EMMA NIHILL discusses Breathless Theatre’s SPACES, debuting at the Edinburgh Fringe.

SPACES began with an online questionnaire, asking a broad and anonymous community the surprisingly difficult question: ‘do you feel there are any boundaries you cannot cross in your relationships with other people?’ The responses came in a flood. People wrote about their relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, how they align their faith with their way of life, how they navigate interracial relationships, their struggles with and recovery from mental illness. The replies were from people who feltdistanced from their parents, close to their friends, lonely or emotionally supported, confident in their identity or fundamentally unsure about their place in a community. 

From this one source came proof that, perhaps unsurprisingly, people are bound up in their complicated connections to others. And so, the debut play of Breathless Theatre was born from the simple idea that what makes people different from one another is what informs the boundaries they create around themselves. SPACES would use the themes of sexuality, faith, race and mental health to explore what it is that impels people to draw towards others or push them away. 

The name Breathless Theatre is a nod to the pressure felt in the chest when anxiety takes hold, a feeling not unlike the one experienced by an actor about to step onstage. For Tallulah Vaughan and Raniyah Qureshi, the creators of Breathless Theatre, the powerful, frightening vulnerability that comes from creating and performing theatre is very familiar. The pair began their directorial partnership six years ago, working on an all-female production of Caryl Churchill’s A Mouthful of Birds in which I performed. For Mouthful, they developed a directorial style that celebrated collaboration. Combining movement, music and a commitment to emotional honesty with a rigorous approach to text, they drew on the unique skills of each member of the cast to create something vibrant, challenging and original. 

Throughout the first two weeks of rehearsals for SPACES, Tallulah has stayed true to this style. Sitting on the floor of her flat, or in the park when it gets too warm, the five of us (we are a cast of four women) have pieced together songs, verbatim interviews and literature to create four distinct characters that we feel are honest and true to life. All four of us have either dance or physical theatre experience, one of us is a writer and we all have wildly unique experiences to contribute to the piece. Working with these skills, we have created some material we’ve hated and more that we’ve loved, all of which is to be collated and moulded to fit Tallulah’s vision. Writing this at the beginning of the third week of rehearsals, I am very excited about the shape the play is taking, and curious to see the final result.

 SPACES is created by an all all-female cast and production team. We have made it our mission statement to be committed to an intersectional exploration of what it means to shape relationships with family, friends and lovers as women. We believe that an exploration of all kinds of relationships from the unique and often misrepresented perspective of young women makes for exciting and ground-breaking theatre. Among many other kinds of relationships, we are dedicated to presenting the nuance, beauty and strength of female friendships.

 The foundation of SPACES has been built from verbatim interviews. Before rehearsals began, Tallulah and Raniyah asked a range of people probing questions: ‘Do you think you could date someone who doesn’t share your faith?’ ‘Do you think you distance yourself from your peers because you see yourself as different?’ ‘Why do you think you choose not to speak about your struggles with mental health?’ ‘Do you avoid certain conversations with your parents?’ The generosity and insight of the many interviewees who contributed their experiences has been hugely influential in the creation of our characters. It’s amazed me just how intimate some of the answers are, some of them acting as quasi-confessions. 

Exploring the universal question of human relationships through the lens of faith, race, sexuality and mental health means that we have been able to explore the experiences of all kinds of young people in order to create a piece of theatre that will resonate across the board. Exploring what brings us together as well as what pulls us apart, SPACES will be equal parts moving, funny, clever and honest. We are really excited to share what we know will be an important piece of theatre first in London, then in Edinburgh.

SPACES will be performing at Sweet Venues, Grassmarket 2 at 2.25pm from 2nd-26th August (every day except the 7th, 14th and 21st). Tickets can be found here.