Hug the Bunny: Two Earl Grey Teas with Phoebe Wood

By Melissa Tutesigensi

I met with Phoebe Wood, writer and co-director of ‘Hug the Bunny’, at Edinburgh’s Half 8 Café. ‘Hug the Bunny’ was one of my favourite shows at this year’s Fringe and so I was keen to learn more about the genesis and development of the play. Although Phoebe was in the middle of the run with a few more shows to go, she agreed to let me pick her brain. We sat down to two Earl Grey Teas and chatted about drama school, leadership and experiences on the mile. Here is a selection of what came of our conversation.

 

Where it all began…

 

Norwich based Pits N Clits Theatre was formed very recently as Phoebe Wood, Damie Lemomu , Betsy Robertson, Sophie Abramovici, Sarah Pumphrey and Rachel Stone decided to create a feminist theatre company following their time at the University of East Anglia. Phoebe explained that, at the core, the company is a group of friends connected by their love and passion for driving compelling and entertaining feminist narratives forward. Each bring their own skills together to form the collective. Phoebe is always keen to stress the input of her team and to highlight that there is a real mix and variance of skills. Phoebe herself wrote the script but worked with fellow co-director Rachel Stone to help bring it alive. You only have to watch the play to see that there is a wealth of talent in the production company, that this a group of capable young women who understand the multi-faceted and multi-dimensional nature of theatre.

 

Explaining the title, Hug the Bunny…

 

I asked Phoebe about the origin of the name of the play as it didn’t seem too obvious to me. Concerned that I had completely missed a major symbol or metaphor, I was itching to know why the play is called ‘Hug the Bunny’. According to Phoebe, to ‘hug the bunny’ means to masturbate with a vibrator– an apt choice for the play given that female masturbation is an important part of the history on the study of hysteria. The popular school of thought of previous centuries held that women, being the fairer sex, were prone to fits of hysteria, a demonstration of their uniquely female facilities. Female masturbation was used to treat the symptoms of hysteria which up until the mid 20th century was categorised as a disease. Female masturbation is important to the play and fundamental in showing historical examples of the mans-plaining of the female sexual experience.

 

Twist, turns, trials and tribulations lead to triumph…

 

One of the revelations that surprised me the most about ‘Hug the Bunny’s’ journey to the Fringe is that it was never really meant to happen. Phoebe described how the original play she had written to take to the Fringe had to be replaced. She wrote ‘Hug the Bunny’ in a month, had to subsequently re-organise arrangements with the venues and marketing all the while raising the money to fund the project. Once the play was written and they were looking like they would meet the fundraising goal, she was still left with minor amendments such as finalising the title of the play. Things had to be scaled down and altered as they adjusted to their practical and financial restrictions. As pervasive as these obstacles were however, so was the company’s determination. It was their resilience and attitude of taking things in their stride that got them to the Fringe in the end. As I watched ‘Hug the Bunny’, I was blown away by its accuracy and honesty. The effortlessness of the play could easily fool you into thinking that it was a simple and predetermined process from idea to performance, but instead it was a product of a beautiful creative mess.

 

It’s not all fun and games on the mile…

 

Having cleared the logistical and creative hurdles of getting to the Fringe, they then faced the next challenge of attracting people to the show. They had already made waves in drawing an audience online through their use of social media ‘Crowdfunder’ but Edinburgh was a different platform altogether. The mile is a frenzy, awash with marketing of extreme levels with the aim of attracting people’s attention. They stood in the sea of actors, dancers and comedians, facing the struggle of drawing in the crowds. Phoebe is honest about the difficulty of being faced with this and explains that they had to employ their adjustment tactics to change their approach when they realised that their initial ideas for advertising weren’t striking the right chord with passers-by. It’s not an easy thing to approach people with thorny subjects like feminism and hysteria, explains Phoebe. She understands that its not to everyone’s taste. She’s aware of the fact that people have different opinions and reactions to theatre having been in the situation of being the only one in a group disliking a show. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to take that in as a writer.

 

There is life beyond the fringe…

 

We ended our conversation on the subject of future plans. She told me that her immediate plans for the future were to survive and enjoy the rest of her time in Edinburgh. Post-Fringe, it’s safe to say that Pits N Clits Theatre more than just survived, they thrived managing to pick up more five star reviews and a mention in Dazed Magazine piece ‘Eight plays we wish we’d seen as teenagers’ . The Fringe is a relentless experience for any first-time act but I hope Pits N Clits Theatre took away a sense of achievement as they packed up and prepared to leave the city. Whatever they have in store, I bet this won’t be the last we’ve heard from them.

 

 


Shower Thoughts: The Show We’re Still Talking About

Charlie Norton speaks to the cast and crew behind this overwhelming student success at the Fringe 2018.

