex emotions with facial expression and a direct connection with the audience – there isn’t any room for words, really!
It is all about how these emotions feel in your body and externalising that so that an audience can see. A simple gesture can mean so much and when you add sound and other visual elements to a gesture, it can communicate so many different things.
The challenge for us was making sure that with each gesture or movement every visual and audio element was right for what we were trying to communicate. This took time and precision and is very delicate work.
This is Jordan & Skinner’s first play written with young audiences in mind – what were the challenges of creating a show for a younger crowd? What were the advantages? What would be the main difference in how you approached this compared to how you approached Sanitise (for example)?
The challenges of creating a show for younger audiences is to make something that is relevant and enjoyable both to them and the grown ups they bring to the theatre. We have found that comedy is a great way to do this!
Although Sanitise was directed towards an adult audience, the way we approached composing narrative and characterisation was the same. Both productions use the medium of clown to express what is going on for the characters, this creates a very universal way of storytelling which defies the need for speech. It is silly, fun and playful and both kids and adults enjoy the slapstick elements.
I think as we get older we get used to being cerebral and watching people stand and speak during plays. Kids seem far more open to an unspoken language and so in some ways our company style has been more fitting to a children’s show than an adult show.
Bringing an LGBT love story for ages six and up 50 years on from the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts, I suppose one must consider the world we live in today – gay marriage is legalised, but there are still huge concerns (putting it mildly) in the UK and beyond. How do you hope this production will educate and inform on these matters – for kids and adults alike?
In the U.K. we are making huge leaps forward towards inclusion and equality which is glorious, however we still have a long way to go. Yes, gay marriage is legal but the queer community continues to face discrimination.
When developing the show, we did workshops with primary schools. A letter was sent to parents informing them we would be looking at LGBTQIA+ themes during the workshops. The parents could then withdraw their kids from the session, if they wished.
This implies that there is something wrong or controversial in talking to kids about queer relationships. If gay people are allowed to get married, why is there still hesitation when talking to kids about gay relationships?
We hope that At A Stretch is a step in the direction to normalise queer relationships to young people.
The representation of queer relationships to young audiences is one of the most important things about the show. Representation on stage or screen reflects our experiences back to us and tells us it is OK to be who we are.
We hope that queer kids or kids with queer families and friends will be empowered from seeing these two queer characters and their relationship. By presenting queer stories to kids we are saying that the experiences of queer and non-queer people are all equally valid and important, no one is ‘other’, we are all just people who have relationships with other people.
If we give this message to kids at a young age they will hopefully carry this understanding into adulthood and continue to cultivate a diverse, inclusive and tolerant world.
How have audiences – kids and adults – been responding to the show? Has there been anybody whose response has particularly stood out?
We have had amazing responses from both kids and adults! The show appeals to both kids and grown up; I think this can be surprising for the grown-ups that come along.
The comedy is universal and the physical theatre, parkour and acrobatics are dangerous and exciting to watch. I think that there is a lot in the story that both adults and kids can relate to – how to share space with someone, how to get along with people and how sometimes you have to compromise what you want to meet the needs of another person.
There is also a very funny scene where the two characters make complete idiots of themselves as they try to impress each other, which is something everyone can relate to!
One child said, “It was better than the cinema!” That’s all we can hope for really!
For more information or to buy tickets, go to www.eden-court.co.uk