Skinheads, self expression and sub-culture: Substance and Shadow on Skin Deep and ‘life changing’ theatre

Closer Group Shot - Matt Austin ImagesSkin Deep, is a play about identity, sub culture and self expression set with the background of the 80s – it has been called a ‘life changing experience’. We caught up with Rosie Mullin of Substance and Shadow, the theatre group behind the play, to find out more about Skin Deep, sub-culture and the power of theatre

Q Skin Deep has been revived from its successful 2013 outings. It tells a story that appears fixed in its cultural and political setting – Thatcher’s 80s Britain. Why did you decide to perform it now, and what themes and issues still resonate with today’s Britain?

Skin Deep seemed to have quite an impact on people since performing it in 2013 and people still talk to us about it now: those who have seen it and those who wished they had, so we felt it was a good time to bring the play back. However, it feels more poignant now than when we first performed it in 2013. We are living in troubled and unsettling times. The media is awash with cultural paranoia and emotions are running high. Fast forward 35 years from when Skin Deep was set (1980) and many of the themes still resonate just as loudly today: another Tory government, austerity measures, the rise of political factions and racial tension rule the day once more.

Q You say ‘The majority of stories of this kind are set in the big cities such as London or Birmingham, but we wanted to write about our own experiences of growing up in Exeter and being ignited by the music and fashion of the day.” How important is ‘place’ to your work?

Place and time are both really important means of providing perspective to our plays. It allows audiences to orientate themselves with the action and relate more closely to the narrative. Setting the play in Exeter is particularly poignant, as we have been able to incorporate a lot of nostalgia and our own memories of people and places into the play.

Q Can you give us a brief outline of story of Skin Deep?

Born out of the cultural melting pot of Jamaica, London and Coventry, Ska and Two Tone music is sweeping the nation! These are troubled political times and Skinheads are on the march.

Four lives are touched and entwined forever by the music, fashion and culture of the day but friendships are stretched to the limit and bonds tested when Jem suddenly returns ‘home’ from London, bringing with him a new identity.

Secrets and jealousies from the past bubble to the surface, but why has Jem decided to return and what made him leave all those years ago?

Q How do audiences react to Skin Deep?

We’ve had a very favourable reaction to Skin Deep and some amazing reviews! For example, when we first performed Skin Deep in 2013 at the Bike Shed Theatre we had great feedback from a lady in her seventies who really enjoyed the play, to a young reviewer who claimed that it had been a ‘… life changing experience’!

We also became aware that a lot of people, who came to see Skin Deep through a love of Skinhead culture and Two-Tone music before that, did not generally go the theatre as it was not something they connected with. After seeing Skin Deep, transformed their view of ‘traditional’ theatre and has provided them with accessibility to an exciting new art form.

Q Substance and Shadow is a ‘small self-funded minimalist theatre company based in Exeter’. Can you tell us a little bit more about the troupe and those involved?

Substance & Shadow Theatre was formed in 2012 by myself and Midge Mullin. Before that we had been performing with other theatre companies (Exeter Alternative Theatre, Bare Bones Theatre) but we wanted to be in a position to be able to choose the plays we wanted to produce. We also wanted a platform for our writing.

We have created a style within our writing, using monologue and duologue to suit small intimate performing spaces, which requires few props and a lot of imagination. This minimalist approach to our productions enables us to be adaptable and tour our productions easily around local festivals, where often there is only a short gap between setting up and performing. As we are self-funded, this approach to our productions make them financially viable and on an innovative level, an interesting challenge to create.

A big part of Substance & Shadow’s approach to plays is the use of soundscapes, either via music or through sound effects. This, along with the monologue transports audiences to another place without the need for lavish sets. To date we have worked with the very talented Mike Gilpin who has created great sound effects from football crowds to a 4,000 strong festival where we have only had four actors on stage.

We also have an intrinsic understanding of the type of actors that have the charisma and ability to bring our original plays to life. For this reason, we like to maintain control of the casting process. As a small company we tend to work with a core group of trusted actors who understand our ethic and principles. However, it is important for us to match actors with roles in a congruent, believable way, so we do cast new talent where a particular role demands. This also helps to keep our work fresh and dynamic.

Q How does Skin Deep fit with your other work?

As mentioned above, Skin Deep is one of three plays that we have written focusing on different subcultures in the 70’s and 80’s, (Skin Deep, Duplicity and Tribes & Tribulations), Duplicity was set during the Punk era in 1977 and Tribes and Tribulations was set in the free festival scene of the early 80’s. With all three plays we have explored the idea of how music and sub-culture provides people with a sense of identity and belonging with kindred spirits. This idea is especially powerful in circumstances where people feel marginalised, or outside of mainstream society. Sub-culture has the ability to provide people with the freedom of self-expression of and the sense of belonging to a tribe.

Q The dates for Skin Deep are: Sunday, January 24 at the Barbican Theatre, Plymouth; Wednesday, January 27 at the Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol; Friday 5 and Saturday 6, at the Cygnet Theatre, Exeter; and Monday 8 and Friday 9 at the City Gate, Exeter. 

Do you have any further plans for performances and how do we keep up with developments?

At this point, there aren’t any plans to tour Skin Deep in the future, however, we never say never! It has proved to be a very popular play and one that we enjoy performing very much. We are very excited about our forthcoming tour!

Q And what future productions, if any, do you have in the pipeline?

As we like to plan ahead we have two plays in development: Silver and Gould, a comedy (written by Midge and myself) which we plan to take to festivals in Spring and will be performing at the City Gate on June 12th – 14th. And another self-penned play about the Strangeways prison riot which we plan to unveil in early 2017.

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