Meet the Artist: Rachel Mars

Person standing against a blackboard wearing braces.
11 Nov 2020
10 min read

In a new interview series, we get to know some of the performers, artists and creatives from our programme. First up, performance maker and writer, Rachel Mars as she shares some of her Barbican experiences - from a young audience member to award-winning performer on stage.

Can you tell us a bit about your practice? What are your main thematic areas of interest and what is it that stimulates you to be creative and inventive?

Fury! A certain feeling of public injustice about things. Really what I’m trying to do is create a public space to assemble, to consider things that are a bit tricky. It’s often a personal question that I’m wrestling with and then I turn that out and look to the ways that societally we’re also thinking about or wrestling with that issue. I would also say considerations of identity as an outsider trying to fathom how the majority of the world works when you’re not in it are definitely things that play out in my work. Queerness. Femaleness. Feminism. Also, it’s this body that’s on stage. I can’t escape the way that this body is viewed on stage. That’s always up there in the work.

Really what I’m trying to do is create a public space to assemble, to consider things that are a bit tricky.

I was taken to the theatre a lot as a child. I watched a lot of stand-up comedy. I’m Jewish and story-telling was always a big deal in our house. If you wanted to be heard you needed a good story to tell and it’d better be funny, entertaining, otherwise no-one’s going to listen to you. There’s a rhythm to my speech and writing and to my performance that people have said is a Jewish rhythm.

Can you tell us about an experience that made you want to become an artist?

When I was about 7, I was taken to see Cats. My parents had splashed out on the seats which moved around the auditorium. Mr Mephistopheles came off the stage and kissed the top of my Dad’s bald head and I remember thinking what the f … is this? This is brilliant! This moment of breaking the fourth wall, although I wouldn’t have had the language then, but there was something super transgressive, super involving, super exciting - the chutzpah of those actors really. 

What conditions do you require to be creative and make the work you want to make?

Space, money and trust from someone who’s got a platform. A physical space to work, some way of paying myself and my collaborators, and someone with a bit of trust in you in an organisation, who has that power, who owns that space and has the ability to bring an audience. Space and time aren’t enough. There really needs to be cash support to make it viable. If you want a load of interesting voices you’re going to have to find a way to support people who are marginalised to be amongst the cohort. And the threat of an audience – you’d better have something otherwise it’s going to be embarrassing. Until recently I’d say that the threat of an audience was a necessary condition for me to make work – but now there is no imminent live audience so I’m having to recalibrate that. 

Can you talk a bit about your relationship with the Barbican and what impact it has had on your work and career?

Firstly, I was an audience member as a child. I had to be taken out of Peter Pan in the early 80s because I found it profoundly upsetting. So maybe not a great start. Then I had my first experience of performing at the Barbican in 2009's Xmas Live Art Cabaret for Children in The Pit. I did a short double act - The Three Minute Panto, with Brian Lobel. It was totally chaotic and deeply charming as a show and kids loved the irreverence and out-of-control feeling of it. I adored being part of it.

My next professional engagement with the Barbican was in 2017 when nat tarrab and I applied for, and won, the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award. After an extensive application process and intensive period of work in progress, which was an invitation to think bigger in terms of design and scale, we made Roller, a show about female violence and aggression. We had a brilliant relationship with producer Leanne Cosby. There’s a real will to make things happen for you, to see what is possible.

I also performed Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters in one of the curious Frobisher spaces in 2018, as part of the Art Gallery’s Modern Couples exhibition.

And in 2019 I was part of Open Lab, developing Forge, a show about the politics of memorial - how we decide what gets memorialised and by whom. Unfortunately, the public Open Lab performances were cancelled once the Barbican had to close in March due to the Coronavirus pandemic. 

One of the most valuable things about being at the Barbican I would say is the tech actually – the scale of the tech kit available to you when you’re working here. The experience of the technicians and their desire to help you figure things out. Open Lab gave me the opportunity to be able to play with a bunch of tech stuff I’d not played with before, on a much bigger scale. That’s quite rare. And you have the people that will support you, all these technicians who are proper pros, who’ve been here a long time and have worked with companies, from tiny ones to massive ones – it’s huge actually, in giving you confidence and allowing you to dream at scale. 

Open Lab gave me the opportunity to be able to play with a bunch of tech stuff I’d not played with before, on a much bigger scale. That’s quite rare.

What do you remember / value most about your experience working here?

