Sleepless Theatre Company‘s new production Baby Box comes to King’s Head Theatre in May. I spoke to Helena Jackson, the company’s AD and the production’s director about the play, vaginas and Equity.
How did Sleepless Theatre come about?
At around 16 our artistic director got bored of waiting for other people to put on plays she could work on, so decided to start doing them herself. We went to our local theatre and begged them to give us the space for a week every summer to put on a musical – much to our surprise they agreed (a bad decision if there ever was one) and let around 25 16-18-year-olds run riot around the stage and workshop for a couple of years. Our approach has refined itself somewhat since then, but the community feeling those shows engendered has been a core part of why we still exist. If our past, blissfully naïve 16-year-old selves can jump into projects with that kind of faith, commitment and fearlessness, then we’ve got to continue living up to their example.
What is Baby Box about?
Baby Box follows the life and relationship of two sisters, starting when they’ve just entered puberty and ending around their early thirties. It covers a huge amount of ground (endometriosis, love, loss, homosexuality, depression) but at its heart it’s just a tale of the bizarre, fragile, unconditional love shared between sisters. There’s a lot of dark humour, a lot of very bad punning and some interesting 2000’s fashion choices – what’s not to like?
Endometriosis affects around 1.5 million women (around the same as diabetes), why is there such a lack of knowledge from the public?
Vaginas. The moment something has anything to do with a vagina it somehow acquires this stigma around it. Also we’re told from such an early age that periods will hurt, they’ll cramp, you’ll have blood in your pants and you better suck it up – it’s a fact of life. It just means that female pain is normalized to the extent that endometriosis is often missed. We’re so often asked ‘have you tried the Pill?’ as if the Pill is this one-trick wonder that magically fixes everything that might be wrong with your abdomen. Endo has been consistently underfunded (receiving 10% the amount of money given to diabetes research), consistently ignored, consistently disbelieved. It sucks.
Is theatre a good space to raise awareness or is there a concern it will be preaching to converted?
That’s a really good question. We’re obviously partly reaching out to an audience that has had experience with endometriosis, but we’re really just pushing for an audience that enjoys listening to female stories. While endo is a big part of the piece, it’s not all-consuming – the heart of Baby Box lies with sisters Chloe and Jamie, and the overriding message is one of hope. Everyone who has ever felt unconditional love for someone will identify with this piece – it’s just about two wonderful, nuanced, complicated women and their lives together.
Is focusing on female issues part of Sleepless Theatre’s long-term aims?
Absolutely. Let’s be honest, us females have had a bit of a rough ride since forever, and it’s only really started being noticed in the industry over the last couple of years. Entertainment is for some reason still obsessed with this image of a ‘strong’ woman, pieces with ‘strong female roles’, featuring a ‘strong female lead’. I find it hilarious that ‘strong’ female parts basically boil down to the absolute minimum one would expect from a normal three-dimensional character – opinions, objectives and a narrative arc. Women come in so many different forms and with so many different pasts and stories, we want to celebrate this and show all of these wonderfully different, colourful narratives onstage.
You’ve agreed to an Equity-agreed wage for cast and crew. How difficult is it for emerging companies to not only create new works but ensure everyone is paid for them?
There are obviously some challenges, but I don’t think these challenges are big enough to merit not trying. This is the one time in our careers where we’re actually allowed to fuck up. Committing to paying everyone is utterly terrifying but it’s a totally necessary step – and not one you have to take alone. Equity are the Most Wonderful People, they will take your individual show and individual circumstances into account and talk you through every little clause on the contract; they totally understand the pressures faced by emerging companies. Yes, it requires a lot of determination and the willingness to put your money where your mouth is, but paying people for their time and expertise is just the right thing to do. It shows those you’re working with that you understand and value the skills they bring to the process, and creates an environment where people want to give you the best they have to offer – because they know you’re fighting to treat them right.
What next for Sleepless Theatre Company?
It’s an exciting year for us! After Baby Box premieres at the King’s Head we move on to the Bunker as one of their Breaking Out companies to produce Nine Foot Nine – focussed around the question ‘what would happen if every single self-identifying woman in the world suddenly grew to nine foot tall?’. For Nine Foot Nine we’re totally committed to improving our accessibility, and are planning all performances to be captioned and audio-described with a cast including performers that identify as D/deaf or Disabled. It’s then heading up to perform at Assembly for a full run at the Fringe, keeping as many of the accessibility features as our budget can possibly allow! Our big ‘thing’ at Sleepless is to create environments where everyone (audiences and performers alike) feel valued and welcomed, no matter what their individual needs may be.