Getting Mad as Hell with Ruth Hartnoll of Writers LABB

Photo Credit: David J Bradley.

Writers LABB are a Liverpool-based company dedicated to the production of new writing. With its founding members all graduates of the Young Everyman and Playhouse writers programme, they regularly host scratch nights consisting of fresh drama based around a particular theme. Previous nights have included: Pub Night, Childhood Night, Fetish Night, and most recently (my favourite) Bowie Night.

Their current show, 2016: I’m Mad as Hell and I’m Not Gonna Take it Anymore, coming to 81 Renshaw Street on October 14th, is a celebration of all the things to be angry about in modern society. Writers Ruth Hartnoll, Joel Whitall, Steph Dickinson, and Gemma Curtis all have a bone to pick with this year (and rightly so!) and they’ve all come together to write a show in the style of vaudeville theatre. With monologues, music, poetry, and comedy all the pieces will share one singular unifying theme: everything that’s angered them in 2016.

So how did Writers Labb get started?

There was originally twelve of us and we all came out of the Young Writers Programme at the Everyman & Playhouse. So we graduated that and then set up Writers Labb and now there’s five of us left that are still doing it—others have either moved away or gone onto other stuff. So at the moment there’s me, Matt Gabrielli, Steph Dickinson, Gemma Curtis, and Joel Whitall. Joel left us for two years and he’s just come back which is great and he’s now acting again! When we finished the Young Writers Programme we were like “Let’s do something” because if we don’t do something we’ll have wasted all our time and effort training ourselves to write so that’s always been our driver – just get on and do it. We were stuck together by a need to be gobby and get our words on the stage!

We had a very long break just after the end of last year when we did something called Bowie Nights, which was obviously inspired by the icon David Bowie. After he tragically died and we realised that made us really angry and that there was loads of other shit that was happening that was really frustrating us so we ended up making Mad as Hell.

What can we expect from Mad as Hell?

You can expect a tonne of feminist stuff because I’m a very big feminist (go-figure) so there’s lots of that going on in my piece which addresses the coverage of women in Rio this year. I think the coverage of female athletes this year has been pretty diabolical and thanks to the fourth wave of feminism there’s a lot of conversation around it at the moment so there’s lots of other women and men, like me, who are pissed off. My piece very specifically talks about how journalists respond to female athletes, how they talked about them, and the utter bollocks that went with it. It’s that double standard of reporting and you could see their partners upstaging them by proposing while they were receiving an Olympic medal and at the time I was like “that’s really sweet” and then when I thought about it afterwards I was like “that’s fucking bullshit! That’s the only time, possibly, she’s going to get an Olympic medal and you made it about yourself, you asshole!” and it really angered me – so that’s in there.

A few examples of others people’s work: we’ve got Steph in our group who is super socialist and super scouse – she is the city in a person. Steph’s done loads for it, she’s written like five pieces for the night and it’s really good stuff – she’s one of our best writers. It’s all really witty, really irreverent, and really well-observed so I’m excited to see her stuff performed. Joel works in the service industry, like a lot of our audience will do, so he’s written a lot of stuff about working in that environment and all the bullshit that comes with customers – his stuff’s hilarious. It’s turned into quite a funny night actually – I started out writing something quite serious but then I saw the other pieces I was like ‘oh that’s slightly out of tone’ so I ended up making mine a bit more comical – it still works, it’s just a lot more satirical.

Photo Credit: Michael J Bradley

Your last event, Bowie Nights, was staged at the Lantern Theatre, which has sadly closed down now. What do you think about the state of Liverpool Fringe theatre?

The lantern going is a massive concern because it was one of the most friendly venues for the type of thing we do. Thankfully, we were lucky to be a part of the Young Writers programme so we get privileges at the Everyman like being allowed to rehearse there for free when they have space which is really helpful. We can still contact Hayley [Everyman’s Literary Associate] and she’ll offer any help we need because she’s a fucking saint. Going back to what you said though, the Lantern closing up was terrible, however, I do think Liverpool does have an absolute wealth of venues that nobody really knows about – 81 Renshaw Street, where we’re doing Mad as Hell, is actually quite a good example of that. I’ve done another theatre night there previously with Lady Parts Theatre and I just thought to myself afterwards: “I didn’t even know this was here!”

