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Scratch performance: Lipstick - a fairytale of modern Iran, Omnibus Theatre

Q&A: Writer/director Sarah Chew on mixing genres and the Beyond Borders theatre season, Omnibus Theatre

Lipstick: A Modern Fairytale of Iran is part of a series ‘Beyond Borders’ at the Omnibus in Clapham, tell us a bit about the season and its focus.
Beyond Borders is a series of conversations and provocations around current trends towards the hardening of National and cultural borders.

Beyond Borders Festival ImageWhen I was in Iran in 2010, Iran was part of the area the US Government still titled the Axis of Evil. The title coloured my assumptions of what I would find there - assumptions which were challenged on a daily basis throughout my stay in Iran. 

What does Brexit, and the threat of a hard border with Ireland, do to our perceptions of people we see as Other?

What role does tightened immigration here, and Trump's travel bans in the US, play in this?

How, specifically, are women affected by the process of being Othered?

These questions can be explored verbally, but it is sometimes easier to play with these ideas in non-verbal formats. Sometimes, removing language as the primary means of communication can provide a shortcut through anxiety and terminology and towards more instinctive engagement.
The inspiration for Lipstick came from the time you spent in Iran in 2010, what made you want to use that experience as the basis of a piece of theatre?

It was a life changing experience. I met some extraordinary people, I saw some extraordinary theatre, and I saw at firsthand what the courage to keep making passionate, beautiful, honest theatre, even under the threat of censorship and imprisonment, looked like. 

I would have loved to work in Iran more, but the relationship between our two countries makes getting visas and setting up projects almost impossible.

Theatre is made of the people who make it. I felt a sense of loss, after I left Iran, at the absence of collaborators I knew I could have made beautiful theatre with.

But that experience also made me cherish and celebrate the collaborators and the cultural community I have here. Lipstick is at once an acknowledgement of loss and a celebration of community and continuity.

You described the piece as a mixture of storytelling, vaudeville, theatre, lip-synch and boylesque - sounds intriguing - was it always the plan to mix genres and how did that evolve?

I have always loved mixing genres and making connections between things that seem disparate.

It's partly that I simply find that really fun to do, but it's also an ethos that underpins my work: seeing connections between apparently unrelated or actively opposed things (and between people) is more positive and more healing than seeing differences. 

Storytelling is at the heart of my work across a lot of seemingly disparate genres - but I have also always loved cabaret, and always loved telling stories in images, in moments, and giving the audience the power to make the links between the moments by themselves, rather than always being spoon fed them. 

For Lipstick, the light bulb moment was when I came across a form of historic Iranian children's entertainment called the Shahre Farang. It's a sort of peep show, or picture box, where children would peer into the windows of a box that looked like a very palatial dolls house and would see changing images, back-projected, while the showman told them a story.

The showmen who travelled these boxes were often poor and had to make use of whatever pictures they could get hold of, so the story they told, usually a fairytale, were often told to pictures that were actually adverts for holidays.

It intrigued me because it's such a direct indication of how vital the imagination and complicity of your audience is, when you tell them a story, and how actively they are committed to believing in the process.

Lipstick covers some very sad and very political areas, but at heart, it's a sentimental and enthusiastically silly love song to the power of community, collaboration and friendship. I wanted a device that would help an audience lean in and commit to the silliness and affection at its centre.

These are scratch performances, how does that inform the process and what’s the next step?

Scratches are terrifying to any theatre maker. In a full production, you have time and resources to resolve or, in an emergency, merely prettify, any gaps.

In a scratch, your audience is seeing your work in a very raw, undecorated way. Their feedback is very helpful - and they in return get an insight into how we make our work - but it's a very exposing process. 

I am hugely fortunate to have a stunningly talented and committed team around me. I have done extensive work on the text with dramaturg Penny Black and her assistant Aaron Lamont; sound artist Nick Blackburn and designer Molly Beth White have created intense visual and aural worlds for the story to sit in; and in Laura dos Santos and Nathan Kiley (aka drag queen Topsie Redfern) I have the most committed, talented, skilled, funny and bonkers cast I could hope to have. 

The next step would be to take it to a full production, either here in London, or at the Edinburgh Festival.

Beyond Borders runs until March 25, for more details about the season, performances, times and prices head to the Omnibus Theatre website.


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