Susie Riddell and Anna Harpin are the Co-Directors for Idiot Child, a Bristol-based theatre company that push the boundaries of play and the peculiar. Susie Riddell is most well known for her role as Tracey Horrobin in BBC radio drama The Archers as well as appearing on screen in shows such as Gavin and Stacey and Emmerdale. Anna is a lecturer at the University of Warwick alongside her directing commitments conjoining her academic career with active theatre making. Idiot Child are bringing What If the Plane Falls Out of the Sky?, which they describe as “A tender, funny and unusual show for anyone who has ever felt absolutely dreadful“ to the Edinburgh Fringe this August at The Pleasance.
What was the main inspiration for What If the Plane Falls Out of the Sky? Does it portray your own thoughts and worries?
Susie: It is something that actually lots of people are thinking about, as well as myself. Those stresses, anxieties, and worries, that keep us from living. Whilst flyering at the Brighton Fringe people sometimes said “oh we were just talking about that”, and even last night I went to bed seemingly fine but had probably the worst night’s sleep I have probably ever had. I was just having these horrible stresses where you feel almost paralysed, where you are awake and in your room but you can’t really move. That might sound a little bit mad. I hadn’t even thought I had been that anxious, but it goes to show we often live with anxieties without even realising we have them.
We started thinking that we would like to explore “fear” and the show has been a couple of years in the making. The script is written by Anna but there has been a considerable amount of improvising some of the What If’s, varying between the silly day to day awkward scenarios that still make your heart race and the big existential questions. One of the interesting things in talking to people is when we ask people what their fears and anxieties are, and they might be the very obvious ones like spiders or cancer and then there are some some unique ones like a gentleman who wore hearing aids and when he wakes up he has to run to the window to check that he is alive and hasn’t died in the night. Then a lot of people say that they don’t have a lot of fears really and then at the end of the show they go “oh, yeah, I do, I live with them and I don’t really think about them until they spring up and punch you in the face”.
The premise of fear and the title came from Anna who has a terrible fear of flying. She has undergone hypnotherapy and other various tactics and these are all the things that we explore with the show. While we have used those things it is in no way denigrating the ways that people make themselves feel better it is more of a celebration that we do try all this stuff. We do all have fears and anxieties to a greater and lesser extent, and that doesn’t make us any less capable.
Where do you see the What If the Plane Falls Out of the Sky? fitting in around the other shows you have done with Idiot Child?
Anna: You get a free cocktail! But what I think is interesting is our splicing of forms. We are not simply creating drama but mixing in other elements of theatre and live art, stand up creating lots of direct address to make connections with the audience. The audience is the fourth character in our show and they are involved in most aspects. We really try to take care of our audience though as there is a lot of interaction and audience participation we make sure that no one feels made to to anything they don’t want to do. A long time is spent trying to craft these moments so that people feel comfortable joining in and our golden rule is that the joke is always on us, but this involves us trying to undo people’s past experiences of horrifying audience interaction! Hopefully the one thing we do offer is a joyful experiences for our audiences where they are important to everything that we do.
Why do you think it’s important that people see the show, who do you think the piece is trying to speak to?
Susie: The tagline is… “a show for anyone who has ever felt absolutely dreadful” and I think at this moment in the world there is so much pressure on us all to be brilliant at everything and coping. I’m a mum and my daughter is nearly three and I often feel almost completely exhausted and that I would also be failing if I didn’t also do multiple other things with my time. We are given so many options: do mindfulness, do yoga, watch this programme, be active in your community… Social media also has a huge role in this and fueling our collective anxiety. We are trying to speak to everyone and while you might think you’re weird, you’re really not. There shouldn’t be this pressure to be coping all the time and it is just not realistic.
While it sounds all very serious it is actually very funny. The characters are an odd quirky pair, almost grotesque in a way, bringing the audience along on a journey where while they initially think they are quite strange they grow to realise that actually that’s how I feel about things. Creating the laughter and the comedy really allows you to go somewhere quite dark making it more impactful. We wouldn’t want to do a piece of theatre about fear and anxiety that is too earnest as that’s not really how humans work.
Taking the production forward, where do you see Idiot Child going?
Susie: This is our third piece and we have actually been going since 2010. Our last show we toured quite significantly following taking it up to Edinburgh in 2013 as we had the support of the Bristol Old Vic and some funding from the Arts Council. That piece gave us a bit more of a reputation after being shortlisted for a few awards up in Edinburgh. It has taken a few a few years to develop this piece with significant support again from the Bristol Old Vic as well as Shoreditch Town Hall. It has been a stretch that has included crowdfunding because even with some grants they still don’t fully cover Edinburgh. We are always aware that we remain a small scale theatre company trying to make high quality work on a tight budget. We ensure that those working with us are paid properly. Our aim is to get programmers to see see the show and perhaps reclaim some of the money towards costs. It is horrendously expensive but we knew we had a good piece of work and it is worth it for the opportunities it can provide. It also allows us to reach a more diverse audience than previously in the South West which is an exciting prospect.
Anna: Part of our goals include raising the profile of our company out of the South/South West in general and forging relationships with new venues. We’ve been really lucky and had support from our partners and when we create our next show we aim to also make that in collaboration with places that we find exciting. If we are able to book a tour on the back of this show then great, but if not we have already done a midscale tour and so we are open to testing the waters outside of audiences we have experienced. The development of All I need is the Air that you Breathe is in its early stages but the process is well underway and that will be a further development over the next year.
How have you found the collaboration process with one of you working in academia and the other in radio and performance? And Anna, how have you found juggling running a theatre company alongside your academic career?
Anna: Often my starting point is conceptual or thematic and it tends to be that I’ll come up with an idea and a working draft to then bring into the rehearsal room with Susie and other actors. Susie comes at things from a much theatrical, bodily direction. The collision of those two things is really productive because she can call out the risk of it being a bit academic. Susie is a really present performer, and this makes her a fantastic improviser as she isn’t anticipating what is going to happen or shut off avenues of thinking. I am not going forward with a research question or anything overtly academic even though there is a clear overlap with my academic work, they inform one another but I don’t approach them in the same way. I’ll go into the rehearsal room with characters, a story, and a world, rather than a research question.
I am extremely lucky that both institutions (Exeter and Warwick) have been very supportive of my practice. While I do lecture I often do studio work with my students and to have someone that is currently making work that is bringing professional practice into that environment and forging links is hopefully beneficial to the department and their support has been invaluable. I do have to think about some of the practical considerations like not rehearsing through term time but in terms of the though the universities have been behind it and if you are teaching practice, you should be making practice.
Who came up with the title Idiot Child, and what significance does it have for the company?
Anna: Originally there was three of us in the company, myself, Susie, and Jimmy Whiteaker (who has subsequently left and is retraining). The truth is we were sat in the pub and were talking about child experiences and being the ‘idiot’ child, or the one that doesn’t quite fit in. Then we thought let’s call ourselves that as a lot of the work is about people who don’t fit in, or feelings we’re not supposed to have like feeling ashamed or inadequate, those characters that are often marginalised or not celebrated. Idiot Child seemed to fit in with that remit, and there is something quite childish about our approach and playfulness.
What If the Plane Falls Out of the Sky? is showing as part of the Edinburgh Fringe at Pleasance Courtyard until the 28th of August. For more information and tickets see here.