Features Published 8 April 2019

Encounter: “Eventually everything just gets pulled into our world”

Jen Malarkey and Lee Mattinson make surreal and unsettling performance together. Here, they talk about grief, working with kids, and their new show 'The Kids Are Alright'.
Jen Malarkey and Lee Mattinson

‘The Kids are Alright’

It’s been three years since Encounter’s disturbing hit ‘I Heart Catherine Pistachio’ [Exeunt review here] and this week they’re back with its older, darker sister ‘The Kids Are Alright.’ It’s got the usual Encounter traits – wigs, weird dancing and explosive storytelling – but this time a bunch of 9-11 year olds storm the stage. Director/Choreographer Jen Malarkey and writer Lee Mattinson had the following email exchange during rehearsals, as an unfiltered insight into the ideas that have fed into it.

Lee Mattinson: We started talking about ‘The Kids Are Alright’ some three years ago. It was originally called ‘Island’ and was intended to interrogate the different ways in which adults and children translate tragedy.

We knew from that initial conversation that the performers and the kids would share the same stage. It wasn’t until we embarked on a development week at The Place as part of their Choreodrome initiative that we began to work out how such an endeavour could feasibly be achieved.

My overwhelming memory of that first day is sitting in Pret with a grey coffee, wondering how we could logistically begin making two shows that co-exist on the same stage whilst sharing one thematic world.

Jen Malarkey: I deffo remember how depressing Pret was. I remember being quite shocked we got Choreodrome and a bit scared. I remember being like OMG how the fuck is this going to work? I think we just had a lot of blind faith in the idea and how much it excited us.

It’s funny isn’t it, coz when we made ‘I Heart Catherine Pistachio,’ we made it in little chunks of rehearsal over no time in shit spaces and with little or no money and in a way, when I look back that is what gave that show its freedom, its experimentation, its voice I guess. And in some ways, now we are working with more venues and partners and Fuel and stuff, while all that is super cool, I think I am always looking to create that space again, and it’s almost impossible. So I think I’m saying that dance studios intimidate me a bit. And also venues. And also Fuel except Fuel are also AMAZING.

Anyway, yeah back to the idea of the show. Island – oh yeah! We were chatting about ‘Little Britain’ mentality and stuff, about borders and suffocating suburban living, and we had this idea about splitting the stage in half or something with a glass wall, I can’t even remember now. And we had this joke name, ‘The Kidz are Alreet,’ and we were like ha ha ha imagine if we call it that….ha ha ha ha ha.

Lee: Shit – I think I’ve blocked the glass wall. We were going to stick boatloads of kids behind it so they couldn’t hear anything and then smash it at some point. I remember wanting to write an entirely new language for them in order to make the audience crap their slacks. Apart from anything else, it would’ve been a safeguarding nightmare and my head would have exploded.

You’re so right about ‘Catherine Pistachio’. It felt like we made it in a complete bubble. We’d not long met and it was as much about working out who each other was as about as the show. I remember us pushing one another closer and closer to darker and darker ideas only to realise there wasn’t any limit to our combined twisted imagination – that instantly made me feel like we were in such an exciting territory. One in which no idea would ever be off bounds.

The process of writing an Encounter show changes each time, which is what makes them so exciting to work on. They often begin in weeks of whatsapp messages, with sharing images, videos and music in order to nail down the tone of the show so that, emotionally, we agree on what it feels like to be in it. It’s a counterintuitive way of working for me, as my focus with any other project is always story-story-story, but it’s a process that works so I’ll never question it.

Speaking of story, I remember us discovering the idea of a couple drowning in grief early on in that first development week. They didn’t even have names at that point and we were really specific about not even assigning genders – they were just two incredibly raw and emotional thunderstorms. How did we begin to suburbanise that and bring them into our world?

