As the Sherman Theatre prepares to support StammerMouth productions at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Rhys Edwards sat down with StammerMouth’s founder Nye Russell-Thompson to find out more about their forthcoming performances of CHOO CHOO!
The Sherman Theatre recently announced that StammerMouth were to be their chosen company to support at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. With eight Fringe preview performances set to play at the venue across next week, the company is preparing to reintroduce themselves with their first production since the pandemic: CHOO CHOO! – (or to give it it’s playful full-title: CHOO CHOO! Or… Have You Ever Thought About ****** **** *****? Cos I Have!)
Nye Russell-Thompson started StammerMouth in 2015, aiming to produce work that accurately reflects subjects that are intrinsically difficult to express. This was an ambition informed by Nye’s early experiences growing up with a stammer.
‘I have a memory of someone calling me a little stammermouth when I was younger… at school or something.” Nye tells me as we meet at the Sherman Theatre bar.
Nye says that this was intended as a straight-up insult rather than simply being one of those retrospectively regrettable nicknames that people tend to pick up in childhood. His brisk confirmation of this implying it is just one of many examples of adversity he has faced over the years related to his stammer.
Drama groups provided an escape for Nye, and also helped him overcome early struggles with stammering. ‘I found acting was actually a very effective speech therapy when I was younger. It really helped with my confidence, having to tackle certain words and different speech patterns.’
But he would ultimately move on from performing the words of others and be inspired to create his own work after encountering theatre maker Brian Lobel – his lecturer at Chichester University.
‘Brian was the person who taught me about safe autobiographical work.’
Nye is keen to point out that his whilst his work draws on aspects of his lived experience, the stories and characters are not wholly autobiographical. ‘Brian showed me it was okay to dress it up. To have traces of my own life in my plays but within a story that is not necessarily my own.’
Nye’s first play – Just a Few Words – would take him to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015, but he didn’t particularly have high hopes for his debut. Instead, he says he was mainly preoccupied with discovering how different audiences might respond to it. He was curious if the subject matter – something so personal and specific to his experience – would be universally relatable.
It’s perhaps only natural for an artist who has historically struggled with articulation, to prioritise first that his work is understood, before celebrated.
‘In the end, it got nominated for a Total Theatre Award which came as a complete surprise. I really didn’t expect it to do well at all.’
The play dealt with Nye’s experiences with stammering and involved a mostly silent performance from him, communicating the story through physical gestures and large Love Actually-style cue cards.
Traces of his Brian Lobel’s work can be found in this piece – specifically the use of audience interaction. Nye reflects on how Lobel’s performance lecture The Purge serves as an inspiration for much of his work, particularly a sequence in which audience members were invited on stage and encouraged to publicly remove their less valued Facebook friends from their accounts.
“It was hilarious. I find that side of performance really fun and engaging. Anything can happen and that keeps every performance fresh.”
Audiences can expect similar moments in CHOO CHOO! – so anxious front seat dwellers be warned. This is a play which promises to provide a ‘silly and surreal insight’ into obsessive compulsive disorder, told by “people who know a bit about it.”
Again, Nye draws on his own experiences here, keen to raise awareness of the realities of living with intrusive thoughts.
“I feel like intrusive thoughts have been emerging more into the public consciousness over the past five years or so. But I think a lot of people still don’t feel comfortable acknowledging that they have them to anyone outside of themselves.”
I get a sense that this is a genuine concern that plays on Nye’s mind. He is speaking from the other side, having now seen the benefit of sharing his experience with others. Is his hope that Choo! Choo! will encourage his audience to do the same?
“I think there’s a power in seeing these kinds of subjects normalised on stage,” he says, mentioning that comedy also plays a significant role in his approach. “I think the comedy kind of disarms the darkness that can come with intrusive thoughts – it gives you an opportunity to reclaim the power they can have over you.”
On theatre’s capacity to bring about social change, Nye is pragmatic. “I think it obviously starts with the individual. In order to achieve wider societal change, the story first has to impact the individual – maybe provoke a change in their thoughts – maybe challenge something they’ve always believed -and then I think that can seep through to wider society over time.”
But Nye wants to bring about more immediate change in one specific area of performance practice. He is an advocate for increased accessibility in theatre and works as a Performance Arts and Literature Officer with Disability Arts Cymru.
StammerMouth incorporates an ethos of ‘integrated access’ into their work, ensuring that accessibility is considered from the outset of devising a show, rather than adapted later into the process.
‘Accessibility is definitely something that has to be considered from the beginning. There are so many brilliant companies out there rightly trying to make their productions accessible– but often only as an afterthought. And then I don’t think it works as well as it could.’
What sets StammerMouth apart from the rest is that they don’t consider modes of accessibility like BSL or Audio Description to be ‘access tools’ but ‘creative tools’.
“Our BSL interpreter is a named character. They are integral to the show.” Nye explains.
He also refers to their approach to audio description, led by assistant director Tafsila Khan, which incorporates elements that you might expect to find in a radio drama. “We’ve included these outlandish descriptions of our behaviour and they really add to the comic aspects of the play – but also provide a specific experience of the show for the listener on the night.”
His passion for this method is obvious: “Integrated access essentially provides a whole new dimension to the performance for people and that can be really exciting.”
Nye considers the Sherman Theatre to be an ideal fit to preview the play. “The team have a good eye for groundbreaking theatre that can provide something a little unexpected to audiences.”
He caveats – “Not that I’m saying we’re groundbreaking, that’s not for me to say…”
Nye often appears conscious of overstating himself as an artist, which is why it’s interesting that when discussing the strengths of this particular show, he is unashamedly confident.
“I’m just really excited to bring this show to the Fringe. I think it’s an important show, I really do.”
It’s clear from StammerMouth’s namesake that he recognises the benefits of reclaiming painful experiences from the past and turning them into something positive, and he genuinely believes that CHOO CHOO! has the potential to help other people to do the same.
So, when he sets aside self-deprecation and says – without a hint of doubt – “This is a show that needs to be seen” – you know that he means every word.
Previews of CHOO CHOO! will be playing at the Sherman Theatre from 19 – 22 July – profits from which will directly fund Stammermouth’s run at Pleasance’s Jack Dome at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. Tickets are available here. Please note: badges will be provided to anyone who wishes to opt out of audience participation.
Read Cerys-Leigh Phipps’ review of CHOO CHOO! here.
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