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Barbican Open Lab announces artists for 2023

Barbican Theatre Open Lab returns in January with a roster of exciting new talent. Elisabeth Gunawan & Saksi Bisou will explore intergenerational trauma within diasporic Chinese communities through the devised physical theatre piece Prayers for a Hungry Ghost; interdisciplinary performance maker Jennifer Jackson explores who is allowed to occupy space and what does it mean to 'empower' yourself, through the lens of her teenage judo career in WRESTLELADSWRESTLE; actor, writer, producer Libby Liburd is drawing on her own lived experience to explore the culture of online trolling with a new solo show Under the Bridge; queer disabled creative company Quiplash will explore what happens when Audio Description becomes a lead creative element in clowning with Unsightly Circus; multi-disciplinary artist and activist Madeline Shann investigates how the beloved genre of police dramas can affect our ability to scrutinise the justice system in dance work Police Vehicle and exploring the shifting roles of power and gender, experimental artist duo BULLYACHE combine performance art, dance, music and classical instrumentation in A Good Man is Hard to Find.

Designed to support mid-career artists and companies working in theatre and dance, the Barbican Theatre Open Lab programme gives artists the opportunity to develop a new project, idea or performance as well as taking part in a year-long programme of support.

Open Lab alumni have included a variety of artists and collectives: HighRise Entertainment’s The UK Drill Project, developed through Open Lab in 2018 is currently on in the Pit; Rachel Mars, a multi-award winning performance maker presents FORGE  in the Pit next year; neurodivergent/disabled theatre maker Stephen Bailey’s Who Plays Who featured as part of  Mayor of London and Lewisham London Borough of Culture 2022’ Liberty festival this summer; diverse physical theatre ensemble The PappyShow continue to produce work that creates space for people to  celebrate their authentic voice and  New York born dancer Malik Nashad Sharpe, recently named as one of Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30,  combines being an associate artist at The Place with a choreographic practice that examines Blackness and Queerness.

Toni Racklin, Head of Theatre and Dance, said: ‘We’re very pleased to announce these exciting talents selected by our Theatre team and external panelists. The Barbican Open Lab programme supports six emerging and mid-career performing companies as they experiment with new ideas, challenging the perception of what theatre and dance can be. Focusing on a range of contemporary concerns – the experience of exile and migration; trolling and safety fears plaguing women online; the creative potential of access by and for deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people across the LGBTQQIA+ spectrum; the myth of empowerment; mass media and pop culture messaging and masculinity, class and trauma – these are vital, socially engaged stories explored in dynamic new ways.”

Elisabeth Gunawan 吳金 is a Chinese-Indonesian artist who works in the mode of stories, poetry and performance. A critically-acclaimed and award-winning theatremaker and actor, her work uses stories, human bodies and images to simultaneously capture the audience in the moment of presence and into their imaginations. Gunawan is the founder of the artistic collective Saksi Bisou, a migrant-led company that seeks to express the often inexpressible psychological landscapes of exile and migration. Her Open Lab project Prayers for a Hungry Ghost will be a piece of devised physical theatre that delves into 'the realm of hungry ghosts'—the experience of despair, anger and self-loathing that is created by intergenerational trauma, particularly among diasporic Chinese communities. The piece explores the inevitable consequences of tropes like the hardworking immigrant and the model minority, and to investigate pathways for collective consciousness and healing.

Jennifer Jackson is a Midlands born Latinx Anglo-Bolivian theatre-maker, movement director/choreographer and performer. Jackson’s work interrogates the ways that women and girls use their bodies, her relationship with the UK, and the complexity of living between cultures and races. Underpinning all the work is the idea that space is intimately bound up with power. Her practice is interdisciplinary and intersectional, encompassing theatremaking, live art, contemporary dance, folk dance, martial arts, co-creation and the excitement of a sports spectacle. WRESTLELADSWRESTLE, Jackson’s piece for Open Lab is a live performance combining theatre, dance, judo, and elements of pro-wrestling, in an examination of contested space. Investigating the myth of ‘empowerment’ through joyful playfighting, the show draws on her teenage career as a British Judo Champion, and features a gang of 30 women.

Libby Liburd is an actor, writer and producer, who creates funny, frank and authentic, socially vigorous work based on lived experience. Starting from her own story, she then conducts extensive research and interviews to create playful, powerful work that interrogates societal and systemic structures that oppress and marginalise women. She’s most known for her critically acclaimed, ground-breaking solo show Muvvahood, exploring the stigma of single motherhood. For Open Lab, Liburd will be delving into the culture of online trolling, via a new solo show, Under the Bridge. Though a relatively new phenomenon, trolling has quickly been accepted as a cultural norm yet studies have shown that trolling is more vicious, more sustained and more violently directed towards women, with the IRL impacts often devastating. In her usual style, Under the Bridge will draw on Liburd’s own experiences of trolling, verbatim testimony and research with the addition of animation, video, audio and technology.

Quiplash is a queer disabled creative company headed by queer crip married couple Al and Amelia Lander-Cavallo (theys/thems). They make space for deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people existing across the LGBTQQIA+ spectrum, aka queer crips, aka quips. Their project for Open Lab, Unsightly Circus is built on Quiplash’s “Unsightlypractice. This way of working begins with a style of performance that tends to be dominantly visual with Audio Description as the lead creative element. The word unsightlyalludes to both the idea that performance can exist without sight,and is a play on some of the prominent societal assumptions of queerness and disability being uglyor something that should remain unseen. For Unsightly Circus, Quiplash will play with clowning, a performance form that is inherently multidisciplinary, encompassing dance, aerial, magic, escapology, drag and more.

Madeline Shann is a queer black multi-disciplinary artist and activist. Shann’s work explores and deconstructs mass media and pop culture messaging, by using imagination and connection as an emancipatory tool to combat oppression, with a current focus on the environment, justice, feminism, race, joy, post-capitalist futures and the experience of facing the age of collapse. Police Vehicle, her project for Open Lab, is a dance theatre piece for four performers, a surreal and uncanny investigation of ‘copaganda’ drawing on the art and artifice of filming for television. Using cameras onstage to film and project the action live, and following a script of amalgamated popular police series, chewed up and spat out by an AI, the performers create a cop show in real time. An increasingly absurd and surreal experimental deconstruction of the wildly popular and pervasive genre which explores how our obsession with these depictions impacts our relationship with the police in this country.

BULLYACHE is a collaboration between friends and artists Tylor Deyn and Jacob Samuel. A dance company and music duo that explores their working class and queer identity in relation to pop culture, they both choreograph, direct, score and conceptualise their work. For Open Lab the duo will be continuing to develop a dance theatre and live music performance called A Good Man Is Hard To Find. The piece places classical musicians alongside the dancers on stage to perform a funeral set inside the sculpture of a pop music video asking how grief is dealt with in a performative landscape. Musically the piece mixes acoustic balladry and rave somnambulism and everything in between.