Presented by Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence with Improbable and the Royal Court Theatre, Still No Idea revisits the original production, which toured the UK in 2009. Natasha Sutton-Williams unravels the concept behind the piece due to tour the UK in a new format, this autumn.
“The public are trying to protect me from the adventure”
Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence on their new show Still No Idea
Still No Idea, the highly theatrical new show by Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence, is about two best friends who are looking for an adventure. The piece delves into the sort of stories the public imagines for this pair, one disabled and one able bodied, and what that says about our society.
Rehearsing in the inner sanctum of the Royal Court, Hammond (disabled) and Spence (able-bodied) are hard at work devising the show. It is a response to their celebrated play No Idea that they performed in 2009, which toured the UK, Syria and Egypt. Spence remembers that, “We had a very similar response to the show in Syria and Egypt as we did in the UK. It was brilliant; they laughed in all the same places.”
The original show No Idea resulted from Hammond and Spence having worked together in theatre as actors, but wanted to make a show of their own. The only problem was, they didn’t have any ideas.
Spence has a background in verbatim theatre so as a starting point they walked the streets of London and asked the public what stories they could imagine these two women might star in. Unbeknownst to them, the public’s answers were incredibly revealing.
The first section of No Idea became the theoretical version of what the public had envisioned, with concepts like Hammond being a ‘cheeky cockney’.
That was all very well but they still didn’t have a narrative. They went out again and asked the public to write the show scene-by-scene, similar to the process of the game Consequences or Exquisite Corpses. This time Hammond was completely written out of the story. As a disabled woman the public couldn’t imagine her in their story.
Their new show Still No Idea continues this investigation years later. Spence and Hammond are exasperated that in the UK we are constantly being told that the world has changed, things have moved on, there is more visibility for disability on screen, but from the insider experience that just isn’t the case.
Hammond divulges that, “I got a job on Eastenders during this time but the same thing happened. I wasn’t given a story. We realised we had to do the second part of No Idea.”
Still No Idea, the second piece of the puzzle, observes the world from the duo’s perspective; they describe this as “not judging, just noticing”. It’s funny, light, brutal and dark which mirrors the nature of their relationship.
Hammond and Spence have conducted another set of interviews with the public, and guess what? They wrote Hammond out again. Spence describes that, “When the public make up the story, they tend to make me the protagonist, the one with the adventure, and Lisa is given a non-featured role on the side-lines.”
Hammond added that, “In some ways the public are trying to protect me from the adventure. They make me rich and protect me because in their view the adventure and the story is already happening in my body and wheelchair. To have another story on top of that is almost too much for me to deal with in their heads.”
By performing scenarios based on their interviewees ideas, the pair reveal the public’s limited conception of disability; that it’s not just about representation and seeing ‘differently-abled’ people on our stages and screens, it’s about giving these characters narratives that stimulate agency, that illustrate them making complex choices and paint them as intricate, multi-layered protagonists.
Still No Idea plays with different theatrical approaches to performance. It’s one part verbatim theatre, one part improv, one part comedy sketch show. Director Lee Simpson, who co-founded the renowned Improbable theatre company, explained how they have utilised improvisation to shape the piece.
“By and large we plot our way through the story beats, then let Lisa and Rachael loose on that. We have a very short rehearsal period where we have to ‘write’ the show, so there is no time to rehearse it. There isn’t even enough time to write it, so what happens is you chuck some things together, then throw these two on stage and see what happens.
“By sharing this unformed, uncreated thing, this blob, eventually the show’s conversation with the audience forms it into something. You don’t necessarily have a conscious choice about what that is, because it forms itself in response to that conversation with the audience. Our job is to create something amorphous.”
Still No Idea’s form is flexible yet taut, with room for this duo to explore uncharted territory then jump back in for moments of choreographed precision.
Spence and Hammond tackle big social issues in their shows, but their work goes beyond the stage. They emphasised how ‘making’ in general can be lonely and isolating so nurturing a set of supportive networks of disabled artists, no matter what discipline, and tapping into your community, is vital for a healthy sustained career.
It’s also about finding disabled artists in your field and asking them for specific tips. For disabled actors, you can ask more established peers questions like how to frame an email to a possible agent who might be nervous about taking on someone who is disabled.
Hammond highlighted the importance of when to use disability for positive gain:
“It’s like learning a game and how to play it so that it will benefit you. People are so panicky about what’s going on that if you grab the power you can be powerful. If you make them feel okay, they feel a sudden rush of relief. That’s good because their fear is not about your ability; it’s about the rest of the stuff you come with”
“If you can show them you’re flexible, approachable, light, have a sense of humour, weirdly your work is done. Then you just have do the scene you’ve learnt. If you can manage to help them, even though what you really want to do is shout ‘Get over it!” then you are winning. You have to get interested in the psychology of it. Figure out what the game is in any given situation”.
Since devising Still No Idea Hammond and Spence are now launching their new production company Bunny. The name originates from the cockney rhyming slang ‘rabbit and pork = talk’.
All their work stems from Spence and Hammond’s chats. It’s about them telling their stories, saying the things they want to say and not letting anyone shut them up. Judging from the potency of their message in Still No Idea, it’s clear no one can stop this pair from telling it like it is.
Still No Idea is touring the UK.
22 September – Artsdepot, North Finchley, London | tickets here
24 & 25 September – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich | tickets here
28 & 29 September – The Founders Room, Brighton Dome, Brighton | tickets here
3 Oct – The Arc, Stockton-on-Tees | tickets here
4 – 6 Oct – Hull Truck Theatre, Hull | tickets here
19 & 20 October – Dartington Hall Trust, Devon
23 – 27 October – Birmingham Rep | tickets here
31 October – 17 November – Royal Court, London | tickets here
Captioned: Thu 8 Nov & Wed 14 Nov
Audio Described: Sat 10 Nov
BSL interpreted: Thu 15 Nov
At the Royal Court Theatre, each performance will be presented in a relaxed environment, aiming to create a space for everyone, especially people who would benefit from a more informal experience.