How dressed. turns darkness into something beautiful

Posted by The Garage Thursday 16 May 2019, 09:39
  • dressed. Josie Dale-Jones, Lydia Higginson, Olivia Norris and Imogen Mahdavi. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli
  • dressed. Lydia Higginson. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli
  • dressed. Photo: The Other Richard
  • dressed. Photo: Camilla Greenwell

dressed. is for women whose worlds have been shattered and for all the friends who have helped rebuild them.

It’s the story of how, after being stripped at gunpoint, Lydia Higginson set out to redress herself with a new healing set of armour and now only wears clothes she has made.

She said: “When you devise theatre, you are trying to create a world the audience can believe in. For the last decade, the three women I created dressed. with have been rebuilding my world into a place I can believe in.”

Multi-award winning ThisEgg – in collaboration with Made My Wardrobe – combine choreography, live sewing, comedy and original music to celebrate the power clothes have to define, liberate, hide and embellish us.

Co-created by Josie Dale-Jones, Lydia Higginson, Nobahar Mahdavi and Olivia Norris it premiered at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe to critical acclaim, winning a Scotsman Fringe First as well as a nomination for ThisEgg for Total Theatre Awards’ Emerging Company.

Josie said returning to The Garage with dressed. as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival felt like an exciting new opportunity to work collaboratively as part of something somehow bigger.

“Venues genuinely willing to take a punt on artists and companies at the very beginning of their ‘journey’ is rare. The Garage has supported ThisEgg since I left the UEA in 2015. They have generously hosted rehearsals and performances for shows including Goggles and Me & My Bee.

“It’s developing meaningful and increasingly trusting relationships with organisations like this that allow us to continue making work. I also love and think it’s hugely important to tour regionally, as far and wide as possible - and Norwich is pretty far east so...”

dressed. is here from 24-26 May. Every performance is captioned with the Difference Engine. The 24 May performance will be BSL interpreted by Caroline Smith.

Adam Taylor, The Garage’s Executive Director, said it was a privilege to host the show.

“I watched this performance which Josie took to Edinburgh in 2018. It was by far the best production I saw there that year. We’re incredibly proud to be a little part of her continued success.”

Here, Josie Dale-Jones, Nobahar Mahdavi and Olivia Norris discuss creating dressed.

Can you tell us a bit about the show and the ideas behind it?

Josie Dale-Jones: In 2016 Lydia gave herself one year to make her entire wardrobe from scratch and blogged about the process at Made My Wardrobe. At the end of 2016 she gave away all shop-bought items. Lydia now only wears clothes she has made and on the last day of the year, she wrote a post about why she had done it. In 2012, she was stripped at gunpoint. Whether or not she realised it before starting the project, making her clothes allowed her to reconnect with her body. It was an act of redress – she could protect herself with a new healing set of armour. The response was mega. From people who had been following the blog and from the press. She was invited to write for newspapers, magazines, radio shows and podcasts, so she did. Only the majority of the time they would edit her words. What she had spent five years trying to have control and ownership over had somehow been taken away again. In 2017, Lydia asked me if I wanted to make a show about it. About Made My Wardrobe, about the power clothes have, about women, about what had happened and about coming out the other side. For Lydia, it is always about creativity. About turning something dark and traumatic into something beautiful. I have spent years watching her do this on her own. And though she was done regurgitating the same story (aka her life) over and over in words, on other people’s terms, and on her own, she wasn’t done telling it. I didn’t think people were done hearing it. Of course I said yes. We knew we wanted the show to be full of joy, support and friendship. The next step was pretty obvious, we would get our two friends, Nobahar (a singer) and Olivia (a choreographer and dancer), to join us. And they said yes too. PHEW.

Olivia Norris: Although a personal story the play is underscored by the larger socio-political structures and movements of our time. Clothes, #MeToo, sexual assault, healing, creativity, friendship, performing as someone you’re not, becoming true to yourself, the media, stories and truth and life.

What have been the challenges and highlights?

