The performance artists behind Sh!t Theatre talk to Catherine Love about using goofy gags to tackle serious issues, generating material while at the Edinburgh Fringe and their love of Dolly Parton…
The two women behind Sh!t Theatre, as the name suggests, aren’t really interested in virtuosity. Performance art duo Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole make shows with wonky props, silly dances and wobbly video footage.
“We don’t think you have to be virtuosic – to be a virtuosic singer or a virtuosic dancer – to have something to say,” says Mothersole. But the silliness and self-deprecation belie the serious core of Sh!t Theatre’s work.
Using songs, face paint and goofy gags, the company’s shows have dissected everything from the welfare state to pharmaceutical companies. And they aren’t afraid to get stuck in, using personal experience as a springboard for deeply political investigations.
Job Seekers Anonymous was based on Biscuit and Mothersole’s own experience of being on the dole; Guinea Pigs on Trial documented their attempts to take part in several medical trials and Letters to Windsor House treated their own precarious living situation as a microcosm for the housing crisis. The Stage’s reviews editor Natasha Tripney described their show Women’s Hour as “riotous, pinky, properly angry feminist theatre”.
Biscuit and Mothersole met at Queen Mary, University of London, where they were in a long-form improv group together. During their studies, they were both taught by performance artist Lois Weaver, whose DIY ethos with companies including Spiderwoman and Split Britches inspired the Sh!t Theatre aesthetic.
The pair started performing as a duo in five-minute sketches for a Bethnal Green-based group called Mutiny, before taking their first full-length show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2010.
“We threw this blurb of a Sh!t Theatre show together,” Biscuit remembers. When they got around to actually making the show, the blurb became a checklist. “We went through and ticked off what we had said we’d do,” says Mothersole.
The scrappy attitude stuck, though the sketches soon gave way to documentary investigations. “It’s not a word you necessarily associate with documentary, but there’s a lot of fun,” says Mothersole.
She remembers how, after receiving an Arts Council grant to make Job Seekers Anonymous, she and Biscuit went to sign off at the dole office. But when they revealed how much they would be paying themselves – the equivalent of the benefits they’d been receiving – they were told that it wasn’t enough to live off. “You can’t write it,” says Biscuit. “The reality is funnier, weirder and more ridiculous than anything we could possibly write ourselves.”
Artistic directors: Rebecca Biscuit, Louise Mothersole
Number of performances: More than 1,000
Audience figures: Over 3,000 per year
Number of employees: Three to five
Funding levels: Grants for the Arts (less than £15,000)
Key contacts: Rebecca Biscuit, Louise Mothersole, firstname.lastname@example.org
Comedy is a vital ingredient in the company’s work, often lightening heavy material. “I think especially because we’re doing stuff that usually comes from such a political place, there’s always a fear of being soapboxy,” says Mothersole. Biscuit stresses that “we want it to be a joyful experience for the audience and also for ourselves on stage, even if it’s not a particularly cheery topic”.
The face paint is another lightening tactic, as well as a way for Biscuit and Mothersole to distance themselves from personal material. “When we put something that’s so personal on stage, it does help for us to go on with a sort of mask on,” says Biscuit. “We are then able to have all that personal stuff and have it as one step removed.”
Mothersole adds: “It’s pretty much us on stage, and it helps it feel slightly more like a persona when you put face paint on.”
Is there personal material that they would not address on stage? “So far we haven’t come up against a point where we’ve thought, ‘Actually I don’t feel comfortable putting that in’,” Mothersole says. “But again, there’s usually a sort of barrier. So in Women’s Hour personal bits were in the dark, in Letters to Windsor House personal bits were in a postbox where you could only see our eyes or our mouths.”
DollyWould, Sh!t Theatre’s new show, is something of a departure. Whereas previous work came from a place of anger, this one comes from a place of love. To be specific, Biscuit and Mothersole’s shared love of Dolly Parton.
The show mixes ideas of reality, representation and replication, taking as its starting point the iconic signifiers of Dolly Parton – “boobs, blonde hair and rhinestones,” lists Biscuit – and the cloning of Parton’s namesake, Dolly the Sheep.
It also takes in death, drag queens and the Dollywood theme-park in Tennessee. “It’s this Venn diagram of all these things crossing over and this point in the middle which hopefully is our show,” says Biscuit.
The show premieres at the fringe in Summerhall, which has been an annual pilgrimage for Biscuit and Mothersole since their student days.
“Because we’ve been doing it since we were 18 [they both turn 30 this year], it’s like still being at school,” says Biscuit. “Our entire year revolves around this thing that happens in August and then it’s like we go back to work in September.”
They were lucky enough to have a friend in Edinburgh who gave them somewhere to stay during those first few years of making student theatre at the fringe.
“It became part of the culture of our friendship and of our creative lives that you just go to the fringe with something scrappy,” Biscuit says.
“For the first four years we did the fringe as Sh!t Theatre we went up with stuff that wasn’t finished, it was always on the Free Fringe, it was always fun for us.”
She continues: “We had absolutely zero expectations of the fringe, which definitely helped. We weren’t in the programme, nobody ever reviewed us, it was just something we did for love. And that became a way of us generating material and we would end up at the end of the fringe having a show, rather than at the beginning.”
There must be some magic in the method as Letters to Windsor House won a Fringe First and was also nominated for a Total Theatre award last year. The Stage called it a “brave, bruising and deeply personal view on the housing crisis”.
The fringe is how they book tours for the rest of the year, though Biscuit adds that it’s not a sustainable system. “We have to find another way, because every year it costs us 10 grand.”
1. The theatre company was founded at Queen Mary, University of London, where Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole both studied the BA (hons) drama course.
2. The name Sh!t Theatre came from dismissive comments about performance art, which Mothersole suggests people think of as “just shit theatre”. The name was also inspired by a comment from one of their friends, as Biscuit recalls: “Our friend Ruth said to me ‘Becca, you just make really shit theatre, don’t you?’ and that ended up sticking.”
3. For each new show, Biscuit and Mothersole set themselves the task of learning a new skill. In Job Seekers Anonymous they attempted to hula-hoop, while for Letters to Windsor House they taught themselves to play trumpet and trombone.
4. The company insists on not having a mission statement and is keen to avoid being pigeonholed. “As soon as someone tells us what we do, we don’t want to do it anymore,” says Mothersole.
5. Sh!t Theatre is an associate artist at Camden People’s Theatre, alongside theatre company Barrel Organ and live artist Jamal Harewood.
Shows planned for the future include an interactive gameshow about wealth and a piece about ex-pats that the company describes as its “secret Brexit show”.
They also want to make a musical, Evita Too, about female power, and Eva and Isabel Peron. But what might working on a larger scale mean for Sh!t Theatre’s DIY aesthetic?
“Sh!t Theatre is not necessarily us being low budget,” insists Biscuit, “it’s our relationship with each other, our relationship with the audience and our relationship to the material and the strictness – or the unstrictness – of that relationship.
“What’s Sh!t is that three-way relationship between us, the material and the audience.”