 

In typical student fashion, composer Lavie Rabinovitz effusively tells me, ‘Shower Thoughts’ was a brainchild of the small hours: ‘it all started with a message at two or three in the morning’. The idea was to explore the bathroom as a private place for personal revelations, librettist Ryan Hay explains, ‘so we put together a list of all the things that might happen in the bathroom and chose the ones we found interesting’.

 

Shower thoughts 1

 

 

‘Shower Thoughts’ follows five university flatmates as they reflect on university life in private and shared moments in their ‘grotty’ student bathroom. The song-cycle explores a breadth of contemporary issues – from mental illness to body hair – whilst sustaining the energy of a real student house through comic musical exchanges between the friends.

 

Though the setting is unique, Rabinovitz is keenly aware that the flat-share premise is familiar: ‘We talked extensively about the flat dynamics because we were really petrified of rewriting Friends. We wanted to write real people.’ To this end, perhaps riskily, the roles were cast before the piece was finished and the actors’ real-life personalities used as inspiration. This explains Iona Smith’s effortless charisma as Flick, the joker of the bunch. Meanwhile, Stephanie Herron’s incredibly poignant performance as Sophie is somewhat explained by her co-writing of the powerful and nuanced solo about eating disorder which, she explains, ‘is authentic to my experiences’.

 

In Hay’s words, ‘it’s important to understand that you’re writing from a perspective but to feel empowered [by it].’ As students of St Andrews themselves, the cast and crew have an obvious proximity to the fictional environment. Amy Addinall’s set design has a self-professed ‘grotty’ aesthetic ‘just like everyone’s bathroom at Uni’, which hilariously lends itself to Rachel Brown’s drunken crouching over the toilet bowl as the unlucky-in-love Ang, as well as a Kate Nash-esque ditty about body hair and self-acceptance from Sara Pearce’s Eva.

 

But this is not to say the actors are playing themselves. In fact, I choke on my water in surprise when Connor Norris who plays Jonny, a young typically English man repressed by the social implications of masculinity, has a strong American accent. On top of this, Herron and Pearce describe some teething issues with their portrayal of a gay relationship.

 

Herron: Definitely, for a couple of rehearsals, we were having a hard time figuring out, er…

Hay: Logistics?

Jess Cooper (director): Haha! Yeah, we had to have a wee ‘logistics chat’.

Pearce: One day we did a run and then Jess took us aside and said ‘Guys, let’s talk about physical intimacy’.

Cooper: I’m a queer woman myself and for me it was just a relationship!

 

shower thoughts 2

 

Of her naturalistic directing, Cooper says the cast had to ‘work against the desire to “perform” the content, [so as] to make the audience feel like they were prying.’ For a cast of opera singers and musical theatre fanatics alike this apparently proved a challenge. The show involves no jazz hands and no dazzling choreography; rather the character development and the themes explored are at the centre of the piece. This placed some burden on the cast, Norris says: ‘I really wanted to make sure I did the issue justice.’ Yet it is this empathetic and thoughtful handling of contemporary issues which makes ‘Shower Thoughts’ so impactful.

 

Rabinovitz sums up the sentiment of the piece: ‘if you can express those emotions in the bathroom, why can’t you do so everywhere else – open the door!’ And, Hay tells me, the door is not closed on ‘Shower Thoughts’, with an upcoming run booked on home turf as well as an ambition for a national tour. Having seen the show myself I can confirm it is absolutely worth a watch, and I’m only more convinced of this having had the chance to speak to such a passionate group of creatives.

 


First Time at the Fringe: Five Tips

By Megan Denny

 

 

Fringe first-timer? You’ll need this advice…

 

1. Navigation

Even if you’ve visited Edinburgh outside of August, Google Maps will become your new best friend as the city is turned upside down during the Fringe. When your phone inevitably runs out of charge by lunchtime, be prepared to resort to a good, old-fashioned paper map to locate that obscure, back-of-pub venue. Even better, ask for directions from Fringe regulars or locals who know all the shortcuts.

 

2. Planning – not too much

Booking some shows isn’t a bad idea, particularly more well-known productions which can sell out far in advance. However, be prepared to go with the Fringe flow and be flexible. If you find yourself with some spare hours between booked shows, have a wander down the Royal Mile, pick up a few flyers and chat to people promoting their shows. Look at the many posters on bus stops, lamposts and phone boxes, or go to venues and read the listings displayed outside. If anything catches your eye, go for it – who knows, it may be the best thing you see at the Fringe.

 

3. Waterproofs

Seriously – preferably head-to-toe, or at least clothes that dry quickly (i.e. not denim). Layers are also a good idea as storm turns to summer sunshine within the space of 15 minutes… such is Edinburgh’s climate.

