Interview: Bedlam Chorus - Butterfly (Vault Fest)
Updated: Feb 25, 2020
Happy LGBTQ+ History Month from us here at The Crumb! What a better way to kick off the celebrations, than with an interview from Bedlam Chorus’s very own Sam Arbor and Clodagh Chapman, the co-writers and directors of the company’s latest queer extravaganza – Butterfly – which is to hit the VAULT Festival later this month. The pair promise us a whirlwind of LGBTQ+ history, as they invite us to join them in the tunnels down below London’s concrete jungle, sharing the true extraordinary stories of queer misfits throughout history. They’ve spent their time in the archives, so that you don’t have to; compiling their research into one big glittery queer craze of drag, dance, and laughter! It definitely seems like the feel-good show of the festival, so without further ado, here’s what Sam and Clodagh had to tell us about Butterfly.
As co-writers of Butterfly, how would you best describe your show to us?
Sam: So! Butterfly is a show all about forgotten stories from across a queer past – we've found five stories that nobody's heard of that range from 1732, where we meet a woman who is stitching a beard from her pubic hair to marry the woman she loves, to 1942, where we meet an eighteen-year old man who is performing as a drag queen aboard a WW2 ship in honour of his lost best friend. These stories are told in different forms – from poetry to dance, live music to drag – the show is a multi-arts joyride across time. We hope it's hilarious, heart-warming and fascinating all at once. History, we think, often feels quite dry. We want to make it feel present again! We want to really connect to these people, so that all these stories really help us connect to how it feels to be queer today. Queer history often presents stories of the same five big-name activists – which there’s a time and a place for, but massively limits how we can understand our heritage. And we only ever hear about young, fit men in Spandex! Or lesbians who die in scene three! Overall, the stories weave together to ask: who gets to be remembered?
What was the process like? How did you go about choosing which stories to tell?
Clodagh: A big thing for us was representing a diversity of stories – we don’t believe in tokenism, but we think it’s important that the work we’re making represents the real world around us. And we’ve also tried to get as much variety as possible in there in terms of time periods, contexts, mood, tempo, form... we don’t want to present queer stories as monolithic. In terms of process, lots and lots of hard work from a small but stupidly dedicated team! Often it was through digging around in archives, uncovering newspaper articles, reading minutes from council meetings, trawling through court records, we met with older LGBTQ+ people! We’ve really pulled out all the stops to find a really exciting selection of stories!!
Sam: Yes – and it's fascinating. To see some story mentioned on the bottom right corner of page 56 of a local newspaper in 1985, size 8 font, and let that lead us down a rabbit hole of research. These stories have been ignored, or worse, erased by history. Digging out the truth has been difficult, but there's such a sense of achievement. Not to mention the wonderful allies we've made! So many fantastic queer people of all ages, from up and down the country, have been wonderful in helping us find that crucial article, that crucial audio recording, that clipping from a paper. As a man born just before the turn of the millennium, it's mad to see just how many stories there are out there.
Was it challenging to merge all of these historical storylines together, and do they ever find themselves meeting?
Clodagh: I think what’s really exciting in Butterfly is the ways in which the periods never quite meet, but there are still resonances between them – so two of the stories have a breakup between two women, but four-hundred years apart. In a way, we’ve tried to get that do the heavy lifting when it comes to story. Emotion is emotion – we look at old photographs and we forget that these are people like us with hopes and dreams and dislikes and favourite colours. Of course the context is different, but the transcendent experience of being human – and all its emotional, messy, exciting glory – is there. Though I can say with confidence that I, as a present-day lesbian, have yet to marry fourteen women, there’s all to play for (and yes, I am taking marriage applications at email@example.com with the subject line MARRY ME).
Sam: Side note: I am also very single and very ready to mingle. Applications to the same email please!
How does the show differ, if at all, from the first time you showed it back in Bristol?