JDJ: So many challenges. Always. In July 2017, we got into a room and started making. We were not entirely sure what we were making but we know we needed to make something. This show was knotty and complicated and so full of, well, everything. It needed more care than anything I have ever tried to make. And, of course, funding... my producer brain wondered who our audience was going to be and if there even was going to be an audience. Always a challenge. I have never made an autobiographical piece of work before. Massive challenge. What about the men? A question that was constantly coming out of my mouth in rehearsals. A CHALLENGE. The highlight? Making a show with three of my best friends, watching them make, think, challenge and care in the ways they do. Super inspiring. And, also, just laughing. They are a bunch of nutters.

ON: The challenges during the process of making were mainly in how to stage some of the story which is too real to dramatise. We tried lots of options and had to think about the most honest and simplest ways to share it. A massive highlight was the amazing response during the Edinburgh Fringe via tweets, messages, conversations and, of course, winning a Fringe First award. We never imagined the show could go that far and it felt amazing to have made something which people really responded too.

Nobahar Mahdavi: Making sure everybody feels safe in the room has been both a highlight and a challenge. It was hard to navigate how deep we could dig into ideas without pushing each other into uncomfortable territory. However, it felt like a safe space to do so being surrounded by people you have built lifelong friendships with. The highlight was being able to go to those dark places and know that we would and did all take care of each other. A personal challenge was finding a way to create music built for movement. As a songwriter I make music from personal experience and have always created quite mellow and dreamy instrumentation. Adding pace and beat driven sound while trying to be true to my artistic voice was a balancing act. We would create many drafts of the accompaniment and have Olivia play with it. Watching her improvise movement while my music was playing made the direction clearer. Writing about somebody else’s experience was hard to navigate. I wanted it to be genuine and understanding. I was present in many of those moments regarding Lydia’s journey and found my emotional connection and recollection of those moments were unconsciously mirroring hers. There was an unspoken understanding that had finally been put to paper and to sound. It gave us a sense of closure perhaps?

The show incorporates storytelling, music, dance, live sewing and clowning. Why did you decide to use so many different forms of performance?

JDJ: I like to make work that plays with form and mixes styles and this show was definitely going to need more than just words to express itself. When text can’t conjure up the feeling, we sing. When words can’t describe the feeling, we move. We play ourselves. When that’s too much, we put on costumes. When Lydia had first come home in 2012 she had made four costumes. A clown, a warrior, a showgirl and a mute/dark/bondagey woman (we’ve never found a way to describe her). These were the different types of women Lydia had found herself trying to be. The four of us quite clearly fit into the roles (Nobahar as a showgirl, Lydia as a warrior, Olivia as a “mute” and me as the clown. So, in rehearsals, we started playing with them as characters, archetypes. In the show, they have become an interpretation of female performance, about what we expect of women and our friends. We were interested in when these costumes are helpful and when they are not. How long can the mute stay quiet and hold onto the darkness alone, how long can the showgirl keep up her facade, the clown keep it light and the warrior keep up the fight?

NM: The darker subject matters of the show are as complex as the headspace you're in when you experience them. There is no one way to show this. Some moments felt safer to express in movement, some moments could only be felt through music. We also wanted the show to be a celebration of our friendship and how it can heal one another, so allowing the audience to have moments of release and laughter felt necessary... they also felt necessary for us as performers. Knowing we would have moments to break away from darkness of past experiences made the show feel safer to dive into every night.

You started working on the show in 2017. How has the #MeToo movement influenced the shaping of the show?

JDJ: We started making dressed. in July 2017. In November 2017 the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke out. We wanted to be part of the conversation. It felt like a moment to really say something but we didn’t know what to say or if anything would do. As #MeToo gained momentum, it did feel like a rally cry, a howl back to keep going. Among the wider movement for change, there was a need to hold on to personal journeys, for individual voices to be heard. I think the #MeToo movement has definitely influenced the journey of the show. When we took dressed. to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018 it felt like a month of women being on stage, women putting their work on stage, women putting their lives on stage. Brilliant. I think audiences are guided by the time we are living in and being the “#MeToo Fringe” we were definitely on trend. People were interested in dressed. because it was relevant to something that needs dealing with. I hope when #MeToo is “dealt with”, people don’t stop being interested - surely these stories, these voices, these shows aren’t just being watched because they are fashionable, but because they matter.