 

4. Get talking

A major part of the Fringe relies on word of mouth, so get involved! If you enjoyed a show, spread the word. Tell the people who made and performed it – they will really appreciate it. Help them out by recommending their show to people who you bump into in coffee shops, on the Mile or via social media. You will probably also receive some great recommendations of shows to see in return.

 

5. Sleeping, eating, drinking 

Embrace the alternative reality of Edinburgh Fringe, but remember do the ‘normal things’: sleep (for at least a few hours), eat (vegetables), and drink (water) – then you can’t go far wrong.

 

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The Best Fringe Tickets (but not quite in the way you’d think)

By Andrew Jameson

 

So you’ve seen a few plays, you’ve read some reviews, but you feel that you’re still missing something from this year’s Fringe experience. A something that feels quite like, oh I don’t know, a vaguely in-depth review of the design of specific Fringe tickets that I’ve received. That’s it, isn’t it? Uncanny.

 

Nope, this isn’t a nuanced comment about theatre or an interesting interview with a director, it is solely one person’s potentially questionable opinion about the design of some pieces of paper. So yes, I would definitely say it’s a worthwhile read.

 

 

First up on this list is an Underbelly Event ticket. All that I can really say about this ticket is that it may appeal to those who don’t like design at all. Its highlights being the faint grey ‘Underbelly’ text on an otherwise white background. Call me demanding but a ticket’s going to have to do slightly more than that to impress. One star.

underbelly

 

Next is theSpace ticket. Now I’ve received a few of these tickets this year and while the Underbelly ticket may have underperformed, I feel these go rather too far the other way. They feature a large blue banner across the top which includes ‘theSpace’ in the subtle style of block, white capitals. The dotted background and the outline of an unrealistically exuberant audience complete, what I do not feel is an exaggeration to describe as, an assault upon the eyes. I appreciate that there was effort here but I feel it was misdirected. Two stars.

the space

 

The Greenside tickets are imaginatively green. Now I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – if they were purple I’d probably be asking questions. They’re sticking strongly with their brand and I can only admire them for that. I would say that the ticket designers could possibly have chosen a slightly less dull shade of green, but maybe that’s just me being picky. The ticket also features some nice white bubbles – at least, I think they’re bubbles. I don’t have much to say about them but they’re there and they’re different sizes so I suppose that makes them interesting. It’s at this point that I’m starting to question how qualified I really am to be making these judgements. However, as we’re this far in I think we’ll just have to keep going with it. Four stars.

greenside

 

‘So what is the best ticket design?’ is the question I’m sure you’re all asking enthusiastically. Either that or, ‘Why am I still reading this?’ but as I can’t answer the latter, we’ll go with the first question. Now, this may be a controversial move but I really enjoy the Summerhall tickets. Yes, I know you may say they’re rather plain and uninteresting but I would call it minimalistic. I like how the ‘A’ is in a different style to the rest of the letters – I don’t really know why it’s like that, but does art need to explain itself? I also think the touch of orange complements the ticket well without making it feel too cluttered. Five stars.

summerhall 

 

Now you may disagree with my judgements but as we all know, ticket design is a subjective and often very controversial art form. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this review and maybe next year you’ll look at your tickets in a new light. Or maybe you won’t, but I’d like to pretend this article had some very minor effect on your life.


Into the Unknown: if you don’t see at least one bad show, you’re doing the Fringe wrong

By Martha Crass

So, you’re heading to Edinburgh, planning to indulge in one of the most unconventional, brilliant and rainy festivals the UK has to offer: the Fringe. Like many, you may have trekked from afar to get here, and after a restorative deep-fried Mars Bar and a refreshing Irn Bru you’re ready to hit the festival.

 

You soon become faced with a difficult, but clear, choice: you can go to the big-name, award-winning, touring musical that’s about to transfer to the West End, which has received unanimous five-star reviews from critics; or a piece of amateur new writing which is being performed in the back room of a local primary school. The box office for this is literally a shed, and odds are you’ll be one in an audience of three. So, naturally, you make the obvious decision and go for the latter, and -

 

Wait, what? You mean you DON’T want to experience a show whose only five-star review is from the director’s mum?

 

The thing is, there will always be performers at the Fringe who, after their sell-out runs in Edinburgh, are going to be spreading their professionally-trained, well-funded wings and taking off to greater theatrical heights. But why are you coming to the Fringe if you’re not willing to be a little uncomfortable? Not that you should avoid any show that looks a little too slick; if anything, seek these out! Enjoy! Relish! But don’t let these define your whole Fringe experience: see something on a whim based on a random flyer, see something from a group you’ve never heard of, see something outright, undeniably, unforgivably bad.

