Director Justine Themen on Rise
This March, the Belgrade Theatre’s Young Company are taking over the B2 stage with their production of Rise, which explores issues that young women face growing up in the 21st century. Here, we speak to Director, Justine Themen who explains the inspiration behind Rise, the joys and challenges of working with young people and her thoughts on Beyoncé as a positive role for young women today!
Tell us the story behind Rise
RISE is the story of a group of young women whose drive and sense of self is being eroded by the drip-drip of the everyday acts of sexism that they encounter – whether boys harassing them in the park, teachers underestimating them at school or mothers being mistreated by violent partners at home. They try to deal with their frustrations by ‘reclaiming’ the spaces where they are silenced – breaking into buildings and re-enacting the situations where others have treated them badly – and standing up for themselves rather than allowing themselves to be cowed. But after the initial relief of getting things off their chests, they find that it doesn’t change the way things are. A Beyoncé concert, however, presents a new kind of solution – a female icon who is standing up for the rights of women, and singing about the issues that they find challenging. They steal a van and drive to the gig, picking up a number of other disenfranchised young women along the way, hoping Queen Bey will provide some kind of answer. But their tickets are forgeries and they are unable to get into the concert. In a last act of desperation for their voices to be heard, they break into the stadium after the gig, and reclaim their final space. In their celebration of their own unique identities, they discover that following a pop icon is not the answer – they need to lead, not follow.
What was the inspiration for this production?
Two things really. Firstly the extraordinary energy and potential of the young women that are emerging from our youth groups at the moment. I wanted to bring some of that to the stage. And secondly, I have a daughter of my own, who is now 14, and starting to explore and own and assess the world in her own right, starting to make her own decisions about who she wants to be. As a parent, I had a real sense of wonder at who she was becoming and intrigue about where she would choose to go. So overall, I was inspired by the sense of young women’s potential.
As we embarked on the research phase with the company, however, it became clear that the young women themselves have a very clear sense of their potential being constrained, which runs in parallel with their youthful excitement about the world – a scary number of them had experienced sexual assault, seriously undermining sexual harassment, mothers in violent relationships, and depression. It became important to bring these ongoing challenges for women to the fore, as the distance we have travelled since women got the vote nearly 100 years ago is so significant that we are in danger of overlooking them.
Following your production of Red Snapper, this will be your second show at the Belgrade Theatre featuring an all-female cast. Is this something that’s important to you?
I am excited by hearing a range of voices on our stages – watching both stories that resemble my own and stories that feel very different from my own, helps me to better understand myself and the world that I live in. Unfortunately, the dominant voice continues to be the voice of the white middle-class male. Despite all the advances, women’s voices, the voices of people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, the voices of people with disabilities, and the voices of other marginalised groups, are still not given equal weight. All of the work that I make seeks to offer a counterbalance – so yes, it’s important to me to make work that redresses this balance, and one way to do that (though not the only way I do) is with an all-female cast.
This production follows a group of young women, on road trip to a Beyoncé concert. Do you think Beyoncé is a positive role model for young people today?
Beyoncé has an extraordinary significance for the young women in the Company, and for young women around the world. She talks about the challenges women face, and is a powerful figure. I wouldn’t want to undermine her importance. However, I am also challenged by some of Beyoncé’s work, and concerned that it reinforces sexualised stereotypes of women. I also think that there is something inherently challenging in the kind of ‘followership’ that runs alongside celebrity status. I am interested in supporting young women to build their own confidence, voice and identity – positive role models can support this process, but they shouldn’t replace it.
The Belgrade’s Young Company offers the opportunity for young people to experience a professional rehearsal and production process. Why is this important?
The move from youth theatre to theatre as a profession is not an easy one, especially for young people from backgrounds that are underrepresented in the sector generally – young people with disabilities, young people from BAME backgrounds, young people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The Belgrade’s Young Company gives young people who are considering a career in the performing arts an opportunity to get a taste of making work in an environment that is as close to professional as we can afford to make it; it also enables them to push themselves by working alongside members of our groups who are showing particular talent and ability, learning from their peers as well as from the professionals who work with them.
This will be your second time working with writer Liz Mytton, after you directed her script, Red Snapper in 2016. What do you like most about working with Liz?
Liz is funny, political, smart in her writing, and a good collaborator. Working on RISE a slightly different experience to RED SNAPPER as the latter was a script that came from her own idea, whilst RISE was devised with the Young Company and very much based on their own experiences. It took some adjustment for Liz to move into this ‘wordsmith’ role, but her ability to collaborate and her fast understanding of character and narrative ultimately made her the ideal partner.
This year, the Belgrade Community & Education company celebrates the 50th anniversary since its youth theatre groups were established. Why has this remained such an important part of the theatre’s work?
Theatre is all about learning – it holds a mirror up to humanity and asks us to think about what it means to be human – how to better understand ourselves, how to better understand others, and how to find solutions to the challenges that we face. It is, therefore, a very powerful tool in a schools context, where it can bring the challenges of the big wide world into the confines of a classroom. It is also a very powerful tool for young people growing up and working out their place in a complex world. The work that is made with young people can be some of the most exciting theatre because it is so urgent, immediately relevant and shares new stories and experiences with an extraordinary energy. Theatres shouldn’t be without it as a central part of their programme.
What will be your greatest challenge in bringing this production to the stage?
As always with a youth company, attendance is the major challenge. Young people have a lot going on in their lives, and we don’t pay them for their time. So although it is an extraordinary development opportunity for them, and a big investment in them from the theatre, there are conflicting priorities in their schedules – whether school / university coursework, childcare responsibilities for younger siblings, prior family commitments, etc. RISE is an ensemble piece, in which most company members are on stage most of the time, so rehearsing with members of the cast absent is an ongoing challenge!
Finances are also a challenge – we are trying to offer a near-professional experience, but with an ever-reducing production budget for our youth shows. It is worrying that work that has so much impact on young people’s confidence and the fulfilling of their potential, is increasingly financially challenged.
What are you most looking forward to about bringing this production to the stage?
Sharing the vibrancy, energy and humour of the young women I’ve been working with with an audience. They are so funny, so beautiful, so various in their energies, and I want people to see this, and feel that they can’t bear the idea that all this youthful potential is compromised by a society that still fails to give young women’s voices equal weight. I want people to take a collective responsibility for the young women growing up in our world, and support them to become everything they’re capable of becoming.
Rise will run from Mon 13 to Sat 18 March. Tickets are free but with a request for donations to support the work of the Belgrade Community & Education Company. Seats are unreserved but must be booked through the box office on 024 7655 3055 or online.