Playing into Performance: an interview with The PappyShow

CARE, Vault Festival 2019

After the end of a very busy week, performing three productions (BOYS, GIRLS and CARE) at VAULT Festival, Kane Husbands and Eddie-Joe Robinson of The PappyShow chatted to Ciaran Hammond about their company, their practice and physical theatre.

Where did The PappyShow start?

KANE: We started six years ago. I was working full time at the National Youth Theatre. And then lots of us got made redundant. I was in a lucky position where I had been coming back and forth to freelance, and it meant that over the years I got to work with all these different people, so I just thought “I can’t now rely on the NYT to put me in rooms with brilliant people so I’m just gonna start something up myself!”

I went to the Caribbean for the first time which is where my family are from, and one of the most overused words over there is pappyshow and it means sillyness or foolishness or playfulness. I didn’t quite know that I wanted to make a theatre company. I just wanted to get a group of people together to play some games in a room. So I invited about twenty people and we just had a day of playing and then that day turned into a week and then we started to do it ad-hoc through the year, and then 4 years later we were like, “Let’s make a piece.” But initially it was just to train together and to be in a room with other people not necessarily to make a show or anything.

You’ve done a lot of shows that are a result of workshops or other projects, so BOYS last year was your first show that you made intentionally to be a performance?

KANE: Yeah it’s usually for a social inclusion project or like a creative learning thing, and we’ll share the work at the end of it. But BOYS was our first show that we made for an audience and that we put all of our research from over the years together.

CARE, Vault Festival 2019

Who was there from the get-go?

KANE: From the very beginning it was just me, and then about three or four years ago I thought I can’t do it all on my own, it was just too much, and there had been some people who had been really regular and consistent with all the work since the company started. So I spoke with the five people who are now in the core company and now we run it together.

What would you say the most formative experience has been for you, firstly as the Artistic Director of the company and secondly for the company as a whole?

KANE: I think when I was a member of the National Youth Theatre when I was 15 and those years of working with that company just changed my life. I wasn’t interested in theatre originally, I wanted to do sports; I was a sprinter and a swimmer and that was my thing. And then a teacher said to me, “I haven’t had anyone get into the NYT in about ten years” and I was like, “I bet I’ll get in”. It was so arrogant! I think it was my competitive streak. And that turned everything upside down for me, we toured all around the world. It broadened my horizons as to what I could have imagined my life to have been. It made me think much bigger, particularly being in China – I performed at the Beijing Olympics. From there I started working on my intercultural practice, which is really at the heart of what I do: celebrating difference and bringing different cultures together so they can tell stories.

EDDIE: For me it was Latitude.

What did you do in Latitude?

EDDIE: We did BOYS in Latitude last year… How many of us went? 20?

KANE: Yeah we took 20 of us to Latitude and it was insane, because it was the first time where somebody who had seen the work and wanted the work. We were just going to perform at one of their small stages and they came and saw it and they wanted it to be one of the headline events in the main theatre tent, and it was at the best time. You could come and watch our show and then half an hour after go and watch Solange. It was insane. I don’t know how it happened. And it was also on that day that we received our Arts Council Funding. So it was one of the most extraordinary days.

It sounds like it was a quick transition?

EDDIE: That was off the back of Vault Fest last year and so it was quite quick. But that was a real moment of the fruits of the labour paying off because for so long we’d been trying to make it happen ourselves, so when someone else steps in and kind of makes it happen for you, it’s a big moment. So there was a shift because people were putting in their time and effort to make it work for us rather than us doing all the work to make something happen. It was a real moment of “Okay, here’s a step forward.”

GIRLS, Vault Festival 2019

What would you guys say has been the biggest change in the company’s artistic practice since you started?

KANE: So BOYS took three or four years to develop. In my own personal practice, I teach a lot at universities and I might work with a thousand people a week. And I also did a lot of work with groups of men around London and the Middle East. Went to Dubai, went to Saudi Arabia. And I just kind of thought that they were all quite separate and sparse and then I started to go, “These are all linked!” We were in Croatia with a group of teachers, and I realised that it was directly informing the work with GIRLS. And I think it was understanding that the work in the room is valid research. And I used to view research as something like going to the library and sitting down and studying, but actually, it can be being in a room full of people and giving them questions and hearing their stories. Because they’re all experts about being a man and being a woman and the data you collect from that is all valid for informing the work.

It’s taken us years to get to this point. So in a way the product can happen quite quickly for us, because we’ve spent three years doing the research.

EDDIE: Yeah it has been a shift but more as a development than a change. Just to echo what Kane said really, you don’t need anything more than what is already in the room. In the style of work that we’re doing, where there are no characters and all that. Everything you need to make the show is in the people and the room. And yeah I guess it was just that realisation for me.

This definitely comes through in your work, and it has a very comforting effect.

KANE: It’s a very therapeutic way to create work. We work with a therapist quite a lot who comes and supports our work. She’s a consultant and a psychoanalyst, and she helps tailor what kind of questions we’re asking. How do we ask open questions that bring about interesting stories? Then it becomes really interesting to analyse the responses to those things; If you ask people about love they often tell you stories about heartbreak. And it just makes you go “Wow,” it really feels like a study of humanity, that you’re not just making a play but you’re looking at the process and thinking, “Aren’t people fascinating? Isn’t that interesting?” So we’re just trying to put those responses together on stage in the most authentic way. It’s just such an interesting study.

I love watching TED Talks and discussions, and I’m amazed at how a group can be doing nothing theatrical, they’re just standing there, telling their story and speaking. And there’s something that I really connect to in that, and I felt that we needed more theatre that has this authenticity and truthfulness to it. And then the moments of theatricality are where we do something different. We’re not trying to trick the audience. I don’t believe it, I don’t believe that you’ve just come from a pretend setting, it doesn’t work for me, but if you talk about yourself, I buy that. So I guess we’ve been trying to make the shift between, what is our theatrical language and what is our authentic storytelling.

