Theatremaker Molly Taylor tells Lyn Gardner about the importance of community work, how Liverpool FC has influenced her forthcoming show Roar and on asking people to donate stories to her
In becoming one of the go-to writers and facilitators for theatres making community participation, Molly Taylor says she has had to be “quite vampiric”. It’s about being able to “suck out something” from a story being told, to create something from a moment in a workshop. “But the participants are not my tool, I’m their tool. I’m only there to facilitate and frame their stories.”
Taylor demonstrated her skill at doing just this in the rehearsal room recently for Me for the World, a production made and performed by Roma and Irish Traveller communities in London, which opens at the Young Vic in early March. One of the young Roma women read a line Taylor had written and said: “This sounds exactly like me, like my voice.” Taylor replied: “Of course it does, it is your voice.”
“Ninety-percent of my job when making participatory theatre is to listen and put the voices of the participants, my co-authors, on stage in a way that doesn’t feel written. I should almost be invisible,” she says. In a theatre culture where playwrights are praised for having a distinctive voice that is uniquely their own, Taylor’s job requires a generosity of spirit and a lack of writerly ego.
Alongside her own well-received and well-travelled solo shows – which include Love Letters to the Public Transport System and Extinguished Things – Taylor is much in demand to create participatory work. Particularly as theatres wake up to the fact that it can be the deepest engagement they will ever have with the communities on their doorsteps and as Arts Council England’s strategy places more value on community engagement.
Over the last few years, Taylor has made theatre with sex workers at the Young Vic in See Me Now, worked at the Bush Theatre on The Neighbourhood Play, and with the Almeida Young Company. After Me for the World, which she is creating – in collaboration with director Alasdair Pidsley – with six young people from Roma families, she goes to her hometown of Liverpool to stage Roar at the Everyman in June. Her co-authors there will be football fans from across Merseyside who support local teams, whether they are top of the Premier League or in the lower divisions.
“Since my dad first took me to the Kop [at Liverpool Football Club’s Anfield stadium] aged nine, I’ve always been in awe of what football fans do with songs and chants and punchlines and witticisms. There is a sort of magical transference that takes place between the art on the pitch and the art of the fans in the stands.”
What was your first theatre job?
Learning department at National Theatre of Scotland.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in a cake shop.
What is your next job?
Roar at Liverpool Everyman in June 2020.
What do you wish you had been told when you were starting out?
You don’t need a licence to make work or wait to be picked. You just need to get it made.
Who is your biggest influence?
My dad. He always told me to find what I love and convince someone to pay you to do it.
If you hadn’t been in theatre what would you have done?
Something to do with psychology.
Do you have any superstitions or rituals?
I keep every script. Even if I never look at them, I would never throw one away.
Often the people who Taylor works with haven’t engaged with their local theatre before. Most of the people involved in Me for the World had never seen a play before they started making one, and Taylor is aware that while “the white, male, working-class football fans” who are co-creating Roar regularly travel to see their teams home and away, “many of them will never have stepped inside the Everyman”.
Her aim is that they will make a show together and when they leave through the stage door, they will have got to know the building. “Hopefully the theatre becomes an extension of the rest of their lives,” she says, adding that theatres need to “invest in this sort of work because otherwise they will remain irrelevant to most people in their communities”.
She argues that a lot of the participatory work in theatres is done under the radar, rather than alongside the rest of a theatre’s programme and so goes unnoticed and unreviewed.
“Often, theatres are nervous about the form of the work because it is a creative risk for them, they don’t know what it will be in advance, it requires investment and it is not commercial. So, it gets side-lined to studio spaces and is seen as just being for friends and family. But that is starting to change.” She points to the fact that See Me Now played for three weeks at the Young Vic, and Roar will play on the Everyman main stage for three nights.
Taylor began her career in Scotland after graduating from the University of Glasgow in 2004. “I was lucky,” she says, “it was at a time when graduates could still get arts-related jobs, and I did lots of facilitation in community settings.”
That stood her in good stead, and in 2008 she got a year-long attachment to the National Theatre of Scotland’s learning department where she was encouraged not only work on school and community projects but also make her own work. The result was Love Letters to the Public Transport System, first performed as part of National Theatre Scotland’s Reveal season in 2011, and subsequently a hit at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
In the show, Taylor tried to track down some of the transport workers who had driven the trains and busses she had travelled on at pivotal moments in her life. Working with Look Left, Look Right further piqued her interest in using other people’s experiences and words to create theatre.
‘I’m asking people to donate stories to me’
She sees her solo shows and her participatory work as being different sides of the same coin. “For me, both processes are fully collaborative. With Extinguished Things I asked people in Liverpool if I could come into their homes and show me the things they had collected over their lives that had meaning for them.
“So, in whatever I do there is always an element of participation because I’m asking people to donate stories to me, to offer something my imagination might not get to or illuminate something my experience hasn’t touched on. They are different forms but equally robust processes that require the same attention, care, research and creativity.”
It is care and the act of taking care that defines Taylor’s work. “When I’m making theatre with participants, I always remind them that: ‘I can’t make the show without you.’ The question I’m always asking is how can we bend theatre to fit this particular group of people and their stories, lives and experiences rather than expecting them to change to fit theatremaking.”
Born: Liverpool in 1981
Training: Glasgow University, drama and English literature degree
• Love Letters to the Public Transport System, NTS and tour (2011) Edinburgh Fringe (2012) Adelaide Fringe (2018)
• See Me Now, Young Vic (2017)
• The Neighbourhood Project, Bush Theatre (2017)
• Extinguished Things, Edinburgh Fringe (2018)
• Cacophony, Almeida Theatre (2018)
Agent: Alex Rusher at Independent
Me for the World at London’s Young Vic runs March 5-7, 2020