All Your Houses is new piece of theatre been created by Barrel Organ together with Guildhall School final-year Acting students, and co-directed by Ali Pidsley and Ed Madden with text by Rosie Gray and the Company. It was devised over an intensive five-week period – with two weeks over zoom in lockdown, two weeks devising in person, and a few days of filming. It was created in collaboration between professional and student creatives and crew.
In this Q&A, we spoke to Ali Pidsley and Rosie Gray from Barrel Organ, as well as Guildhall actors Isla Lee, Noah Marullo and Nia Towle, to find out more about the process behind creating this new piece of theatre.
Where did the idea for All Your Houses come from? What was the genesis for this project?
Rosie Gray: We've been thinking a lot about connection, and lack of connection, at the moment, and there were a lot of conversations about how COVID was unprecedented – how it was something that we'd never seen before. But actually, pandemics have been happening throughout history for thousands of years. I think we were quite interested in coping mechanisms from those who had come before us. And so the idea of these historical figures appearing to contemporary people, or contemporary people becoming these historical figures who'd been where they are, we were quite intrigued by – this idea of history being cyclical, and virtually nothing being unprecedented, and there being a kind of comfort in that.
From that point, we didn't just want it to be about COVID (because who wants to make a show about COVID during COVID?!). So we anchored the piece in this world of a group of people who lost someone when they were at school together and usually have a gathering every year to celebrate this person's life and celebrate their birthday, but because of the pandemic the gathering was forced online.
Originally, the idea was conceived to be purely online but when we found out we were moving into the room, we wanted to play with the idea of connection and space. So we thought: what happens if we set up a zoom world, and then break it physically? What happens when the technological/emotional walls come down and people get to be with each other again?
Ali Pidsley: There was a nice idea of the show being a way of putting your hand back through history – reaching out and connecting with other people in your life, but also with people who we have never met and could never meet. And that's where the element of having different periods of history in the show came from.
Rosie Gray: Also, part of what we do as a company is something called co-creation where we will meet the people that we're working with early on and ask them what they're interested in, and what they care about at the moment, and build our shows from that point on. We didn't meet the students right at the beginning of this process, but because we knew that they were in their third year at drama school, and we were thinking about what learning opportunities we could potentially give them: to do some contemporary acting, but also to do some characterisation work as well.
How did you develop those ideas and those characters in the room with the actors?
Rosie Gray: We did structured improvisations over zoom at the beginning, from which I created the contemporary characters. The students were amazing from the off – so generous and bold with what they brought to the zoom room. And then through meeting each of the actors we had a kind of box – Ali always called it a little treasure chest! – of historical figures to choose from, characters that we knew had either suffered some kind of loss or were from a time of a pandemic.
Then, from getting to know the students and what they brought to their contemporary characters, we matched them up. Some people had very strong preferences from the start, and then for others we matched them up with what their contemporary character might have needed for their arc.
Ali Pidsley: The very first thing that we did was to have individual calls with each actor that were quite broad, quite generic, just getting to know each other as people and performers. But they were also off the back of us having sent some initial character briefs based on the research and thinking that we'd been doing prior to meeting the students. I think that we just said “when you read these character briefs, who are the people who pinged out at you?” We were worried when we started that everyone would think there are maybe three interesting characters, and that’s it. But it was amazing how, when we came to casting, it was really easy, because everyone had been drawn to different things – it all slotted in quite naturally.
Because we knew from the off that there were going to be effectively 28 characters to create (14 contemporary, and then their 14 historical counterparts) we started in our process with the historical characters, and then Rosie wrote character briefs of contemporary characters based on those. But when we actually started with the students, we ended up doing it the other way around – so we started with the contemporary characters, because it felt important to build those people first. And then I don't think we touched on the historical characters during the first week at all!
Noah, Nia and Isla – what was it like for you as actors, coming into the virtual room and developing these characters?
Noah Marullo: I think, because of the nature of it being on zoom, it was quite a unique experience of feeling you're alone with a character. When you’re in a physical rehearsal room on the first day of rehearsal, no one knows really what their character is, and you all find it together. And whilst we did do that as much as we could on zoom, it wasn’t until week three when we could really bring these people that we had been working on to show everyone else. I remember one of the first days we did our monologues or pieces for each other in-person and it was fascinating to see the dark side of each character – seeing a big, heightened version of what they're going through.
Nia Towle: Even though it was a bit annoying, having to be on zoom, I actually really loved those first two weeks of online rehearsals. I didn't expect improvisations to be so exciting and effective on zoom – in a funny sort of way, it probably frees you up, because everything is slightly more concentrated. Maybe it gives you more courage to not do so much, but then what you do do is actually informative and helps move things along. I know sometimes in my experience of improvisation, everyone just goes crazy and people are just throwing themselves around! But on zoom it was really nice because an environment was created where everybody was really listening to each other. And I think that's something that's been cool in this project – the listening probably has been heightened because you really have to do it well. That's been a massive exercise for us – it's all been about listening and really hearing what all the characters are saying. Even if it seems that your character isn't listening to anyone, you as the actor, absolutely 100% have to be listening.
