Tejas Verdes: An Interview with Emily Louizou

Sunday 26th March, Camden

emily louizou

Emily Louizou is the Founder and Artistic Director for Collide Theatre. A group of young, emerging artists and creatives, their tag line is “to speak through bold texts and to produce work which challenges, inspires and excites both us and our audience”.Past productions 4.48 Psychosis and Hamletmachine received general acclaim, with reviews that are as effusive in praise of Collide’s vision as they are fascinated by the elusive subject matter. (You can read our review of 4.48 Psychosis by Collide here). Their upcoming production is Tejas Verdes by Fermin Cabal, described in their own words as “a celebration of human rights and freedom; a cry against totalitarianism”. At Collide’s preferred tea/coffee shop, I met with Emily to hear about the play, the work and London theatre in general.

Tejas Verdes is a story about Chile under Pinochet, who murdered over 3,000 people and tortured many thousands more. The title, Green Gables, is the name of a former hotel turned detention centre, and the setting of the play. Here the final days of one victim are told through seven monologues. Each of them is about ten minutes long, and have been challenging for the actors, Emily tells me as we order coffee. Our interview is taking place during rehearsals, while the movement director takes charge; with just a few days until opening they are in crunch mode. “I didn’t know anything about Pinochet and his dictatorship in Chile – I just hadn’t heard about it”, she freely confesses.

Over cappuccinos (and a brownie) we start with Emily’s motivations for doing this play. “You read the testimonies, the extracts from his trials and you can’t believe that these things can happen”, she says about the atrocities Pinochet committed against his own people. What shocks equally, I think, is the general ambivalence towards these relatively recent events. She talks about conversations with people who, unaware, defended Pinochet’s character on essentially utilitarian grounds. “A lot people said that to me so I thought ‘yeah, I think we need to do this play’.”

Interestingly, Cabal’s play features an all-female cast, none of whom are actively complicit. Rather, there are varying levels of collusion and justification: “you get that interesting collage of different perspectives rather than just victim after victim after victim.” There is, perhaps, a parallel to be drawn between this extreme rationalisation and the contemporary phenomenon of so-called ‘Alternative Facts’. In both cases there is a gradual acceptance, through misdirections and half-truths, that fundamental human rights are no longer sacrosanct. “We’ve seen this with the rise of fascism and terrorism in today’s world – it’s scary. It’s not a historic play in our eyes.”

Emily is already familiar with, if no less affected by, this sense of wilful ignorance. Some of her earliest theatre experience was with The No Project, an organisation that promotes youth awareness of human trafficking by encouraging and collaborating with young creatives. “I think that’s where the fascination with the dark side of humanity began” she says, fondly recalling her time as their creative director. Still in her late teens, she was involved in fundraising, youth outreach and productions, including her own play. No longer involved due to her own commitments, nevertheless themes of entrapment and violence abound in her work – most conspicuously with Tejas Verdes.

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One of my first questions is whether the play is prophetic or hopeful.“I realised early on that this is a very hopeful play, its a very beautiful play”, Emily answers thoughtfully. “Which is ironic to say when you know that its a play about torture and dictatorships – but that is the lens through which we’ve seen it. We don’t see any blood, we don’t see any of the violence. So it’s not about shocking the audience that much.” A recurring image in Collide’s promotional material is a close-up portrait of a woman: she holds up bright yellow flowers to the viewer, obscuring her face.

Much of the background research for the play – I did watch a lot of documentaries – in Spanish, which I don’t speak” – focused on the tragic figure of Salvador Allende. A Marxist, his democratic election as President midway through the Cold War was the impetus for a US-backed military coup in Chile. “Pinochet appears as this figure who saved the country from anarchy. I think the most important thing I figured out was that Allende was not a monster – he was such a peaceful leader. He did try to reorganise the structure of Chile and I can see why some people disagreed with it…he was a visionary.” Trapped in the presidential palace, Allende made an optimistic farewell radio address before committing suicide with an AK-47.Today, his shattered glasses are displayed in Chile’s National History Museum: a grim relic and a reminder of the country’s stolen dreams.

Yet, on the whole, Emily is less concerned with historic verisimilitude – there won’t be any Spanish accents, nor were Spanish/Chilean actors sought out. “I didn’t bother my actors too much with [doing research], and I told them from the beginning that I’m not interested in doing a historical play. I don’t want the audience to come in and think ‘oh, this is a historical play about something that happened years ago and does not concern us’.”

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As well as de-contextualising the play, Collide’s site-specific, promenade production will place the audience within the performance itself. The aim is to question the distinction between observer and participant, if not the element of passivity (“I don’t like immersive shows”). “It’s your choice how close you want to be to [the actors], its your choice how quickly you want to move from one room to the other. Having said that its a guided promenade, so its not a kind of Punch Drunk show where you can go wherever you want.” With Tejas Verdes, Collide Theatre will have put on three promenade performances, although more by coincidence than design: “it’s first that I find the space and then that I decide – promenade.”

