Monkey Motivation: Michelle Hudson

We are always keen to learn more about what our alumni go on to create after graduating from the Monkey House and to see how they are using the skills learned during their training as they navigate life as a professional performer and theatre maker.

 

Here, we speak to Michelle Hudson, a graduate of the Two Year Rep (now the BA (Hons) Acting degree) and member of our Class of 2018 ensemble, about Manimals, her first, one-woman performance piece which she has been devising since Summer 2020 and will be ‘touring’ as a piece of online interactive theatre in early 2021…

 

Tell us a little about the initial idea and inspiration behind Manimals? Where did it come from?

I’ve worked as a producer for an immersive games company for several years, making work at the intersection of interactive theatre and mobile gaming. I also happen to be single. Dating is all about finding a mate, and it feels like a jungle out there sometimes… A year or two ago, I was getting fed up with the monotony of constantly swiping on the dating apps – most of which are already set up like a mobile game – so I invented game rules to hack my dating life and started swiping on profiles that featured men posing with exotic animals. The show is a creative response to that very personal project.

Crucially, the piece is specifically developed as an online piece of theatre: it’s visual, interactive, game-y, and uses multimedia. I’m interested in where online work can go, and have used Manimals to explore what we can do with what’s available.

 

(Image credit – Michelle Hudson headshot)

Can you give us a brief overview of the piece’s central themes? How did they evolve and develop during the devising process?

Manimals is an exploration of dating, loneliness and the struggle to connect in the digital age. From the outset I knew that I wanted to incorporate a technology angle in the piece, and I’d been talking with an interactive media firm about designing a mobile game to go alongside it. I didn’t plan for a global pandemic to come along… But I started development of the piece after the first lockdown, and I only had my laptop and a Zoom link to work with. As I progressed with R&D it became more and more clear that an online format for the show works perfectly for a show about the digital platforms that we use to find partners or communicate with others. And it also gives plenty of opportunities for clowning.

 

(Image credit – Manimals working shot, Michelle Hudson)

Manimals is a one-woman piece – can you give us an insight into how you approached devising, developing and rehearsing it? Did you work with any collaborators during this process?

Before the pandemic, I’d been planning to get in a room with my collaborator – Flo O’Mahony from Zoo Co – and to make a live theatre show. When it became clear that lockdown was going to stay for a while, I made an agreement with Flo to start ‘meeting’ once a week on Zoom, where I’d show her what I’d made that week. That meeting provided structure and accountability, and that’s how I kept motivated to continue. 

It’s hard to create alone, but I’ve learned that my own process needs time and space. And deadlines. Each week I’d come up with a list of things to explore, and then make solo pieces that could be shared over Zoom. Flo would sometimes give me creative tasks to see what that might spark, and she was amazing at critiquing the content that I made and helping to shape it. 

After a few months of working mostly by myself, I’d made a couple of hours’ worth of content. I was able to get in a room with Flo when lockdown eased, and we wrote a first draft of the play in 3 days, which I performed for a small invited audience at the end of August. 

I took a couple of months away from the creative side to produce the piece – writing funding applications, getting partners together, working out marketing plans and waiting for decisions. Funding came through at the start of December, and since then I’ve been back at the creative! Aside from 3 more days in person devising to iron out some gaps in the script, the rest of the rehearsal process will happen at my home (which is where the piece is set), over Zoom.

I’ve also had a lot of other collaborators for this show with a game designer who’s helped tighten up some of the gaming elements and a couple of tech specialists. The hardest thing about self-producing an online solo show is becoming an expert in EVERYTHING – troubleshooting dodgy broadband, becoming a sound engineer, lighting technician and live-streaming expert, and all remotely. 

 

(Image – Manimals working shot, Michelle Hudson)

You have previously worked in creating immersive performance and storytelling games. What made you decide to create an autobiographical, rather than fictional, piece of theatre in this instance?

I love the work of performance artists like Bryony Kimmings, Lucy McCormick and Haley Mcgee; they draw on a lot of autobiographical content in their work (some more than others), and it’s such a powerful form. Manimals came out of the dating hack that I’d been living, so it made sense to start there and to see what came out of it.

