Vamos founder Rachael Savage on telling the tough stories that need to be told through the power of masked theatre
The latest production from Midlands-based masked theatre Vamos is called Dead Good, the theme of which is end of life. ‘Chirpy’ you might think, but actually after much research – literally years – the result is a wonderfully empathetic celebration of life and choice. The theatre’s founder, Rachael Savage has never shied away from tough topics previously tackling subjects such as PTSD and forced adoption along with many others.
During the pandemic a show titled Love Through Double Glazing was performed through 3mm of glass to ‘the most cruelly treated humans in our society’ by which Rachael means staff and residents in care homes. The work was full of engagement, love, tears and laughter and Rachael describes it as one of the most important shows she’s made in her decades-long career.
CULTURE IN QUARANTINE
Full mask theatre isn’t a new idea – in fact Rachael took her first steps into the genre 33 years ago at Trestle Theatre. Sixteen years ago, she launched her own company and Vamos was born. The shows are entirely wordless and highly visual, making them accessible to the deaf community as well as being truly global – there are no language barriers to consider, so Vamos performs all over the world.
Covid restrictions sent some productions online, performing to audiences in China via Zoom for example, but generally as a company Vamos has been lucky during the pandemic says Rachael. As well as being able to perform online, Rachael applied for a BBC Culture in Quarantine commission in 2020 which was successful.
Twenty-five projects in total were selected in the BBC’s mission to bring the arts to UK homes despite venue closures and strict lockdowns. Beating off 1,600 applicants, the Vamos project was based on a collection of shorts posted on social media at the beginning of lockdown titled Ryan In Isolation which were expanded to create a 21-part series.
I wrongly thought you wouldn’t necessary need top actors to perform fully masked. Rachael says quite the opposite is true: “If you’re a poor actor, the mask magnifies it. You need particularly strong naturalistic actors to get the message across. Mask technique such as economy, clarity of thought and sharing of thought are essential.” Despite being wordless there is a script, but the actors are running through it in their head. Rachael adds: “The audience works hard to interpret and meets the actors halfway. It’s intellectual and engaging.”
When Dr Maggie Keeble suggested end of life as a theme for a show which ultimately became Dead Good, Rachael’s initial reaction was ‘no way’. Having lost a friend aged 27, Rachael felt she didn’t want to go there and certainly didn’t need to research grief. But the more she explored the idea with Maggie the more she felt it was a story that needed to be told. Rather than a depressing tale of death and grief, Dead Good is about choice and love and relationships.
Rachael spent time in two local hospices – Mary Stevens and St Richard’s which were ‘hand on heart surprising and life changing’. Rachael recalls: “I walked in and it was noisy, there was laughter and a drinks cabinet with every kind of gin.” The nurses and doctors Rachael met were generous and genuine and there was a feeling of anything’s possible. For instance, one patient loved horses, so in his final days, horses were brought to his window. Another patient wanted to get married on Valentine’s Day and the staff made it happen.
ON A MISSION
At St Richard’s there was a group called Men’s Space – a bit like ante-natal classes where female friendship based on a shared situation blossom. Rachael met Nick and Pete who had bonded at the hospice and who became involved with the show. Nick helped with the script and they both came to rehearsals. “Nick and Pete had an outrageous sense of humour and wanted to be involved. They added warmth. It’s positive, funny and poignant.” Sadly, Nick and Pete died before seeing the final show, but they always asked if that happened could they have two empty chairs at a performance.
Vamos’s mission states ‘we aim to transform lives through the empathy and connection of full mask theatre’ and ‘mask theatre taps directly into the power of empathy and encourages awareness of our shared human experiences in an increasingly isolating world.’ It feels so relevant. In times of hardship the arts come into their own – we’ve seen that throughout the pandemic, and we need the escape and entertainment more than ever. If you get an opportunity to see Dead Good, well happy days.