I also feel that there was the journey – from our contemporary characters to our historical characters, but also from ourselves to our contemporary characters. Towards the end of the project, I really started to feel like I was my character quite often in rehearsals, and I found myself embodying her a bit too much, probably. So I think that's maybe just something to do with the process of devising as well – you maybe bring more of yourself to the character that you play. But I think that gave it a different texture.
Ali Pidsley: It's really interesting, kind of amazing to hear you say that, Nia. And I think we did talk about this idea as a full company. That there could be a version of three stages of character development.
Rosie Gray: I think because part of the show was self-authored by you guys, you didn't just give yourselves as actors and performers – you gave your words as well, which is going to have a huge impact on how it feels to perform and become those characters.
Isla Lee: I think quite a lot of what Noah and Nia beautifully spoke about I can completely agree with. Another aspect which resonated with me is that on zoom sometimes you come off and there's that kind of nebulous cloud in your head, saying “Oh God, I've been on the computer for however long...”. But there was something about the very simplistic nature of just being – there was always a through line that you could come back to. Particularly at the beginning I wasn't feeling the stress or anxiety that I sometimes had in projects before, just because there was complete artistic ownership in a way that we don’t usually have. And then there was something so cool about progressing into the physical rehearsal room because, normally, through our training, we've been in the room all the time during rehearsals. So it was great just coming into the room and seeing what people had created – so, as much as we're still at drama school, you're also just watching another artist show their work.
When you got the green light to come back into the physical rehearsal room, did that change anything from a creative point of view?
Ali Pidsley: I think it's probably a positive reflection on the whole process in the way that everyone bought into it, that now I can't imagine the version of the show that we were going to do before we went into the room. We set it up from the beginning to be malleable and adaptable, and so the fact that the making process changed meant that the form and content of the show needed to change, to reflect the process.
So we set up this zoom world, and then there was that section of the show that was very filmic and about a character's relationship with the camera, and then because we moved back in to in-person working, we had to go back to doing something really theatrical. Hopefully the final product will feel like a move through these different forms towards theatricality, and show that there's still something vital about what people in a room together can say about metaphor and life.
However, it was important that it wasn't just a simple ‘oh, we can be in a room together now and so everything's okay’. These characters are still not coping – they may cope better when they can be with other people, but they are still grieving. Grief is a massive thing in the show and it felt important to say that grief isn't something that just disappears when suddenly you can have a dance with a group of mates.
Actors – what was it about those characters that you found interesting to dig into and explore in more detail?
Isla Lee: I remember when I was reading the brief, it was two particular phrases: dark sense of humour and journalism, that really just pinged out to me. I feel as an actor you’re often told “don't think too much, don’t use your head too much, don't over intellectualise things – play with your heart, play with your body”. And sometimes I want to play with my brain! So I wanted to explore someone who's within that world. And sometimes you don't even know why – you just read [the brief] and on that particular day, after a particular number of coffees and a particular bowl of cereal, you're drawn to that particular character. If Rosie and Ali had given the choice to me the day before maybe I would have been the plague doctor!
Noah Marullo: I remember right at the beginning, all three of us had just come out of quite a heavy project – we'd written our own solo shows, which involved a lot of careful consideration of things. And I remember at the beginning of this project, we got given these character briefs and accounts which didn't even have names, they were just labelled ‘A,B,C…’. So, in a good way, my choice was so not carefully considered – I just liked one of the characters. There was nothing that deep and profound behind it, which is a really good place to start, because then I could dig – but I wasn't being super careful, I wasn’t trying to be artsy about it. Then we got given the historical figures, and that's when you could really delve deep into the writing, thinking things like “OK, there's an ambiguity between this historical figure and the contemporary character as to who each person is – are they the same person? Are they different people? Who am I speaking to?” It was a really nice balance of just go with gut instinct, and then maybe delve deeper into stuff.
Nia Towle: I actually did tell Ali, Rosie and Ed who I wanted as my historical character, and I had quite a strong feeling about it before I had any feelings about the contemporary character. And, as Noah was saying, that isn't really some deep, clever reason why I wanted to play Catherine the Great – I just thought she sounds really cool! And I just wanted to pay a fantastic, powerful woman who kicks booty. So I kind of said that in our first meeting I think…
Ali Pidsley: … and every time we spoke!
Nia Towle: I was trying to be subtle about it, but obviously failed! I was just really into her. And then the contemporary character that actually stood out to me more was completely different to the one I ended up playing – probably furthest away. But I was drawn to Jess as well, because she just seemed a bit salty and fun. What Noah was saying really rings true with me – it was so nice to just see things in quite a basic way. Because we didn't have massive amounts of information about these people from the start and, obviously, we didn't have a script. Usually, if you're doing a published play, you read the script loads of times before rehearsals to scan for clues about your character. But it was nice to just get some headlines and signposts, and then build on that. Once you had your historical figure, that then informed other things about your contemporary character, and vice versa.
