An interview with the co-founders of Quandry Collective
05 July 2021
AN INTERVIEW WITH CO-FOUNDERS ANNIE MCKENZIE AND COCO MAERTENS WHOSE BLOODILY BOLD TAKE ON RICHARD II DEBUTS AT BRISTOL SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL THIS AUGUST 2021
To be writing about success in the theatre industry in 2021 seems akin to finding gold in your back garden. Theatre’s constant setbacks against a government which has forgotten all forms of beauty but the beautiful game has continued to demoralise theatre-makers and artists ever since we first heard the phrase ‘flatten the curve’. Annie McKenzie and Coco Maertens optimism shines like sun rays through the bleak cloud covid19 has draped over our shoulders for so long. With a tour of Richard II debuting at major UK cities, Annie and Coco have a reserved casual-but-cool attitude as they proclaim the tour is going ahead ‘no matter what rules are in place.’
Speaking of the two Co-Founders, Annie and Coco sit opposite me in a beautiful London townhouse flat. A wooden coffee table decorated with laptops, phones and auditionee information lies scattered amidst mugs of coffee with broken handles and pretty patterns. Bo-ho against cinnamon walls, a cheese plant is the feature of the room, bending her leaves behind Coco’s shoulder, as relaxed as her Co-Founders. Annie and Coco sit cross-legged, partners-in-Shakespeare, where the only make-up on their faces today is passion. They are full of exuberance, words come to them with the ease of someone who is confident in all the right ways a woman should feel.
WHAT IS QUANDARY COLLECTIVE AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO START YOUR OWN THEATRE COMPANY?
Coco: We want to re-tell classic tales from a female-led company. That doesn’t have to be Shakespeare, but any tales that are known from any kind of background or language origin. We want to re-tell them in a way that’s relevant and says something about today. Another thing which Annie and I talk about often is the way we want to work in a rehearsal room. This is very collaborative and in the end we have a Director who makes the choices, but the work is very much a co-explorative process. We want to create a rehearsal space that is brave, where anything is possible. The most beautiful, the most brutal, horrible things and at the same time everyone can feel 100% safe. I think we’ve done that.
Annie: As for why did we start our company, well Coco and I were working together on a different show in Exeter in 2018. We went out for dinner one night talking about theatre, plays that we love and want to make. I asked Coco if she could make one play that she wanted to make most in the world, what would it be? She said Richard II. Coco told me why it would be interesting to have a female Richard and I got really excited and ‘said shall we do it? Would you like me to direct it?’ And she said - ‘yes please!’ All of the pieces have fit like a jigsaw puzzle over the years, but it has been a really organic process, like a Juggernaut. Art doesn’t have to equal suffering.
WHAT WAS IT THAT MADE YOU CHOOSE RICHARD II? WAS IT THIS IDEA OF GENDERBENDING THE CHARACTER OR WAS THERE MORE TO IT?
Coco: Historically, the play already deals with themes of ‘toxic masculinity,’ even if you wouldn’t call it that back then. It’s all about why I (Richard) as a feminine King can’t be a King. So the idea is essentially that because Richard has traits, behaviours and energy that is feminine she/he can’t be a good King. There is a historical letter from Gloucestershire, one of the brothers from the older generation that York and Gaunt are from, where essentially Richard’s Uncle slates him and calls him a p****. All this because he is making peace treaties with France at a time when the country is bankrupt from all its wars. Richard’s having the p*** taken out of him for clever, political decisions. We didn’t want to do a gender-blind production, but one where Richard is born a woman and pretends to be a man in order to hold onto her power. All the rest of the cast is male because we wanted to reflect this heightening of the theme that - if you are a woman you can’t be in power.
(Here Annie nods in agreement, finishing off Coco’s thoughts. Throughout the duo aren’t afraid to both lean on and bounce off each other throughout the interview.)