GIRLS, Vault Festival 2019

You’ve mentioned your work with the NYT, is there an artist either inside or outside the NYT that has influenced you the most, and the company?

KANE: I think, the very first time I saw any of Pina Bausch’s work. I couldn’t believe it was such a mix of different things, there was dance, they were playing games. It really blew my mind and made me think “Wow, how can something be that visual?” And they’re never pretending to be other people, it’s just themselves. And I’m looking back at my own history and my own life and seeing what I want to see with what they present. Like, “Oh my God, that’s my Mum and Dad! That’s how they met! That’s the love that my Nan and Grandad had.” And it’s not being forced on me, I’m just seeing it. So she was a huge influence.

EDDIE: Sounds cheesy, but for me it’s probably Kane, because for me personally, I’ve never worked in a way like this before. I joined the company back in 2013, but haven’t performed in anything with The PappyShow until this year, which is odd. Being in it is hard because it’s quite an exposing thing to do, just to be onstage and be yourself, and nothing but yourself. It’s difficult to really strip off the layers, but once you do that it’s really liberating. I’ve felt like some of my most comfortable moments have been on the stage being myself.

KANE: We’re also really inspired by this researcher called Brené Brown, she’s an American researcher and she studies things like shame and vulnerability and bravery and risk taking. She’s not really a theatre person she’s more of a psychologist. But she’s been a huge influence, in the way that we operate, the way we set up rooms, the way we try to create trust in an ensemble.

BOYS, Vault Festival 2019

What artist do you most identify through your work?

KANE: I think the work that Augusto Boal did about trying to provoke change through playing games and how you can change a community on the inside through holding up a mirror. And because I was so sporty as a kid, as I was always so fascinated on how we can be so gripped in sport and how we can switch off so easily in theatre. And yet both places we see the full range of human emotion: when you watch men burst into tears and see strangers hug. You see that in the theatre, on the stage and in the audience. There’s something about the game, the audience know the game and we have a way in to be able to receive the work, and you go “I know what they’re going to do! They’re going to kick a ball in there!”, because you know the rules, and you can really let yourself live within it. And if it’s clear, you can enjoy the journey and you don’t have to work out what’s going to happen next.

EDDIE: And it’s such an investment on the audience side of things as well, because it’s genuinely live. When you’re watching a “normal” play, you can trick yourself into believing that what is happening in front of you is real, though it’s not. 99% of the time you go in and think “I’m watching a play,” whereas I think we try and create work that you can genuinely feel like is happening right in front of you, because it’ll be different every night.

BOYS, Vault Festival 2019

What would you say the biggest change has been in the world of physical theatre since The PappyShow started?

KANE: I don’t know about a change in the world of physical theatre. I know what I’ve wanted to contribute to the conversation and it’s specifically around inclusion and diversity. And I started to look around, mainly through my teaching, and I saw a big push on wanting to have more diverse people in the room, in the institutions. I wasn’t necessarily seeing it in the staffing in those institutions. I was looking around like, “Why aren’t there more people of colour leading rooms?” And when I started to look at the world of dance and the world of physical theatre, and asking, “Why am I not seeing any people of colour?” When you look at the world of sport, there are people of colour who are excelling, you go and watch the Olympics and all of our sprinters, and all of our athletes are people of colour How isn’t this translating? We can’t say they’re unfit. There’s something that’s not crossing here, and I believe that we’re not thinking about it as an accessible career path for people of colour and we don’t know how to get into that. So I wanted to actively make it possible that we see a range of narratives that challenge our bias. So that’s what I wanted to push. And then it became about what are the voices we don’t hear what are the unheard stories? And I guess The PappyShow is about opening up the conversation, and hopefully the conversation afterwards is about the work. When we go to see theatres who want to program BOYS, we ask, “Why do you want work like this? What’s the big push to have BAME men in your theatre, because your audience doesn’t look like it, so let’s have a conversation about it.” So I think for me, diversity and inclusivity are the biggest changes.

EDDIE: I’d just like to add, that we will always try to push for the feeling to come through the moves – if we’re going to talk about physical theatre – and I feel like a lot of physical theatre has good choreography but it’s hard to connect to, emotionally. And unless there’s something behind it, it may as well be a dance show. And so from that, I think for us, getting the moves right or having your perfect point isn’t really what it’s about. And correct me if I’m wrong [to Kane] but you’d always prefer it to be messy and have feeling behind it. So I think we’re trying to move away from the very primed and perfect technique of it, and into the expressiveness and feeling of it. Whilst also having great choreography – I hope so – but again just putting the parameters there and being able to play within that. Rather than, “This is what you have to do, night in, night out.”

KANE: With scripts, emphasis is put on the words, but when you study communication, the majority of it is through what we see in body language. So why is it that this piece of paper is dictating all of the work. It’s something about control, and it’s started to go into movement. It’s not the moves, it’s the feeling.


The Pappy Show are currently touring BOYS, GIRLS and CARE and run regular drop-in Monday night workshops from their base at NYT, Holloway Road.

Interview by Ciaran Hammond

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About Ciaran Hammond

Ciaran Hammond is an actor, director, writer and theatre maker with a background in devised theatre. Ciaran works with absurdist theatre makers LoudGround (UK) as an associate artist, and is a founding member of physical theatre company, Romantika (SWE/UK). Ciaran has a BA(Hons) in European Theatre Arts from Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance, and also trained at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre as an actor. Ciaran is interested in collaborative methods of theatre making, and is drawn towards the weird and wonderful. He also does a little bit of juggling.