Although apart from a brief spell, theatres may have been pretty much closed for the last year, theatrical productions have flourished as writers, directors, and actors have embraced the digital opportunities available to them to move shows online. One such group is Gash Theatre, who have a new production starting this month – Gash Theatre Gets Ghosted. Thanks to the wonders of Zoom, I managed to have a chat with the two creatives behind Gash – Maddie Flint and Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn – and started off by asking them to tell me a bit about themselves.
NEE: I grew up in Hong Kong, then lived in New Jersey for a while and made theatre in New York. I moved to London to do a Masters degree at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, met Maddie there, and we formed this company. My previous work has been with different types of performance forms, especially ones that aren’t what we’d think of in a conventional theatre space. So, for example, I did a show based on interviews with clowns, like hospital clowns and birthday clowns. Now, with Gash and our digital work, we’ve been able to use cabaret and nightlife forms, but then also play with genres of film, which has been a fun new element.
MF: I moved to London from Edinburgh, where I’d been making theatre, doing the fringe, and all that fun stuff. I had a background in visual art – short films and a lot of physical theatre, movement-based work. So me and Nathalie come from ‘opposing’ sides in a lot of ways, but we balance each other quite nicely. I have a huge love of the body, as does Nathalie, and what the body can do. So, the theatre we make is rooted in our lived experience in our bodies – my queer body and Nathalie’s female body.
TE: So, what pulled you two together to make Gash Theatre?
MF: A lot of silliness, a lot of ridiculousness. I guess like sexuality, sensuality, and our experiences with men were things we found a common ground on really early on. We both approach sexuality and sexual relationships in a fun and silly way. So, that similar attitude and also just a real drive to make things that feels important or that feel important to us.
NEE: We both care very deeply about politics and feminism and queerness – those things that come from our personal experience and are inherent to what we do. But, also, we both want to make that content super, super accessible to people. We want to make work that’s as crazy and experimental as any performance art on these themes. But we’re going to do it by making you laugh first with references and memes and, like, Spice Girls medleys. I just find that’s always the best way to get audiences to actually feel something, to have that emotional punch in the gut if you…
MF: Lull them in with a false sense of security.
NEE: And welcome them into the space. Like, even as someone who makes experimental theatre, I’ll sometimes enter an experimental theatre space and feel like “I don’t think I’m supposed to be here. I don’t think they want me here. It’s all going to go over my head.” So, that’s a big focus for us: we want you to have fun and be welcomed into a community like you are in a drag, or nightlife, or burlesque space. But then the emotional content of our experiences kick in.
TE: Gash is a fairly new theatre company. How long have you been together and how has it worked over lockdown?
MF: We’ve been together for, like, ten months? We were on the Masters course together and had decided we were going to work together, and then lockdown hit, and we were like Oh shit! Either we can just sit by and do nothing, or we can be the crazy bitches we are and embark on two massive projects (Gash’s first project came out during Lockdown 1). It’s been a mad time, but it’s also been a really interesting time to be making theatre. Cause, you know, we were sat in our rooms and had nothing to distract us except ourselves and the vast swathes of the internet, and that’s completely become what our work is about. We call it pop art theatre – like we’re Andy Warhol if he wasn’t sexist and an arsehole. We take pop culture references and our autobiographical content, muck around with it a bit, and eventually something kind of (clicks fingers).
TE: I saw on your website that you have various definitions of the word ‘Gash’, what drew you to that word for the company?
MF: In a really direct way, we’re feminists making a lot of stuff about sexuality – gash is synonymous with vagina, so that’s an easy one. But there’s also the multiple meanings of the word. We do work that’s super DIY, so it also relates to our love of the trashy, glittery, and fun.
NEE: Also, coming from the American standpoint where we don’t use the word quite as much to mean vagina, I liked that it could also mean ‘gash’ as in a wound.
MF: Yeah, there’s an element of the grotesque about it.
NEE: So far, we’ve done two shows that both draw on the horror genre. We do it in a silly way, but we’re still examining what we find scary and why. So, our first show – “Gash Theatre Makes a ThirstTrap” – was about societal fears of female sexuality. Now, we’re doing “Ghosted,” which is about masculinity and what can be scary about that as a concept. So, the word “gash” references sexuality and gore at the same time – vaginas and open wounds – that’s where our work lives.
TE: Taking female sexuality, why do you think society has a problem with the concept?
MF: I equate it a lot to the fear of the unknown and a fear of female strength. I’ve always been pretty sex positive, but there are women I’ve known who would be afraid of masturbation, or buying sex toys – things I feel are really simple. I just think there’s a fear of the unknown for women, while male sexuality is fed to us from an early age. I remember being in a sex education class and we were taught about male wet dreams but nothing at all about female pleasure. So, there’s no focus on female sexuality or pleasure anywhere.