 

Sometimes (quite often, really) it’s the Fringe first-timers, or the stuff which sounds pretty dubious, that can surprise you. And the joy of this is: you’ll never know which are the good ones. So wade through all the bizarre melodrama and gut-wrenchingly funny attempts at tragedy; go and feel horrifically uncomfortable as an improv troupe fails miserably at the one thing they claim to do well; and then you might find something truly brilliant.

 

Part of the Fringe is about venturing out of your comfort zone, encapsulated particularly aptly by the theme this year: try venturing ‘into the unknown’, and you might be pleasantly surprised.

At the very least, a lot of those shows might be free, and there’s no arguing with that.

 


Comedy on an Extinct Volcano with Barry Ferns

By Louis Harnett O’Meara

 

On August 18 Arthur’s Seat underwent a change. Hundreds of people trekked their way to the top of the hill and placed their buttocks squarely on the pebbled floor. A man with the look of Curt Cobain and Richard Branson’s love child stood before the gathering crowd. And so they waited.

 

“I am Barry Ferns, and it is time to enter the venue!” Curt Branson announced, and gestured to the door that stood beside him. “Please form an orderly line, and mind your heads coming in; it’s low in there.”

 

Barry entered first, before the crowd milled down the slope to the entrance and passed into the venue one by one behind him. Each man, woman and child took their place and sat expectantly before a speaker and a microphone – and Barry took his place before them.

 

“We have three acts lined up for you this afternoon everyone. Welcome, to Arthur’s Seat.”

 

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I approached Barry after the show, and he suggested we grab a drink at the Starbucks just down the hill. It was surprisingly quiet – but then I suppose people wouldn’t come all this way just for a cup of coffee. Comedy, on the other hand…

 

How long have you been doing this?

I started running shows on top of Arthur’s Seat in 2007, 11 years ago now. The first show was called ‘Arthur’s Seat Belongs to Lionel Ritchie’. I changed my name to Lionel Ritchie for it – it was my name for seven years.

Like most of my comedy, it just came from a ridiculous idea. I just think Lionel Ritchie is a ridiculous man, and the idea of doing a show on top of Arthur’s Seat is just too ridiculous not to do.

 

How has the show developed?

The basic idea hasn’t changed much. Originally it was just a very small show; there were only around 20 people there. I’ve never advertised it, but it seems to have spread a lot just by word of mouth. This time there were about 250.

Back in 2012 and 2013 I performed a show every day for the whole run of the Fringe – I’d drag an amplifier, a mic., a door and a bag of comedy gear up every single day.

 

You managed to drag up three comedians to perform this year. How do you choose them?

They’re just my favourites. Tony Law’s been up a lot. The first time he came up his kids did a stand up set as well. I’ve had Simon Munnery, Josie Long, Rich Fulcher, who was Mighty Boosh at the time.

 

What if someone else was to decide they wanted to put on a show on Arthur’s Seat?

Well they’d have to talk to me, I’m the venue manager! It’s ridiculous. It’s a difficult one to put on your CV though – “What do you do?” “I manage an extinct volcano.”

 

How do you think the Fringe has changed?

Back in the 80s, 90s, early 2000s you would find a lot more oddballs at the Fringe. You didn’t know what you were going to get. People have much more of an idea of the Fringe as a career move these days. If you want to become a comedian you go to the Fringe, perform a sell-out run, get booked onto ‘Nine out of Ten Cats’ then you perform your tour.

You still get the Free Fringe, but there’s a lot more of the slick West End style shows now, and they cost a lot of money. The financial cost of it all means audiences and shows are less willing to take risks with what they see or what they put on.

 

When you started your show on Arthur’s Seat was it in response to the commercialization you saw happening?

It wasn’t in response in a direct sense, but it’s in the same vein as 1980s Fringe. It’s a ridiculous idea put on by a ridiculous person. I just love doing odd things. In 2012 I won the Hardy award for making a load of fake reviews for fake shows. I just printed them out and stuck them all over Edinburgh. I gave myself a six star review in one of them. People would come up the hill like, “excuse me, is this the place for the show with the six star review?” It’s amazing the stuff people believe just because it’s been written down.

 

Are you going to see anything interesting this evening?

Arthur Smith is hosting an unofficial tour of the Royal Mile at Midnight tonight only. He’s been doing it for years. It’s not your normal tour; someone nearly always ends up getting naked. He got arrested once for nearly starting a riot. When Nelson Mandela was still in prison he convinced everyone to crowd outside Leith police station where he told them Nelson was being held. He had the whole crowd of them chanting “Free Nelson, free Nelson!” Utterly ridiculous.