On Diversity in Theatre with the PappyShow

Our chat with the PappyShow ahead of their new show Boys on telling new stories and finding your community as a creative.

Spotlight sat down with the PappyShow’s Artistic Director Kane Husbands, Stage Manager Sylvia Darkwa-Ohemeng, and Spotlight members and performers Aaron Gordon, Kamran Vahabi and Andre Fyffe. Their new show Boys, tackling the complexity of masculinity today, opens this Wednesday 7th February as part of the VAULT festival.

Our work has always explored that and it’s always been about the lived experience of people. We’ve never wanted to make up a story.
Kane Husbands
It’s the 21st century – why not get a team around you and just do it? Why not be a real go-getter?
Andre Fyffe

How did the PappyShow begin?

Kane: The company started in 2012. I went to the Caribbean for a few months, which is where my ancestry came from, and I had the idea that I just wanted to get some of the wonderful people I’d worked with over the past few years into a room to just try out a few ideas… Not to come in with any specific idea but just to see what comes out of having that wonderful group of people in a space. From there, just from meeting regularly, working together, trying out different exercises, I guess the company formed. ‘Pappy Show’ is a Caribbean phrase that means silliness or foolishness or messing around. It felt like the perfect name! Because that’s what we’ve been doing…

How would you describe Boys as a show?

Kane: We [at the PappyShow] became really interested in gender: what is it to be male, to be female, masculine or feminine. Our work has always explored that and it’s always been about the lived experience of people. We’ve never wanted to make up a story. It’s about your experience. Girls, which explores femininity, and Boys, which explores being a man. Both explore masculinity and femininity but in their different gender roles. Because we’re a physical theatre company, we’re trying to do it visually – what does it look like rather than what’s the speaking behind all of it? How can we tell it in a picture?

Aaron: The tagline is ‘a celebration of manhood’, it is literally the dark bits, the light bits, the funny bits… we start off with a stereotypical point of view of a man and then we sort of take you on a journey. But we instantly break [down the stereotype] and question our own biases and those of the people watching it.

Particularly being a group of BAME men making this piece, whose families span the entire world, [we wanted to investigate] what has led us to this moment, us all being in London – we wanted to unpick what our ancestors have taught us. Even when we go for roles now, how limiting those can feel, what people expect of men who look like this. So we’ve often talked about how if there were a paintbox of manhood, how could we paint with all the colours, rather than just three or four?
Kane Husbands

Do you think masculinity is a pertinent topic to explore at the moment, given everything that has been happening in the industry?

Kamran: I’d say so, particularly now there’s such an awareness – particularly with the mental health of men, being allowed to be upset and express their emotions. One thing we’ve discovered is that masculinity is a form of covering up male vulnerability - ‘I’m not allowed to be upset, so I’m going to act all macho’. It’s something we need to strip down as a society, because it’s quite damaging. Especially for those who are questioning their gender, their sexuality. It’s something that we’ve discovered: being vulnerable is one of the bravest things you can be. We definitely want to convey that.

Kane: Particularly being a group of BAME men making this piece, whose families span the entire world, [we wanted to investigate] what has led us to this moment, us all being in London – we wanted to unpick what our ancestors have taught us. Even when we go for roles now, how limiting those can feel, what people expect of men who look like this. So we’ve often talked about how if there were a paintbox of manhood, how could we paint with all the colours, rather than just three or four?

Some big topics to tackle there! How did the show come about - how did you start to actually unpack such a complex theme?

Kamran: We kind of started with a bit of homework – questions like ‘how would your dad respond in this scenario?’ Some of that is rooted in the teachings our families have given us, our society [has given us], and sometimes it’s both… Then we found similarities across all of us.

Andre: Yes - [similarities in] our experiences, all sorts of factors that add to the man that you become as you get older. [We asked questions like] ‘What was your dad like? What was the relationship between you and your dad, you and your granddad? You and your mum?’

Kane: ‘What was the last time you cried?’ I remember a time when it was okay to kiss my dad – when I went to bed, I’d kiss my mum and I’d kiss my dad. And I remember specifically when that moment changed and he said, “You can shake my hand from now on.” That’s so sad and actually, if I was born female I would never have been taught that. I’ve recently got a little nephew who is so cute and when you look at little kids, they’re running around and being so expressive – they play, they’re giggling. My granddad was put into an old people’s home recently, and I was just so surprised to see how the women in the old people’s home were talking, conversing, they had friends. And the men were like statues – not communicating, closed down. It was so sad to see that. Then I was like, well what takes us on a journey from here to here? After starting out so expressive and playful?

Aaron: We were discussing during rehearsals a theory on why women live longer than men, because when women have problems they tend to share it with their friends. Whereas men tend to share it with their partner and once their partner goes or they don’t have a partner they don’t necessarily share it – they keep it in.

