Theatre company Slap ‘N’ Tickle began in 2020, when a group of students at East 15 Acting School in Essex worked together on a digital project as part of their course. This became The Meat Cabaret, which premiered on demand in Online@TheSpaceUK’s second free season of new writing.
I chose this production for the Spirit of the Fringe award at TheSpaceUK, and since then, the company have won support as part of the Artist Development Programme to bring live new work to Edinburgh Fringe. This work, Spit Me Out (Virtually), previews at the Brighton Fringe in digital format on June.
I caught up with company co-founder Madeleine Gordon and new company member Drew Rafton to chat about the company, their two works so far, and what the future holds for Slap ‘N’ Tickle.
How did the company start?
MG: We were all studying together at East 15, and we started thinking around the kind of female stereotypes that exist, and why they are there, and maybe trying to break them down. That’s when our show The Meat Cabaret came about. We decided to focus on the specific topic of how social media enhances the male gaze, enforcing that idea that women at to be looked at. So, we did all this online, over Zoom, bouncing ideas at each other. We wanted the audience to feel they were involved in some way, thinking about how we could creatively help an audience to explore those themes. That’s where the semi-live cabaret idea came in: there’d be an interval, we’d be speaking to the audience directly. Then, as we were finishing the course, we decided this was something we wanted to continue so we started a company and came up with some more ideas. And now Drew has joined us, so that’s us up to date!
I know that music was particularly important to your first show – was it an integral part of the show right from the start?
MG: Yes, the cabaret style was something that we wanted to explore. We didn’t want to do a cabaret, but rather have that idea of a mixed genre, using different techniques to draw the audience in. You’re using the talents that we have in the group, so why not? We have a lot of musically talented people, so it was an interesting way to engage. With music you can play around with ideas, be a bit more tongue in cheek. You can leave the audience with tunes they might go off humming to themselves, then realising that the words are incongruous to the music. That’s quite a cool idea, exciting for us. So, we carried this idea into our new show as well.
[to Drew] Have you got a musical background as well?
DR: Yes, before my theatre training as a teenager in Birmingham, I used to do a lot of musical theatre stuff. That got me interested in the arts and performing, but I realised I wanted to focus on acting rather than straight MT. Coming into this company, it was useful. I remembered the way they used music in The Meat Cabaret, and how the music had a strong impact. When I joined, the company expressed an interest in how musical ability would transfer to other shows.
Congratulations on winning the Artist Development Award and funding for your Edinburgh run with the new show: what does this mean to you?
DR: The fact we can call ourselves “an award-winning company” means a lot so early on. It’s a testament to the hard work we’ve already done. It shows the work isn’t just entertaining, it’s important and has that ‘wow’ factor.
MG: What Drew said is true, but also the support we are getting is great. Obviously with The Space, but also there’s a community out there, art venues and companies that want to support new work. That helps us along the way, and we really appreciate all of that. We’re bowled over by it and really appreciate it.
So, by the time you get to Edinburgh, is there going to be a full live show?
MG: We are taking a virtual version of the new show to the Brighton Fringe first, almost as a teaser (although it is still a finalised product). It’s an exciting prospect that this can become a full-blown longer segment of the show as well. It allows our creativity to flow in loads of diverse ways.
And we’re going to be performing an Edinburgh preview at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden on the 30-31 July, a little live moment before the big festival.
OK, I look forward to seeing that! Let’s talk about the new show, Spit Me Out.
MG: Spit Me Out us really addressing sexual violence and the female sexual experience, but through both the female and male perspective. The title comes from the idea of using someone and then spitting them out at the other end: quite a visceral title. It’s about bodily fluids and encapsulates that use and abuse idea.
DR: The show is highlighting a topic that isn’t explored that much. It’s talking about the way in which a sexual narrative for different relationships transfers between people, and how in some cases where it appears from. How do we get this idea of the way in which women are able to be treated during sexual intercourse and other image-related circumstances, and how it’s presented? People will have to deal with intimate topics in life: although it is very personal what they do through, it is a universal struggle. That is not really spoken about enough. We’re exploring it in such a way that hopefully an audience will be reminded of a situation a friend has been through, or maybe themselves, and it will become relatable.
In keeping with the show’s mantra and the way we approach performance, we’re being sensitive around this topic, but we’ve got some musical numbers as well. We can hopefully engage the audience and make them look at situations in an unusual way. Spit Me Out follows the narrative of four characters, all on quite different journeys to each other when coming to terms with their own nature as a sexual partner, during a sexual relationship. There’s quite a contrast between two of the characters.
