The Marvellously Modern Film and Theatre Company are serious about inclusivity and pushing boundaries. We spoke to founder Rachael Link about how the company came together, the making of their film Ro and Blow-Jo and what plans they have for the future
D&CFilm: Who are the Marvellously Modern Film and Theatre Company and why were you formed?
Rachael Link: The Marvellously Modern Film and Theatre Company was formed about 10 months ago. We’re a troop of industry professionals. Primarily we are based in the South West, but we are looking to expand on that in the future.
Although we only formed 10 months ago the idea for this was actually developed about 10 years ago when I was doing my dissertation. It was around about the time when I was trying to decide what I was going to cover in my dissertation. I went and saw the musical ‘Wicked!’ And it’s the only musical where I have come away absolutely fuming about how the disability was represented in the character of Nessarose the sister of Elphaba. Anyone who has read the book will know that Nessarose is missing limbs in the story. In the musical I strongly felt that it was a ‘demonstrated’ disability by making her a wheelchair user and then when they made her walk, it was evidently clear that the actress had no physical disability whatsoever. To me that was a poor representation of disability and a poor representation of what the book is.
It was saying to me that any actress or actor wouldn’t be allowed to perform that character of Nessarose by any subsequent characters with a disability. Yes, there’re risks that need to be factored in, but at the end of the day, it can be considered discrimination and some of the finest actors have a disability.
This inspired me to write my dissertation on disability and learning difficulties within the theatre and entertainment industry and their representation. This also formulated the basis of my idea of opening some kind of school where people can come in and hone in their skills. With research I found that this niche had already started to be met within the industry so I looked at theatre companies instead and found that it wasn’t as well represented as it could be.
In recent years I found that Equity (the actors union) was striving for better equality for people with disabilities and learning difficulties, so I decided to go ahead and proceed and formed the Modern Film and Theatre Company. However, I decided to take it one step further and not just encompass actors and actresses with disabilities and learning difficulties, but also decided that this would be open to actors and actresses who get overlooked because of their looks, sexuality, ability, disability, gender, or any other ‘non-standard attributes’ that had become considered the normal for theatre and film. This also came to light because of the #metoo campaign that had been running.
We decided to foray into theatre and film and help professionals with their show reels for free. And give them opportunities to perform and build their credits. Of course, this is difficult to fund and we have decided to go in through the back door and build up from zero pay and go from there. So we have to fundraise and self fund. Hopefully in the future we can get to profit share and then low pay and hopefully equity standard, but that’s a long way off.
Anybody who passes an audition gets an automatic place in the company. In the future they will be invited to audition first before it gets opened up to the public. That way they have a foot in the door.
D&CFilm: Ro And Blow-Jo is your first film. Why did you decide on this adaptation of Romeo and Juliet?
Rachael Link: Oh, that’s an interesting question! I decided if we were going to go modern, then we go the most complicated way. I found that when I was growing up at school that a lot of pupils didn’t understand Shakespeare in English. It’s due to the way it’s taught really and English teachers can’t think outside the box and teacher in the modern way. The ironic thing is that I’m also a qualified English teacher as well as a professional actress.
It’s designed, really, to provide those who struggle with understanding and insight into what it actually means. It also challenges myself. When you watch the film your realise that it is translated from Shakespeare as you can hear some of the patterns in it even though it’s modern day language.
Another one of the reasons why we wanted to modernise Shakespeare’s work is because a lot of people refuse to watch or read it because of the way that they have been taught. It takes away from a lot of his artistic brilliance the way that it has been hum-drummed and dried up into education, and thus via modernising it into language and situations that people can recognise and relate to, they’d be more likely to watch or read the traditional stuff with a better understanding and appreciation for the work.
Shakespeare is something that I want to practice modernizing anyway, as it’s relevant in today’s society and I also wanted to test the material in film format before putting it into a show. The film script is going to be adapted again and modernised even more to correct the Shakespeare pattern and flow before it goes into the stage version.
D&CFilm: What changes have you made to the orginal and how have you made it more up-to-date?
Rachael Link: Obviously, the language has been modernised to an extent. There’s not a single word of the Shakespeare language in it, but still has some of the rhythm.