Andre: When men have a problem they don’t say anything; if it’s a health problem they don’t want to see the doctor.

Kamran: You’re not allowed to be weak. ‘Medicine? I don’t need medicine!’

Andre: It’s the ‘I can fix it on my own’ mentality.

I think what’s unique about this show, particularly for the audience, is that very rarely do people come to a show and get to know the actor. You go with the expectation that you’re going to get to know a character. But they’ll get to know us and I think that might be something very different for audience members.
Kamran Vahabi

Definitely a rich topic area. Was there an appeal for you guys as actors in terms of the PappyShow approach - the physicality of the performance? What makes the approach unique?

Aaron: For me personally it’s just the play – there’s not many times where you can just get in a room and just play. When you’ve got the fragment of an idea and just go with that. There’s so much more material that we got [from the process of devising the show] and we had to refine it. It’s just that idea of having a script and then going and doing table work for two weeks – yes, that can be great, but it’s refreshing to be like “Ok, you two are brothers and there’s a conflict. Go! Make something!” It’s really fun.

Kamran: For me it’s the sheer honesty of the work. When you get a script – a traditional script – you try and find truth in the character in you. Whereas this is us. When I say I’m in this show and people ask, “What’s your character’s name?” I’m like, well, I’m myself. There is no character. All the work is being created, as Kane said, from lived experience. A moment we’ve had or something. It’s an honest place… It’s about connecting that to the piece. Being connected and creating work.

Andre: Some of the best parts of the play, I think [come from where] we’ve played a game and that’s just so happened to make something – unconsciously done – just bringing yourself to the piece. Because we are all bringing ourselves there’s a form of trust and belonging that builds and then we are all open to making new ideas and moulding them.

Kane: We have a part of the show where we knew we wanted to tackle a bit of competition, and trying to act competition would never work. So, with us it was the right game – what you see then is the toxic masculinity and it’s just raw.

Andre: We [get along and] can all talk freely to each other, but there is that competitive nature in all of us. Outside it looks a bit [scary] but inside it’s so freeing.

Sylvia: It’s nice because it makes the show theirs. It’s not characters or made up... if people like it, they like you. And if they’re not quite sure about it, it’s like oh, hold on, that’s me! It’s my life… Even though there’s no straight dialogue, the physicality – everything flows and you understand exactly where you are.

Kane: That goes back to the PappyShow approach. We try to have a holistic approach to it – the sitting around having conversations or the eating food together or the stretching and yoga we try and do in the morning, is all a part of the work. It’s all about our wellbeing that helps then inform the choices in the work that we are making. It’s not just ‘let’s get in and get the script out and do the rehearsal’. We just came back from a residency in Iceland making the Girls show, and it was just nice living together, watching movies together, going to work together, cooking and eating together and having all that experience informing what the show would be. We’ve brought the same experience to this.

Kamran: I think what’s unique about this show, particularly for the audience, is that very rarely do people come to a show and get to know the actor. You go with the expectation that you’re going to get to know a character. But they’ll get to know us and I think that might be something very different for audience members. We’re not taking them into a different world.

Aaron: Kane made a really great point that a lot of the theatre that we see has the lights go down and you go ‘shhh’. [This is] more like a sports game where you’re in it… it’s so involved, and why can't that be a theatrical experience? Hopefully we do that.

I think specifically at this time, where we are at currently, we need to be hearing different voices. We don’t want to hear the same narrative over and over again.
Kane Husbands

On a practical note, the VAULT festival seems like a great festival for emerging companies wanting to make their own work. What do you think is the benefit of the VAULT festival for those wanting to create work in London?

Sylvia: In the VAULT festival there are so many shows, and they’re so different – this could have easily been any young male play about stereotypical men trying to be the best. I think there’s a lot of colours in this play and they’re painted beautifully. It’s exciting and I think if people want to see something young and different [this is it].

Kane: It’s become the most inclusive festival in London, I think, where people can just write their application, and it could get selected and you could have your show on. It feels almost impossible for companies to get their work out there unless you’ve either got lots of funding or you’ve spent the past ten years saving. And actually, some of the voices that we wanna hear from should be these ones – not the ones that have got all the money in the bank. I think specifically at this time, where we are at currently, we need to be hearing different voices. We don’t want to hear the same narrative over and over again... So I’m just so thankful to the VAULT festival for making it so accessible for us. I know if they hadn’t given us their support, then this show probably couldn’t have gone on here. But it’s also made us think now about where else we want to take our work, and it’s probably festivals. We want to go round music festivals, literary festivals – you don’t see people who look like this telling stories like this.

As long as you’re telling stories you wanna tell, that’s success.
Kamran Vahabi

Do you have any advice for other young actors - particularly those who aren’t finding the kinds of roles that excite them?

