Something special is happening at the Joan.
Back to Back is a double bill of solo shows featuring two artist practitioners of science theatre, Rachel Roberts and Nathan Harrison. The works have been developed at the Joan’s Q Lab, an artist residency program, and together they create a direct and disarming experience.
In Everything You Ever Wanted, writer-performer Rachel Roberts combines the history of food studies, weight loss science and starvation experiments with her own experiences with disordered eating. A first-time playwright, her voice comes through strongly: compassionate and pragmatic, with a satisfyingly sharp bite.
She engages with the audience throughout – instructing us to take care of our own needs: to leave if we feel we must (and to not ‘make up a little story’ about anyone we may see leaving); later, when she invites us to join in on an experiment breathing through a straw, she reminds us to only do what our bodies feel capable of doing.
This is a topic, Roberts knows, that often renders people powerless, and she wants us to have all the power we can. Her work is considerate in other ways – numbers that may be triggering are bleeped out, and her passion for demystifying weight-loss and health myths keeps audience members of size respected and included in the conversation.
Her theatrics (the show is directed with both sensitivity and a welcome wryness by Erin Taylor) are minimal but striking – the aforementioned straws, a giant crayon, and some refashioned ice cream tubs go a long way – and our focus remains on Roberts. She is captivating here, both in her performance and her cadence, and her show cuts to the heart of a deep social problem. Through Roberts, we too feel validated, normalised, and seen.
How I Saved the Western Black Rhino, by Nathan Harrison, plays after the interval. We switch focus here as he tackles species extinction and its human causes. Full of conservation and climate science facts, this show turns a lecture on its head by playing with our human desire for ‘saviour’ stories – the way we must humanise a crisis, and the way our stories need clear endings, so we can feel fulfilled by the journey.
Harrison, under the direction of Emma McManus, is a more of a confidante than Roberts; he’s folksier, more emotional as he describes a childhood love for the Western Black Rhino.
His storytelling is amplified by small dioramas set up at varying points across the stage; he uses a handheld camera to project the images to the audience. In this way, the toy rhino in his hand becomes a photograph, an artefact of his travels. Other spaces hint at a sprawling national park, a safari ride dotted with elephants and zebras, and even a giant, inventive animal rescue technique.
This piece is cunning; it uses the audience’s emotions to elicit the kind of response that engenders change in personal habits or inspires action. He shares information about endangered species and their chances of survival; about the habits we have built up as a society that consequently have destablised animal habitats; and brings it together with a story about family and personal discovery that’s essentially human catnip. It’s an intelligent work with an ease to its delivery that is ultimately charming.
Taken together, these two works are a sophisticated, compelling double bill of theatre for change and self-growth. There’s power in knowing where the personal and social problems we face have come from, and by placing them in a broader historical context, rooted in fact and facing toward the future, the playwrights are offering us a vital piece of hope. Not solutions to these problems – but instead, new ways of thinking that will help us move forward, past shame or confusion and into vital clarity.