Ready for a comic book adventure? Dolls in Amber are here to offer an alternative narrative to the genre that decentres straight-white-male-narratives in favour of their queer, female-led ethos. Describing themselves as “a couple of geeky women excited by the challenge of making genre theatre on a dime”, we wanted to get the lowdown on shadow puppets, superheroes, toxic masculinity, classism and mental health. We sat down for a pixelated pint with Villain, Interrupted‘s Writer-Producer KT Roberts and Director Micha Mirto.
Catch Villain, Interrupted at VAULT Festival between the 18th and 19th of March at 16:10 and 20:40 each day. Tickets are available through the VAULT Festival Box Office.
Jake: Hi Micha and KT! You’ve put together a show that is an audacious ‘fusion of comic-book energy, theatre, and shadow puppets’ – tell us what inspired you to put together the piece.
Micha: KT and I were at Edinburgh Fringe, it had been an intense couple of days with very little sleep, we were tired and being a little snippy with each other. I had dragged KT to see a show for no other reason than I liked the flyer. Bedraggled, exhausted and slumped in chairs outside the venue we were just kind of morosely staring into the middle distance. But we went in and watched the show (Tales from the Elsewhere by Lovehard Theatre Co), we bounded out completely energised. The show was extraordinary. We didn’t stop talking about it for weeks – it’s now been three years and we’re still talking about it.
What was particularly special was its disregard for what should and shouldn’t be possible in theatre. The cast of two played something like 100 characters, in what should have been a convoluted mess of a sci-fi story – but it made perfect sense, and beyond that it was incredibly moving. That show gave us permission to make the kind of work we’d been dreaming about making. We planned the whole show on the 10 hour drive back from Edinburgh, determined to make something audacious in the genre we both loved.
KT: I’m a big Marvel nut but had always assumed that because I can’t access any of the IP those sorts of stories were off limits. Then I had the idea to do villains instead (this was before Suicide Squad and the villain-with-a-heart-of-gold had become mainstream). And because they’re in prison they can’t use their powers! No CGI necessary. Genius. Lol we stuck to that for all of five minutes. I’d not written much theatre at this point (my background is in film/TV), so was a bit worried about how to stage it all. Micha said ‘just write it, let me worry about how we pull it off’, so I did, which left us with stage directions like ‘riots manifest around her’. And I know I’m biased, but I think we pull it off spectacularly.
Jake: Your company focuses on centring non straight-white-male narratives in genres in which the inverse usually dominate – tell us how this show fits in with this focus.
Micha: Firstly our company is female-led and, by accident, we have a predominantly queer team (well maybe not by entirely by accident – like attracts like). So organically we create shows that heavily feature this demographic. When we’re writing/devising, we make an effort to look at lesser told stories, and currently that tends to feature women/non-binary folk. In terms of VI specifically; trans man Seth (Ink Lord) is the front of the narrative – ostracised from society for his power, and his family for just being himself. We also have a host of fun characters – my particular favourite is King Cobra, a female-part-snake very successful drug lord.
KT: Yeah, our whole thing is putting sci-fi/fantasy/supernatural/superhero stories on a stage, and then replacing the people who traditionally feature in those stories – the very straight heroes, the strong-female-characters, with people who feel real and messy. A lot of our villain characters have been loosely inspired by villains from Marvel or DC who’ve been jammed into the ‘villain’ box in their own shows. I think this really resonates with a lot of minority communities; being labelled as ‘other’, foisted with a whole load of incorrect preconceptions and then vanquished or rescued in service to the hero’s story. VI aims to unpack a lot of that – how we respond when other people have labelled us as the ‘villain’. Do we play into the stories they write for us, or can we write our own? The show isn’t fluff; it’s about some really important stuff, but it’s funny and entertaining too. We think that’s the perfect combo!
Jake: Tell us a little about the character of Gina, at the heart of the piece, and the wild and slightly madcap challenges she faces.
Micha: Gina is a co-creation between ourselves and the actor Emma Richardson who plays her. VI stemmed from a series of workshops that KT used as a stimulus for the script. Gina was originally intended to be the foil by which we could have some fun with supervillains, but she has become so much more than that. Gina is unpowered in a world where more and more people are developing powers everyday. She’s not particularly special in any other way; she’s smart but not a genius, she’s neither rich nor poor, but what’s remarkable and lovable about her is she’s determined to use what little agency she has to try and make life better for those around her. She’s naive sure – but in today’s landscape naive hope can be a radical act.