NEE: Also, us even using the title “ThirstTrap” for our first show was because it has that fear built into it – the idea that female sexuality is hiding something. So, if you fall for it, you’re going to be trapped: she’s going to turn against you or she’s going to be some crazy bitch you talk about to your friends. There’s a lot of fear about what lies underneath the surface of women’s smiles.
TE: Do you think the male attitude is due in part to the idea that to show a feminine side to our personality is perceived negatively?
NEE: Yes, which I think is exactly why we’re making this new show. We’ve talked about this a lot – there’s an expectation that, if you’re making feminist theatre, any work about masculinity will just be dumping on it. But, we’re really trying to embrace the positive sides of masculinity as well.
TE: So, as a cis white male, what will be my reason for coming to see your show?
MF: We’ve spent a long time figuring things like that out. How can we bring the joy and humour of cis male entities into the mix? And we’ve done this in various ways. So, for instance, we’re using a lot of quotes from movies men love and things men make us watch, like ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Rick & Morty’ and whatever. Hopefully, that brings some joy of recognition for those men and helps them access the fun of what we’re doing.
NEE: The premise of “Ghosted” is that we’re running away from this ghost of masculinity. But it’s really masculinity as it’s defined in pop culture. So, how do we exorcise that ghost? How do we get rid of those pre-conceived notions of what masculinity has to mean, so that we can actually talk to each other as people? Ultimately, that should be the goal – get rid of all this gender baggage crap that gets in the way of us just knowing each other as human beings.
TE: Tell me a bit more about ‘Ghosted’
MF: The last one (“ThirstTrap”) was a lot more episodic and abstract. With “Ghosted,” we’re venturing into narrative for the first time. We think a lot about genres – this one’s exploring rom-com and horror – so in a really simple way, our structure is based on the typical form of both those types of movies. There might even be a kind of ‘jazz hands’ ending – no spoilers, but, you know, at the end of a romcom, they do those ridiculous dance numbers with the whole cast. There might be something like that.
NEE: Basically, we have our genre story, which is the two of us being bimbos running from a killer ghost in a slasher movie. We lock ourselves into this apartment, but the ghost keeps possessing objects in the room and won’t let us leave. But, at the same time, we’re each exploring things that are more vulnerable in terms of our actual experiences of masculinity – understanding it, not understanding, fearing it, embracing it, finding power in it.
TE: How do you work together as a creative team?
MF: We tend to just start with a big old brainstorm. With this one, we’d just finished “ThirstTrap” and were trying to chill but also going a bit insane with lockdown. So, we had a few drinks and wrote a list of everything we were possibly interested in. It was a very long list. From there, we started refining it down and then eventually we sort of stumbled on something that made sense. Then we pinned down the rough personal questions we had – for me, that was about my bisexuality and gender identity, while for Nathalie, it was about her relationships with and fear of men. And we then started making things. Nathalie tends to do a lot more text work (or is better at it) and will come up with a bit of text which we’ll work on together and carry forward. I tend to work in a more visual way, so that could be putting a video together or starting to piece together how something should look. During the production, that tends to play out as me taking on more of the visual direction, while Nathalie will take more of the aural direction and work closely with the sound designer. We share the load in a really complementary way depending on our strengths.
NEE: It’s a lot of learning new skills, like learning how to muck around on GarageBand to make something that sounds the way you want it to or editing stuff on Premier Pro so you can get a bunch of romcom images all mashed up together. There’s stuff we have a lot more experience with and stuff we’re just figuring out as we go along, because it’s such a different arena from the one we were trained to make work in.
TE: How do you handle and resolve creative conflicts if they arise?
NEE: I think we’re pretty good at it. We both respect each other and our perspectives a lot. So, if one of us really believe in some idea and the other person doesn’t get it yet, we have to find ways to argue for it, or make it more understandable. That’s also the thing with working in film – in a theatre context, it’s a little easier to be like “I have this idea, I’m gonna do it and then see if you like it or not.” But with film, you have to imagine what it’s going to look like on camera and with the sound there and when everything comes together. So, it’s harder to hold those things in your head and convey to the other person why you care so much about this particular thing. Which then just means that, if I have an idea and Maddie’s not getting it yet, I have to go back home and start editing together some stuff or writing out some text or doing something so that I can get that idea across more clearly, and vice versa. If there’s a movement in Maddie’s head that I just can’t comprehend because I don’t work in that way, it means we’ve gotta get ourselves into a rehearsal room so I can see it.
