This article was written for The Evening Standard by Jessie Thompson, 9th September, 2016 - http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/theatre/rashdash-meet-the-feminist-theatre-company-using-thought-and-feeling-to-dismantle-the-patriarchy-a3341296.html
Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland talk to Jessie Thompson about making a show about masculinity and why our language isn't good enough
Have you ever watched something that excited you so much but you couldn’t find the words to explain why? That’s how I felt the first time I watched RashDash.
The theatre-making duo took their show We Want You To Watch to the National Theatre’s Temporary Theatre last year where they battled against violent pornography with glorious movement, words and sound. It was funny, it was confusing, it was exhilarating, and it was like nothing else.
This September they are bringing Two Man Show, their dissection of the patriarchy to Soho Theatre. It comes fresh from Edinburgh Fringe, where it won a Fringe First and a host of praise from people as loved up as I was.
But who are these brilliant people that left me so excited I couldn’t speak (which is an achievement in itself)?
Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland formed RashDash – Rash as in reckless, Dash as in fast, says their Twitter bio – when they met on their drama course at the University of Hull. From very early on, they realised they had similar tastes, performance skills and approaches to working, and they had a couple of ‘oh s***’ moments where they knew they were supposed to work together. They have now been working together for ten years, and can finish each other’s sentences.
Greenland recalls watching Goalen perform in their first year practical module and thinking how much she wanted to work with her. “It was definitely about the way she moves, and I thought ‘I really want to move with Helen’.” Then they took their first show up to Edinburgh – “which we don’t talk about” – and watched Russian physical theatre company DO-Theatre’s Hangman together. “That was a moment where we sat next to each other watching other people do the things we wanted to be doing, and thought, ‘we could do this together’.”
They took a show called Strict Machine to the National Student Drama Festival, which Goalen says “was the first show of having a really strong feeling of ‘this is just ours’. It was really cool and really different, not like anything I’d ever experienced, to be able to have ownership of something.”
It’s hard for RashDash to say who or what exactly they are because it’s something that is always changing. Greenland says they can list the things that are always there: “It’s always got movement in it, it’s always robustly physical. It’s always investigating something that’s interesting about women from a feminist perspective. And there’s always some kind of story, there’s always text. Quite often there’s live music.”
It’s the combination of movement, text and music, with a feminist sensibility, that they say feels the most important – “that feels like what we do,” Greenland says.
The making of their shows happens in different ways, but creating Two Man Show has been the closest they’ve got to a process they like and would want to replicate. It began with an intensive research period with lots of “reading, thinking, watching stuff, and bringing ourselves personally to that research.”
Greenland remembers reading a book about the origins of patriarchy, whilst Goalen was reading a psychology book about the ways in which men and women think differently. “And the personal thing feels really important,” Greenland says, “because we’d come back from reading and say, ‘this is what it’s revealed to me about who I am’.”
Next came a period of writing, as they attempted to put what they’d discovered into some kind of form. After a break, they had space to come back and ask what still felt the most important, before going into a rehearsal room.
“For a week it was just the two of us,” Goalen says, “doing lots of physical, visual experimentation, with a lot of really exciting costumes and lights, finding out what the language was of the show. Because we’d got so heady and academic, it was really important to bring that side in. And then the two really started to feed each other in quite a satisfying way.”
The sometimes work with writers – previously with rising star Alice Birch – but this time decided to write the show themselves. Greenland said that they chose to write first before moving to making. But “actually, writing first isn’t right for us. Because the things we love and the things that are part of this show came through image and devising and choreographing – and then we found how to fit the words into that. Which is interesting, because the show is about how language isn’t good enough.”
The periods of time making their shows are intense and exhausting, and they admit they are not always okay. Some moments are “ecstatically amazing” says Greenland, but a moment in the second week was “agony”. She talks about a tweet from Bryony Kimmings on the making of A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, which comes to the National Theatre in October: ‘We took 4 weeks to make act 1. And one afternoon to create act 2. Art is funny’.
“It’s so often that way,” Greenland says. “It took ages for us to get anywhere, then it suddenly it all happened quickly. I really like that.”