Annie: Why does gender seem to matter in positions of power? Why do women historically, who are in positions of power, have masculine traits? Like Elizabeth I, like Margaret Thatcher, like Angela Merkel, Nicola Sturgeon. They keep their hair short, speak in a low voice, they don’t show emotion much. They are very cutting and that’s very interesting to us. Highlighting all those things and why this still matters now. For me the story is so relevant to now, especially Brexit and the pandemic. It’s amazing how it talks about politics then and politics now, all of the in-fighting and how we’re this sort of special jewel in the sea which should be protected. It’s five hundred years since but all of this stuff is still going on now, nothing really changes.
YOU’RE A FEMALE-DRIVEN COMPANY, PROVIDING OPPORTUNITIES FOR MINORITIES. DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO HAVE A COMPANY WHICH VALUED THESE MORALS?
Coco: I think we both strongly feel this idea that Shakespeare, that these famous plays, are solely for a certain class and for a certain person is utter b*******. So we’re keen to make the play and what we are doing accessible.
Annie: We are people from different backgrounds. I grew up quite poor in a pretty poor area of a town in the North East of England. Coco comes from a very different background to me, so already our minds-meeting on that front and then to reflect the society in which we live and the friends that we trained with. You know, I think it’s not interesting to me anymore to assume we are all white and middle-class when sitting in a theatre. It can feel quite exclusive and people we’ve spoken to often say ‘this work isn’t for me, I don’t understand it’, so I guess what we are trying to do is bridge that gap. Theatre’s for the people. It was originally for the people and we will give it back to the people. To demystify it, to bring it off the pedestal and back to who it belongs to.
WHAT’S THE MOST EXCITING THING ABOUT OWNING YOUR OWN THEATRE COMPANY?
Coco: You can do whatever the f*** you want.
Annie: ‘That’s too big of a cast, you can’t do that’. We say - yes you can. We’re gonna do it anyway.
HOW ARE REHEARSALS GOING?
(Coco looks to Annie, the tour’s Director who catches Coco’s eyes. Simultaneously, both girls give a cheer.)
Coco: Yeah it’s sick! From the R&D we did before the pandemic there was so much we explored and discovered. We know a lot of the world of the play, the feeling, the kind of people we are dealing with. The animal studies and background work we have done is all in place now.
Annie: Woo! We’ve solidified the music. Kester Hynds who is doing the music has developed this cool hybrid of going to church in an underground rave which seems to fit the show perfectly. Our design is really coming together, so it feels like it’s becoming more of a cohesive world and an exciting experience.
GETTING A LITTLE MORE SERIOUS HERE, BEING IN WHAT CAN STILL BE CONSIDERED A MALE-DOMINATED INDUSTRY AND SOCIETY - HAVE THERE BEEN ANY SURPRISES OR CHALLENGES YOU DIDN’T EXPECT TO OCCUR?
Annie: There are times where we’ve been conscious of the tone of emails and phone calls. We’ve had conversations about writing a more ‘masculine’ email. I think from what I know and have seen, my male friends are not particularly apologetic when they write emails. They ask for what they want and they get it. That’s not necessarily my experience as a woman and I’m learning that the older I get I don’t have to apologise for just existing and wanting to do a play. I can ask for what I want, but there have been a few people who we’ve had to…
(Coco picks up the thread here, jumping in to help.)
Coco: I had a conversation with a venue and didn’t think it went very well because I thought the play was a bit too out there for them. Then we had an email exchange and they didn’t email back. Annie and I had a conversation about whether some of the ‘sweetness’, or my femininity wasn’t the right energy. We sent a kind of f*** it email thinking it was finished already. We said - ‘Hi XXX, this is how we operate. If you want us, here are our dates. Let us know if not, thank you and goodbye. I got an email back within twenty minutes saying ‘yeah we can make it work, what do you want?’ I told them ‘we want this, this and this’ and they said yes.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO WOMEN WHO WANT TO MAKE THEATRE, ESTABLISH THEIR OWN THEATRE-COMPANY OR ARE JUST STARTING OUT?
Annie: Don’t give up. Find your tribe and the people who you can work with who understand you personally as well as professionally.
