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Eva Mateos Rodriguez and Arielle Zilkha in Mums
Photo credit @ Christina Sarkisian

Interview: Mum’s The Word

Psychonaut Theatre on bring Mums to Lion and Unicorn Theatre

There’s a reason we love the Lion and Unicorn Theatre so much, and why it is the venue that perhaps comes up fairly regularly in our interviews. It certainly isn’t because of their comfy seats! No, it’s because they provide a place for emerging artists to hone their skill and their shows.

Which is why when we heard about Psychonaut Theatre and their show Mums which will play at the venue in December, we didn’t hesitate to find some time to chat about the show and their company.

So we sat down (on comfy chairs) with company founder and Artistic Director Arielle Zilkha, and Mums directors, Lavinia Grippa and Karola Kosecka, to hear more about the play and why venues such as this are so vital to young emerging artists.

Let’s kick straight off with Mums and what’s it all about then?

KK: Mums is a collective meditation on the process of grieving. During the performance we try to create a safe space for both audience and performers to draw on their internal landscapes of connotations with this state, through the story of one family who suffered a tragedy which pushed them into a permanent cycle of grief.

An impulse that had led me to start thinking about the topic was a line that I found in one of my old diaries. It was saying: “I am grieving after my brother’s wellbeing” but the key point here is that my brother was never fully healthy, he has always suffered. How can I grieve over something that was never real? Something that had never happened? We try to unpack those questions but our performance is not at all an answer given to the audience. It’s rather an invitation to go through those questions individually but in connection with others.

Mums is inspired by a 1994 play by Jean-Luc Lagarce – not a name that is probably known to that many of us, what brought you to this play?

KK: At the beginning of our creative process, I proposed a few general topics to the other performers to see which one resonated with all of us. I wanted to observe if there was any subject that could be thrown into the room and wake up people’s imaginations, memories, dreams. I started the discussion with giving them four broad terms: longing, grieving, sex, exclusion. We started unpacking those words and each member of our group had a possibility to share. After a short time, it became clear that we were all strongly interested in exploring a state of grieving. I started to collect all the things that can bring a person to grieving. I believe that you can reach this state not only after going through somebody’s death but also after a break-up, losing mental stability, after a job that you no longer have, youth, friendship and many more.

I started looking for texts that are very much rooted in this weird, ghosted sense of living with grief but I kept in mind to search for a piece that would still have elements of non-fiction storytelling. And that is when I first thought of Jean-Luc Lagarce – French director, actor and theatre maker from the second half of the twentieth century.

Arielle Zilkha in Mums (Photo Christina Sarkisian)And you say inspired by as opposed to based on, how much is the original text and how much is your original for this play?

KK: Yes, I never say that we are basing our performance on Lagarce’s play. What I believe we did is that we took his text as a base to build on. After I translated the French script and cut out some bits from it, we ended up using less than one quarter of the original drama. Moreover, we added plenty of multiform content that we created in the process of workshopping. Our piece is immersed in music written by Arielle, which she based on a Polish folk song that I sang at one of our first sessions, during an exercise of creating a soundscape to situations that happened in our lives and that are somehow connected to grief. Later I also added the Parable of the Prodigal Son which became an ending to our story – a confession of the Mother to her kids, her subtle but unbearably honest way of telling her children what a mother is going through when she loses a son. There is also a monologue that Eva’s character gives– it was written by her and it came from her own process of building a relationship with the character she is playing.

The common thread is one of grief and how we deal with it, have you or the performers brought personal experiences to the performance as a way of making it more personal?

LG: The subject of grief was decided as the base of our play from the beginning of our process, mainly because we have all experienced grief in some way. It was very clear from the beginning that we didn’t want to restrict the concept of grief to death: we wanted to see it more as the loss of something or the longing that will never be fulfilled, something which is heavily explored in Mums.