I watched the get in for Peeping Tom – 18 technicians moving God knows how many thousands of pounds of trees and set around. The Belgian system is such that young companies who are working in contemporary and alternative theatre, are trusted with massive budgets and massive stages – they dream really big, their imaginations are really big. There’s still an element here if you’re working in alternative theatre of – 'Oh, can I have a chair? Can I have two chairs?' If you’re self-producing, writing your own arts council application,  you’re sitting there thinking how much can I ask for? Can I have one chair or two chairs? I’m not thinking I’ll have £50k worth of pine forest thank you very much. The awareness of the sector’s finances was really affecting the scale I was imagining at as I was writing something. So when I saw those Belgians I realised it was time to allow myself to imagine bigger and not think about the money because otherwise the practicalities of doing it are always in the room with you. Watching that get in - watching that company wrestle big cliffs around, as indeed they were, I realised that I’m capping my imagination. At this point in my career I don’t  just  want to be thinking about how big the ladder can be. Of course, there are ways of being effective with low budgets and small sets but not allowing that to cloud your imagination. Giving myself permission to imagine bigger – the Barbican’s been a big part of that.

Giving myself permission to imagine bigger – the Barbican’s been a big part of that.

How has the Barbican programme influenced you professionally? Has there been work staged here that has resonated with you and your practice?

After university I was trying to understand where to see the kind of weirder work I found I had a taste for. And I found it in The Pit, when BITE (Barbican International Theatre Events) was the major programming model. Shows that particularly resonated with me from that around that time were Julian Fox’s New Spaces for Role Models,  The Tiger Lilies, Duckie’s Xmas Shows, Ursula Martinez’s Me, Me, Me Trilogy – all sorts of interesting stuff. And more recently, Peeping Tom and Ursula Martinez (again). I was really interested in international work and the Barbican was the place to see it. 

Who have you most enjoyed collaborating with and who would you like to collaborate with in the future?

There’s a woman in the States called Michelle Ellsworth. I saw her at the Fusebox Festival in Austin, Texas. She is fascinating. A visual art/performance art cross-over person. As a peek into another imagination, another world, she is something else, in a brilliant way. Visually and metaphorically fascinating. There are burgeoning international collaborations I’d like to continue – with dance artist and maker Karen Sherman for example. She’s attached to Forge (Open Lab show) as a mentor. And there’s a New York Cabaret artist called Salty Brine. I’d love to work with him. Although our forms of working are very different there’s an affinity in terms of loving language and thinking about portraying sex and sexuality on stage. I learned such a lot about structure, dialogue, plotting and navigating difference in approach from working alongside two American playwrights, Gab Reisman and Katie Bender, on a show recently. And I deeply love my ongoing collaborations with nat tarrab and Greg Wohead. They are family.

Can you tell us how you have been affected by the current pandemic? What challenges has it presented you with and has it changed the way you approach your work?

Lots of artists are trying to decide whether to dig their heels in and say 'I’m a live artist, that’s what I do, that’s how I know how to make work and therefore I’m going to wait to try and do the thing I’m trained to do, that I believe in and that I love doing”. The flip side is – how long is this going to go on and am I going to have to figure out how to work in new forms? For me, there’s only artistic point to that if the content and the form make sense together. I understand live interaction, live audiences. I’m not a trained film maker or a visual artist. At the moment with the government purposefully devaluing the arts and artists, it feels politically necessary to try and stay in the sector but financially that is harder and harder.

If we are able to make live work again for a socially distanced audience, I’m going to have to go back as an audience member a bunch of times so I can understand what it feels like – what it feels like not to be knee to knee with someone. There’ll need to be re-learning about actual theatre space. On the whole, the work I do does not ignore the theatre space we’re in, and where we are in it. For example, for Roller we created a big horseshoe that echoed the way Roller Derby viewers sit. There’s always a decision about where people are in the space. It’s not arbitrary.  So there will have to be a way to incorporate that new audience set up in the reason for the work. It’s unavoidable that the next set of work is going to be influenced by this.

I’m going to have to go back as an audience member a bunch of times so I can understand what it feels like – what it feels like not to be knee to knee with someone.

At the moment I’m doing much more writing, speculative writing. I’m looking into more traditional forms of playwriting and doing more academic research for Forge. The things that are keeping me going are conversations with other artists. I like being in a process and talking about sticky issues with smart, challenging people. I’m missing being in a rehearsal room but am sustained by conversations with my community. A friend of mine, a playwright in the States, said that going to the theatre is the closest thing she’s got to religion. She does it regularly, with communities of people, it’s a space of consideration and reflection that she’s badly missing.  I’m beginning to realise that’s probably true for me as well. 

Visit Rachel Mars' website.
 

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