Coco: You can say no. Especially young actors. There is s*** I wish I said no, I was just desperate.
Annie: Find out what really turns you on and what you really want to do. Coco’s right, say no. I remember there was a time when I stopped doing jobs for free, unless I was making it myself and knew it was going somewhere. I hold dear to my heart that at one point in my life I just gave myself permission to do it. It’s not a huge thing, it’s an internal thing, but since I gave myself permission my life has changed quite dramatically in a short space of time.
MANY PEOPLE, NOT JUST WOMEN FEEL LIKE THEY HAVEN’T LANDED THE ‘GOLDEN AUDITION’. WE HEAR OF THE ‘LUCKY’ STORIES OFTEN IN MEDIA BUT IN REALITY MOST WORK HAS COME FROM THE OPPORTUNITIES PEOPLE HAVE CREATED THEMSELVES. PREDOMINANTLY, THIS VIEW HAS COME FROM WOMEN IN THEATRE, DO YOU THINK THIS IS A RESULT OF A MALE-DOMINATED INDUSTRY, OR HAVE YOU FOUND THE OPPOSITE HAS HAPPENED FOR YOU?
Annie: In terms of myself, most success has come from me. Whether that’s writing a sitcom and getting signed by an agent or making a theatre company. Whether that’s putting my name in the hat for facilitating or teaching…I’ve never had THE audition and got THE audition. Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just never happened for me. No one has gone ‘you’re the special shiny person’. That hasn’t happened...yet…
Coco: I feel like the thing that you’re passionate about is natural attraction. That thing matters to me, so other people think ‘that looks great because she cares’. So the natural law of attraction kicks in. At the same time I’ve learned the more grindy it is, it’s not that good. The more ease there is, the less I feel it’s work, when I step into a feeling of flow and listen to myself about what is difficult has been really helpful to me. Do I need to be doing this? The grind is not useful and I used to think that’s where I had to be all the time.
Annie: I agree. I suppose your average Joe would think that Phoebe Wallerbridge came out of nowhere, when actually she was doing Fleebag in 2011 and ten years later it has come to the telly. Same with Michaela Coel. These women are being recognised now for work that has been years in the making from something that was started by themselves.
WHAT CAN AUDIENCES ATTENDING BRISTOL SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL 2021 EXPECT FROM RICHARD II AND WHY SHOULD THEY COME AND SEE YOUR SHOW?
Annie: Somewhere between Mad Max: Fury Road, an episode of Game of Thrones and a global ecological movement. A return to the earth and earth-worship. Somewhere between going to church on a Sunday morning and going to a rave. It’s going to be violent, it’s going to be funny, it’s going to be sexy and hopefully people will forget that it’s a Shakespeare play. Hopefully audiences will understand everything that’s going on and will care for these people and what happens to them. To get really invested in the story, as invested as we are in these wonderful characters and world.
Coco: There’s sick music, it’s visually exciting so I think it’s exactly what has already been said. It’s going to be a bloody, bold, outdoor exhibition.
IF YOU COULD DESCRIBE THE SHOW IN THREE WORDS, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Annie: A wild ride
FINALLY, CUSTARD CREAMS OR BOURBONS BISCUITS?
Coco: I mean definitely Bourbons.
Annie: Really? My heart said Custard Creams then!
(They look genuinely shocked to have different answers)
Coco: Can’t work with you anymore, Annie sorry.
Annie: Today, you can have Bourbons and I’ll have Custard Creams. I love eating the creamy bit out of the middle.
Quandary Collective’s Richard II UK Tour debuts at Bristol Shakespeare Festival and is playing at Eastville Park Swimming Pool from the 18th - 21st August at 7:30pm. Tickets are £18 Adults and £16 Concessions with an Earlybird rate currently on till the end of June.
Tickets are on-sale and available now at both www.quandarycollective.com and https://www.bristolshakespearefestival.org.uk/events/
Age Rating: 16+
Warning: Contains violence and full-frontal nudity.