Vault Festival preview: Heroes

Welcome to this preview from the Vault Festival 2020.

Heroes runs at the Studio from 18-20 February at 6pm. I spoke to writer Isabel Dixon to find out a bit more about it.

Promotional image for Heroes
Promotional image for Heroes

What was the main inspiration behind Heroes as a show?

ID: A few things! I’m really fascinated by form and structure and I wanted to tell a story about a family where you see the past’s impact on the present – but instead of seeing this in a linear way, the stories intertwine. Heroes takes place in 1991 and 2016 and sometimes the two time frames literally unfold in the same onstage scene.

Secondly, it’s probably not a surprise that I’m a Bowie fan – I grew up with his music, a lot of songs feel very tied to particular parts of my life or my family relationships, so it was one of the celebrity deaths that genuinely had an emotional impact on me. 

And finally I’m fascinated by the fact that a lot of the big iconic rock ‘n’ roll stars of history got away with doing things which were glossed over at the time, and would now be seen as much more taboo. Just after Bowie’s death, Lori Maddox stated in interviews that she’d had a sexual relationship with him when she was just fourteen. Can you still appreciate someone’s art when they’ve done things you feel are fundamentally wrong?

I wrote the first draft of the play before the first big wave of the #MeToo movement, but the end of 2017 really forced people to face up to that question and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

So out of this muddle of ideas came the story of a family who are torn apart by an unforgivable act. What happens if your hero isn’t a celebrity, but someone you know? What happens if they betray your trust irreversibly? How does trauma shape relationships over many years?

The show is still evolving and work in progress; what are your plans for it in the future?

ID: Part of the reason we’ve chosen to do a work in progress at VAULT is that it’s one of the very few places that you can create something that would normally be deemed as ‘risky’. 

Heroes has a cast of 7 – you almost never get to make work with a large cast on the fringe, especially if it’s self produced. As a writer you’re usually asked to think smaller not bigger … which is tough if, like me, you love writing for ensembles!

Financially, it’s meant we can get a big cast in a room and try things out, and actually get it in front of an audience to see if it works, before taking a huge and very expensive step into the unknown.

I’m also working with Lilac Yosiphon, who’s been involved with the play since 2018, who has a lot of brilliant ideas for the show. Lilac single-sided deaf and has worked with Graeae – part of her work recently has been using creative captioning in shows and that’s something we want to incorporate into a future life.

While we’re not able to do this at VAULT (due to a short rehearsal period and limited funding) it is allowing us to make connections and experiment with the full team with how this could look in a full production. We’re also working with cast members who use BSL and ASL on top of spoken lines, which we’d like to be a bigger part of a future run.

Bowie mural in Brixton. Courtesy @heroestheplay
Bowie mural in Brixton. Courtesy @heroestheplay

Is David Bowie central to the narrative or could it be any artist? And why this one?

ID: I think there’s some things about David Bowie that really lend themselves to the themes of the show. I love the fact that was the absolute master of reinvention – you think of Bowie and you instantly think of Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane or the Thin White Duke.

Jamie, Heroes‘ teenage protagonist in 1991, becomes Jay in the 2016 part of the story. He essentially completely turns himself into someone else to escape the past, but that doesn’t stop it coming back to haunt him.

But although the central character in the show loves Bowie, it’s his dad who’s his real hero … and its his dad who does something unforgivable and sets the play’s events in motion. So I suppose in some ways it could be any artist, or any hero – it’s about someone we look up to letting us down.

Heroes is one of the plays chosen to be published in the sampler of Year 5 at the Vault Festival. How important is it to you that it potentially reaches a wider audience this way?

ID: Really important! I hope it’s a play that people can relate to, and if they don’t get to see it at VAULT then I’m really pleased that there’s a chance for them to experience it another way. We’re only on for three nights and not everyone we know personally can make it, so selfishly I’m also delighted about that.

As much as we hope the show will have a future life, we don’t know what will happen next – so the fact that it sort of physically exists is really special to everyone involved. Side note: I’ve never had a play published before so I’ve been consistently excited for about the last two months. Thanks Nick Hern Books!

What about the venue itself? You’re also the main press officer for the Vault Festival, so you spend a lot of time there! What is like staging work in the space?

ID: I think with any normal job balancing doing a show and running an entire department would be a really difficult task. But VAULT isn’t a normal job! It’s an environment that’s led by kindness and positivity, and that’s true whether you’re an artist making work here (which I’ve been doing for a few years now) or whether you’re on the other side in the office.

The best advice I’ve ever had about making theatre – and surviving while doing it – is that you have to find your tribe. The industry is hard and you need to find people who genuinely believe in you and support you.

The VAULT team are a really special bunch and I’ve definitely found my tribe. I love the festival as both an artist and as part of the team, I’m really grateful they’ve let me be part of 2020 in both ways. 

What has been your favourite Vaults moment so far?

ID: There are honestly so many that I’ve really struggled to answer this question, so here’s my top three:

1. Producing a sold out version of The Miniaturists (a shorts night I run, usually at the Arcola) in the Network Theatre last year. One of the shorts has come back as a full length this year – Natasha Kaeda’s In My Lungs The Ocean Swells in Week 2 – and it’s heartbreakingly gorgeous. I’m so proud to have been a very tiny part of it.

2. Explaining the concept of a silent disco to Joss Whedon last year when he wandered from a show into the Weekly Late … a true #celebrity moment.

3. Working We Are Waterloo’s Christmas event, Miracle on Leake Street, in December 2019. We had a little stall set up with fun activities and plenty of VAULT information for local people. Somehow an extremely dishevelled Santa costume (complete with wig) turned up in the Christmas decorations and Festival Director Andy George took one for the team and put it on. A nearby small child was absolutely delighted and shrieked ‘LOOK DAD, IT’S SANTA!’ … which just goes to show the power of both theatre AND Christmas.

Team behind Heroes. Courtesy @heroestheplay
Team behind Heroes. Courtesy @heroestheplay

My thanks to Isabel for her times and answers. You can book for Heroes at the Vault Festival website.