KT: Gina was a really tough nut to crack and I don’t think we’d have been able to do it without Emma. She’s a bit useless (Gina, not Emma) and it’s so easy for that sort of character to be really unlikeable. I think the key to her is that yes, she is useless, but she’s not a wet blanket, and she *never stops trying*. The prison system in VI is not designed for rehabilitation – despite Gina’s initial belief to the contrary – so a lot of these villains have absolutely no-one going to bat for them. That Gina keeps turning up, whatever is thrown at her (and we throw a lot, not least an inmate who keeps turning into a pigeon and shitting everywhere XD), turns out to be the most powerful thing of all.
Jake: Tell us a little bit about the process of creating the show and what you have been up to ahead of the show landing at VAULT Festival.
KT: VI actually started life as an idea for a web series – we asked some actors we knew to traipse to Micha’s home, which was incidentally a guardianship of a psychiatric hospital, and do a load of improvisation as supervillains. Good times XD. I came up with the basic characters, but a lot of what the show became was built through trying things out and building it in the room. Once we realised we were going to be making a stage show we landed on the idea of puppets, and our amazing designer Robbie Bellekom (now also in the cast) suggested going super low-fi using an overhead projector and shadows. I think we’re going to take that forward into one of the shows we’re currently plotting – a magical realism end of the world comedy drama (watch this space).
Micha: Dolls In Amber is always plotting something. The team behind this show are so brilliant and throughout the pandemic I felt I was only calling them with bad news. So when I finally got to ring them and tell them all we’d got VAULT Festival and that the show was being supported by Arts Council funding – that was a great feeling! KT and I are producing (despite not being producers lol) so that’s taking up a lot of our time in the run up to the VAULT run, but we’re also looking to the future.
Jake: What are you most excited for with this run at VAULT Festival?
Micha: VAULT Festival is such a great space, and the team running it are extraordinary. I’m looking forward to giving VI a chance to shine in a slightly bigger space. In general I just love the festival, it’s a chance to see loads of amazing work (there’s too much great stuff and not enough hours in the day) I’ve pretty much moved in.
KT: I might actually cry the first time I see this show on it’s feet in front of audiences again, which will be unfortunate as I’m the puppeteer. It’s had such a bumpy journey. We first staged VI in late 2019 at the Camden Fringe, and it got a slew of 4 and 5 star reviews plus was a finalist for an Off-West-End Award. It was the perfect debut for us as a country – we were ready for another London run, ACE funding, to develop it for tours etc. Instead everything just stopped. Then VI got selected for VAULT Festival 2022 – so to have that cancelled was heartbreaking. VAULT made the right decision but man was that a tough pill to swallow. We’d got to the point where we wondered whether we should shelve the show entirely, start work on something totally new, so seeing it staged again is going to be emotional – everyone’s going to be wondering why the puppet lady is crying her eyes out XD.
Jake: We’d love to talk about the future of Dolls in Amber – what’s next?
KT: Micha recently went away to America on a dramaturgy job and managed to come back with a patron :p So now we’ve got a small amount of development funding for new shows over the next five years. Villain is our flagship, but we want to use it as a launching off point to create loads more epic, fun theatre, and we’re looking for collaborators and venues to help us make that happen. Ultimately we want to make shows we can tour, take to the Fringe, and get new generations excited about what theatre can *do*.
Micha: We have a few things on the boil – and we’ll be using the funding to create some high-concept ambitious pieces of work. We’re developing a show about the rapture (puppets, end-of-the-world-carnage, multi-roling joy) and a piece based on an Ursula Guin short story (huge, sprawling sci-fi, space exploration – and what it is that makes us human). Watch this space!
Jake: Fitting with the themes of our magazine, if your show was an alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage (think cocktails, mocktails, shots, beers, be creative!) what would it be?
Micha: Ohhh I think it would be an extremely fruity & colourful concoction probably presented with a sparkler in it. Initially flamboyant and sweet with an unexpected (but delightful) after bite.
KT: Forget the sparkler, I want to go the full dramatic/theatrical mile. There’s a cocktail bar called The Alchemist where they make all sorts of weird cocktails using smoke and oddly shaped glasses and dry ice – VI would be something like that, especially because they also taste really good :p Gosh I could get really into this – create a different mad cocktail for each Villain, then a delightful Earl Grey/Gin for Gina served in a mug.
Photo Credit: Sam Elwin