ON: The #MeToo movement had a huge influence on us in real life and therefore it felt right to include it in the show. It was both a blessing and a curse. It helped us because there was this shift in the media landscape where stories of sexual assault were really being pushed and heard. However, this meant we put a huge amount of pressure ourselves to engage in this vast complex conversation about institutionalised sexism which felt overwhelming, but also very necessary. We spent a long time working out if and how to include it, it felt too big to tackle yet silly not to include. We were caught in the middle for a long time, we were scared of dipping our toe into the ocean of #MeToo. Ultimately it shaped how people perceive the show by making that link between the personal and the political. Every story of sexual assault is far bigger than one person and by telling Lydia’s story we are underscored by hundreds of voices and hashtags of the #MeToo movement.

NM: There was a lot of discussion on whether we should include this. Our show’s foundation was built on our friendship and on how powerful female friendship is, both to experience and to be a part of, so regardless of #MeToo this show would have explored that. However, during the development the subject matter became bigger than us, it was unavoidable. So many women (and men) had shared similar stories but everyone’s experience was so different. The #MeToo movement was great in its ability to showcase the magnitude of the problem but in that we felt the little voices had been lost. We didn't want everyone’s stories to be lumped into one generalisation, we wanted to reclaim Lydia's story... and in doing so hopefully encourage a light to be shone on the idea that we are all important and our personal journeys should not be lost.

You’ve been friends since school; how has this impacted the way you work together creatively?

JDJ: dressed. is about support and friendship and so it always needed to be made with friends who really gave each other that support. You play with your friends at school and then, when you “grow up” you talk to one another about work. Since leaving school, the four of us had been on solo journeys, one-woman missions in each of our “fields”. We got to play together at work. It was like being back at school without the teachers.

ON: It just feels quite silly, which is always a good place to start. Whatever happens we know we can all just get in a bed together, eat ice cream and giggle for hours.

NM: This was the first time all four of us had come together in a creative circumstance so we had to learn our dynamic as a group. We all have different creative backgrounds and wanted to celebrate all of those. This show has so many moments; unexpected moments of joy, it aided the healing. We wanted to celebrate how our friendship and creative expression rebuilt something that had disconnected us. Everything in the show is everything we have experienced as friends and the most positive experience about working with people you know is there is a real sense of trust and care for each other. This was so important in this particular show. We all had moments of fragility but looked out for each other. This made it easier to challenge ourselves and know how far we could push each other. If you know someone well enough you know how far you can push and when you need to take a step back.

The show is about the power of clothes and how they contribute to identity. What would you each say is your favourite item in your wardrobe?

JDJ: I have a pinstriped all-in-one. It feels like wearing old school pyjamas but it’s pinstriped, so it’s actually a suit? The ultimate smart casual. And, almost anything that is my mum’s… sorry mum.

ON: White karate trousers with a blue stripe down the sides. I always feel more myself when I can move without restriction and there are very few items that give you that complete freedom.

NM: I always think my favourite item is my most extravagant. I have fun with my personal style and love expressing myself through clothing. The older I get the more I realise if I'm conformable I'm confident. I have a pair of vintage jeans that seem to match everything. There is a lost art for sewing and I love watching Lydia give that gift to the audience with every performance. I have taken these jeans in and out and they are covered in patches but they have a story and a past. Ohhh also my bright red rain coat, it makes me look friendly and fun and those are qualities I hope I embody. Whenever I see someone who looks friendly or happy it becomes contagious - and wearing that on your sleeve just makes it easier to seep into your day.

Photos: Lidia Crisafulli, The Other Richard and Camilla Greenwell