Our process for the play started by exploring this concept further, through workshops and exercises, finding what grief meant for each performer and what their bigger object of grief was. As a company when devising work, we begin our process from the ‘outside’, exploring themes broadly through diving into our personal experiences, and then moving ‘inside’- finding a frame to apply our findings to. The text of Jean-Luc Lagarce was a great fit for our work: a common subject of grief and yet five very clear, personal and different approaches towards it.

This is Psychonaut Theatre’s first production, is this a sign of what you intend to do with future works? Will we be seeing more European inspired works?

AZ: Definitely! Because we’re such an international group, it’s really important to us that our work authentically represents the diversity of our ensemble. And through that, we love to discover less well-known international texts that we can translate and adapt as a springboard for our own material. Text has never been the driving force of our work as a group or as individuals, but that’s not to say that it hasn’t underpinned our devising process, like in Mums. Our work tends to be less narrative focussed, and perhaps less of what British theatre audiences are used to. Part of our mission as a company is to introduce these audiences to a more experimental style of theatre, and challenge them to take risks with the theatre they choose to watch- like we take risks with the theatre we make.

Additionally, because we operate as a collective of artists, the style of our group work will change on a project-to-project basis, representative of the directing member’s practice: a piece led by me would have a different focus and style to one led by Karola. But, we are all part of Psychonaut, and therefore we are driven by the same core principles.

Juraj Benko in Mums (Photo Sanne Hofker)

What was the thought process behind that company name, it certainly stands out!

AZ: Thank you! Well, a psychonaut is someone who uses hallucinogenic substances to explore their subconscious. And that’s basically the experience we want to give to audiences who come to our shows. As performance-makers in the 21st century, we place a lot of focus on theatre as a live art form, and how that liveness can create new and perhaps unexpected events for the audience. Our aim for Mums is for it to take the audience to a place of meditation around grieving, where they can totally immerse themselves in the thoughts, feelings and experiences that come with it.

How did you get involved with The Lion and Unicorn Theatre?

AZ: Mums is a piece we developed during our final term at university, in preparation for our graduate showcase. We’d built the company during our time on the course so everything would be ready for us to launch into the industry once we graduated. Mums received really positive feedback from all different age groups, so I didn’t hesitate to take the plunge and get it out there! The Lion and Unicorn Theatre really stood out for me as a venue for emerging artists and companies, where the work doesn’t have to tick a specific box, but rather artists are free to take risks and experiment however they wish to. I’m really thankful that they saw something in our company and invited us to be part of their curated programme!

With the play called Mums, we have to ask, are you inviting your mums along to see it in December?

LG: With our mums all from different countries, it will be tricky- but we’ll definitely film it for them! However, there are a few different reasons why we chose this title. The first one is because of the more common name for the flower Chrysanthemum that is usually put on the graves of loved ones.

Grief, and the burden of pain sometimes distances us from all of the characteristics that usually represent motherhood, such as looking out for others, putting oneself as second and putting others as a priority. When grief comes along, especially grief for one’s child, all of this can fail. For our mother in the play this is exactly what happened: to nurture her pain and her grief she stopped nurturing her children, which led to them all trying to nurture themselves. We started to see them all as possible motherly figures, especially my character, the Oldest, who takes on the duty to do what her mother, destroyed by her own grief, is no longer able to do.

What do you have planned for 2023 after this then?

AZ: Our main goal for 2023 is to focus on taking Mums to more audiences and build more relationships with venues, perhaps also exploring non-theatrical spaces where it can be performed. We’d love to secure a longer run in London and maybe even take it out of the capital. In addition to that I’m also producing the UK premiere of a piece by collective member Juraj Benko, made in collaboration with Nordisk Teater Laboratorium-Odin Teatret in Denmark. And I’m going to start thinking about our next project which we’ll likely start working on in 2024. So, a lot to look forward to.

Our thanks to the team at Psychonaut Theatre for chatting with us. Mums will play at Lion and Unicorn Theatre 6 – 10 December 2022. Further information and bookings can be found here.

(Photo credits: Christina Sarkisian, Sanna Hofker and Alex Forey)

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