Features Published 10 October 2016

Riotous Company: “The industry is different in Britain, everyone is looking for the next thing that will push their career”

Verity Healey interviews the members of Riotous Company about their working methods, what makes British theatre different from the European mainstream, and their new performance, Scherzo for Piano and Stick.
Verity Healey
Nikola Kodjabashia and Mia Theil perform 'Scherzo for Piano and Stick'. Photo: Tommy Bay

Nikola Kodjabashia and Mia Theil Have perform ‘Scherzo for Piano and Stick’. Photo: Tommy Bay

I am late and I hate being late. My lateness getting to Sidcup, to watch a master lecture-performance by Tage Larson on The Manifestation of Heroism in Shakespeare’s Drama to students at Rose Bruford and then interview him and co members of Riotous Company, grates enough for me to forget myself and board the right bus going in the wrong direction so that I nearly end up in Orpington. Fortunately, the lecture is delayed and more fortunate is Riotous performer/founder Mia Theil Have’s reaction to my tardiness: her calm voice on the phone telling me to take my time is instantly reassuring. The response is symptomatic of the quiet presence herself and her collaborators (pianist Nikola Kodjabashia and director Larsen) exude when I finally meet them. “Spatial awareness and alertness” says Theil Have, is key to the group’s working process, so it makes sense they carry these skills over into their everyday lives. But this feeling of inner peacefulness acts like a smoke screen. Unassuming as they appear, they each have in them an energy that ignites with a fiery roar when they discuss their craft and working with each other. It is no wonder then that the company’s patron Kathryn Hunter explains in an email that Riotous’ work invites the audience to be “stimulated physically, intellectually and through the senses towards the possibility of a deeper reflection”. Or that Theil Have writes that she sees Riotous’ job as being to “create an experience that will allow an audience to be taken by the performance in the present moment, to react, to set the imagination free, and form thoughts spontaneously, then reflect…”

To do this, Riotous Company combines “the physical, the textual, the intellectual, the ritual aspect of theatre to deliver and share stories”, according to Hunter.  Their newest work, Scherzo for Piano and Stick, has spent years in incubation, and comes straight from Odin Teatret/Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium in Denmark (Riotous are an associate company of Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium, the umbrella organization of Odin Teatret) to London’s Print Room in mid October. Riotous’ previous show, Insomia, a pas de deux drama for two girls and a piano man, had, according to the British Theatre Guide “plenty to offer in its abstract symbolism” even if it won’t “satisfy anyone looking for a clear narrative.” It’s the abstract symbolism that’s made me curious, as well as the company’s need to work in ways that are decidedly non-linear: Scherzo will probably prove to be a greater exponent of their working methods. Originally inspired by the animations of Italian cartoonist Osvaldo Cavandoli, who is “deep in everyone’s childhoods” according to Theil Have, the piece explores the relationship between a piano and a 1.90m stick. Pianist Kodjabashia and performer Theil Have will operate both objects as if they are parts of their own bodies and vice versa.

Despite the high concept, there is no ostentatiousness associated with the company’s work, and neither are the performers elitist about their choice of theatrical form, although they carry with them a beguiling aura of minimalism and restraint. Larsen, a slight and serious man given to long silences, but who, when he speaks, commands respect, states in answer to my question over Riotous Company’s choice of theatrical styles that “we wanted to make a mix of word, theatre and physical theatre”, inspired by many years of work at the Odin. Thiel Have emphasises that Riotous’ shows defy definition, and originate from a group of artists who are established in their fields and are learned craftsmen and craftswomen. When she comments that their working process – 24/7 on their recent residency in Denmark- would be impossible in England, she isn’t kidding. “The industry is different in Britain, everyone is looking for the next thing that will push their career” she says with a hint of sadness that’s partly admiration. “Coming to London I could see that establishing a dedicated actor’s ensemble with proper regular training was near impossible due to how the industry and mentality works, and over the years I have found a different form for the company I wanted to create; Riotous Company as you see it now, with a collective of artist and young associates.”

Because the industry is so different from that of our European partners, so too perhaps, is our expectation of what theatre should do. This influences not just the kind of stories we are hungry for, but also how these stories are presented to us. “I experience a very literary tradition in theatre here. We also have brilliant pioneers in British theatre who create unique devised and what is perhaps seen as more experimental work, as well as directors who work profoundly on dramaturgy – auteur-directors. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with these pioneers over the last years, including Kathryn Hunter and Katie Mitchell whom I both admire greatly” Theil Have concludes in an email, perhaps suggesting that such artists are less embraced by the mainstream in Britain then they should be.

