Rosy Banham is the director of Mush and Me, a new play by Karla Crome, which was one of four shows to win the Ideastap Underbelly Award. Originating from the life-story of the lead actress’ great aunt, Mush and Me explores how people adapt to falling in love with adherents of a religion that is not their own. Alexander Woolley caught up with her to discuss playwriting in a group, winning the Ideastap Underbelly Award, and lessons she’s learnt about how to get things done at the Fringe.
I’ve seen men my age who are much more confident, borderline-arrogant about asking for things than I am. I’m very apologetic about it.
It is a rainy Sunday afternoon when I have a drink with Rosy Banham in the upstairs half of Abattoir, the Underbelly performers’ bar. The tarpaulin roof is shuddering in the rain. It feels, literally, very atmospheric.
We begin by chatting about how the show came about – although Banham is listed on the show’s programme as the director of Mush and Me, the project was, in fact, a very collaborative process. “Last year Daniella [Isaacs], our lead actress [in the role of Gabby], who’s Jewish, interviewed her great aunt Nancy who’s 102 years old, and asked her about her life, because, I think, she thought she might die soon,” Banham says, before correcting herself: “'She might not be around much longer' is better a thing to say.”
“Daniella wanted memories of her aunt to keep, so she filmed an interview with her, and asked whether she had ever been in love, because she had never got married and, as far as Daniella knew, she had never been in a relationship. And her great aunt said that she had, when she was in her early twenties, but it was with a Christian, and she was Jewish, and when he proposed to her, she had to say no because she thought her family would disown her.”
At that point Isaacs did not have enough work, so she brought together two other thespians who were in a similar situation: Banham, whom she knew from university, and Karla Crome, whom she knew through the National Youth Theatre. Banham, as she explains, is solely a director, whereas Crome is primarily an actress, albeit on who had written for the theatre before.
“It’s really nice that Daniella kick-started the project,” Banham says, “because there’s such a culture now, or not a culture, but a stereotype of the actor waiting by the phone for something to happen. It’s really important actors start thinking about how to make themselves jobs.”
Once the team was mustered, the conversations began. Banham, Crome, and Isaacs developed the stories in the play together, with Crome then going away and coming up with the precise words to be used. It was in an early conversation that they decided to transpose the story from being that of a Jewish woman and a Christian man to that of Jewish woman and a Muslim man. “We talked a bit about what the modern parallel would be, and I think it was Daniella who said that nowadays it would be easier if she were to go out with a Christian guy than it would be if she were to go out with a Muslim guy.”
The process of developing one story from three people’s work sounded (relatively) logistically straightforward, until Banham mentioned that Isaacs was living in America while they were working on Mush and Me. “Lots of the script development meetings happened over Skype,” says Banham. “Because of the time difference, we’d be doing it at one in the morning our time and eight pm her time.
“It’s weird: in a way I think the process was much more focused than you’d get if you were living in the same city, because there might be the tendency to all go and chat about it and end up having a pint, and not really getting anywhere. But when it’s: right, you’ve got a Skype meeting at this time, and you have to have achieved X,Y, and Z by the end of this meeting, then it is incredibly focused, but I think what was sadly missing was the capacity to go out and have a drink and chill out with each other afterwards.
“Karla got back to the UK a week before we got to Edinburgh, and actually it’s so nice now that the show’s up and running we’re able to spend down time with each other as well as work time.”
With Crome and Isaacs coming from an acting background, and Banham from a directing background, the trio developed the story in a way perhaps more standard to the rehearsal room than the writer’s study. “At the very beginning of the process we all came up with Gabby’s life story, her father’s life story, and Mush’s life story, and then found the point at which those three converge,” Banham says. “We talked through everything that happens when those three converge and at the end of that process – we had this epic document that we were all adding to – we picked out those moments that we wanted to become key. So we had a lot of information between scenes that we’d already made up before we got to rehearsals.”
