GENERATIONS – Interview with Richard Headon

Richard Headon

(RH – Richard Headon, KM – Kate Morrison).


KM: Tell me about your new show, Generations!

RH: The origins of Generations come from our 40th birthday. Obviously the pandemic interrupted the process of making the show but we’ve kept the flame burning on that and made some very useful partnerships with 5 festivals that are coming to fruition this summer.

It’s an intergenerational show about how the generations are getting on, and a litmus test of how we are doing as a nation, not quite post-Covid but definitely post-Brexit – we’re checking in with an audience and saying: “How are you getting on?” A very key part of it is to involve the audience.

KM: And was that audience involvement partly prompted by Covid, because people have been cut off from one another?

  1. I think so. The sheer congregation of people I find very moving in a space, when an audience comes together with an expectation of what’s going to happen – the camaraderie of that moment, that 40 minutes that an audience shares with the performers, I think can be very powerful.

KM: So how have you been putting it together, what has been the process of creating that show?

RH: It’s a partnership with five festivals. We had a meeting in Birmingham just before Covid and met with some key bookers and promoters and out of that we have continued that connection very strongly with Jeremy Shine at Stockton International and the Castlefield Follies and Jens Frimann Hansen from SO Festival and Passage Fest in Denmark.

After that Bradley Hemmings from Greenwich and Docklands International Festival and recently Verena Cornwall from Kensington and Chelsea Festival. So we’ve got a lovely package of five festivals that are booking it.

We did apply for Arts Council funding and got turned down twice, so we’re making it out of the fees and support from those festivals. In some ways that’s quite liberating. We don’t have to answer to ACE criteria for the 4 investment principles that are in the new form. So that’s given us a bit of free agency and we’re almost going back to earlier times of Desperate Men when we made shows that were commissioned and didn’t have formal funding.

In some ways it’s perhaps getting a bit of radical edge back to what we’re doing, which I’m quite enjoying. Having spent years making participatory work with our larger projects, it’s quite nice to just get in the studio and work with a group of artists who are young and old. We’ve got Baby Boomers in there, we’ve got Generation Y, we’ve got Millennials and Gen Z. That intergeneration mix is a very rich mix of generations of stuff we’re putting together.

KM: You say it reminds you of when you were first starting out and you’ve mentioned that the show is political – do you feel that there are parallels between when you were starting out and the political climate now?

RH: It’s certainly been in the press recently, that there have been parallels with the 70s and 80s. The industrial disputes, the poverty that was around then. We did have a country that was in trouble. In outdoor arts, the garden festivals were created to brighten up places like Liverpool because they were so run down, and street arts was used a lot on brownfield sites to sort of send in the clowns. Let’s brighten the place up, lighten people’s lives, give them a laugh. It certainly feels like that climate. I went to see Get Carter last night and Newcastle in the 70s looked grim.

People are struggling and we are taking this festival to some areas of deprivation – Skegness and Stockton in particular, where people hopefully will share with us and the sharing might help in a tiny way with some of those struggles.

That live element within the show, interestingly, with Peter Brook dying recently, he talked about theatre being organised anarchy, putting audience at the core of the theatre. Each show will be different in the way we involve the audience. And we’ve also been going up to Skegness and Mablethorpe for SO Festival and we’ve been interviewing and recording people about what they feel about the UK – on intergenerational subjects but also how are they. 68% of those who voted in Skegness voted Brexit, so it’s very interesting to listen to them. They will be part of the show’s soundtrack. Maybe if we’d listened to Skegness’ voice a few years ago, we may not be in the pickle we are post Brexit.

So it’s touching on political things, yes, but the core of the show, the theatre of it, is a sort of handover show. It’s a roadshow with a host going round with his young acolytes. They’re like the people who might hand out free orange juice down the shopping centre. And the host is in town to deliver this handing over and exchange with the young people and hear how they’re getting on. He paints a very rosy picture going forward. However it goes all wrong and that’s all I can say on that!

KM: What do you think you have learned about intergenerational relations from putting the show together, either from working with different generations or the themes coming out of the show?

RH: What I’ve learned is there is no one storyline on intergenerational relations. In the theatre world, the kids there have perhaps a different view because they’re freelancers. They don’t necessarily expect the secure jobs and pensions that other young generations might feel they’re being denied.