Nikola Kodjabashia too, is almost as concerned when he says that “British theatre is still very different from what is Continental European Theatre. In the European tradition there is more non-linear narrative. Narrative can be anything, to the point it can become a narrative built on the cultural baggage of the audience member.” Kodjabashia cites musical semiologist Jean- Jacques Nattiez’s famous assertion that we are trying to find a “proto-narrative” or the “first real source of the narrative” as one Riotous’ inspirations. Physically intense, one gets the impression that this issue around narrative, what it is and can be (which surely is always a question about identity?) is what drives Kodjabashia’s intellectualism and his own musical creativity and makes him bond with Theil Have and Larsen, whose thematic obsessions mirror his own.

Mia Theil Have in Scherzo for Piano and Stick. Photo: Dan Fearon

Mia Theil Have in Scherzo for Piano and Stick. Photo: Dan Fearon

But Scherzo is a show about 1.90m stick in conversation with a piano. To help me understand how this pairing came about, Kodjabashia describes the embryo of a performance in Rome with a piano and Theil Have and a little appearance of La Linea, Cavandoli’s animated character, and the sudden appearance of a stick. “So why not the pianist stands up and does something to the stick? Everything is guided by the need to tell the story” says Kodjabashia. To try to give myself context, my initial idea that the stick represents Cavandoli’s pen (and therefore narrative voice) as he draws his animations, slightly implodes when the group reveal that La Linea appears only briefly. As if to illustrate how brief, Theil Have suddenly transitions from her slim and slight form in Rose Bruford’s theatre and enacts a wonderful gobble-de-gook impression of him which is so astonishing for its vocal projection that I laugh out loud in delight. Yet, I am no closer to understanding what the stick means or, why the stick has been chosen. In a more serious email Theil Have later explains that “Cavandoli begins with a single line, draws his protagonist La Linea, then presents him as anything you can imagine. I begin with and constantly come back to a single line like Cavandoli, in my case, a 1.90m stick. We may twist and transform it like the line of Cavandoli is providing images.”

If it seems astonishing that a theatrical performance can be made around the interaction between a stick and piano then it is also humorous: Larsen almost giggles when he says that it is “unique, in that no one has made that kind of performance with a stick, it is hilarious.”

“The stick was my companion now for 13 years and there is something good about ‘sticking to it’ and re-discovering its potential. This is something to be seen, not explained!” Theil Have continues.

But the company are at pains to underline that whilst such choices can open the imagination, they can also provide important restrictions. “You can let the imagination go as far as it can, but you also restrain yourself telling the story with these objects and people” insists Kodjabashia, keen to suggest that the group work within certain parameters. Theil Have agrees and makes an important distinction: “It’s not about Mia and Nikola. It’s about the piano and stick and how we can bring life to that.”

Theil Have is unambiguous when she insists that the show, and the stick in particular, has to be seen in order to be understood. It’s the same when I ask Kodjabashia about the musical life of the piece. Might it, I say, keen to indulge in my need for associative thinking, link in with Cavandoli’s use of music which seems a response to the colour templates the animator was using in his work? “In the show we end up with French impressionism, some elements of neo-classical, tango, blues: in this context the genres aren’t defining the piece, they become part of the characters rather than explaining” says Kodjabashia patiently, refusing to bow to my need to define things. Theil Have further challenges my desire to interpret saying “I could say Calder’s mobiles are also a huge inspiration without saying let’s understand the whole show.”

Scherzo is not entirely abstract though. At a point in Riotous’ residency in Denmark, writer Peter Oswald joined the group and wrote dramatic monologues in response to what he saw. “We were very quick” says Larsen with some wonder. “Within two days we had a plan, you could tell Peter what each section should contain- this or that- and he wrote over night the poetry. It was fresh.” I get the sense, though, that no one is going to give away what the text is about and I almost daren’t ask.

We only have time for a twenty minute interview so on the late train journey home to London Bridge, the conversation continues in a more relaxed way: I’m not recording and Southern Trains’ carriages rattling through London’s dark boroughs brings a different energy to our thoughts. “Children understand better” says Theil Have suddenly over a bag of almonds she shares with us all. “They are able to see many narrative meanings for themselves, but it is not just a show for children, we are not a children’s theatre. But they can come out with their own meanings.”

When I ask how Riotous Company sees itself in the future, referring to how it may fund itself and with reference to a 2017 performance that Kathryn Hunter will direct, Theil Have has a simple response to something that is probably on all our minds: “I can mention that our response to Brexit is obvious to us: we will continue to create further European and International collaborations.”

And that feels like the right note upon which to end this piece. We pile out onto the platform in London Bridge, with Kodjabashia yelling that they have to run to catch their train to Streatham and holding his hand up to say goodbye. Then they’re gone, like apparitions disappearing on the wind.

SCHERZO for piano and stick plays at the 2016 Orbit Festival at HOME in Manchester / homemcr.org on 13 October and the Print Room at the Coronet in London / the-print-room.org from 17-20 October.

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Verity Healey

Verity writes for and contributes to Ministry of Counterculture and is a film facilitator for Bigfoot Arts Education. She is also a published short story writer and filmmaker.

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