There are a lot of black box spaces in Liverpool that no one knows about. The very first nights we were doing (Childhood, Pub and Fetish) were all performed at House on Bold Street when it was still here and no one really knew that was an option. We just said to ourselves: ‘Let’s just do it there – cause it’s super cheap’ and it was only like 50 quid! The Magnet as well is another great venue, I really want to sing their praises because when we were trying to find rehearsal space they were like ‘yeah normally it’d be 100 quid but we’ll do it for you for 50’ and then told us about five other venues around the city! So there is a community there and I just don’t think people are aware of that. So whilst it was gutting that was lost the Lantern, we need to realise that there are actually loads of venues if you just look for them – pretty much any bar in Liverpool can be turned into a theatre, which is kind of lovely.

So, do you think we could accommodate a Liverpool Fringe, in the way that Edinburgh and Manchester both do?

For sure. Most of the fringe theatre in Edinburgh, even though there are quite a few fringe theatres venues up there, is done in bars and cafes that open up – the whole of Edinburgh opens up. So there’s absolutely no reason why Liverpool can’t do that it just takes someone getting funding and organising it. Every single person in Writers Labb works full time so they effectively work two jobs and all of our actors have to work two jobs too so funding is something we always struggle with. We just don’t know how to go about getting it, and since arts council funding got cut massively loads of the opportunities to do that kind of thing were stripped away. I still don’t think really that people are getting educated enough about how to apply for funding and it’s actually quite difficult when you go to do it – I still don’t quite know how to do it properly. So if someone sat down and actually decided ‘yeah, I’m going to do Liverpool Fringe’ then yeah I think tonnes of people would be on board but it just takes that one person to light the fuse – preferably someone who’s not in full-time employment and has the time on their hands!

You mentioned having to work two jobs, do you think there’s a big problem with actually getting paid for this kind of work?

Totally. There seems to be this massive stigma attached to enjoying your work, which breeds the idea that if you do you shouldn’t get paid for it. As soon as you start enjoying something people seem to think ‘Oh so that means I don’t have to pay you.’ Pleasure is just the byproduct of me doing the thing that I’m good at, and people nowadays seem to think they we can pay our bills with that, which is a load of bollocks!

It angers me that I can’t pay our actors or the people that do our design work for free. None of us get paid but it’s lovely that we’ve got about ten people involved in this night and every single time we’ve been like they’ve always been great and so professional. It staggers me every time we do it. I’m just like ‘you know we’re not paying you right’ and they’re like ‘yeah but you’re not getting paid either.’ We’re just there to make something great regardless.

Any ideas for what the next Writers Labb project will be in 2017?

Yeah, we’ve been talking about it and what we want to do (without me committing us to anything) is use Mad as Hell as a sort of fundraiser but not call it a fundraiser – because nobody likes going to fundraisers! So all the money that comes in from this is going into the 2017 production and what we want to do is essentially make a 60-minute play each with everyone who’s still a member of Writers Labb, so there will effectively be five new pieces of theatre coming out next year! We’ve got content written that’s going to be going up on the site soon about what those plays are for each of us. The one that I said I’m going to write is insanely difficult and I don’t know why I said I’m going to write it – I keep thinking of all these other easier, nicer ideas, but now I’m too far gone!

Is that going to be based on a theme like your other nights?

No actually, it’s just going to be what we want to write and what was personally struck us. The thing that we were taught on the Writers Programme when writing plays is ‘Why Now?’ So the thing that I found when we were doing our other stuff, particularly the early nights, we did them because they were things that switched us on as writers and got us engaged so my night was all about fetish stuff because I found it really interesting so I was like ‘yeah, lets talk about sex, everyone likes sex.’ But that didn’t necessarily answer why are we talking about that type of sex right now. So I think the stuff we’re doing next year is more specifically addressing ‘why is this relevant to this year?’ That’s also part of the reason we did Mad as Hell because we wanted it to be very current so a lot of the stuff is talking about things like Corbyn and how women dress because that’s what’s being discussed at the moment.

When you starting writing these theme nights, would somebody come in and say ‘right, we need to write about this’ or would you all just sit down and map out what you want to do?

When we were doing Pub, Childhood and Fetish we were basically like ‘Who wants to take ownership of the night?’ Because we had writers for the night, directors for the night, actors for the night and we just needed curators. So someone took on the responsibility for being the curator – which for the three events was Me, Gemma and Matt. Matt was like: I want to talk about pubs and the things that everyone talks about over a drink, moments that can happen on a night out – So it was a great jumping off point. All of our things were very inward and personal to us. I chose fetishes for various reasons, I find it very interesting and I think it’s something that is being talked about a lot more now actually so it was nice to get vocal about it and to have fun with it because when you get down to it – it’s pretty silly. Fetishes are pretty funny and I think that’s great and don’t think we can laugh about sex enough at all.

Mad as Hell comes to 81 Renshaw Street on October 14th. Tickets can be bought here.