Andre: Create your own work. We’re in a day and age where you can do that – you can get good people like we’ve done here and create your own work, put it out there. There are people like Kane said who are hungry for new things to see. Things that are different seem to go further as well. People come up with great ideas and it gets great traction because it hasn’t been done before. Or it’s being done in a new way. It’s the 21st century – why not get a team around you and just do it? Why not be a real go-getter?

Kane: I remember some advice someone gave me which was, ‘You’re spending so much time trying to impress people that don’t even know you, when actually your number one fans are just around the corner.’ So make work with your network, the people who you love, who are near you. Make stories, make shows, grow your network but keep the close ones near you. We keep saying: you do you.

Kamran: You gotta stay true to who and what you are. Like, why are you in this industry? We’re all here because we want to tell important stories. Not every story is going to the Old Vic. You just have to be relentless – you’ve got to be tough. Sometimes people don’t want to listen or see but you’ve got to be relentless, you do all these smaller venues and hopefully it creates traction. But as long as you’re telling stories you wanna tell, that’s success.

Andre: If it’s good you will tell people, but as it grows and becomes great, people will start to tell you. People will recognise you and go, those guys over there? Their work is really good. They would want to collaborate with you. They see what you can do and that’s another reason to create your own work – show off your skills. Show off what you can do, and experiment. Understand the process. You get the A to Z [of the process] and it makes you a better artist, I think. Creating, then exploring and putting on a show.

Aaron: I think we’re very focused these days on now now now – yes, have that ambition, that drive, but enjoy the process. Don’t miss the journey, that’s the interesting bit. What’s great about the pappy show is that it’s a foundation, it’s a long term thing. It’s the idea of building this, with likeminded people and we’re just going to enjoy however we get there. Enjoy the process of getting there.

Given how competitive it is here, do you have any advice for other young actors who are struggling to find what makes them stand out from the crowd? Are there many sources of support out there?

Kamran: There’s a lot of people out there, but there’s only one you. Regardless of who surrounds you, you have to stay true to what you are. Be nice to everyone, have good intentions and people will want to work with you again.

Kane: We’ve had fantastic support from the National Youth Theatre, from Spotlight. We as a company just started out doing workshops – we wanted to offer a space where people could come and wouldn’t feel like we were auditioning them, just try things and get it wrong. I know Spotlight do a lot of that. So seek out those environments where you can just try things, get it wrong sometimes, but it’s nothing against you – you’re not just trying to impress everyone in the room… It’s not like you have to be in the friendship group. Just show an interest in the work.

Kamran: I think what Kane is totally fabulous at is making you feel comfortable in the space – I think it’s mainly because the foundation is play. The inner child.

Andre: You’re not always allowed to do that in other environments.

Aaron: I think it’s important to have a team, that will keep you humble, support you and…

Andre: ...give you honest feedback.

Aaron: Yeah, honest feedback, people who are going to grow with you. I think that a lot of us write but not everyone enjoys that process. If you’ve got an idea and you get together, it’s like boom - let’s make some work.

Andre: I produce all the time and one thing I remember telling an actor is information changes the situation. If you can constantly go out there and look for the information then you’ll be in a better place, because you'll be informed and you'll know how to go about it. It’s a really difficult industry but if you keep yourself informed and know what’s going on around you – keep yourself on your path – all the information will guide you. Spotlight do that all the time: they give out all this free information and some actors just don’t pay attention. And it’s just like it’s there for free! You upload it, on YouTube, in articles – just read it and be informed and know where everything around you is. Figure out if it’s right for your dream. [It’s a competitive industry] but everything is – if you want to be a lawyer, same thing.

Aaron: Yeah, not just our industry, just in life. It’s dangerous I think to compare. Your journey is different. Thinking, ‘oh, that person is on TV, and that person is in movies…’ That might be you in 15 years, that might not be you, but it’s dangerous to compare yours to other people’s journeys.

Andre: There will be other actors looking at what you’re doing and thinking, ‘I wish I could be in their shoes…’ You have to appreciate another person’s journey, let that inspire you, but don’t compare your grass to their grass. Their Chapter 5 to your Chapter 2 – their book is different to your book.

You’re all so gloriously well-adjusted! It’s really inspiring. Last question: what would you like to do next?

Kane: I think for PappyShow, I’d love Boys and Girls to go hand in hand… that’s my long term aspiration for the show. I think there’ll be shows that stay with us for many years. We have been a company that have self-funded so far - we’ve never received any funding from anyone - so [shows] will happen, because we make it happen. And if people want to help, we love that!

Boys opens this week as part of the VAULT festival, and tickets are available online here! PappyShow workshops are happening 7-9PM every Monday evening at the National Youth Theatre in London. Go along! Or see what else the PappyShow are up to on their Twitter and their website

Image credit: Mark Cocksedge