Behind the Scenes at Shopfront Art Co-Op

Open call auditions occur live on stage in front of a guest audience. The goal: to find fresh, new faces to play the lead roles on Season 2 of acclaimed TV show, Much Ado About Something! 

Behind the Scenes is a new theatrical experience created by Shopfront Member Riana Head-Toussaint where you, the audience, decide who has what it takes.

Rosie spoke with writer and Director Riana Head-Toussaint about bringing her new work to the Shopfront stage and why we need to make the arts more accessible. Read the full interview below:

Riana Head-Toussaint

What inspired the creation of Behind the Scenes, and why was Shopfront Arts Co-op the best place for you to develop it?


It is difficult to pinpoint one thing as the inspiration for making this work, but I guess on an intimate, personal level it came from my experiences as a person and performer with disability, and my observation of past and present casting practices with regard to characters with disability. I remember I was seeing a lot of films coming out that featured actors without a lived experience of disability portraying disabled characters (Bryan Cranston in The Upside, Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, Sam Claflin in Me Before You etc) and a lot of public debate raging around those portrayals; with capitalistic arguments for, and authenticity-based arguments against. 

I wanted to make something that explored this act of attempting to embody another person (or character’s) experience: to examine what effect that has on the actor, the character, and the audience. 


This is my first work, and as Shopfront is an institution that champions emerging artists and the development of their ideas and creativity, it seemed like a natural fit. 

 

Behind the Scenes lets the audience decides who has what it takes to get the starring role. How does encouraging audience participation change the way we respond to the work?

 

As much as possible, I wanted to try to avoid being overly didactic in this work (hard to do but that is the goal!). The audience participation is an attempt at that. I think when you set up a scenario for people to actively participate in – where they have some direct bearing on the action – it creates more space for them to come to self-directed thoughts/feelings/realisations. That was the impetus for having members of the public audition on stage as part of the work, and having the audience vote for who gets cast at the end, after watching the performances. 

 

Behind the Scenes explores issues around authentic casting and access. Why is it so important to continue to have these conversations about inclusive access, and how would you like to see the theatre industry change to become more accessible?

 

It is important because the arts should accurately reflect the diversity of real life. We use art to understand and make sense of so much of our world – particularly those parts of it that are beyond the realm of our own experience – and so we need those stories to be told and portrayed by the people who have experienced them, so that they are accurate and nuanced. It makes for richer storytelling! 


There are so many things that I would like to see change in our industry – if I listed them all I would be here all day haha. I think publicly-funded artistic organisations and institutions need to be held accountable in a more meaningful way. Requiring them to meet diversity and accessibility related targets and requirements in order to have their funding renewed would be a good way to create some more substantial change! The UK is doing great things using models like this.
More generally though, I think it’s just about everyone in their own particular contexts making commitments and sticking to them – nothing really happens until you say ‘enough is enough’ and mean it. And consulting! Consult with diverse/marginalized communities – make space for those who have been traditionally shut out and genuinely listen to what they have to say. We know what we need, and we need to be at the center of any action if it is to be meaningful.    

 

For those who aren’t familiar with Shopfront Arts Co-op member productions, could you speak a little about them and how your work was chosen?

 

The Members Production is a program where Shopfront members pitch their ideas for a show, and then the rest of the Shopfront cohort (from the various other ensembles) votes for which works get programmed. If you’re successful, you get free access to the space to develop your project, a mentor is engaged to work with you, and at the end of the development you get to have your own season at Shopfront. It’s a great opportunity! 

 

What do you hope to achieve with Behind the Scenes? What conversations do you want to ignite, and what do you hope the audience leaves still thinking about?

 

The aim with this work is to get people thinking. It is not about proclaiming specific answers, it’s about raising questions in the minds of our audience and auditionees. Questions around empathy across lived experience, embodiment/representation, authentic casting, and anything else that comes up for them. There is no right and wrong. Each person comes to the theatre with their own knowledge and experience, and that affects what they notice, what they resist, what they value. It is a difficult process but it is also exciting, because if it touches someone, that is due to them being open! 

We have created a framework for something to occur, and each night we will populate it with different people, and we will see what that results in – what the experience conjures in people. It will be different every night. If they leave thinking, our job is done ☺ 

 

RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS: 

 

Favourite production you have ever seen?

Impossible question! Things that affected me that spring to mind are ‘A Simple Space’ by Gravity & Other Myths, ‘The Second Woman’ by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon, and ‘High Performance Packing Tape’ by Branch Nebula.
 

You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?

London to see my fam!
 

Dream show to create?

I have so many dream shows haha – hopefully they’ll all eventually become real! I’m pretty interested in massive public actions – would be cool to make a work involving those!
 

Plays or musicals?

BOTH
 

A hobby you have beyond the theatre?

Swimming! LOVE swimming. And watching trash reality TV.
 

What’s next for you after this show?

Lots of things! Co-facilitating Dirtyfeet’s free dance workshop series ‘The Right Foot’ throughout October! Got several other artistic projects on the boil; involving dance, acrobatics and street-style artists, which are all really exciting! Could probably go for a long sleep too – that’d be nice. 

 

Behind the Scenes is currently running at Shopfront until September 1, 2019. You can get your tickets here. 

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