The lifestyle of creating a show is hectic too – Greenland and Goalen were staying in digs together all the time, with musician Becky Wilkie joining them, so “you don’t really do a 9-5 thing. You get home from rehearsals and you’re writing while someone is cooking dinner.”
The pair were even sleeping in the same bed at one point, unable to get two rooms in the same digs, “so you were reading me a Grayson Perry article as I fell asleep,” says Greenland to Goalen.
The intensity of thought around the show’s subject reached such a height that Greenland had a dream that very night that helped them solve the end of the show, “so in that way it really is an incredibly intense experience when you make a show together,” she says.
They decided to make a show about masculinity because “it felt like it was really around at the time,” Goalen says. “We always make shows that are about women, but masculinity isn’t just about men.”
“We’re interested in women,” Greenland adds, “we’re interested in patriarchy, and questioning – and dismantling, eventually – the patriarchy. And I always feel myself feeling silly saying that but that’s one of the biggest successes of the patriarchy: it makes you feel silly for questioning it. And it feels like that involves everyone.”
The pair wanted to make something that was “full of empathy and really inclusive”. They poke fun, but they poke fun at themselves too. And it’s seen them get one of the best responses to a show that they’ve ever had, with more audience members than ever coming up to them after the show to talk about what they’ve just seen.
“That’s always what we ideally want: people having conversations with each other, and with us. It felt like it definitely did that,” Goalen tells me, “as well as people being really excited by the theatricality of the show.”
Men told them that they identified with parts of RashDash’s investigation into masculinity, “or said, ‘those men aren’t anything like me but the way that I communicate with people is often like that, and there’s a lot for me to think about there’,” Greenland says. And there were women too, who thanked them for making a space for showing different types of women, both the feminine and the more masculine.
Something else they allowed space for was the chance to see female bodies in a “deliciously unsexual” way. The pair appear naked in the show at points, “and it’s very animal, and feels very special I think,” Greenland says.
“It feels really liberating, and really important, because there’s no shame attached to it. It’s just bodies. Glorious bodies. We tried to really make space for people in the show to see that we’re okay being naked, and this isn’t a weird decision that we’ve been manipulated into making,” she says. “It’s very much us in control of our own bodies.”
A group of their friends came to see the show and asked how they felt about being naked on stage. Goalen told them she’d never been more naked in her life, and that she’d never felt better about her body. “But it’s weird how that is kind of a radical thing to do,” she says.
RashDash haven’t read reviews for their show this year, but they’ve veered from the ecstatic to the baffled. But it was never about deliberately trying to disorientate people, they say. “It was about deliberately trying to make something that doesn’t conform to what we’ve named as our Aristotelian patriarchal narrative structure,” Greenland tells me.
“But that’s in there too,” Goalen adds. “We wanted to do that journey as well, so we could point to it from the other one and go, ‘that’s just an option. It’s just the option that we’ve got really used to’.”
They are trying to make a less masculine way of storytelling, and that’s more alien to us – which is a reason why audience members can be left feeling that it’s the first time they’ve actually owned functioning eyes.
“It’s often harder to talk about the shows that have got under your skin, that have confused you, but you might feel about them differently. I feel that we don’t necessarily have the language to talk about them, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not responding,” Greenland says.
There’s something that feels overtly masculine about the need to find a message, or draw out a thesis, from a piece of theatre. RashDash’s work doesn’t overintellectualise; the magic thing about it is it will make your head burst with wonder but you can’t hold it in the palm of your hand.
They recognise this way of responding to theatre: “It’s that need to know straight away what you think, in a kind of digestable and compartmentalised way,” Goalen says. “And this drive towards assessing everything,” Greenland adds. “You come out of a show and you assess it, and I’m not interested in making theatre to be assessed in that way.”
Because why can’t feeling be a form? Greenland says she hopes we’re slowly getting there. “This show is exactly about putting feeling and thought next to each other and letting them thrash into each other,” she says.
“This show is so much about the fact there aren’t actually words to explain everything,” she continues. “Feelings and emotions are massively underarticulated; we just don’t have the words. We need to invent more words if we want there to be a language that allows the feminine in just as much as the masculine.”