BWW Interview: Helena Morais Talks CACOPHONY Transfer
Following a sold out run at the Almeida in 2018, Cacophony transfers to the Yard Theatre for a limited run. Inspired by Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, the production has been developed and devised by writer Molly Taylor with the Almeida's Young Company.
Helena Morais explains why people need to see this production right now, and shares just what being part of the Young Company has meant to her: "It's not enough to just be in a certain space; it's to feel welcome in that space".
What's your earliest memory of theatre?
I used to go to Theatre Skool near me, which was a drama club where we did improv and read scripts. But I hadn't actually gone to the theatre until about Year 9.
We went to see Hairspray and I had obviously seen the film, but I didn't know what to expect seeing it in a theatre. I just didn't know things like how the scenes would change, so it was exciting to experience that.
So that was acting, but you're also a writer. Had you always wanted to do that too?
Writing is quite recent for me, only since 2016. That came more as a need than a want.
Because I'm a black actor, I felt like there weren't that many stories that I could relate to. I constantly felt like I had to keep searching and searching, and from that experience, I decided to start this non-profit company called Plays 4 POC. I'd read and see lots of plays and post about them, so that people would know there are these other shows out there that are quite inclusive.
That kind of evolved into, "Why not just start writing myself?" So I first wrote a short film and it was about my little brother, looking at how children with learning disabilities are seen. Often not spoken to, but spoken about.
You're now a member of the Young Company at the Almeida. How did that come about?
I followed the Almeida Participate Instagram account and they were looking for people to go to Edinburgh in 2017. At the start of that year, I literally said to myself, "Right, I need to take something to Edinburgh". (Obviously not quite realising the cost of what it actually meant!)
So I saw the Almeida thing and I signed up to it. There were 200 people in this audition and they were only taking nine of us. I really didn't think I'd get it, especially because they didn't want us to perform. It was about being yourself and very natural.
But I got it and we took From The Ground Up to Edinburgh, which is an interactive piece of theatre. That's probably the hardest thing that I have ever done!
That show really taught me about being very observant the whole time on stage, not just of the other actors but the audience too.
The outcome depended on what the audience decides to do in that moment, it was about challenging social and political ideals. We'd ask questions, like one of mine was, "Do you dress to impress yourself or others?" They'd step to their left for "Yes" or right for "No" on the stage, so wherever they stepped, I had to write that down which would affect the end of the show.
And quite a few of us joined the company after Edinburgh. So with this cast for Cacophony, what's lovely is some of us came on that journey together.
With Cacophony. It seems like this show is challenging audiences on their opinions too?
Yes. It's inspired by Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publically Shamed and it's about the aftermath that comes from online public shaming. And it's not just from the recipient's point of view, but also the shamers.
It questions many things, for instance people's voice and privilege. Why are certain people given the platform to say things, while others are not? So when we were devising it, we discussed people like Munroe Bergdorf. When she spoke about the racism she encountered with L'Oreal, she was fired for it. Why do some people receive a lot more scrutiny than support for speaking up?
We also discussed why we feel the need to look for heroes. For example, Emma González was speaking up against gun crime in America around the time we were devising the piece. And we were like, "Well what happens if she collected guns or hunted as a hobby?" Even though she's a hero, would we still support her?
It's looking at the psyche of what makes us decide what is right or wrong. And with things online, that decision process is so quick and thoughtless now.
What role do you play?
I play Tash, who's like the mediator. She is present at all times, as the events are being retold for her benefit, because she goes through a tragic event and doesn't understand why things ended the way they did. So everyone else is telling her the story, and her reactions happen at the same time as the audience.
Tash doesn't really pass judgement before she truly understands a situation. She researches before she can add her points to a discussion. So at the end of the play, we finally get her opinion about the events that have just unfolded.
And she isn't afraid to challenge popular opinion as well.
After a sold out run at the Almeida, Cacophony is coming to the Yard. How did you find out about the transfer?
We found out at the end of last year and, to be fair, I had been saying for so long that I would love this to come back. Because people need to see it and what it's saying. Molly is such a great writer and Mike [Bryher] is an incredible director, so it needs to be present.
As a company, we feel ecstatic. To see how audiences react to it. At the Almeida we were onstage the whole time sitting with the audience and you really got to feel the energy. Plus, the Yard is one of my local theatres, so I can't wait to see how it will play there.
Finally, what has being in the Young Company meant to you?
It's really made me grow not only as a performer, but also as a person.
I'd been involved in other young companies before. There are times where it feels like you see theatres trying to fill these spaces just to say, "Oh look, we're helping young people". But here at the Almeida, I feel like I'm not just another number.
I know I can message Mike about something or even Ross [Crosby, Participation Producer] and they will always listen and help me.
It's not enough to just be in a certain space; it's to feel welcome in that space. And I really do here.
Photo credit (chronological): Ross Crosby, Richard Hubert Smith