Updated: Oct 25, 2022
An audio version of this blog read by Flo is available, please click here.
Hello, Flo here.
I’ll start this by saying I find it incredibly hard to be succinct or clever when I’m writing about this show. This certainly won’t be what Barbican meant when they asked me for ‘a note from the Artistic Director’. Sorry, Barbican.
Perfect Show For Rachel, for better or worse, sees me putting 75% of my nuclear family on stage, which is something I wouldn’t necessarily advise anyone to do, even if I thought they were a bit of a dick.
I can’t claim any type of ‘professional distance’ from this process - that is for others to express. I won’t try to treat this show as if it is anything other than something coming straight from my chest. And I’m not sure if I am writing this as an Artistic Director or as a sister.
So instead, I’ll tell you the story of how this show came into existence, and why I think it matters.
Why are we making Perfect Show For Rachel?
This show was inspired by a car journey. When I finally passed my driving test, one of the first journeys I took was with Rach in the passenger seat and no destination in mind.
Rachel, who is a purveyor of quite niche humour, has a whole comedy bit about sat navs - she thinks it’s really funny that a tiny robot tells you what to do and that people just do it, and she enjoys mimicking the voices and giving fake directions. So I asked her where she wanted to go.
‘Turn left’ she would bark at me, cackling. We’d turn left.
‘Turn right’ she’d giggle. I’d follow.
(Well, I’d try, this car did not have power steering).
I’m 99% certain Rachel doesn’t know her lefts and rights. So we weren’t going anywhere, but we were having fun, in an abstract, Rachel-specific kind of way. Round and round. Rachel can’t quite breathe because it’s all so hilarious.
Soon enough though, she realised I was taking her directions seriously.
‘Turn left’ was replaced with an urgent finger, pointing me clearly down roads she wanted us to turn down. I followed. The giggling turned to focus.
We’re driving around the town we grew up in, and Rachel starts leading a detailed tour of places we used to go as tiny kids - a park, an old carer’s house, our childhood home. At each place, we point it out, stop and talk about what the place means to us, Rachel acting as a tour guide for our earliest memories. These aren’t conversations we usually get to have.
As we neared the outskirts, beyond anywhere with childhood memories attached, I had a feeling Rachel had another destination in mind - I suspected she might be taking me to the home I had hurriedly moved out of the year before following a messy break up. It was a really nice house - we were lodgers, house sitting for a friend’s parents whilst they travelled, and couldn’t believe our luck.
I didn’t want to project onto her and assume which way we were going- this was the first time Rachel had been in charge as a navigator and I was keen just to follow. I have to say I was disappointed as Rachel let us drive past the final turning.
I sped up. Reminded myself how I am often laughed at for ‘reading too much’ into Rachel’s meaning. Not everything has to be deep, Flo. Not everything has to be a poem.
‘Turn round’ - Rachel’s voice, serious now, interrupted my thoughts. She’d missed the turning. We U-turned, and she points ‘go that way’ to the road my old house was on. We slowed down as we reached it, a place where Rach had come for movie nights and sleepovers. I pulled up outside. We sit in silence, staring at it. I’m a bit worried with all the staring that we look like we might rob the place, but I sit tight. Rach’s words come slow and deliberate.
‘I like this house’ says Rachel, pointing.
‘I know, me too!’ I replied.
Rachel’s eyebrows are knitted together. She’s concentrating. She turns to look me in the eye.
‘I like this house’. This time it feels like an accusation, or a call to arms. I think she’s asking why we’re still sitting in the car and not going inside.
‘I know, I do too. But I’m afraid we can’t go in’ I reply.
‘Why?’ she shoots back.
‘Because - I don’t live there anymore’.
We sit in silence. Rachel staring at the house I used to live in, where she could easily visit, her care home just 5 minutes down the road.
Me thinking about how I didn’t really think about anyone but myself when I moved, so wrapped up in a heartbreak and chaotic finances. I’m realising how Rachel didn’t get looped into this massive change until after it had happened, and what this space had meant to Rachel. I’d moved to London quite quickly after, to a flat where sleepovers weren’t on the cards. I thought it was something that was only happening to me, at the time. I’m realising I was wrong.
Once more, Rachel cuts the silence, this time she’s got sparkly eyes, as if she might cry.
‘I like this house’. This time it’s a statement of very simple fact.
An acceptance, and a goodbye.
