Gob Squad’s Sharon Smith speaks to Theatrefullstop about performing at this year’s Meltdown Festival!

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For those who are not aware, the Meltdown Festival returns for its 22nd outing this year! With a host of celebrity names having curated the festival in years past, this year’s host is following suit. A multi award winning musician and lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of new wave band Talking Heads, David Byrne brings an eclectic line up of musical performances and exciting theatrical experiences. Having been noticed and admired by the man himself in New York, the celebrated and forward thinking Gob Squad join this year’s line up. Theatrefullstop were lucky enough to speak to one of its performers, Sharon Smith, about the importance of collaboration, making work, no matter the budget and being a fan of David Byrne’s work!

Gob Squad are set to perform ‘Western Society’ at the Southbank Centre, as part of David Byrne’s Meltdown Festival. How are you feeling ahead of the festival?
We are really excited to be doing Meltdown, especially David Byrne’s Meltdown, we’re massive fans! I love Meltdown Festival, especially the English Contingent. All the English contingent of Gob Squad are going to be there and of course, Meltdown’s just got a fantastic reputation, it’s always really high calibre, so we’re really looking forward to being apart of it!

‘Western Society’ is a piece of theatre examining how technology has become integral to western culture. What would Gob squad like for audiences to take away from the piece?

Calling your mum more often… a lot of things, it’s a very layered show, we want people to have a very very good time, we don’t really do messages, I think we’re very much exploring technology and its effects on us in this day and age, rather than giving a message. We hope that people have a very very good time, it’s a positive show, even though it’s got a lot of melancholy in it. [It’s] about the state of things, about our ambivalent position, about a certain amount of powerlessness, about liking things on Facebook isn’t quite enough, try not to be too liberal. But mainly, we want people to enjoy a night out, being apart of a live experience, and being part of something bigger than just you and feeling connected to the people you are sat next to. [Also being] connected to the people on stage and to leave with that sense of connection, a live, real time connection.

Gob Squad currently consists of 7 performers, with an addition of external performers. How did you approach creating ‘Western Society’?

We work collaboratively on everything, there’s 7 [performers] in Gob Squad and in this show, there’s 2 guest performers. There’s always a video designer and a sound designer working with us. In this show, there was a stage manager because it’s quite a complex stage set up and everybody in the room has the ability to contribute to the process so we always use the method of, everybody has visions or ideas and brings them in, we work in small teams, we look and we exchange roles, we do and we look, we do and we talk, and we look and we do so it comes together through a whole lot of conversation and exchange. We always use test audiences because we often use audience participation, we often get friends and colleagues in who we can practise on.

‘Western Society’ also witnesses a collaboration with sound designers and video and computer experts. How important is this collaborative process with other professionals?

Completely important, the sound designer and video designer that we’re working with in ‘Western Society’ are all collaborators who have worked with Gob Squad [for] over 20 years. Sometimes we do work with other people but they’re like apart of the family really, they really understand how Gob Squad work. We’re all freelance, they work with different projects and their own projects, they’re artists outside in their own right, so they’re always the perfect combination of fresh blood and old school, they know what we’re doing and they always contribute fully to the creative process. You will see in the show, the sound and video is very complex, it’s working on several levels, some of them, the audience don’t even see and I have no idea how our sound designer manages it, but somehow he does, so thank God for him!

David Byrne is notably a fan of Gob Squad’s work, expressing that ‘everytime they’re in town I try and catch what they’re doing next’. How does it feel to be acknowledged by such an accomplished artist?

Just absolutely incredible! He came to see our other show, Kitchen, in New York and at the beginning of the show, the audience have to walk through the stage set and we all get introduced to every single member of the audience, and so of course when David Byrne walked through, we all said stupid things like “hello, you’re David Byrne!” and stuff like that. We’d heard he was coming and he’s quite a shy guy so I don’t think he hung out after but we’d heard that he’d really liked. We’d been in contact with him because we recently celebrated our 20th anniversary with a big festival in Berlin and we’d had lots of exchanges with David Byrne about his influences on the company, his Talking Heads and also the Stop Making Sense film and period is quite influential on Gob Squad. One of our members, Sarah Tom is officially the biggest David Byrne fan and she’ll be there in London and I know that she’ll be the most excited. It’s brilliant, and the fact that he’s doing Meltdown is brilliant! brilliant! brilliant! and the fact that he’s invited us to be apart of it… we can’t get over it really, we’re really excited!

In terms of projects created by Gob Squad, what would you say is the company’s mission statement?

We want to use the theatre experience as a way to come together, as a way to say that theatre can change things. Look, we’ve all come out of our houses, we’re not watching the telly, we’re all here, that somebody who is sitting next to you who you didn’t know, why don’t you say hello to them? This theatre experience has brought us all to this place and we can all think together about this thing, this collective moment is powerful. It takes away some of the anonymity and the alienation that we find in the city and just for a little bit of time we’re sharing this thing and it belongs to all of us.

What advice would you give to aspiring performers?

If you’re at college, don’t worry about your grades! Don’t sit and wait for people to give you money, just make work in your garage or your front room and just use what you’ve got and turn it into something brilliant. If it’s £10 or £100, or no money, stick with your friends, they’re probably the best colleagues you’ll ever find! Pull your resources and do what you can, but definitely, definitely do it! This is a funny old climate to be trying to make theatre, but it’s probably a good time for a new spirit in the underground scene, reclaim the underground, that’s what I say!

Interview by Lucy Basaba.

Western Society will be playing at the Southbank Centre (Purcell Room) from Thursday 27th to Sunday 30th August as part of this year’s David Byrne’s Meltdown festival. For more information on the production, visit here…

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