MG: I think we want to bring out some of those stories that go on all the time and bring them into the light to discuss them openly. Women experience these things on a daily basis, so it becomes normal because we don’t talk about it. We don’t think, “oh, that’s not right”. We go into things around consent like sexual harassment on the Tube, but we use our songs and comedy to be provoking, shocking, in the same way The Meat Cabaret was. We need to talk about this more because we don’t want it to be every girl or woman’s experience, or every man’s experience: we want to educate and provoke thought around these topics.
We discuss how there has been a lot of coverage on the topic of abuse, #MeToo, and harassment within the creative arts.
DR: All these sorts of stories are appearing within the news. Whenever you go onto social media, it’s a heavy topic. It does wear you down when you see how widespread it is – so, if we’re able to give people not only a release, but the ability to be entertained as well as educated, that’s good. It might speak to other people in the way a hard-hitting news story cannot. The humour is there.
I want to say a massive shout out to the people in my company because everyone throughout the rehearsal process has been so brave and honest; able to talk to one another about everything. I think that’s what’s given the show the edge.
Why did you call the company Slap ‘N’ Tickle?
MG: It’s got lots of different connotations, but what we think it encapsulates about our style, is that we hit hard, and then make you laugh about it. We want to be shocking; we want to be provocative. We’re not shying away from that, but we’re doing it with a sense of dark humour. In addressing all sorts of serious things with a pinch of humour, we want the audience to be both challenged and entertained.
So, what’s next after Edinburgh?
DR: We’re all confident within the show. By Edinburgh we should have a product with a strong selling value as well. If we get the impact we hope that it does at the Edinburgh Fringe, there’s no question that we can take it further. The main thing is we’re going to feel proud of the show that we have and the impact, hopefully, on the people watching. I think if we can increase that outreach and show to more people who may not have the ability to travel somewhere, like any brand, that would be a fantastic way to carry on.
Are you going to continue with making digital work?
MG: I think we’re all excited about what this time in history has done for the industry and the separate ways in which we can reach audiences who wouldn’t come to a regular theatre. Being able to click on a link and see some theatre is empowering for a lot of people who may have felt uncomfortable going to a live show. We’re open to experimenting with different forms. We obviously want to get back to live theatre with Edinburgh coming up, but it doesn’t mean that’s the only way we’re going to do it in the future. We’re open minded about the future of theatre.
Did the events of the past year change the way you viewed your company or direction?
DR: For us, having to do the final part of our course online, it forced us to adapt as it has for everyone. It hasn’t swayed the effectiveness we have working together. The fact we’re all so passionate about what we could produce, just shows it is possible to keep creating.
We’ve had to keep creative, even without seeing each other. I think because we started in that way, we’ve developed techniques that help us to keep going. In working out the best way for us to still create theatre in this time, is something that’s part of who we are.
Has anything particularly impressed you in the digital work of other companies?
MG: The Romeo and Juliet from the National Theatre [shown on Sky Arts] was an interesting mix of theatre and film together. The Kiln Theatre did a Young Writers programme with live streams: it was interesting to get different stories from young people that we didn’t have before.
DR: What the online element allowed us to do is connect with other people, be open to new writing. Theatre spaces still wanted to present things so that gave everyone the opportunity to go for it, which has been great. And when the National Theatre was releasing a free show every week, that felt like you had your little slice of regular culture.
What about free vs monetized content?
MG: It’s a twofold thing, because the arts need funding to keep going and to pay everyone involved. I think shows are still more accessible even when they are monetized because it has cheaper tickets – people can choose to pay £5 to see something online that they might never have thought of going to or never thought that they could. It is exciting that we’re reaching more people than we might in a normal year.
DR: With free content, it’s always been something there: with the Edinburgh Fringe there was always a production you could just walk into. There are ‘pay what you think’ shows. It doesn’t force people to have one staple view of a huge sum of money that have to pay. They may go, they think it is fantastic, then might pay more. There are also advantages to keeping people as open-minded as possible about the theatre.
And what about live vs on-demand digital shows?
MG: What’s interesting about digital platforms is that you can have variety. At Brighton we chose to do a livestream with a start and end time. But a livestream is hugely different to is uploading a show on to a site that people can watch whenever they want, on demand. People are used to that model with Netflix and the other big platforms. How brilliant that we can have on demand, we can have livestreams, we can go to the theatre. It’s extremely exciting.
If you have the content, there whenever you want to watch it; obviously, that is convenient for most people. But with a set time, you must be there, and it feels like an event. You could have this for the initial performance and then have the means to watch it afterwards in your own time. It’s important to reach out to people and give them the choice.
We wrap up with some details of Spit Me Out at the Brighton Fringe.
We are on the 3-5 June at 8pm. You can buy your tickets here, We’re really excited to show our new work to an audience and to see and hear feedback, to know how people feel about it. The chance to be live in the theatre as a company as well is exciting. We also want to thank everyone who has supported us so far. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but it is going to be great.