I decided to play it through in the characterisations. People often forget that Romeo and Juliet are teenagers and they capture the lovey-dovey angle more than they do the teenage angst. They also forget that Juliet is a 13-year-old girl thrust into an unwanted marriage from a hinted abusive father and a dysfunctional home. The actress that we cast in this role is over the age of 18, but we purposely made sure that we cast an actress that looked 13/14. We also sexualised her name to ‘Blow-Jo’ to portray this. Juliet is also very grumpy and we allowed our actress artistic reign, but made sure that we had the rudeness there as well, which is seen a lot more in today’s society.
Romeo is a gloomy self-centred individual who originally only cares about himself and Rosaline. Ro is, without a doubt, definitely portrayed this way. The actress who was cast in this picked up on that immediately.
The fight sequences, that were expertly put together, didn’t use any weapons at all. We wanted to go with the aspect of fistfights and having them quite grotty and gritty.
We went on a hunt around the local charity shops and dugout some excellent pieces of costume. We went with modern day dress and what I did to the costumes was made them more dirty and more horrible than they originally were. These costumes will be taken into the stage show as well.
The casting was an interesting process. I kept most of the characters, except for two, genderless. The characters that had genders were Blow-Jo (Juliet) and Tapanga (Mercutio). The reason for this was because I thought that with the nature of their language someone of the opposite sex might not deliver the dialogue the way that someone of that sex might speak/word it or phrase it.
All of the other roles were given to whoever fitted those parts. It was all regardless of their gender, age, disability, or sexuality. To see who got cast is what you need to come along and watch the film.
With the gang I costumed them in black hats and black mask and I played on the idea of game culture and fear of terrorism.
D&CFilm: Tell us about your cast and crew?
Rachael Link: We’ve got a very diverse cast and crew. One thing that we asked each person who auditioned for us was what other skills they had that they’d be able to utilise within our company. It can be expensive to get additional people to come in and do these additional skills for us.
Most of the cast are local to Exeter itself. However, we do have company members that are based elsewhere in the country and within the world. All of our actors are extremely talented professionals within the industry. Our actors were able to make a part of the crew as well. Even now as we have finished filming and were in postproduction our actors are now utilising their promotional skills for us too.
D&CFilm: You shot Ro And Blow-Jo in Exeter – what locations did you use and what was it like filming in the city?
Rachael Link: We filmed in Rougemont and Northernhay Gardens, Gandy Street, Subway passages, and Flowerpot Skatepark. In most of the days filming it was generally very relaxed and very chilled. It wasn’t too busy or anything like that. Even at Flowerpot Skatepark the people who were skating that just skated around us instead. Although, filming in the subway passages was an interesting experience. It was cold and noisy and there was lots of glass. The members of the public were slightly concerned at some point with what we were doing in there. You’ll have to see the film to find out though.
D&CFilm: One question we always tend to ask, because we think it’s important, is what role do you think the artist has in society?
Rachael Link: That is a very good question. What is the artist’s role in society? An artist is a character in a story and that story has a purpose and it’s a way of communicating an idea of philosophy to an audience. The artist has an ability to transport people from the humdrum nitty-gritty day-to-day life to a magical world far away from the masses, in the adventures of others that we cannot possibly attain ourselves. However, that does not mean that the artists’ job is purely that of entertainment but one that has an understanding of social awareness and gets the audience to question our realities and ideas, as well as being entertained. To an artist, society is not separate but the same. As Shakespeare once said, “The world is but a stage and all the people on it are merely players.”
D&CFilm: You’ve got a screening planned at the Exeter Phoenix, are there any others in the pipeline and what other projects are you working on?
Rachael Link: There are no other planned screenings or films to be shown at the Exeter Phoenix as of yet. However, the song for the film has been expertly composed, so we will be shooting a music video for that in a couple of weeks after it’s been recorded.
We’ll be looking at the possibility of shortening this film so that we can submit it to film festivals and in order to get people to watch it online as well. Hopefully, some schools will be interested in hiring the film to show to their students too.
There will also be the stage version of this film in the future. Our next Shakespeare project will be ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream.’ In the meantime, we are looking into working on some other projects that don’t revolve around Shakespeare and we’re looking into the possibility of collaborating with Creative Culture Southwest. We’d also like to do something at the Exeter Festival next year.
Ro and Blow-Jo is at Studio 74 at the Exeter Phoenix on Saturday, October 12.
Buy your tickets (they’re just £1!)