Outbox are back, bigger and more bold than ever!
Outbox LGB Theatre, the only exclusively gay and lesbian theatre company in London are proud to be launching their newest production, Reach Out and Touch Me, to be performed in the basement of the Shoreditch Town Hall.
So So Gay toured the set and then sat down with director Ben Buratta and two of the cast, Danny West and Sophie Ottley to chat about their current production and what the future may hold for Outbox LGB Theatre.
‘I came up with the idea for Outbox years ago. Working at the Central School for Speech and Drama, within their Outreach Department, I was looking out for potential projects to get involved with. I wanted to work with gay and lesbian actors and use the theatre as a place to explore the issues associated with being gay,’ says Buratta. ‘I also started to look into potential sources for funding, I approached the Big Lottery Fund and was successful in getting a grant to fund the project for three years,’ he adds.
Outbox LGB Theatre is in its second year of existence. Its 2011 production The Front Room was staged at the Drill Hall in London and received a great deal of support and praise from the LGBT community.
‘I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved so far. Each show that we’ve done and each workshop that we’ve led over the last couple of years has resulted in an overwhelming sense of community. Without realising at the time, I think this something that I was also hoping to generate from the very beginning’. ‘We also look to produce theatre experiences that are political, challenging and entertaining; we essentially start with nothing. Using an LGB cast we are able to workshop and devise stories and scenes based on their own experiences, making what we produce very organic and genuine. I think the cast seem to enjoy this approach, a number of the cast in this production have been involved in our previous shows. Someone remarked in a rehearsal last week that this is the most enjoyable process they’ve been involved with for some time, it really is a cathartic experience’, he adds.
Distractingly cute performer Danny West feels, ‘the process we’re using in pulling it all together is really exciting, it’s like anarchy and healthy exploration at the same time. We don’t know what’s going to happen from one minute to another’. Asked to describe the show West launches in to what could almost be a press release – clearly proud of his efforts, he describes the upcoming production as, ‘an interactive, immersive, devised piece of theatre that explores the gay subculture and what it really means to be gay in 2012. For us as gay and lesbian actors it gives us a chance to really explore what this all means. There’s really not many solid or strong gay roles available, too often the gay character in a show is very much the “gay best friend” or something equally as token. All of the characters in our show are proper, well-rounded characters with meat on their bones. We know who they are, where they’ve come from and what they’re really like.’
Sophie Ottley, West’s co-performer adds, ‘we also get to explore the differences and similarities between gay and lesbian culture and experiences. We’re trying to mix things up too. In fact, earlier this week we were looking at whether it’s harder to be a lesbian or a gay man. Through the workshopping process we had, the guys try to write the scene from a lesbian perspective and the girls wrote what it would be like from a guys perspective. It was really interesting and it gave us insight into each other’s worlds, I don’t think an audience would normally get to see something like that’.
‘We’re also doing something very different given the space we’re using, we’re setting up lots of different scenes in a variety of the cavernous spaces in the basement of the Shoreditch Town hall. It’s not going to be your standard “sit still for an hour or so” production, we’re going to immerse them in the atmosphere of the scenes – some of which are set in the most seedy of places’ explains Burrata.
‘I’m looking forward to being able to work based upon the audience’s reactions. We’ll be so close to them, I guess they’ll be totally engaged and immersed in what’s happening, or at least I hope so!’ jokes Ottley. ‘Normally because of the lighting you really don’t get to see the audience, so this will be really different. Instead of setting the scene in a nightclub or sauna, we’re taking the audience there,’ she describes. West is quick to allay my fears, ‘while it’s immersive it’s not as interactive as you think, don’t worry we’re not forcing the audience to take part in the scenes!’
‘On our first day of rehearsals in the basement of the Shoreditch Town Hall I was actually quite scared, it was just like a haunted, dilapidated old building – really creepy at first’, she describes. ‘I kept getting lost down there, it really felt like I was in an episode of Most Haunted’, she jokes. West suggests, ‘it’s really not like that now, it’s quite homely, we’ve become quite familiar with it, it really is like our little home under the road’. ‘It’s really a peculiar space to work in, the scope of possibilities are endless, especially compared to that of a conventional theatre space. We’ll have art installations and design concepts that just add another dimension to the show’, she reveals.
I asked West and Ottley about any fears they may have about being typecast. Could involvement in a gay / lesbian show with a LGB theatre company harm chances of work in the future? ‘It is something that I’ve thought about’, says Ottley. ‘If I was to go for other jobs I’m not going to walk into the audition room and automatically announce that I’m gay. I wouldn’t say I’m worried about it either, especially as I’m so passionate about being involved in this show.’
West jumps in, ‘I think it’s really important to do work like this, I think you can learn so much about yourself, it’s really a cathartic experience and I think it could make you a stronger performer in the long run’.
‘I know of other actors who wouldn’t entertain the idea of getting involved in a gay theatre company as a result of the fear of being typecast, but in reality I think it’s bit of a misconception. I think if you’re a strong enough actor it really shouldn’t make a difference’, adds Ottley.
I asked West and Ottley about the aims of this production, whether they were motivated more by entertainment or politics. ‘One of the main things we we’re trying to do is blow open the stereotypes there are about the gay community, we’ve even had our perceptions of our own community challenged in putting this show together’, describes Ottley. ‘We’re also trying to give a sense of what it’s like to be a gay, lesbian or bisexual person – particularly for a straight audience, in a way that they can feel rather than simply observe. We’re going beyond the typical coming out story and someone having a hard time with it, we wanted to show people living their life, getting on with things, experiencing the more realistic highs and lows’, adds West.
On their expected audience, West says that the cast and production team are trying to appeal equally to the straight and LGBT crowd. ‘There is a conscious effort to not be preaching to the converted, we’re trying to focus on sharing the sense of community that exists within the LGBT groups, we’ve spoken with many pockets of the LGBT crowd, they’ve also got so much to offer and we really want to highlight how important and refreshing it can be to engage with people who have faced similar issues and shared similar experiences.
I asked Buratta about the future of Outbox. ‘We still have some funding up our sleeve. I’m hoping we’ll continue to grow, getting bigger and better. There’s so many LGBT stories that are yet to be told that would beneficial to share. We’re hoping to continue working with more up and coming gay writers, perhaps looking at more touring opportunities, that sort of thing. We’re also continuing to run theatrical workshops for LGBT youth and other groups around the country. I believe Outbox LGB Theatre has a huge amount of potential and we’re only really beginning to shake up theatrical experiences with an LGBT twist for our audiences.
Reach Out and Touch Me opens runs at the Shoreditch Town Hall from 26 April until 29 April. Admission is free and tickets can be booked through the company’s official website.