RashDash: ‘We’re still a huge risk for some buildings’
Abbi Greenland, one half of RashDash, thinks the theatre company “works best when we feel like we’re rogue agents”.
The duo’s work has a habit of pushing against things: traditional narratives, cultural trends, patriarchal language structures. Their shows are anarchic yet thoughtful, combining fun and chaos with political punch.
Greenland met fellow RashDash founder Helen Goalen at the University of Hull, where in their first year as students they made a show together for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. But it was another show at the festival that year that had the real impact on them as fledgling theatremakers.
“We saw a Russian company called DO-Theatre with a really physical piece called Hangman,” Greenland remembers. “We watched it together and at the end of it we both said we really want to make physical theatre.”
Physicality has remained at the heart of RashDash’s theatre. In its shows, emotion often finds an outlet in movement, with the unspoken or unspeakable expressed through the body. As performers, meanwhile, Greenland and Goalen have an appealing chemistry. “When we started moving together I felt like we fitted quite naturally,” says Greenland. “We’re quite similar proportions, so moving together felt really good.”
“We’ve always been quite suspicious of text, of verbal language,” Greenland goes on to explain. Or, as Goalen puts it, language “can’t be everything and every way that we communicate”. Greenland also feels that, in British theatre, movement “doesn’t get enough space and it doesn’t always get the time to feel articulate enough”.
“I feel like, in lots of mainstream theatre, movement probably is a lesser language still,” agrees Goalen. “It’s often very present, but it does often feel quite punctuated and fulfilling a specific purpose ” – “Or giving a scene a little bit more energy,” Greenland interrupts, nodding.
When they left university, Greenland and Goalen committed to the idea of forming a company. “One of our lecturers said to us: ‘If you’re going to try to make a company, do it now while it’s okay that you don’t have any work and you’re really poor,’ ” recalls Greenland. “Which I think was really good advice, actually,” Goalen chips in. “The first few years were definitely hardest in terms of really believing in it and keeping it going.”
In conversation, Greenland and Goalen’s thoughts often overlap – they finish one another’s sentences, interrupt with new thoughts, turn to each other as if to say: “Is that right?” Their onstage charisma is clearly rooted in a close personal friendship and a fertile creative partnership. This closeness as a duo was forged when they first struck out on their own, moving from Hull to Leeds and attempting to gain momentum as a new company.
“We’d gone out on our own and for a while we were living and breathing work,” Greenland explains. “We worked in a bar together, and then we would make shows together, so it was pretty much just us two all the time.” The experience was tough, and Goalen suggests that at the time in Leeds “there probably wasn’t enough to sustain us”, prompting them to relocate to London after three years.
When I speak to Greenland and Goalen, they are in the middle of rehearsals for The Darkest Corners, which is taking them back to Leeds. It is perhaps their most ambitious show to date: staged outside and asking: “What it is like to be a woman on your own in a public space after dark?”, it takes the feminist and activist strands of their work and gives them a bigger canvas.
“Just working on such a big scale is exciting and different,” says Greenland. The show uses headphone technology to place the audience inside the mind of a woman walking alone at night, adding a new layer of complication to RashDash’s way of working, which is usually based on freedom and improvisation in the rehearsal room. “It feels like the first half of the process is quite familiar and the second half might be really different,” says Goalen.
The project is a commission from Transform Festival, whose creative director Amy Letman has long been a supporter of RashDash’s work. “She’s the kind of producer who very much says: ‘What do you need, how can I facilitate it?’,” says Greenland. “She asks really good questions at the right time.”
This, in RashDash’s experience, is all too rare. As a small, independent company, it can be difficult to broker relationships with theatres that work well for both parties.
Although Goalen describes creating We Want You to Watch at the National Theatre in 2015 as a “really exciting and great experience”, she also admits that “in hindsight, the process was probably a little bit sped up for us”. Big theatres have their own structures and deadlines, into which the more fluid processes of theatremakers such as RashDash are not the most comfortable fit.
5 things you need to know about RashDash
1. The company formed at the University of Hull.
2. RashDash was one of the first companies to be supported by Slung Low’s Hub in Leeds. Goalen says that Slung Low’s artistic director Alan Lane “was and still is extremely supportive to so many young companies”.
3. Music has always been an integral part of RashDash’s shows. Abbi Greenland and Goalen’s musical collaborators include the band Not Now Bernard and musician Becky Wilkie.
4. RashDash’s new show The Darkest Corners is premiering at Transform Festival in Leeds, which also includes work from international artists Machina Ex, El Conde de Torrefiel and Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeek.
5. RashDash has won Fringe First awards for its shows Another Someone, Scary Gorgeous and Two Man Show and The Stage Edinburgh award for Two Man Show.
“It feels like we’re still in the position where we would be a really big risk for some buildings,” Greenland admits. Her hope for the future, though, is that theatres “are willing to help us make a show on a slightly bigger scale, because that’s where we need to go now”. After small-scale shows such as Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered and Two Man Show, in which the pairing of Greenland and Goalen took centre stage, the company is keen to expand its vision and work with larger casts.
And after writing their own text and building a collaboration with playwright Alice Birch, the next challenge they want to tackle is adapting an existing play. “We’d like to do a radical take on a classic play and see what that’s like,” says Greenland. “So often, when I see a classic play, I think: ‘That moment where you’ve just gone into that bit of text, you could just be moving there.’ So what happens if we come in and we take away bits of text that everyone loves and we move instead? Is that awful? Is that wonderful?”
The place of politics in RashDash’s work is also evolving. Talking about The Darkest Corners, Greenland says: “It felt like this is the moment when we can make something quite activist and we can not be bashful about that.” While there has always been a feminist drive to the duo’s theatremaking, in recent shows they have made a conscious choice to be more radical and provocative.
“I think there was probably in our early work more of a focus on trying to make a show that was fun, that was entertaining, that was theatrically exciting,” Goalen reflects. “It’s not like we don’t focus on that now, but I think we take that as a given, and therefore we can focus more on what it’s saying and what it’s about and getting to the heart of that.”
“We had a moment a few years ago when we said: ‘What are we for?’,” recalls Greenland. The answer? “We’re for being really radical and we want to get involved in feminist argument with an artistic sensibility. That feels really important.”
Number of performances: 4,908 audience members at 52 performances in 2016
Audience figures: Approximately 1,390 in 2017 to date
Number of employees: N/A – members of the company and others they work with are all self-employed
Turnover: Approximately £94,000 in 2016
Funding levels: £86,830 for The Darkest Corners from Arts Council England, Transform Festival’s co-production fund, Leeds Inspired (part of Leeds City Council), Big Lottery Fund, Unity Theatre Trust, Leeds 2023
Key contacts: Abbi Greenland firstname.lastname@example.org; Helen Goalen email@example.com