MF: Normally, if there is a conflict, we just talk at each other for a while and eventually either one of us understand where the other is coming from and we jump on that idea, or suddenly a third idea will pop up and that’s the way we’ll go. It never really feels like this was my idea and this was your idea. Everything’s been chopped and changed and fed through each other. We also have a really solid base of friendship and general respect that means we do quite well with conflict. In the first lockdown, Nathalie was stuck in the States for a while and then ended up moving in with me for a few months and we just worked on Gash the whole time. We’re bubbled up, we see each other every day… basically, we’re very good at co-existing at this point.
TE: How do you know when a project is finished and ready to be presented to the public?
MF: That’s definitely the thing I miss about live theatre. If something doesn’t go right you can change it the next night or come up with something else, it’s an evolving thing. With this (film), it’s been really hard to realise that you have to be happy with a fixed point, and part of that is being happy with the fact that you’re never going to have a fixed point. At some point, you have to go, “yeah, that’s it.”
NEE: Also, with some parts, it will just arrive and be totally clear. Then there are other parts, especially the parts that get more intimate and more vulnerable, where you never feel like its good enough because it’s just your feelings out there on the screen – your deep dark shit being put in front of other people – so it always feels like ‘I could work on it a bit more’ or ‘I could develop it further.’ But, at a certain point, if you feel like you’re risking something, which I think we generally do, then people are going to get that.
TE: I’ve been looking at your website and the video on there for Ghosted.
NEE: Yeah, there are various romcoms segments and monster bits in there. No spoilers again, but this ghost is possessing different things in the apartment, so it can possess a TV and have images come through that or it can possess a radio and speak with this strange voice to give you instructions (like Jigsaw in a Saw movie).
TE: So the new show is online, and it sounds like lockdown has been good for you in some respects, giving you this opportunity to develop this. Would you be able to translate ‘Ghosted’ into a live performance once restrictions end?
MF: That’s our plan. We’re looking to secure a live performance this autumn, which is now looking quite likely. Once ‘Ghosted’ is out there, we’re going to spend the next few months figuring out what live is for us now. We’ve spent so much time considering what theatrical film could be. When you watch ‘Ghosted,’ it’s obviously a film, but it will feel like theatre. So, our next move is to go, “OK, we’ve done theatrical film, how can we then venture into filmic theatre? How do we translate some of those things that we love about making these films into a live space?” It’s also really scary. I didn’t think it would be so scary to go back to the form that we actually know, but we’ve become very secure in these films we’re making.
NEE: We’ve got a practice now for this strange period of time where we can only make work online, and so going back to whatever version of normality is going to be an odd thing. We don’t want to get rid of this digital practice. It’s so exciting to make work that can be online and can be seen by people all over the world, and can also be more accessible than live theatre is sometimes. So, that’s really exciting and we don’t want to let go of that. Be we also want to think about, if we come back to live theatre after being forced to be away from it for all this time, what’s the new stuff we can learn? We approached film as two people who hadn’t been trained in film at all, and I think we discovered some really cool things because we weren’t aware of all of the ‘rules’ about what you should and shouldn’t do when you’re making a film.
MF: Like you need longer than two days to make a film (laughs).
NEE: That is something that would have been helpful to be told perhaps. Hopefully, we can come back to theatre now with new eyes, and see past the assumptions we’ve been making about what is or isn’t allowed in that medium as well.
TE: There’s been a huge explosion of online theatre due to lockdowns. Do you think that this will be here to stay and that the training given to people will need to adapt to reflect this?
MF: I would say so. In most training, film and theatre are kept very separate. In the future, there’ll have to be a third option, something in the middle, because they are both similar and opposite in so many ways. We were quite lucky in the course we were doing, as they encouraged that experimentation and thinking about other options. The pandemic has proven how fragile everything is and how adaptable you have to be. So, I just hope people become more explorative after this. Again, we try and make our art accessible in a conceptual way, but also in a physical way. People who have problems with mobility or are neuro-diverse can engage so much more easily with our theatre via an online platform, and that’s something we want to keep close to our hearts.
NEE: I also think, like walking into a theatre space can be intimidating to people who are not often in that space. But going to a link on your computer is something that anybody can do. It has an openness to it. So, if you’ve only ever gone to drag shows, for example, you can just click on a link for our show, and it doesn’t have to feel like you’re entering a space where you’re not welcome, which I don’t think is intentional on the part of theatres, but it can still be a factor.
TE: As a reviewer, online shows are great because you can pause, go back if you’ve missed something and not rely on pretty illegible, hastily scrawled notes. Do you think that ability to stop, pause, rewind, consider is a boon or a problem with online shows for you are creators?
