Dead Cats, the latest witty and entertaining instalment in Proto-type Theatre’s Truth to Power project which is currently on tour in the UK. This intelligent, thoughtful, witty and provocative political theatre strikes a particular chord in this time of muddled politicians striving to appear in control and save face. Hayley Clapperton talked to the writer and director Andrew Westerside.

HC: Apart from the obvious farcical politicians we no longer believe in……… what was the inspiration for this play and what is the angle?

AW: It was very much about our own, personal relationship to political life and how any of us can have any sense of what we can actually do. There is so much spin and half-truth in contemporary political discourse that we often feel on uncertain ground when we try and make good decisions, and lots of that is because practical politics seems so much more concerned with game-playing and controlling narratives. We wanted to make something that exposed that kind of reality.

HC: What elements are key for you to make this production really work?

AW: At its heart, this show needs the performers and it needs the cinematic imagery. The live action onstage – the text in particular – is absolutely crucial, as is the visual content. This is about what we see and what we hear, so that ‘triangle’ of between the two performers and the screen is the foundation of the whole piece.

HC: You have written/performed a series of political plays, what is it about this subject matter that makes you so interested in performing/writing about it?

AW: Because we’re all ‘in it’. We wrote a piece about illegal state surveillance because it affects us all and we wanted to share our anger and our shock. After that we did a piece about the 2008 financial crisis because it affected every one of us, and so does this. These big ideas manifest in our lives in really tangible, really meaningful ways and we want to talk about them and see them on our stages because they’re absolutely critical to how we live our lives.

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HC: The play seems to be very collaborative and brings together a strong team, what do you think they all bring?

AW: More than anything, a unique way of telling the stories we’re trying to tell. Between performance and image and music, all of the creative team are experts at communicating ideas through their own mediums, and I think you can see (and hear!) that through Dead Cats.

HC: Do you have a favourite scene/line from the show?

AW: Lots! But if I had to pick one, the ‘shop’ scene is my favourite (I won’t give away any more than that), because it makes me laugh every time I watch it, but also reveals something really sinister about the way our political landscape functions.

HC: How did you get involved with this production company?

AW: We’ve been working together since 2008, as Proto-type Theater and we three (Rachel Baynton, Gillian Lees, Andrew Westerside) are the Co-Artistic Directors.

HC: What is the process of writing/directing such a show, right from agreeing to do it until the first dress rehearsal?

AW: We start with lots of conversation. To try and paint a collective picture in our minds of what we’re aiming for. That’s often really vague at the beginning, and then the rehearsal and development process is about trying to have that picture come into focus. That can take a long time – we’ll develop a little bit of material, test it, ask questions about it, and maybe keep going or turn back and try something else. There are always lots of ‘dead ends’ that don’t quite work out or don’t quite fit that collective picture. And then at some stage it becomes a process of turning that material into a cohesive ‘show’ – which is where the more traditional elements of playwriting kick-in. Once we’ve got that text, or score, or script, we then get to work on how it looks, how it feels, how it sounds, until we’re happy with it (or at least happy to let it into the world!)

HC: Has anything turned out differently to the original plans?

AW: I don’t think so, only because the plan emerges with the material. Making a Proto-type show is always a little bit like an archaeological dig. That is, there’s a show ‘in the ground’, and we have to dig it out. I’ve heard sculptors say the same thing about big blocks of marble – they don’t ‘make’ the statue, but that it’s already in there and they have to find it. I think that’s similar for us. 

HC: How did you find the process of writing for the show?

AW: Enjoyable and challenging, like any writing process! Sometimes you can’t move for a while, because there’s a gap in the material or a gap in logic you can’t quite think through, but we work very collaboratively, which as a writer is great because I can take a problem into the studio and ask for help.

HC: Is it easier/harder to direct the play you have written?

AW: In the main I think it’s harder, but of course it has its advantages. If you’re writing and directing, you get to ‘see’ the show in your head as you’re writing, because you know how you want a certain section to move or feel, and you know who your performers are – which means you can write specifically for them. But it’s also incredibly challenging to be wearing both ‘hats’ at once. The director in you wants to go back and tinker with the writing, and the writer in you wishes you had a different director so that you can just focus on the words and not the practicalities of staging! 

HC: What are the challenges to writing/performing a politically influenced play?

AW: I think you’ve got to really carefully balance to the desire to tell a story – to create some drama – with the truth and facts of the story you’re trying to tell. With this kind of work, you don’t want to be faced with the same kinds of problems that we’re levelling at other people or organisations (that is, that you alter things to suit your agenda). And then, how do you make it compelling? How do you make it something people want to see and care about? And, ultimately, how can you make something that might ask people to change the way they think or behave?

HC: What is it about theatre as an art form that particularly appeals to you?

AW: People in a space together sharing an experience. Being together in a room as we experience something happening right in front of us is a unique experience, and there’s something very special about that which you can’t get anywhere else.

HC: What are you hoping audiences will take away from the play and what discussions do you hope it promotes?

AW: Ideally, we want it to give our audiences something to think about in the real world of their real lives as politically engaged citizens. We are engaged with ideas that have far-reaching consequences for all of us and the world around us, so if the show helps people to think, feel, or behave in a way that more alive to those things, or more critically aware of the circus that’s being played out around them, then that can only be good for all of us.

HC: What’s been the most exciting part of the process?

AW: Giving it to audiences and having them engage with it and talk to us about it afterwards. I think the most exciting part of any show is the moment when you get to really see what it ‘does’ for the people who watch it, and Dead Cats is no exception. 

HC: You are on tour – Is there one thing you couldn’t be on the road without?

AW: Our technical team! We talk a lot about the creative aspects of making and performing the show, but the crew on the road who install the set and hang the lights and operate the show – and make sure everything is perfect, are the heartbeat of any touring production. We’re very lucky to be working with some brilliant technicians.

Dead Cats’ premièred at Köln’s Theatreszene Europa Festival late last year and will be performed at  Cambridge Junction on Wednesday 15 March as part of a UK tour.

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Listings at Cambridge Junction