Idiot Child is a Bristol-based theatre company who make playful and peculiar work about how hard it is to be alive sometimes. The company was formed in 2009 and is co-run by Anna Harpin and Susie Riddell. We tell stories about ordinary people and ordinary lives in extraordinary manners. We find the beauty and weirdness in the everyday and try to make work that asks how you are feeling. What if the plane falls out of the sky? is touring until June before playing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It lands at Theatre Tropicana on 26th and 27th May, 8pm. WsMum Josie Sutton interviews Susie Riddell from Idiot Child about the show:
What was the inspiration behind ‘What if the plane falls out of the sky?’ Where do you usually get ideas from? Idiot Child has this great way of making the human experience accessible and funny, do you draw on your own experiences?
The inspiration came from Anna Harpin, co-director of the company and writer/director of the show. She used to be terrified of flying, as in Mr T in the A Team level of terrified and this was the seed for the show. Although it’s not a show about overcoming the fear of flying! It’s about the many forms fear and anxiety can take; how we try and deal with that; how we all feel dreadful sometimes and to reassure ourselves, and the audience, that we are not alone.
All of our work so far has sprung from autobiography – real life is always more interesting and weird than fiction! Our other shows explored loneliness (You’re Not Doing It Right) and failure (I Could’ve Been Better) – we sound like a really cheery bunch! We wanted to look at fear with this show. All 3 shows are essentially about being human and how hard that can be sometimes, so they’re tap into lots of emotions and themes really.
I’m interested in the creative process, how was the work developed? How do you go from idea to performance?
What if…? has taken 3 years from initial idea to final production, for various reasons including my having a baby – I was a bit busy for a few months!! And new work takes time to develop. We’ve had great support from Bristol Old Vic Ferment who have enabled us to have space to develop our ideas over the last 3 years, and from Shoreditch Town Hall. After a few sessions playing with ideas, improvising and laughing about our many many fears, Anna wrote a first draft of the script which we presented as a work-in-progress at the Ferment Festival at Bristol Old Vic. It went down really well with the audience and we were encouraged to continue. Following that initial test of the work, we’ve had several more periods of R&D, playing with the characters and script, and another work-in-progress showing. We found doing script in hand performances terrifying but incredibly useful. We make the work for an audience and to have the chance to try work out on people while we’re developing it is brilliant. In April we had 3 weeks rehearsal in Bristol and the script changed quite a bit during that time. It’s changed slightly nearly every performance as well, as the audience help us to feel what works and what doesn’t. We are constantly responding and honing the show. That’s the joy of making our own work – we can keep shaping it and making it better!
‘What if the plane falls out of the sky?’ looks at anxiety, intrusive thoughts, some of the coping strategies we use to make ourselves feels comfortable again. It’s recently been Mental Health Awareness Week, were you thinking of the work in terms of mental health conditions? Do you think it’s important to use theatre and art to discuss these issues?
Everyone has mental health and it does play an important part in our work – the effects of loneliness, failure, anxiety, control on us all. Life can be a struggle sometimes. Rather than thinking about specific mental health conditions, we’ve thought about the ‘fitter, happier, more productive’ ethos that is drummed into us societally. The feelings of inadequacy this breeds are massively detrimental. We all have different ways of coping with life – from physical activity to self-help books to eating your own weight in chocolate. They’re all valid. We love it when our audiences share their fears with us, and the ways they cope with them. It’s nice to know people feel the same way you do about stuff! Theatre and art are vital in exploring mental health. A shared experience in a theatre can do so much to break down preconceptions and prejudice, and to offer a different angle on familiar things. We have invited counsellors and clinicians to see the show. Feedback from them has been great, ‘Fresh, innovative and laugh out loud funny, this was an original and pertinent exploration of how fear, negative thinking and the past can limit us, and what we can do to overcome it. Brilliant!’
Has developing and performing the show been cathartic for you in anyway?
Yes! Idiot Child is my personal therapy centre! It’s made me think about what I worry about at 4am and why. And what I can do about it other than take valium. Sharing the show every night with an audience who understand what the characters are going through is joyous. In the work, we are asking, ‘do you feel how I feel?’ and the answer is usually YES!
You’re also a mum! As a mum myself, between scraping cereal off of my walls and answering questions like “Mum, do dogs have their own language?”, my energy can feel zapped, what’s your experience of being creative with a young child? Have you had to change your process at all? How do you find the balance of parenting and performing or working in general?
Over the last 2 years and 8 months I’ve learned that I need to basically forget about doing anything else other than looking after my child, when I’m looking after my child! It’s impossible! When she’s at nursery or being looked after by grandparents, then I’ll either be at work (with Idiot Child, or other acting/voiceover work) or I’ll be doing the tidying, writing lists of all the stuff I need to do, and sleeping. I find it so hard to have the space in my brain to be creative. I’m currently writing a script and I have to leave my house and be somewhere else completely in order to focus, otherwise I’ll just end up emptying the dishwasher or trying to scrub crayon marks off the wall. This show is my first full production since I was pregnant. Logistically it’s a nightmare! Thank god I’ve got an amazing, supportive family who have been able to look after my daughter during rehearsals and the tour. My husband and our parents have taken it in turns to come on tour! I’m very lucky to have that support. It’s not hard to see why so many women leave the acting profession after having kids. Aside from being absolutely knackered most of the time, managing childcare is incredibly difficult. And then there’s the guilt….but let’s not get into that! BUT, I am so enriched by what I do that it can only be beneficial to my daughter to have a fulfilled, happy mum! I could talk for ages about mental health and parenting but that’s for another conversation – we’ll be here all day…
The show is about worry and anxiety, has this changed for you at all since being a mum? Do you worry more, less, have the worries changed for you?
I’ve always been a bit of a worrier. The worries have definitely changed and they evolve with each stage of my daughter’s development. And I’m already worrying about where she’ll go to secondary school. SHE’S TWO! I suppose the main thing that has changed is that I now worry more about someone else than myself. Motherhood is a great way of curing self-obsession!
What are you hoping people take away from the show? How has the show been received so far?
We would like people to walk away feeling that they are not alone, that they are good enough and loveable and weird, but that that’s ok ‘cos we all are! We’d like them to feel like they’ve experienced something – they’ve shared laughter and tears – that they’ve seen something unique. No show is ever the same twice. Audiences so far in Bristol and London have been massively enthusiastic about the show. That may be the free mojito we give out having an effect, but hopefully it’s the joy in the room!
Here are some reviews of What if a Plane Falls out of the Sky:
‘At times dark and sinister while also being consistently funny and bizarre’ ★★★★ The Fix
‘A dizzingly cathartic show that will embue you with a sense of joy you didn’t know you were missing’ Sky Light Rain
‘commitment to positivity amidst the darkness is contagious. They are laughing wildly amidst severest woe, and by the end of the play, so are we’ Exeunt Magazine
You can find tickets for What if a Plane Falls out of the Sky online at the Tobacco Factory Theatre website.
For bargain £5 tickets, quote ‘Weston-super-Mum’ when buying them in person from The Bay Cafe or on the door.