Whether you’re the type of person to spend hours in the mirror perfecting your hairstyle or the type to just wake up and quickly run your hands through your hair and leave the house, we all, whether consciously, or subconsciously have an affinity to our hair. The concept of hair is societal, political, emotional and psychological; there’s many strands (excuse the pun) to the initially unassuming body part. Artist and performer Selina Thompson draws on the theme of hair, in particular, black hair in her latest work, Dark and Lovely. Ahead of opening night next month, Theatrefullstop speaks to Selina about creating an immersive piece of theatre, her inspirations for creating the play and offers advice to aspiring performers.
Hi Selina! You’ll be presenting your work, Dark and Lovely at the Ovalhouse Theatre this October. How are you feeling ahead of the production?
Excited! A little nervous – this is my second tour in two years, so it still feels like a very new skill for me. But it’s a massive privilege to be able to travel with your work, meet lots of new people, be in lots of new venues – and to be there a little longer this time. I’m really looking forward to having two glorious weeks in London, and seeing what kind of conversations come out of the different citites – Bradford, Sheffield, Newcastle and Birmingham – that we head to.
Dark and Lovely challenges the traditional manner of storytelling, and instead presents an interactive series of scenarios for audience members to navigate their way through. Why choose this form of immersive theatre to present your show?
Because getting your hair done is an immersive and tactile experience – intimate and intensely personal. I wanted the work to have a sense of a sharing of secrets – I wanted it to be a work that you touched, smelt, tasted, something that felt as close and as precious as being sat at my mother’s feet while she combed out my afro. The fourth wall doesn’t quite cut it – and doesn’t enable the kind of conversations that I want to be woven into the show.
Dark and Lovely focuses its attentions on the very heated topic of black hair. What inspired you to talk about this topic and create this show?
I had been commissioned to make a piece of work in Chapeltown in Leeds. It was going to be based in a community venue – somewhere that hosted art workshops, adult education classes – on the main Chapeltown road which is full of buildings that serve the community there – libraries, solicitors, doctors, hairdressers, etc. I wanted to make a piece of work that reflected what my connection with that part of the city was – and my connection with that part of the city was that it was where I got my hair done, where I bought my products – and that is no small thing to me. Black hair dressers and hair retailers always connect me to home, to identity, to my family and childhood. It felt like the only thing I could make work about there with any sincerity. And I liked what I made so we decided to tour it.
You’re also an artist as well as a performer. How do you approach creating artworks, especially for this show?
The two for me – artist and performer – are inseperable, so it’s always about trying to create something that feels like it’s embodying the subject of enquiry in some way. So for this piece of work I collaborated with Designer Rachel Good to create a tumbleweave, a giant ball of hair for the work to take place in – because I wanted something that I could hide in, something that was homely and abject at the same time, something that was highly tactile, that was afro like but made out of weave, that referenced Good Hair (because people told me about that film constantly, as though Chris Rock was the first and only person to ever inquire into black hair) – for me, objects can hold all of those connotations, and the performance then has to do less work – and vice versa. We also worked with Musicians Buffalo, to give the tumbleweave a voice – cello music, as that was the instrument I played as a teenager (when I shaved all my hair off or the first time) but with a heavy does of Minnie Riperton, Cool Runnings, and Simon Emmerson (who makes music for the Lush Spa). It’s all about loading things with as many connotations as possible, trying to create something that’s rich in meaning. That sounds a bit much doesn’t it? Sorry! We’re getting the work ready to tour at the minute, and I’m making the last big changes that can be made prior to touring – my head is full of it.
Dark and Lovely uses recorded conversations with barbers, hair vendors and customers. Whilst listening to these recordings, did you learn anything new from the thoughts and opinions of others? Did this ultimately shape the end result of the show?
The recordings were used in the research, but not in the show, in the end – there’s something about taking other people’s words like that that I still haven’t quite figured out or come to peace with. I think I learnt a huge amount for the people that I spoke to – and I was hugely grateful for their time and generosity – and I like to think that that generosity shaped the show. When I started making the work, I was full of anger, worried that I was making something no one else could possibly care about, had a head full of respectability politics. I think the people I spoke to really helped me work that out.
What would you like for audience members to take away from the show?
That’s a tricky one. In many ways, I’ve made this work for Black Women. I hope that they see themselves in it, that they don’t feel judged – that it’s a work that acknowledges the beauty, talent and style of black women, in a world who’s beauty standards depend on us being other.
What advice would you give to aspiring performers and artists?
All advice is autobiographical, so only listen to advice from someone who’s practice and life is something you aspire to, and take all advice – especially unsolicited advice – with a big old pinch of salt. Absorb as much art as you can, try to always get paid for it, and if it’s all getting too much, remember it’s only art, and go for a walk (to the pub).
Interview by Lucy Basaba.
Dark and Lovely will be showing at the Ovalhouse Theatre from Wednesday 7th until Saturday 10th October. For more information on the production, visit here…