Vault preview: Grey Area

Homing Bird Theatre, an emerging theatre company with the aim to make theatre by and for the LGBT+ community and other underrepresented audiences, bring their debut play, Grey Area, to Vault Festival next month.

It’s a semi-autobiographical, non-linear play exploring the boundary between self-care and egotism in queer relationships affected by mental health issues.

Where: Network Theatre

When: 14-19 Feb

Ticket link: https://vaultfestival.com/events/grey-area/

Promotional image for Grey Area

Co-founders of the company, Jonny Peyton-Hill (writer/performer) and Chiara Virgilio (director), chatted with us about the production. Read on to find out more.

What’s the best thing about being part of a festival like Vault?

The sense of community and togetherness!

Whether it’s in-person meetings or seeing all the companies putting themselves out there on Twitter – you can feel that everyone is so excited to be a part of this and looking forward to sharing their art with an audience.

It feels like we’re truly all in it together, having a mutual understanding of the hard work it’s taken to get here and the work that’s left to do so we can make our shows, and the festival, a success.

For first-time Vault attendees like us, we’re very keen to make a strong debut and show people what we’ve been squirrelling away on for such a long time.

People had always told us we should push to get into Vault – and it happened!

Your show Grey Area sounds fascinating, with LGBTQ, mental health, and fragmented memories. What should audiences expect?

The version we are presenting at the Vault is an abridged rendition from what originally took place at our work-in-progress in August.

A slightly extended version will be transferred to King’s Head Theatre (27th February – 5th March).

We hope to offer some new takes on our themes and relationship dynamics which people may not have seen on stage before, especially through an LGBT+ lens!

The pandemic has brought to the surface how urgent and needed it is to talk about mental health and human rights, and we were happy to step up to the challenge.

We also love to play around with our audience and surprise them with unexpected turns. The play messes with traditional form and nothing is chronological.

It’s a bit naturalistic, obscured through a cracked lens of time. We tease with a revelation or some juicy information, then keep you guessing and interpreting.

The plot is relatable, maybe even ordinary, but the relationship between Jackson and Peter is something uniquely intriguing.

You’ll hate them, love them, disagree with one of them in one moment, and then totally unequivocally agree in the next breath. It is a Grey Area, after all! 

Be ready to be provoked, moved, maybe frustrated. Expect to see a slice of you in one character, the other or, most likely, both. Also be ready to laugh, that’s important.

Promotional image for Grey Area

Tell me a bit about Homing Bird Theatre. How did you start, and what are your plans for the future?

We met during the pandemic at an online festival during our time at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. We found that we really clicked, had a similar ethos and way of working!

Chiara really understood the play, how Grey Area was supposed to be, and was keen to continue working on it beyond the student festival.

She came back to London from Italy later that year and we met for the first time in-person – right there and then we decided to form a theatre company.

It was one of those “excitement of the moment”, impulsive decisions that actually turned out to be life-changing in the best way.

As an emerging company we did, for quite a while, find it was difficult to get our foot in any door and had quite a few knockbacks in terms of getting past the gatekeepers for funding, residencies, mentorship… everything!

This project is something we really believe in and know people would connect with, we just needed someone else to get on board with us.

We eventually secured an initial work-in-progress showing of Grey Area at The Pen Theatre, which went down a storm with audiences, and since there’s now something to show for it, traction has been building and building, making opportunities have been so much easier to attract!

We’ve spoken about a UK tour of Grey Area, potentially trying our hand at the Edinburgh Fringe and even creating subdivisions of Homing Bird, which would tailor to each of our co-founders specialised interests.

For example, Chiara loves multicultural and multilingual theatre and directing work with, by and for the refugee and asylum seeking community, while Jonny adores slapstick comedy/farce and lip syncing.

After our debut run of Grey Area, we have lots of avenues to look at!

Homing Bird Theatre logo

Jonny, you are both writer and one of the two performers. Do you find it beneficial to be in control of your own character on stage?

Absolutely! I’m a bit of a control freak, if I’m honest, and as a trained actor and deviser I love to have autonomy when it comes to my writing.

I would call the character of Jackson an intensified, heightened version of me, so I do feel a strong sense of ownership to play the character for as long as I find it interesting.

Knowing that I get to create and portray the character gives me absolute comfort that I have a hand in guiding the audience through this story. 

Since the play is semi-autobiographical and some of the subject matter can be quite challenging to revisit it really helps to have a director as sensitive and attentive as Chiara on board.

She’s been able to direct me in such a way that puts distance and separation between Jackson and Jonny, fiction and reality.

Being able to serve a slice of truth on stage is great, but leaving and knowing your mental health is still protected is even better. She’s magic!

Are you confident about the state of Fringe theatre at the moment? How do you think it will evolve in the future?

It would be a lie to say we aren’t concerned. We’ve all heard that since lockdown audiences haven’t returned to the West End in the way that the industry would have liked.

If the biggest and most commercial stages have taken a hit like this, then it does raise the question of how the smaller venues are ever able to compete?

There is the advantage of more flexible and budget-friendly ticket pricing, which Festivals like Vault accommodate so wonderfully. Also, the sense of community, intimacy, and quirkiness smaller scale productions can create, which large shows never quite replicate.

But the thing is to get bums in seats – tell your family, your friends, your colleagues (heck, even your milkman) about the small theatres, the emerging companies and artists who really need to be heard and have important things to say. We’re here!

I really do believe we’re on the cusp of a minimalist renaissance. When times get tough and the costs start rising, artists get smarter and the stages get sparser.

Even with Grey Area, now we’re skimping and saving where we can to make visuals that are dynamic, effective, and cost friendly.

Massive expenses cannot be spared for theatre on this scale and I think in Fringe scenarios there will be an emphasis on using imagination, focus on performers in the space and cutting away the excess.

It’s been happening, and it’s already begun. 

Promotional image for Grey Area

Image credit: Homing Bird Theatre

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