Joy, celebration, support, friendship. Four words keep coming up when I talk to Josie Dale-Jones, Nobahar Mahdavi and Olivia Norris about dressed., the show the three women made in collaboration with their friend Lydia Higginson. Given that the work is, loosely speaking, about sexual assault, these might not be the words you’d expect the co-creators to repeatedly return to. But dressed., isn’t your average show about sexual assault and related trauma.
Premiering in Edinburgh last summer, dressed. is a deeply affecting, gorgeous piece of theatre interweaving the talents of four school friends: Dale-Jones as theatremaker, Mahdavi as musician, Norris as choreographer and Higginson as clothing designer. It’s the first time all four of them have co-created and performed a piece of theatre (although various combinations of the group have previously collaborated on different projects) and its produced by Dale-Jones’ company ThisEgg.
Established in 2010, ThisEgg’s shows so far include Me & My Bee, a child-friendly comedy about the plight of the bumblebee that proved a hit with all age groups. For Dale-Jones, August was an especially busy month as, alongside dressed., ThisEgg simultaneously opened UNCONDITIONAL, an in-development work by Dale-Jones and her mother Stephanie Mueller grappling with their own relationship and a shared hope for a better world. Dale-Jones, however, describes dressed., as “so different to any other project” ThisEgg have worked on before.
At the centre of the piece is Higginson’s personal story of rebuilding her entire wardrobe from scratch in the aftermath of an attack where she was forced to strip at gunpoint, a project she documented on mademywardrobe.com. But dressed. also responds to the wider political context of recent years, specifically the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
‘There were a lot of conversations during the process [of creating dressed.] about the lack of stories you hear about how people heal after an event,” explains Norris. ‘The play isn’t really about what happens – it doesn’t go into that much detail – but it’s about recovering, and the processes that Lydia went through re-finding creativity, joy and friendship again.”
Mahdavi echoes this saying, “It also felt much more interesting to think about the aftermath of everything because even in the news there’s so much focus on the person who is assaulting and less on the victim. Even with the Harvey Weinstein stuff, it’s his face that’s plastered around everywhere. And I think we just found Lydia’s story way more interesting than taking people on this psychological thriller of suspense of what happened that evening.”
Something about the piece and its approach certainly made a connection with Edinburgh audiences. Along with the tickets “pretty much selling themselves” (Dale-Jones), the group scooped a Scotsman Fringe First Award and from late February to early June they’re touring it around the UK. Did they expect it to get such an overwhelmingly positive response?
“No!!” the three women collectively laugh.
“We had no idea how people were going to respond. Even when going up to Edinburgh we were like: Is it finished?!” starts off Norris.
“I think because we lived through the experience, we knew it inside out,” adds in Mahdavi. “We thought parts of the show were still pretty abstract but we had a real understanding in those moments. A massive question was if the audience were really going to go there with us and if they were going to understand what we felt, because I think when you’re so closely related to something… it’s hard to explain it. So knowing that people were on board with it was quite surprising. And a relief!”
Norris adds that, “We’ve had a lot of women come up to us or message us, and say ‘I’m so glad I saw it with this person or I really want to bring this person’. It’s really nice to see it’s reuniting women and reaffirming their friendships. That it’s something to be shared with someone who means a lot to you.”
“In general we’ve been really blessed. We’ve had really nice responses,” Mahdavi summarises.
But although the affirmation was an undeniable bonus, creating a critically-acclaimed piece of theatre wasn’t their whole motivation.
“We made the show for Lydia and with Lydia, so to a certain extent part of me really didn’t care what people would think,” says Dale-Jones. “The audience and how we care for them throughout the piece is such a big thing and, obviously, we have made it for people [to watch]. But half of me was like: Well, Lydia is happy with this and it was about giving her back control of a story that she’d lost control of. As friends, that was our job and we’d done that.”
This focus on what worked best for Lydia and the rest of the group also influenced the format of the final show and the original rehearsals for it.
“A lot of the rehearsal process was about having a creative space of healing… and whatever we felt was the right thing,” explains Norris. “We decided: we’re just gonna make work that helps us in that feeling, and that probably comes through in the play. So if it was a bad day we’d be like: ok, let’s just massage each other! And lift each other! And then maybe Nobahar can sing a song to us…”
Dale-Jones describes it as, “Almost like, ‘in the moment’ healing. It’s like: I’ve exposed this and I need to be supported and held again. So what’s going to make me either carry on in the show? Or, how can we end the show in a way that we can go out and have a drink afterwards rather than have to go home and sit in a dark room on our own?”
Along with developing ideas around the show’s purpose, the group were artistically inspired by a wide variety of sources. Dales-Jones mentions an ever-lengthening email thread that took in endless articles, books and ideas, while Norris talks about Loie Fuller’s ‘Serpentine Dance’, first performed in the 1890s, that featured the performer in an amazing billowing dress.
“At one point we were going to try to make a four person costume…” Norris starts before everyone breaks into laughter.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ book ‘Women Who Run With the Wolves’, a best-selling volume about the ‘wild woman’ archetype also sparked ideas, as did Emily Spivack’s ‘Worn Stories’, a collection based on items of clothing and the stories behind them.
Clothes, of course, are a key part of dressed., and working on the show has changed how the women think about their own relationship with clothing. “I think just being around Lydia you start to realise the length of clothes’ lives. And how much love you can give them,” puts in Norris.
“It’s just made me more conscious of how and why you’re wearing certain things on a certain day: how we use clothes, when they’re helpful and when they’re not helpful,” adds Dale-Jones.
Fittingly, the costumes in the show ended up with a story behind them too. Higginson’s prodigious talents meant she could make her friends “literally anything we wanted” (Norris), which – as anyone who’s browsed through an internet search of 400 skirts can tell you – lead to the problem of too much choice. In the end they returned to a casual suggestion made early on in the creation period by Abi Greenland of RashDash: four simple low-back dresses.
“It was kind of a joke to start,” Dale-Jones says.
But the joke stuck until, “We were like: obviously we NEED four simple low-back dresses!’ and that became the ending,” concludes Norris.
Watching dressed.,those ‘four simple low-back dresses’ form the basis of a particularly beautiful image. The designs cut through the earlier theatricality of the costumes worn onstage, providing a contrast that is at once prettily feminine and elegantly womanly. At that moment, the four people onstage stop looking like ‘performers’ and most closely resemble precisely what they are: four female friends, the ones who keep you upright, the ones you can always call. Because, as Dale-Jones says, “We’re all just trying to keep each other going.”
ThisEgg’s dressed. is playing Battersea Arts Centre until 2nd March. More info here.