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T-Spot: Ellie Roser on Pitch and Edinburgh Fringe Festival

As we explained in our breakdown, sending a show to Edinburgh Fringe Festival is no mean feat, and Ellie Roser (alongside many talented collaborators,) has done it twice now. With years spent grappling with the complicated inner-workings of the theatre industry, Ellie explains the process of devising their show Pitch alongside the director Nell Bailey, and shares their perspective on how to navigate the intimidating Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Theatre designer and Pitch co-originator: Ellie Roser
Theatre designer and Pitch co-originator: Ellie Roser

So, just tell me how your show Pitch came about.

Pitch grew out of Nell—who is the co-originator of the project, and also the director of the project, and also artistic director of November Theatre, so producing it—and I’s experience of finding a queer group of friends whilst watching the Women’s Euros last summer. So, we would kind of go to the pub and watch matches together. We all met at a queer club night and then developed our friendship.

We had another show up in Edinburgh [during last year’s Fringe Festival] with November Theatre, and the final of the Women’s Euros was our tech day. All of our cast and crew switched off their phones and kind of came together in this weird act of community so that none of us would know what the result was. It was this sort of thing that we started to see, of football bringing queer people together in the act of watching. And then we started joking about making a play about it, and then we started interviewing teams and we started to realise just how much playing, watching, and being a football fan could bring people together. So that was the sort of beginnings of the show.

Where are you at now?

(Note: This interview took place June 28th, Pitch is actually set to premiere at Fringe today, August 2nd.)

So, we have just an R&D--which for those who do not know that stands for research and development, in theatre this is quite a common process, especially in devised shows!

The show is devised which means that we don’t start with a script, we start with an idea and provocation. In our show the kind of stuff we were working with was interviews with real LGBTQIA+ fans and players and football lovers.

We had a week of R&D. I wish we had had more, because it was so brilliant! We were playing with the material and generating scenes and scripts and songs and football chants and characters. It’s a slightly different process to other ways of making theatre and performance since we didn’t start off with a script. This process is grounded in the people who are performing it, it’s got a lot of their own ownership, which means that they will have ownership over their characters!

What do you look for in collaborators? What qualities are you drawn to in actors or directors?

Yeah, I think collaboration is really key to my practice. Designing for devised shows are very different to designing in general. I think that's why I like it so much. So, I think, when I look for collaborators across the whole of my work, I'm really interested in people who like love play and love testing out stuff and kind of giving me space to like offer ideas and objects into the room. Not everyone is, a lot of people kind of have an idea of what we think things should look like and be, and I think that people with openness are really brilliant. I have been really lucky that most of the people I work with have been really open and excited by the offerings I make.

I would say I look for collaborators that are interested in community work, work that is kind of engagement-led. I think that the things I make should extend beyond the walls of the performance space, so I look for people who also have that kind of attitude. I’m interested in collaborators who are interested in justice and social justice across all identities, that's pretty important to me.

And also collaborators who are interested in sustainability especially thinking about design. I will also say, and these are very different things, but sustainability and access, access is a gigantic term, but I’m talking specifically in design here. The more that you think about sustainability and access earlier on in the process, then the more people will be able to engage with your work and the less impact it will have on the environment. So I’m interested in working with collaborators who think about those things not as an afterthought but as a part of the creative process.

How personal has it been making Pitch? Do you feel like you've given a lot of yourself to it?

Yeah, I think Pitch did come from a personal place for both Nell and I. Football has played a really important role in how I articulate my sexuality and I think, I’m speaking from the “I” here, but from working with Nell, both of us feel really personally connected to the project. And that can be really exciting and really challenging.

Speaking to lots of teams and people across the queer spectrum, it seems to be quite common that football as a sport and as a community has been a really important way for people to express that aspect of themselves. So, the personal aspect has been really special and rewarding here. I feel like we’ve had so many people give us a bit of themselves, so for me to give a bit of myself has been much less painful because I feel like I’ve been held by everyone who has done that, which has been really fantastic.

Promo shot for Pitch
Promo shot for Pitch

I’m curious with creatives how they balance input and output, like managing the ratio of being inspired and creating. For you as a theatre-maker how does that work? Do you feel like for every show you work on you need to have seen a number of shows you loved?