 

(Image credit – Manimals working shot, Michelle Hudson)

What did creating a solo project teach you about different ways of creating and approaching theatre or working creatively in general? For example, how did it differ from how you have worked in the past?

I’ve previously worked in very fast paced environments, to tight deadlines and with budgetary pressures, or in a devising room with a lot of voices. And always with a team of people who bring a lot to the process. I’ve learned that I really enjoy using what I find around me to make work, but that to do that I do need time, a quiet space, and a clear routine. Making this kind of solo work requires so much resourcefulness, but it is also very freeing because I can spend the time that I need to spend on R&D, whether that’s making a time-lapse video or writing a song, or pulling together some visuals to go along with a piece of text that I’ve created. 

 

You received support from Arts Council England for Manimals – how did you find the funding application process and submission? What advice would you give to other theatre makers about to start the process themselves?

The application process is time-consuming; and the time isn’t spent so much on writing the application, but on getting very clear on what your project is, how to ‘sell’ it, planning everything, and getting your partners lined up and really on board. The best thing you can do before you start is to read as many successful applications as you can, to get familiar with the language used by different funders and to really understand what the funders are looking for. Funding is out there, but it’s competitive.

I’d really recommend getting a consultant or mentor involved at the start of your project if you haven’t had much experience in fundraising, even if that means paying for advice and support. I had a lot of support from Flo, who’s written many successful grant applications; but I also had many years’ experience in business and producing myself before submitting this application.

It took me several weeks of work to get the application finalised and submitted, and then I had to wait for six weeks while they processed it and made their decision… those were the longest six weeks of my life!!

 

(Image credit – Manimals working shot, Michelle Hudson)

You are about to embark on a UK “tour”. Can you tell us a little about the plan for this and how you hope the tour and Manimals itself will evolve in the future?

Greenwich Theatre (who awarded me a micro commission during the summer to develop the piece), Poplar Union and The Place Bedford are my venue partners for this ‘tour’. We’re trying out a new model for online work, where the venues all cross-promote the same shows to reach new audiences. Each venue has a different interest in Manimals – Greenwich regularly programs new writing, Poplar Union has an anti-Valentines programme, and The Place has a committed gaming audience. 

It’s an interesting question – what happens to touring when a show happens online, and isn’t really “anywhere”? The action all happens in my home (my flatmates are saints!), and people can watch from anywhere in the world. I think there are lots of opportunities for artists with online work – the challenge now is to get audiences to find out about you!

I’ve also booked a Canadian ‘tour’ for the first two weeks of March with a venue called Talk is Free Theatre. The show is so flexible – I have one remote technician, and the setup is simple. Once the Canadian run has finished, I’m going to promote the show to other venues in the UK and internationally. 

And when the pandemic eases, my plan is to adapt the online show to a live theatre show that can be toured to all of the venues that booked the virtual version.

 

(Image – Manimals promotional image)

Finally, what advice would you give to other theatre makers or companies who are about to start devising and creating a new piece of work? Any essential “do’s and don’ts” for those at the very beginning of the process? 

Give yourselves the time to experiment and fail, but set yourselves deadlines and get accountable to someone. And even if you’re making solo work, the creative process cannot happen alone – find your collaborators, get them bought in to your project, and go from there. There are also a ton of workshops that you can attend to get ideas about structure and process. Use all of the tools that are available to you. Ask for help! If you’re excited about a project, then you’ll find that lots of other people get excited about it too. 

 

(Image – Manimals working shot, Michelle Hudson)

Michelle Hudson’s new piece of online interactive theatre, Manimals, will be “touring” the UK from 10 to 14 Feb and tickets are available through Greenwich Theatre, Poplar Union and The Place – http://bit.ly/Manimals2021.

Canadian “tour” dates will be announced later this month, and tickets will be available through Talk Is Free Theatre.

You can learn more about the piece, as well as Michelle’s other work, via @manimalsplay, instagram.com/manimalsplay/ and
Michelle Hudson Creative.