It’s also not necessarily just about the generations, it’s about class as well. There’s this whole thing around “OK boomer” which is this meme about how Millennials and Gen Z feel like they’re being denied access to the levers of power and access to things like mortgages and property, pensions, and the security of full time jobs. A lot are on 0 hours contracts. A phrase I heard on a podcast, a young millennial was saying: ”The cliff face is just there.” In other words, they don’t have the safety net that the Baby Boomers have. And some boomers have very good pensions, some have paid off mortgages. Others are having to keep working one or two jobs and are having to support their own children and do lots of childcare. So the shape of families has changed. Some might be very cross. Others less cross.

And interestingly a lot of baby boomers now reflect and say: “I wouldn’t want to be this generation.” They feel they had a great time going out and playing up the park and kicking a ball around with their mates and feel a bit sorry for Gen Zs that are in their rooms finding their friends online.

I think the conversations and exchanges that will go on, and perhaps a Manifesto for going forward we might come to by the end of the show, might be quite healthy. We’ll put all this stuff out here from the Skegness voices, from us, and we want to hear back – what do people feel? Some will chime with others, others maybe not. It’s not one answer. I think it reflects the wider world in politics that we are very divided and we have different tribes now.

KM: And how is the show coming together, what can people expect to see?

RH: I’ve been driving the writing of it but equally Shirley Pegna and Joe Hill’s soundtrack will contribute to the story. Plus, the physicalisation that the young performers will put in. I’ll be moving a little less that I normally do . Elements of dance, physical theatre, stupidity, humour and some perhaps profound moments in there of quiet reflection as well. It’s a celebration of the spirit of Desperate Men and our energy after nearly 42 years. A quiet comment on our retirement and how we feel perhaps we’re being moved along in terms of support because we’ve obviously got to develop the young artists. However hopefully people will see in this show – like when we did Slapstick and Slaughter, some students came up to us and said “We didn’t know we could do that with street theatre. I’m keen to once again show Desperate Men have the chutzpah to create something that takes risks. It might fall flat on its face but that’s fine.

KM: Who is involved in the show, who are the cast members?

The cast age ranges from 70 to 18, so Jon Beedell, my co-artistic director is in the show, And we’ll have a guest older Desperate Men coming to each festival. So Jon will be at Kensington and Chelsea and GDIF. Then Vic Llewellyn will be at Stockton (SIRF), Jo Kessel at Castle Field Follies, Manchester and Richie Smith, who was in the original Desperate Men with Jon, at Skegness and Mablethorpe (SO Festival). They’ll be guesting as the old baby boomer.

Then we have Sophia Knox-Miller who’s been working with DM the last couple of years. She’s a Millennial and a clown, a very energetic performer. Then Will Pegna, Richie and Shirley’s son, who does breakdancing. It’s great to have in an intergenerational show, a Desperate’s son in there. And representing Gen Z we’ve got Ella [Coy] – this is her first professional job, she’s off to Central in the autumn. She’s only 18 but I think she’ll be great. You don’t see street shows, outdoor shows with pensioners and young people as well. It is all about showing that Desperate Men are still relevant and interested in investigating, scratching something and seeing how we respond to it.

KM: What do you hope the audience will take away from it?

RH: I think this will be challenging for an audience. They won’t be expecting to see a show like this. They won’t be expecting to listen to actors as characters telling a story. So hopefully they’ll tune in to it after a while and stay. People can always walk away in street theatre, it’s one of our challenges to get them to stay. I want them to reflect on the things that come up and feel like they can come in, and to make the piece quite accessible in that way and in the end maybe talk to one another about how the generations can listen and support each other.

KM: Final thought, is this a conversation that more people need to have, are the generations are becoming more divided?

RH: I think there is a danger that they will be in their silos. My impression is that a lot of young people are talking on social media about these things with their own language. Naturally, that’s what the different generations do, they have their own language and reflections, but I think some generations are better at talking and supporting one another. Some have to because they have no option. If possible, the Bank of Mum and Dad comes in to play where people do have those kinds of resources. But a lot of old people are doing small things like picking up kids from school or preparing food for families where mum and dad are out to work, putting people to bed, taking them on holidays. I think there’s lots of quiet, unpaid support that is keeping everything together and that’s something that the government are taking it for granted, a bit like food banks – the parental love banks

KM: Is there anything else you want to say about the show?

RH: We’re at that point where our challenge in the next 3 weeks, a bit like Mission Impossible, is to pull together this layered show and make it very much a Desperate Men show, and surprise people. And feel like we’ve had our voice, this is probably our final touring show, so in a way it’s drawing the threads together to the handover. What have we got left to say? Ultimately, probably, It’s all about love.


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