With just those 4 words, Rachel has shown me something very real. She’s disappointed. She’s mourning having me as a neighbour. She’s maybe even angry. But she can see new cars in the driveway now.
‘I know, Rach’ I say back. ‘I’m so sorry’.
We look at each other. Rachel holds my eye contact for a bit longer than my heart is ready for. There’s not much more to be said. Rachel has a way of cutting right to the point, then shaking it off. It feels as though something makes sense to her now, that didn’t before.
The journey back to Mum and Dad’s, I’m a bit lost in my head. Rachel’s shout-singing Disney songs.
For the first time in Rachel’s life, she’d had the tools to take front seat control, and she takes me on an intricate tour of important places from our childhood that she couldn’t have spoken about without being able to point at them. Then she drives me to the absolute heart of something she needs to express, and does exactly that, just like that. Just because I said, ‘right, which way are we going?’ and followed.
I’m left with the overwhelming knowledge that Rachel is a much better and clearer and more specific storyteller than I’ll ever be. But I’m not sure how many people we can put in the backseat of a £400 car with no power steering to experience it.
From then, Lee Simpson and I have spent the past 5 years wondering what might happen creatively, if Rachel were authentically in charge. We couldn’t just assume there was a show to be made. Rachel isn’t a theatre-maker.
We had to go back to complete basics - should we make a show with Rachel? What would her role be? Is it ethical? Can it ever have an audience? These decisions have taken years of thinking, development, R+Ding, failing and getting to know Rachel in a much deeper way. In early R+D stages, me, Lee, Roz and my Mum spent days in the little garden studio at New Diorama, just responding to Rachel’s cues. She liked it so much we had to lie to her and tell her New Diorama was ‘shut’ so we could go home each evening. Lunch breaks were a real compromise. ‘Lunch, and then we come back?’ Rach would assert. ‘Lunch, and then we come back’, we’d assure her.
It didn’t take long for Rachel’s directorial persona to become apparent. Rachel doesn’t want to be in the show, she wants the show to happen for her. And she doesn’t have time to massage any performer’s ego. If you’re not showing up in the way Rachel wants, and sometimes even if you are, you’re sent out. One week in our second R+D, Tim, a creative technician who was tasked with inventing ipad apps as a prototype system for Rachel’s tech desk, spent about 50% of his time standing outside in the rain.
Everything we’ve done since then, has been about us trying to capture Rachel’s story, and creativity, in a way that we can share. Process and production both have to be ‘perfect’ for Rachel, which means ripping up almost every rule book about how to make theatre, and starting from scratch.
We were pitching this show to the panel in summer 2020, and I hadn’t seen Rachel for an excruciating 4 months because her care home was in lockdown. It was and remains impossible to keep that context out of the picture, and it is one of the reasons this show feels more important and urgent than ever, as we emerge tentatively after a pandemic that very specifically and brutally isolated Learning Disabled people from their families, friends and communities.
It is, of course, entirely overwhelming to me that Zoo Co’s premiere, at the Barbican no less, is something completely out of my own control. It isn’t lost on me that Rachel will have her directorial debut on a world-stage before I do. And that she couldn’t care less about that.
One night could feasibly be 60 minutes of fart jokes and nothing else.
One night we might watch a video of Rachel riding a bike 17 times, and people might get very bored. Rachel's idea of perfect art is after all very different to mine, or yours.
One night, Rachel might not come.
And each night, I will get about 5 minutes at the start of the play to tell you why that’s going to be ok, to bridge the gap between what you are expecting and what you will get instead, to let you know that no one has the steering wheel but Rachel, before I am usurped by my unapologetic and entirely unafraid big sister.
As an artist in the cast, performing a different show every night for a director I cannot predict, I am terrified of this show with every centimetre of my being.
As Artistic Director for Zoo Co, grappling with the radical shift in our practice to make this show work, I am learning what a radically inclusive creative process looks like, and how different that is to our industry’s ‘norm’. And I am terrified of it, with every centimetre of my being.
As a sister, though? Bring it on. I can’t wait to see Rachel on her throne.
She has so much to show us all, and all we have to do is listen.
Perfect Show For Rachel will premiere at Barbican, as a joint recipient of this year's Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award, alongside High Rise Theatre.
Performance dates: Friday 18th November - Saturday 26th November 2022.
Access Info: All performances are Relaxed As Standard & Creatively Captioned, with integrated BSL.
If you'd like to come and see Perfect Show For Rachel, tickets and info are available here.