Creating a 15-minute piece of theatre isn’t an easy task. As is the case with writing a short story or haiku, there’s a certain science to getting it right. When there’s little wiggle room, every word needs to earn its place. But on the flipside, artists often flourish within tight boundaries.
“I think there’s a real immediacy to it. I like to think of it as a single, rather than an album,” said Karen Glossop, referring the 15-minute Wishbone Theatre show she currently stars in, Mountain High Valley Low.
“The comparison with short story writing is interesting,” added Paul Murray, director and co-creator of the production. “We’ve found that you have to develop the facility to be simple without being simplistic.”
‘Mountain High’ represents something of a new adventure for Karen and Paul. Since the duo established the Wishbone Theatre in 2001 they have built a reputation for devising full-length original productions, often with rich site-specific scenography. By comparison, this new pop up theatrical piece is more mobile and fleet of foot.
That doesn’t mean it’s any easier to produce. They have set themselves the tricky task of having to quickly get audiences – and often non-theatre-going audiences at that – invested in a plot which tackles a complex subject matter: Namely, bipolar affective disorder, a mental health condition which, despite affecting about one in 100 people, is still vastly misunderstood.
From the positive reaction they’ve received during performances so far, it seems they may have cracked the science of 15-minute theatre.
“It’s been really gratifying that people have gotten emotionally involved,” Karen said. “Something we really try to do is not tell people what to think, which could be a temptation in a short show. You still need to have space for it to resonate with people, and for them to bring something of themselves to it as well, just as you would in a long show. But you have to be really precise, in a way that in a fuller production you would have more room to play around with.”
Mountain High Valley Low’s story is told through the fictional character of Josie (played by Karen), a keen cyclist, a self-confessed ‘image nerd’, and someone who is looking for love. She also happens to be bipolar, and finds long-distance cycling to be a good way to manage her condition. Karen delivers the entire performance while pedalling on a stationary bicycle; her thoughts as Josie are narrated via a pre-recorded soundtrack which is set to an original score by sound designer Conor OB.
The theme of endurance, both physical and emotional, is very present in the production. Is cycling throughout the performance an act of endurance in itself?
“I have to let you into a secret: there’s no resistance on the bike so I have to pretend to be out of breath,” Karen said, mock conspiratorially. “People say, ‘oh you must be exhausted’ and I’m not. Well not physically anyway.”
The result Karen and Paul have aimed for is to create an accessible yet multi-layered experience for audiences, offering them a glimpse into the mind of somebody who is navigating through everyday life, but with the added challenge of having bipolar affective disorder.
“There are two mini narratives to the plot,” Paul explained. “The first is about Josie not being able to cope at work, and the other is about her imagining finding a partner who will understand.”
Karen added: “There’s a contradiction in that the audience have to work out what to trust, and whether to trust her as a person. Is it Josie speaking or is it her illness? But also to work out how they would manage if that was their personal experience if they felt their emotions had that intensity of colour. How could they manage their own sense of identity?”
In addition to highlighting the specificities of Josie’s experiences, Karen and Paul want to highlight the broader universality of issues Josie’s coming up against. This is a through-line with a lot of Wishbone productions.
“A lot of our shows seem to be around characters who are in some way outsiders who need to connect,” Karen said. “Vulnerability comes around a lot with our characters, and the risks they take to be known by someone else, and to be in some way valued. I think that’s probably when people like what we do most, and what resonates for them. It’s that universal need to be taken in and recognised warts and all.”
Thus far, the ‘Mountain High’ has been honed at a handful of events this year, initially in East London cycle cafes then on to the Changing Minds and Women of the World festivals at the Southbank Centre and the SpinMCR cycling festival in Manchester. Now, it will be performed back in London on Tuesday 17 May as part of Birkbeck Arts Week 2016 and then on 21-22 May at Spin LDN at the Old Truman Brewery. Beyond that, plans are already afoot to do a full-length version of the play.
“When we created the mini show there was no certainty that anyone would buy into it. So it’s been really pleasing that people are interested, and that the gamble seems to be paying off,” Karen said.
“We’re still in the middle of that journey as we want people – having made that 15 minute investment – to then think ‘actually I’d really like to see an hour of this’ and to think that theatre might actually be alright, and might be entertaining and provoking, then take a gamble on the ticket fee.”
The Birkbeck Arts Week event will include a post-performance panel discussion featuring the artists, plus a clinician and a speaker with lived experience of bipolar. Karen and Paul said they are looking forward to the session as they’re always looking for constructive criticism on the piece, particularly as a fuller version is now in the works.
They wrote the 15-minute piece after carrying out extensive research with psychiatrists and individuals with the disorder at the South London and Maudsley Trust in Camberwell. And while the play has been predominantly praised for its authenticity and sensitivity, there has been an instance when two audience members have been offended by the piece.
What the individuals seem to have taken issue with is the fact that Karen herself is not affected by bipolar. The likely cause of this, Karen and Paul explained, is that the informality of the performance and its pop up nature, mean that the coding of ‘theatre’ is not as clearly present as it would be in a more a traditional ‘proscenium arch’ piece. The lack of a demarcated performance space is a blessing and a challenge - it breaks down barriers between performer and audience member, but it also for some people seems to uncomfortably blur the boundaries between performance and reality.
“As artists, I suppose we feel entitled to make things up as long as we have researched them properly and are truthful,” Karen said. “What we’ve learned is to very quickly tell people it’s not autobiographical.”
She understands why some individuals may have taken exception to a non-bipolar person portraying the condition.
“There are a lot of identity politics emerging for people affected by mental illness. Let’s face it, they have been marginalised and stigmatised so they feel quite militant about having their own voice. We feel that they absolutely should have their own voice, but that there’s room for others in that conversation as well.”
As with any piece of theatre which explores the challenges arising from health conditions, there’s a danger that it can come across as overly ‘worthy’. The Wishbone duo feel secure in their method for avoiding the pitfalls of the genre.
Paul said: “One of the things is portraying people warts and all. The person in this play has sides that are really impossible and unsympathetic, and then there are other moments where you empathise with her. In the shorted version of the show it’s suggesting those levels of complexity, and in the longer version it will be showing it. The worst thing we could do with this would be to produce a cartoon-type character, and to say ‘yes, we’re just dispelling stigma’ and ‘everything will be alright’.”
Wishbone Theatre’s Mountain High Valley Low will be performed for free on 17 May at Birkbeck Arts Week 2016 (including post-performance panel discussion), and 21-22 May at Spin LDN. Find out more at the company’s website