Sam: We've got a few new characters that we've uncovered, who we just had to put in the play – which we think do represent a broader scope of the LGBTQ+ community. Also, we learnt from the Bristol version of the play the kind of stories that we're interested in, at their core, what powers them. We've tightened those screws a bit, so the stories feel more diverse than before on the surface, but communicate with each other underneath stronger. Does that make sense? I'm not sure that makes sense. Pretty much, we've unpacked what's in each story, and tried to work out what makes them work, so that they all come from the same place. There are invisible threads connecting the characters across time in ways that we hope all of us, in 2020, can connect to. That definitely doesn't make sense. We're still discovering what the play is. Ask me again on the 26th Feb maybe, where we should all be able to sit down and see what the play's about.
There will also be more dancing, singing, music (live music this time!) and vagina jokes. We also made sure to double the glitter budget.
Clodagh: I’d like to add that the jokes are about all genitals. That’s a really important part of what we’re about as a company.
Sam: Oh yes, I forgot about page 27 of the script. What a corker.
The setting of the Vaults is quite unique, has it influenced your piece in anyway?
Sam: For sure. There's something special about going underground to watch something I think. This is a play that happens in 1732 and 1942 and 1985 and 1899 and 2003 all at once, so being underground sort of feels like it separates us, the audience, from 2020. It feels a bit liminal and whilst Waterloo station trundles on above, being busy and stinky and loud, we can hear these stories beneath, pause time for a bit, throw it back, throw it forwards, mess it up, without the present day above ever knowing anything about us – which is fitting – for a play about people whose stories haven't been heard before!
Clodagh: Definitely! The location and moment really provides the framing for Butterfly – we meet our characters underground, under Waterloo station, in that exact 2020 moment that the audience are sitting in – so the location is one of the most intrinsic parts of the dramaturgy. It’s all very live and fresh and in the room, in the most literal way possible.
As a company, we’re all about unconventional venues. Our debut production, BIRD, was in a secret (and unheated) warehouse in Bristol – it was cold, and the ceiling was constantly leaking, but that added to the atmosphere. We love that there’s this sense of movement at the Vaults, with trains passing through overhead, and that it’s damp with all this exposed brickwork. And there’s something about a train station and the acts of waiting and travelling that resonates in really interesting ways with the very temporally messy world of Butterfly.
What is your favourite part of the show, and can you tease us with anything, without giving too much away?
Sam: Choosing a favourite story is like choosing a favourite child! So tricky! But alas, we've all got one. Mine is a moment in Dennis' story. Dennis Prattley, a teen man on board a Navy ship in WW2 decides to perform a drag show in honour of his happy-go-lucky best friend who is shelled in front of his very eyes. And so, to bring some joy back to the ship, and in honour of his best friend, he risks everything to perform as his alter-ego 'Sherry' on board. The drag show is really good fun – and whilst drag was very different back then, there are some more modern queer cultural influences to listen out for (it's Kylie, we have Kylie)!
Clodagh: Wow, for me it changes every day – but at the moment I’m really enjoying working on this character called Mary, who marries fourteen women, over two hundred and fifty years before marriage equality. She definitely gets some of the best one-liners in Butterfly, and is just an absolute blast to write. There are several jokes in there that make me cringe... my mum is going to watch this! But that’s so totally fitting for who Mary is as a character.
This is amazing, thank you both so much, it’s been lovely getting to know a bit more about the show! Are there any lasting words you have for our readers?
Sam: Thank YOU!
Clodagh: Yes thank YOU Amy! The work-in-progress sharing in Bristol sold out, so please get booking stat.
Sam: If you fancy hearing some pretty unbelievable stories, untold till now – feel free to spend four to five months trawling through archives, reports, stats, interviews etc. It'll be free and libraries are nice places. But if you fancy it and are a bit busy for all that, why not book yourself a wee ticket to Butterfly, and come and hear the stories LIVE in a darkened room underground with us, and maybe a pint. Would be great to see you there!
We will definitely be joining them down in the Vaults, and if you like what you read you can catch Butterfly at the VAULT Festival from 26th – 28th February. Tickets are available here: https://vaultfestival.com/whats-on/butterfly/