The director chatted to Emma Clarendon about her new theatre company The Undertow Collective and their first production Orphée.
Could you explain what Orphée is about? Orphée is an adaption of Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film of the same name. It is a devised piece which has been in the works since spring of this past year. Orphée stands on the shoulders of the very famous Greek myth of Orpheus, but diverges in its focus on contemporary and universal relationship dynamics. It is a story that keeps getting retold through our daily behavior and our moral decisions in life, the things that we prioritize, our obsession with death, with fame, with legacy. What do we sacrifice? What are we really chasing? On a more fundamental level, Orphée is the story of five people searching for meaning in their lives, or in their deaths, through love and through art. None of them achieve these things, and the discomfort of searching for meaning is like holding water in your hand—the tighter you grip, the less hold you have.
How did the idea for the show come about? The show came out of a unique devising process in which we presented and shared ideas and inspirations that were meaningful to us. We shared our greatest artistic influences, whether it be a painter, a composer, an actor, a writer, or a puppet-master. Many of the themes that were recurrent centered around death, after-life, spheres of consciousness, ancient histories, and the condition of being human. As a group we decided to take a retreat to a cottage in Exmoor. The cottage had no electricity, no wifi, no cellular service—no access to the outside world really. We made big fires, took long walks, and cooked communal meals. We read, told ghost stories, and learned about our individual astrologies. Eventually we ran out of eggs and broke our solace to go into town where there was an old book shop. The legend of Orpheus was popping out on one of the shelves, and this was the first spark. The myth contains so many stories within it. When we finally returned to civilization, we did research on the myth, and came to Orphée by Jean Cocteau, which we watched communally. And from there our show evolved.
Could you tell me a little bit more about The Undertow Collective and what you hope to achieve with the company? The company itself is made of a very diverse group of artists. We each bring our own stories, our own histories, our own passions, and yet we all intersect on a very fundamental level when it comes to our process of working, and our topics of interest. We are very international—Polish, Welsh, Paraguayan, American (Hawaii), and British. We collectively work from a place of openness, play, and physicality. We are experimental by nature and are willing to go far in the wrong direction, in order to find the right one. Our company has intentions of reaching people on a basic and universal level, of catalyzing questions in people and the perspectives they take for granted. We hope to surprise our audiences, challenge them, and make beautiful work. We hope to affirm life, to question our approach to it, and to bring diversity to the arts through collaboration and unity. It gives me great pride to say that I am the director of this wonderful project, and that I am a BAME female. In my presence alone, I hope to challenge the status quo, not by always addressing who and what I am directly on-the-nose, in my work, but rather by simply doing the work, and being who I am at the same time—one does not need to compromise for the other.
How did you all get together? We were all members of the same Master’s program at RADA. During our time there we were asked to write extreme manifestos—documents that unapologetically declared our intentions, our beliefs, and our ideals in regards to art, theatre, and our responsibilities to the world by way of our work. Then we were blindly matched with the most similar manifestos, and so was born our company, The Undertow Collective. We are rigorous in following our individual compasses, and luckily, incredibly compatible in doing so.
What can we expect from your debut production? Expectation is a difficult word, particularly when paired with the process of devising. Every day our show changes, every day we have new ideas, and every day the piece has new needs. We have had to become masters at letting go of expections in this process, constantly “killing our darlings”. I can say that our production will be physical, it will be surreal, it will be a tale of human connection, of love and disatisfaction. Our piece will address life and death and boundary between the two. It will be full of humanity, even in inhuman form.
What are you most looking forward to about performing as a company? As a company we are thrilled to be sharing our first work. It is just the beginning of a much longer creative process, both for the piece, and for our company, but we cannot wait for this opportunity to open up to the greater world, to get feedback, to grow, to take risks, to be seen— to take a leap into the unknown. We have had such fun creating, it seems only right that now we realize all of our exploration through performance. It will be satisfying to see all of the pieces come together to create one picture, even if, being within it, we never really get to see it fully ourselves.
By Emma Clarendon
The Undertow Collective will perform Orphée as part of the Bloomsbury Festival at the Bloomsbury Theatre Studio on the 20th October.