‘The meaning of life is that it stops.’
‘When you’re 30 dark circles appear under your eyes and fine lines and wrinkles begin to show.’
Anti-ageing wrinkle cream advert
A woman stands on the brink of a life she is failing at and a death she is also failing at. ‘To be or not to be?’ is the question. Through one doorway she dies, only to have failed at life, through the other, she lives, only to have failed at death. Or she could have succeeded at life and death respectively; I suppose it depends which way you look at it.
A show about show, performance and the ego: an existential crisis told through a variety of mediums including opera, clowning and conceptual dance.
My Death was first performed at The Rag Factory, just off Brick Lane, and then at Camden People's Theatre as part of their SPRINT festival 2015. In January 2018 it had a short run at The Pleasance in London.
Interview for online theatre magazine The New Current:
Hey Theodora, thanks for talking to TNC, how have things been going?
Hectic but exciting! The jigsaw is gradually taking shape...
How does it feel to be part of CPT Sprint 2015?
Very special as it’s the first festival I’ve been in with a solo piece. I’ve always loved CPT as a venue - it has a collaborative ethos which makes you feel welcomed and inspired.
Any finishing touches?
Always! There are a million more ideas I want to try out. I’m particularly excited about some ‘Moon Shoes’ I just won on eBay, that I’m going to use for my ghost scene: they let you bounce as you walk. I’ll need to practise walking in them so I can sing at the same time. I will have a big skirt and restricted vision, so I hope I can make it work; though either way it will be entertaining. I want to develop this piece a lot, and getting it out there in front of this audience is an important step on the journey, not the final one. I’m excited to see how people are going to react.
What has been the biggest challenge you've faced putting your new show together?
In writing the show I tried not to let anything get in the way of my imagination, silly little things like not being able to sing opera or speak Russian - so when it was written there were a few things I needed to learn how to do. I train with experts in different things to get as good as I can in that area. My Technical Director Andrey Kastelmacher’s first language is Russian, so he translated and helped me with the pronunciation. The tap dance: I definitely still need to work on!
Do you ever get nervous when you're bringing your work to audiences?
The moment before I go on stage is always the same: my whole body’s shaking and I’m thinking ‘Why do I do this?’ But when I get on stage there’s this enormous sense of release and enjoyment. When it’s your own work you’ve only got yourself to rely on or let down and you’re just there, having an interaction with the audience. I’m used to live, improvised events so I’ve had to embrace the idea that things will go wrong and that’s okay, it’s part of it, and it’s what gives those performances their renegade edge. When you have no time to think and you just have to open your mouth and say something, that thing can turn out to be outrageous or inappropriate. You never know until it’s too late. I try to retain that element of danger because the audience can tell and the liveness is part of the magic of any theatre.
Has it been surprising to get the type of reaction you've gotten for your work?
It sounds stupid but the laughter always catches me by surprise. Even though I’m trying to make people laugh, my characters all take themselves very seriously, so the first time I do something in front of an audience I always get caught out by it.
Tell me a little bit about My Death, how did it the show come about?
My Death is about a woman who thinks that she’s failing at life and so decides to die, only to discover that she’s not very good at that either. I describe it as an existential crisis told through a variety of performance styles including opera, puppetry and conceptual dance. In this sense it is a show about show, performance and the ego: a mockery of the conviction every one of us has that the world revolves around us.
It came about as I was approaching my 30th birthday, with the received sense of impending doom that arrives along with it: there was an advert a few years ago for anti-ageing wrinkle cream with the line ‘When you’re 30 dark circles appear under your eyes and fine lines and wrinkles begin to show.’ It was at the same time absurd and terrifying. There is the sense that by the time you reach 30 you’re supposed to have achieved something or made something of yourself. I found it funny the way we’ve made this arbitrary milestone and treat it with such authority. As my character reasons when she decides to end her life: ‘After all, I was near 30: it was time to go’.
It’s become increasingly possible in this technological age to carefully structure the image you present to the world. So much information is, or can be readily available: our online profiles are the advertisements of ourselves, the brand of the person we want to project. My Death is a reaction to that, a parody of the lengths people go to to appear a certain way.
What was the main inspiration behind your new play?
I always loved something Kafka said when he described all his writing as the childish desire to imagine his own funeral and see how sorry people were that he had gone - the whole show is a playful representation of this kind of Pyrrhic Victory. A sad clown that wastes their life uploading smiling images of themself to Facebook so that people will see how happy they are, despite this process making them perpetually sad.
When did you realise you wanted to create theatre?
When I was little I used to sit in the bath for hours acting out stories with all the different characters. It’s the best place to do it because you can use the water to change your hair and the bubbles can be used to make beards and fancy clothes. It was a race against time before the bubbles popped and the water went cold. That’s probably when I knew...
What has been the most valuable lesson you've learned so far?
Just to leap in and do it. Any problem can be worked out while you’re doing it. And if you just sit around thinking about doing it, you’ll only end up with thoughts that no-one else will ever know about.
Who have been your biggest inspirations?
A long history of clowns - the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Blackadder, Chris Morris, Alan Partridge, Miranda July, Amy Poehler and Sacha Baron Cohen.
But also, in another way, people who meticulously construct their public image and take themselves very seriously: Vladimir Putin, Kim Kardashian, Kim Jong Un. People who take loads of selfies of themselves pouting.
Do you have a favourite theatre quote?
Artaud said ‘We are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theatre has been created to teach us that first of all.’
And finally what do you hope people will take away from your new play?
The central message is quite simple - don’t panic about what’s expected of you or what you think you should be, just worry about who you actually are. It would be nice if no-one still cared what sexuality other people were or what they want to wear, for example… but all over the world people are still being persecuted for being gay or wanting to wear trousers if they are girls or dresses if they are boys. That’s crazy! I hope My Death in some small way gets them to think about that.