MF: We like to pack so much in a show that it really does need a second watch. I think there’s joy in that. There are pros and cons on both sides. One thing that’s great is you have complete control over what the audience is looking at. They are looking at the screen you are putting in front of them. And obviously, it’s edited, so we’ve chosen what needs to be there. But that also means people know we’re being intentional about every moment, so you can’t access genuine failure or messiness or exhaustion like you can in live theatre. Like, if you see a sweaty body dancing in front of you (on a stage), you can see they’re tired, you can feel it, you can hear their breath. You really have that visceral experience of a live body there. We found out very quickly that, while we tried to translate that feeling, it was never going to come across. The audience knows you’ve deliberately included that moment – so, everything is gonna be read as deliberate, even if we know it’s a mistake. And there’s the sense of community you get with a live audience, being able to play off their energy while you’re performing.
NEE: There’s been a good number of people watching our work in households and putting the shows on their TV so they can watch together. They tag us in their Instagram stories, and we get a little bit of that feeling of being there with the audience.
MF: We’re going for that Rocky Horror-esque vibe: everyone gets drunk and singalong to the bits you know.
NEE: That’s the most exciting thing about the possibility of being able to have live elements of our work again: this whole collective experience is already happening when it’s almost impossible to have a collective experience, so how much more could it happen when we’re all in a space together and can feed off each other’s energy? That’s going to be amazing.
TE: Do you watch the show with anyone else? Are you able to sit and watch yourselves?
MF: Absolutely. We have to watch it so many times through the edit. Watching the final production with others is really fun, because that’s the way of getting the feeling of being on stage and seeing the audience and getting their reaction. It’s a hard thing to direct yourself on film – critiquing the shot, critiquing yourself, becoming away of any physical flaws – it’s a really hard thing.
NEE: It’s really interesting to make work that’s largely about our relationships to our bodies and have that same thing, those same feelings about and insecurities with our bodies, also emerge in the process of making the work. It’s inescapable.
MF: It makes it more important to be doing it.
NEE: Exactly. We can talk and talk and talk about these issues and still have that voice in the back of our head that won’t stop critiquing what we look like on screen. And that’s why we keep doing it, I think.
TE: Do you think of your art as activism, in trying to change hearts and minds?
MF: I would say so. Because we have so many deep political views, it would be impossible to create work that didn’t have those things in it. My goal for an audience is for them to take the show and reflect on their own personal experience. That’s been really interesting with the men that watch things we’ve done because they’ve done just that. I’ve even had apologies from exes because of it.
NEE: I’ve definitely taken this from reading it somewhere, but inherently by putting art out there, it’s political. If you think it’s not political, it’s only because you’re going with the mainstream school of thought around what’s allowed. what’s normal, and what’s expected. Anything you put on stage is political, so we might as well take advantage of that and make it speak to something we believe in and care about. And I also think that the more personal and honest you are about your own experiences, the more that’s going to bring up political issues. So, with ‘ThirstTrap,’ a lot of what we were doing in that was talking honestly about sexual experiences that we had. We weren’t pushing for that to be political. It just was.
MF: People will always read into it and it’ll always be affected by what’s happening around us. With everything currently going on over Sarah Everard, the police bill, and the protests that are happening, all of that is close to us and close to our hearts because of past trauma and past experiences. So, it’s kind of already in the work, because that’s who we are, but these events have come along and now suddenly framed the work, because we’re talking about men and fears of men.
TE: You’re doing ‘Ghosted’ online through Camden People’s Theatre, then you’re working in translating it to a live show, and then, what’s next for Gash?
Both, in unison: We’ve got many plans.
NEE: The next project is about space, we’re going into space.
MF: We’re going to do ‘Gash Theatre Needs Some Space’ – sci-fi, puppet aliens, that sort of thing. We’ve jumped on femininity and masculinity in two separate shows; next, we’re trying to consider what the concept of utopia is in space. Is it something where you’re devoid of your images of masculinity and femininity, or is it something else entirely?
NEE: We’re thinking about imagining another world, alternatives to what we have now, and maybe testing them out with some little green buddies and UFOs on fishing poles.
MF: And some shit special effects. We’ve got a whole cannon. I’d like to do ‘Gash Theatre Gets Their Period’ and do a period drama in a manor house. We’re just going to roll with the space idea at the moment, keep our momentum rolling, and see where that takes us.
TE: Thank you so much for chatting with me, it’s been great meeting you both, and really good luck with Ghosted and wherever you go into the future.
Gash Theatre Gets Ghosted will be streamed through Camden People’s Theatre on their online platform from the 21st to the 24th of April. The show will also be streamed at The Tank (New York) in May.
Ghosted will be performed live this summer, restrictions permitting.