I ask whether Banham thinks this is a standard way of writing a play. “I have no idea – I’ve never written a play!” she says. “I know this technique very well as a rehearsal exercise. I have no idea whether that’s a normal writing exercise! I think because Karla comes from an acting background, and Daniella does, that was just the most natural way for us to write.”
But Mush and Me is far from being a three-person production. As well as a host of designers and managers of various hues, the show stars David Mumeni as Mush, the Muslim man with whom Gabby falls in love. Mumeni did not audition as such – Crome knew him from a scriptwriting course called Write to Shine, and Isaacs had previously acted alongside him. And from the point of the completion of the first draft of the play (it has now reached its third draft), Mumeni, as well as their dramaturg Joel MacCormack, got involved in the writing process. “Karla had a huge amount of trust in us all, which was really generous of a writer,” Banham says.
This collaborative process paid off, of course: Mush and Me was one of four winners of the Ideastap Underbelly Award, which is now in the third year of its current form. The victorious companies get £25,000 in funding from Ideastap, while Underbelly provide a mentor and a conspicuous presence in their programme.
“Our mentor is Rachel Tyson,” Banham says. “She used to work at the Bush, and she now works at the Old Vic in production, and she’s been at the end of the phone or an email whenever we’ve needed her, whenever we’ve had queries about what we do in a particular situation. She’s just brilliant basically.”
Other more ad-hoc support is also offered to winners of the award. “If we needed rehearsal spaces when we were in London, we could just call up Ideastap and ask whether they had a room going,” Banham says. “And if we’re having a day where ticket sales are a bit low, we email them and they just tweet about us all day, and they’ve got tens of thousands of followers. That’s really great.”
Banham also speaks about how easy a process it was to get their show filmed – a quick email to Ideastap, and their stuffed-full contacts book was available to them. “I’ve learnt through this whole process to ask for things from people,” Banham tells me.
“I’ve learnt loads about this from Daniella – she’s the best person at asking for things,” Banham says. “I think it’s a really unfortunate, actually slightly female trait – I’ve seen men my age who are much more confident, borderline-arrogant about asking for things than I am. I’m very apologetic about it.” Three weeks of rehearsal space in London was, for instance, made available, free of charge, to Mush and Me through one simple phone call from Isaacs to a “not terribly strong” contact at a theatre. All she had to do was tell them that they were a new theatre company without much money doing a newly-written show.
Having the guts to just go and ask for things was also crucial for getting together the funds to put on the show. “Again I was embarrassed to ask for money from people, but Rachel our mentor told us just to do it. ‘What’s the worst that can happen? People say no.’ One of the funders, Larry Lipman, who ended up contributing a lot, was brilliant. We sent him an email asking for money, and he sent back a really comprehensive list of questions, basically going ‘Have you contacted these people already, can I see your budget, what are you spending money on?’ He was just making sure this was legit and we needed it. We answered all the questions, and then he came back and was like, ‘Great, yeah, I’ll support you guys.’”
Banham has realised, too, that coming out and asking for things, however stupid they may seem, works in Edinburgh, too: “I had the realisation this year that no one knows what they’re doing for the first three days; even the people in the venues don’t know what they were doing, because as of twenty four hours ago the venue was just an alleyway in the middle of Edinburgh, and suddenly it’s become Underbelly. And the people in reception are going, ‘Oh we don’t know where anything is.’
“That actually really liberated me in terms of asking for things: everyone’s a little bit clueless and it’s fine.”
An aspect of winning the Ideastap Underbelly Award is, obviously, that you have to put on your show at Underbelly. “I really like Underbelly,” Banham says. “I love our venue, and I really like the programme at Underbelly; there’s lots of bold new writing, there’s brilliant comedy and cabaret – and maybe I’m biased but I think Underbelly is the trendiest venue.”
“And I like the Abattoir!” she adds, even as the roof above us is about to ripped away by the wind and the temperature ‘inside’ drops to Arctic levels.