Yeah, I was speaking about this with someone the other day actually, about seeing work that you love but also work that you don’t necessarily love. I would say theatre is a funny thing to be a part of because it is really expensive and there does need to be a prioritising of which work you choose to see, because, especially in London, the cost of tickets can be really inaccessible to people.

I am based full-time in a theatre right now, and I do see everything we have on. I do think that’s really important because it helps you shape what you want to make and what you don’t want to make. It helps you to form a three-dimensional view of what your work can be. I did a training program at the Bristol Old Vic called “Made in Bristol” that is still going and has churned out some amazing theatre companies. You work with young theatre-makers from Bristol across the full spectrum of disciplines (musicians, writers, designers.) But someone said to us that all art was stealing from other artists, in a way. Although we try not to do the same thing, a lot of the ways I think about work comes from other fantastic theatre companies and creatives and the way I think about art wouldn’t be there without seeing their work.

Were there certain shows that kept coming up when you were thinking about Pitch?

Well, the show is a funny hybrid of documentary storytelling with real voices and also fictional narrative that has come out and been inspired by those stories, so it’s not verbatim—which has been an interesting form to play with.

Nell and I spoke a lot about a fantastic show, which is actually still touring and so should be caught if you can see it by Silent Faces called Godot is a Woman. We both saw it at the Fringe last year. We were both really inspired by Tatenda Shamiso’s No I.D., which is about the bureaucracy of trans-ness. The shape of that show was really inspiring. We used a combination of shows but also queer cabaret traditions. There are some amazing artists that really inspired us, a lot of artists that we really love that aren’t necessarily theatre performers. Oh, a great reference was Travis Alabanza’s show at the Royal Court called Sound of the Underground! There were some fantastic drag performers in that show that were massive, massive inspirations for us.

What is special about Edinburgh Fringe Festival? What makes it a good first landing place for Pitch?

We had taken a show up last year [to Fringe] and it’s a lot of effort and it’s really financially challenging for companies to take shows up to the Fringe. I can’t speak for Nell but I don’t think Nell was expecting to take another show up with November Theatre for at least another year or so.

So we were trying to put together a framework for Pitch, applying to various R&D funds to give it a bit of space and see what we could start making with it, ahead of a bigger R&D process that would have been longer. And then we were extremely lucky and surprised to win the Pleasance’s Charlie Hartill Theatre Fund alongside some other fantastic shows [Public by Stroud & Notea, Unforgettable Girl by Elisabeth Gunawan and Created a Monster and Santi & MAz by The Themlas]. So, then we were supported by the Pleasance to take the show up and it became a really quick kind of process, which we weren’t really expecting, so it took us by surprise in a really lovely and joyous and fantastic way.

Nic [Connaughton], who is the head of Theatre at the Pleasance, described Edinburgh Fringe as the biggest shop window for theatres to come and see shows and companies, especially emerging companies. So, it’s a really great opportunity to take your work up and meet with international and regional British programmers. It’s a really great starting block for fringe scale work. It doesn’t mean your show has to go to Edinburgh Fringe to be successful, and I don’t think it should be seen as such, because plenty of amazing work doesn’t go up to the Fringe. I mean you are being programmed for a month and that has big implications on a company’s finances and resources!

So, yeah, I would say there are some fantastic buildings from across the UK who take their shows up there. It’s like a cultural hub of loads of big producing houses and independent companies. We went up as an independent company last year and we’re coming up supported by the Pleasance this year. So it’s a great place to kind of network, meet people and I think there is a feeling there of everyone is in the same boat; we’re trying to make our work and get it up there. It is really cool to get to see so much work in one place, and it can be tiring and really intense and expensive but the breadth of work you see in one day…I mean you might see three shows a day, and we saw everything from a two-hander serious script to a physical theatre show about being trans and having sexual experiences to a one person comedy show where they did the whole of Titanic by themselves. There is a huge breadth of art and work to see, and so I think it’s really fantastic for getting to see stuff that you would never normally see in the same place. You know, like I said, one of the shows we saw at the Fringe last year was really inspiring and exciting to us.

It's a good chance to get inspired, have fun and hang out with people you don’t have time to see in London! You see loads of work and get your work seen by other buildings and people.



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