BREAD CRUMBS is a warped retelling of the well-known fable Hansel and Gretel – it’s a crass and highly stylised exploration into the link between gender roles, domestic abuse and the scarring impact it has on young people. VCA grads Ruby Johnston and Benjamin Nichol devised the show, creating a dark and heightened examination of the Australian zeitgeist and using black comedy to explore the complex taboo issues of abuse and trauma. I spoke to the two about why they chose Hansel and Gretel as their vessel, exploring these heavy issues and the use of gender roles in the show.

We have wanted to do a fairy tale adaptation for some time now. Fairy tales are such a big part of our collective understanding as a society as most of us have read them growing up”, said Johnston.

“Anything that is a culturally typical part of our upbringing makes for incredibly rich terrain in starting a conversation about issues less easy to swallow”, said Nichol.

They’ve both devised the show, and will perform in it as well.

We started out with a clear plan of researching, improvising and writing, but there is always a point we reach where the show just kind of starts making itself. It’s often surprising looking back over the process and realising how far we’ve grown from the original seed of an idea. It’s a pretty magical thing to be able to write, direct, perform and to see an idea grow into a show” said Johnston.

Located in a world somewhere between the realms of a Grimm Brothers fairy tale and the industrial landscape of suburban Dandenong, the show centres on a series of naive stories and games played out by two siblings in their attempt to survive the journey home.

It’s been a long process of research for us, starting from before we pitched the show to Poppy Seed. The topic of family violence is incredibly complex and needs to be supported with a researched understanding.  We’ve been lucky enough to meet with and pick the brains of a broad range of experts working in the field of family violence. Speaking to them has definitely offered guidance and direction and reminded us of the importance of putting an issue such as this on stage”, she said.

“The thing in these conversations we were struck by again and again was how eager people were to share. Issues like gendered violence thrive in silence; conversation is therefore a powerful tool in breaking down stigma. You do reach a point though, after the research, where you just have to put everything aside and shape the raw material into something accessible and engaging as well as challenging and true”, he said.

They found that Hansel and Gretel, being a kind of dark and abusive story, leant itself well to the themes they were exploring.

 “We looked at a lot of different fairy tales but came back to Hansel and Gretel because it has pretty dark undertones. We knew it would work best as a platform to discuss the issues we wanted to address”, said Johnston.

“On a lesser note we were intrigued by the brother-sister dynamic. It feels as though the male/female relationships we see on our stages and screen are nearly always are classic heteronormative ones”, said Nichol.

This is the second show they have made together. Last year they made Three Blind Mice as part of Melbourne Fringe Festival 2016 . They loved making that show and, after its success and nomination for Best Performance of the Fringe, they knew they wanted to work together again.

Johnston and Nichol are both VCA graduates, having both performed in A Midsummer Nights Dream, and a number of different performances including devised works.  Johnston participated in the ATYP’s Fresh Ink program in 2015, selected to attend the Australian Pacific Bureau Schools and Directors conference in Singapore where she performed in the self devised work ‘Unplugged’. Nichol is currently making his directing debut with the Fresh Theatre for Social Change and their new branch in Ringwood.

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“Although we are using the platform of a traditional German fairy tale, the way we have constructed the show is reflective of our Australian upbringings.  We wanted to make it a clash between fairy tale and suburban Melbourne. One part ‘deep dark woods’ one part ‘throw another shrimp on the barbie’. We examine bloke culture but also some of the inherently Australian details that are all to present in our own memories of growing up”, said Nichol on examining the Australian zeitgeist.

Fairy tales are a gold mine for exploring gender roles- from the damsel in distress to the knight in shining armour! It’s amazing how these old fashioned ideals are still so ingrained in our modern society, but it doesn’t take much digging to find them”, said Johnston.

It was important for us to make a show that was engaging, accessible and would appeal to a wide audience demographic – something that my mates could see and take something away from. Comedy is like a good glass of wine – it relaxes people. It’s often the best way to start a conversation about otherwise uncomfortable topics”, said Nichol.

The rehearsal process for the show has been great- they’ve spent a lot of time locked in a room for a long period of time to brainstorm, write on long lists of butchers paper and drink a lot of coffee – but only Johnston is allowed to write on the butcher’s paper, it’s her job.

I am super excited to surprise people. We want an audience to be captivated by this magical journey yet challenged and unable to predict what will happen next. They should find it difficult to trust us – in the best way possible”, said Johnston.

“I hope people can see this show and come out with an awareness of the ‘little’ instances of toxic masculinity surrounding us in the everyday and how these ‘little’ crimes give leave to a much greater issue”, said Nichol.

This work has been different to the other shows they’ve worked on.

This work has affected me on a much deeper emotional level than I’ve experienced before. Usually as an actor I’m quite removed from the roles I play, but in researching and performing this I have, at times, found myself really deeply shocked. There have been tense nights of self reflection where I have been made painfully aware of the frequency of gendered injustices which, having gone through an arts university, was something I had previously but foolishly thought I had a pretty solid awareness of” he said.

“This work has called on us to push ourselves harder and deeper than either of us naturally feel comfortable. To do a story like this justice you really have to go there” she said.

Working with the Poppyseed Festival has been fantastic and very supportive.

As young artists any access to guidance, advice and resources is never something you’re going to say no to, let alone when the resources and individuals providing them are this exemplary . It’s also been so nice to work alongside the other four shows that are being performed as part of the festival. Each of them is unique and says something important. You don’t want to miss them!” said Johnston on the festival.

Bread Crumbs runs from 21 November to 2 December at Meat Market in North Melbourne. Tickets and more info: http://www.poppyseedfestival.com/events-products/show-3-tickets

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