Emily first experimented with promenade theatre while studying at UCL. For their annual Greek play she chose Euripides’s Bacchae. It began as “a traditional show, on a stage”, she recalls breezily. When the British Museum invited them to perform there, Emily revamped for the unique setting: “you had 400 people in each show moving around each space within the museum wearing headphones…it was very intimate even though it had the potential to be very cold and distant.” That success with the Bacchae (which also travelled to Greece) was an inspiration for her own productions at Collide.

I suggest, flippantly, that she seems dismissive of traditional theatre, and ask if there are occasions to avoid promenade. “I’m not dismissive of traditional theatre,”, Emily protests, “of course I love it, of course I do! As a director I think its more exciting at this point in my career to just explore that relationship between the audience and the actors. There’s something really vital that a lot of ‘traditional theatre’ forgets about. I do get to see a lot of shows and it could be the same even if the auditorium is empty, and that’s something I don’t want.”

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Tejas Verdes will be performed at 49 Tanner street, a renovated Victorian warehouse – “it does give you the feeling of being in a hotel.” The space is operated by Ugly Duck, who collect abandoned buildings and revitalise them as creative spaces. Emily speaks warmly of their willingness to share their space and, importantly, their professional attitude towards Collide Theatre. “I have worked with venues that have been really…dismissive”, she says measuredly, “especially towards young artists – they see us as amateurs. There is that kind of attitude which I hate.”

There are difficulties with the Tanner Street site – a bare space, there are no built-in lighting/sound systems – but the ambitious director appears to be thriving nonetheless. “It’s not easy, if I wanted something easy I could go in a studio space, in a pub theatre. It is about pushing ourselves and just trying to do something which is not easy and is not comfortable…it’s boring doing a play in a pub theatre!”

There is a particular burden, too, placed on the actors when the distance of the stage is removed – “you’ve got nowhere to hide”, as Emily puts it. The reverse is also true for the audience – the goal is “to experience something collectively together in order to feel an individual, rather than a crowd.” As she describes the preparations for that difficult, almost paradoxical quality, I remark that it is analogous to an absent cast member. “For rehearsals we use each other, we use the creative team as as an audience, because its so vital to get that connection and that relationship right – its as you said, its almost as if one cast member is missing.”

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Emily speaks highly of her actors, and describes the creative team at Collide Theatre as an essential part of the process from the moment she begins selecting a play. “I don’t want to be a dictator- director, I don’t want to be the one that tells everyone what to do.” Long time collaborator David Denyer, the music composer on at least five of Emily’s productions, has had a pivotal role: “we’ve added a song in the beginning of the play, which acts as a prologue and is a kind of way to invite the audience in.”

I like including live music when possible. We don’t have live music in terms of instruments in this show because we thought it didn’t really fit. But we’ve got singing and beautiful, recorded, original music.” I suggest that this contrasts with the typical West End show: “In a lot of modern productions they think of music as just sound to just get that kind of really naturalistic, boring soundscapes…and I think the audience doesn’t need to hear a city noise to understand. We don’t need to spoon-feed the audience.”

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We move onto a sticky topic: funding productions as small, independent outfit. “Tricky, tricky; funding is always tricky”, Emily acknowledges. In the case of Tejas Verdes, Collide will be relying on a combination of ticket sales, crowdfunding and private donors. The next step, of course, is to obtain Arts Council funding. “I think its something that, looking back now, I wish we had done for this show. Just in terms of timing it didn’t work.”

Arts Council England has seen an overall decline in its budget over the last few years, despite the government’s creative use of statistics to glamorise the situation. Emily speaks compassionately about the plight of creatives – both independent and at the large companies – and the struggle to balance a double-life of work and making art. On the other hand, she is frank about the relationship between the arts and the public purse: “you don’t need thousands of show per year if half of them are not saying anything new. So I think its about finding the purpose of your existence as an artist, as a company, as a theatre maker.”

Regardless of the situation, Emily takes pride in the work she and her team have done. “The lack of funding pushes you towards a direction of being more creative, more original, because when its not easy to do things you just need to find the best possible way. Which could be the most bizarre way to do things. So its definitely a good experience working without money”. Pause. “But we’re all dreaming of those big productions with loads of funding. Obviously!”

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To end on a more positive note, I ask Emily to give me a kind of mission statement for the kind of theatre she makes, and hopes to continue making. In her own words:

We see so many shows that – the experience ends at the curtain fall. We applaud and then we go home, and we forget about it; and that’s such a shame. I love those shows that when I walk out, maybe I don’t want to think about it. But the next day something comes up, something changes clicks inside my head…”

I’d love it if the audiences experience of the show – any show I do – could continue after it ends. If you think about it the next day or on the tube on the way home if they could just have a thought: a new thought, or a question, or an idea. Something very small – anything – then I would be a happy director.”

emily louizou

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You can now read our review of ‘Tejas Verdes’ by Collide Theatre here.

Author: Charles Conway

Contributor to Performance Reviewed and freelance editor/writer. He has a problem with writing reductively about intellectual things, and writing tediously about the fun stuff. Charles also mucks about with websites - like the one you're currently viewing, for example.