I think at first when we all found out we were going to be writing something, I was like “come on, guys – I’ve just spent five weeks writing, don't make me do it again, please!” But actually it was fantastic. And I think it was even better because we'd all just written for so long – our brains were obviously in that kind of mode. And what was nice is that it didn't have to be so specific, it was kind of just write what feels right. It was so great coming out of that first rehearsal on zoom, where we all shared our initial work, as everybody had just done really well. I'm actually really excited to see the show because I don't really know what everyone’s final part is going to be.
What’s been the most enjoyable part of this process for you all, or something that just stands out to you that you feel you're going to take with you into future projects and future work?
Rosie Gray: For me, I just love getting to know your people as individuals and as performers and working from that, and I'd really like to do that more and more. The group that we had, they're all just brilliant, so it was just such a joy to work with them on an individual basis. And the dancing! That day when everyone was together and playing and dancing (socially distanced, of course) that was just a very joyful moment in the process.
Ali Pidsley: I think if you can encourage your collaborators to lead with instincts then I think you're onto a winner. That's something that we often try to do, but I don't think we always succeed at it. Asking questions like ‘what feels right to you as a character, to you as a performer, what's your instinctive response to this?’ And even if there are things that are not useful about that instinctive response, there will always be something that was useful. Even when it's a process where you don't have loads of time – still, always making space for people to have an instinctive response to something before fleshing it out, I think is really useful.
Noah Marullo: There was something about this process – the nature of the piece itself, how close the characters in became to us, and because it's devised – just to take a risk. If you do something and it doesn’t work, it's still so much better to do it than not to do it. On zoom right at the beginning, when we did those improvs, we would all turn the cameras off, and in that time before we came on screen I remember thinking “I'm just going to throw on some costume, and I'm going to make up some strange thing and just go with it!” Because that is what my gut’s telling me to do. And it might be absolutely terrible (…and I think some of it was, because it didn't end up in the script!) but I was so glad doing that. A lot of the time I get a script and, particularly if it's a play or a piece of classical theatre, I think “All the other actors who have played this part have done it this way, and I've got to do that as well”. Whereas with this piece, because it's devised, I can do anything I want and just see what happens. And then if something doesn't work you forget about it so quickly, so that's fine. I'm going to definitely take that away into everything I do.
Nia Towle: The thing that I'll take away is that you need to just go head on at whatever you're doing, even if you're unsure about a few things – you just have to give your full self to whatever you're doing and then something will always come out of it as long as you commit. Another thing I've really appreciated, which I think is important in any rehearsal room, is just a sense of joy, and laughter and lightness – when we were doing that final scene, that was so beautiful (although a bit hectic, maybe!). But no matter what the subject matter of the piece you're doing, I think it's important to always keep a balance of lightness and the possibility of joy and laughter. And I think that we had that all the time in our room, which was nice.
Isla Lee: I really appreciated being able to go back into the rehearsal room, or even just tap into a zoom room. I remember going into the Guildhall building, which I hadn't been in for ages, and when you go into the theatre, and you look at Silk Street. I remember in first year doing that thinking “wow, this is really cool, this is really big”… and then you can get used to it, because you're there for so long. But when I went back this time it was that same feeling again.
I think also, just to not take life so seriously. If you can have as much ease as you do when you're transitioning into your character, or you’re shape shifting, you can just shape shift throughout life. Just, you know, remember to look up the sky and have a good cup of coffee, and then hopefully everything will fall into place!
What are you hoping that audiences might get from watching the finished show?
Isla Lee: I feel just a very simple thing of just to remember that everybody has their own stuff going on. You can look at another person's life and assume, but everyone always has something that they're trying to navigate or that they're trying to figure out within themselves. So just a little gentle nudge, a gentle reminder to clock in with each other.
Noah Marullo: I think it's a very particular show for a particular time. This show couldn't be conceived this time two years ago. Because it's not like we're doing an allegory for zoom – we're on zoom! So I'm hoping that viewers might think “wow, that's like me today”. With most pieces there’s a “that's me at that time in my life” lesson, and sometimes it is when you're actually going through the same thing, but this is what we're all still going through right now.
Rosie Gray: I think I'd really like people to leave with a sense of hope. Even though, particularly now, things are inherently difficult, it doesn’t mean that there has to be an absence of joy and hope – where there's sorrow and difficulty, joy and hope can coexist, and they often do.
Ali Pidsley: I think really this connects to something that Nia said earlier on – I hope that audiences will take away the importance of listening to other people and practising empathy in a very active way. Because I think it's something that is absent in parts of the show, and then is very present in other parts. And so my hope is that is that the audience will come away kinder, and as better listeners to each other.
Nia Towle: I hope our show gives to audiences a great variety of snapshots of all these different characters – we are telling one story together, but within that there are 14 other small stories (well, big stories, but we see a small section of them). And I think that makes the show really rich for the audience – it will just give them more, as it's a wonderful mix of stories and experiences. So I hope that is impactful and interesting and positive for viewers.
All Your Houses is available to watch on demand until midnight on Friday 30 April.