Jen: I think eventually everything just gets pulled into our world. I introduced the theme of dogs, so that was quite suburban I guess, and also London being this big, scary but amazing place where people from suburbs go for a day out. We started looking for loads of tragic parallels between rich and poor, like how you can go on a Cruise on the Mediterranean, but you can also cross it as an act of survival as you flee your home. How those two boats can sit in the same sea. We also started to think about the literal and physical proximity of children to adults – to adult conflict and just the adult world – and we had this idea that if we maybe staged that somehow, or found a way to frame it, we might reflect on how the actions we are taking now will impact our children ultimately, so we should think carefully about our actions and choices. And then it started to feel a bit earnest so we went back to dog shit and drama.

We started to like the idea of a kid the other side of the world being mates with a suburban kid in the UK. We liked their unlikely friendship that kind of transcended any adult idea of borders and distance and difference and stuff. We invested in a big way in the innate intelligence of kids and their pure amazing ability to say really sage things. We met a lot of them and listened to all the stuff they had to say.

On a side note, Carl said today that he thinks the weird, dark, stretched and tilted stuff we do in rehearsals is just how I see the world, that I don’t see the world in a normal way. I think he’d eaten too much Hummus and is mad at me for making him hit some hard shapes at 5pm.

Lee: I think our work only comes alive in rehearsals. There’s, obviously, a lot of work that goes into it beforehand but the movement language you discover is the spark that sets it ablaze. I don’t picture it physically in the writing process and have always avoided stage directions like the plague when working with you. I approach it more like a radio drama where everything but the heart of the character is absent. It becomes a solely emotional blueprint without the clutter of traditional staging. It’s only in rehearsals that we begin to make this already insane world even more mental in 3D.

I’m conscious that we’ve spent the past three years talking about what the outcome would be ‘if it works’ and never ‘when it works.’ The form is something that completely terrifies me – sticking ten 9-11 year-olds on stage – as I get anxious enough watching my own work when the variables per performance are practically zero. This feels like mayhem. Partially-planned but mostly-feral mayhem…although that does make it sound very exciting.

Speaking of movement language, as I just was, when does that really begin to articulate for you? From watching you rehearse it seems completely instinctual, a continual dialogue between yourself, the actors and the text…but have you secretly been drawing feet on pieces of paper alongside our development of the script? How do you begin? And does it ever really feel finished?

Jen: I’d say it’s pretty instinctual. It’s always terrifying working at The Place. I feel a massive imposter syndrome as I have no formal dance training – in fact my training is a mash up of BRIT SCHOOL, Dartington and Central – so I’m flailing between the experimental and formal. Carl (Harrison) helps me a lot. I ask his thoughts on things sometimes and Simone has a constant eye on the Dramaturgy which keeps us all focused. Otherwise, yeah, it’s basically me feeling my way through. I guess I maybe take references from films I love, tones and textures for sure.

It IS terrifying. It feels like everyone around us is also a little bit like, “Guys – is this actually gonna work?” and we are just nodding silently while crying inside.

Saying that, I am hopeful and proud that every child we have worked with to date in participation workshops has had a fun, engaging and imaginative time. The feedback has been amazing and all the parents are proper nice people. So in that way, I am just really looking forward to seeing all the kids and their folks again and offering them the best audio journey we can imagine.

I think the thing for us to remember is however the show resonates, we have engaged children in a meaningful participation experience in its own right. Actually taking the time to not only listen to their thoughts on the state of the world, but also ensuring they comprehend how important their input is to us, has been just the best. This has been a beast of a one-hour show to make, what with creating two worlds, placing participation in relationship to performance, and asking fairly head-fucking dramaturgical questions about how it all works. But that workshop with those 10 boys we ran the other week, where their mums insisted on coming into the studio to distribute snacks, ending in us all sitting around sharing food, artists, children, parents and venue staff -that was actually kind of what it’s been about for me.

The Kids Are Alright is on at The Place from 9th-10th April, and then at The Albany from 11th-13th April. More info here

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Jen Malarkey and Lee Mattinson is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine