It’s snowing heavily, and bitterly cold when I meet Alex Knott and Zöe Grain, to talk about their play Loop. First performed as two short monologues at a scratch night, it was then developed in to a full production at Theatre N16 in 2017, and looks at how three generations are influenced by music, not only of their own era, but preceding eras too.
The superb writing and innovative movement in Loop rightly gained it a place on our Top Ten Off-West End Productions of 2017 list, and now it’s coming back to London with a run at Gerry’s Studio, before playing 53Two in Manchester.
Alex and Zöe first met on a summer course at Guildford School of Acting, and they quickly became friends, but it was after they were both accepted on to the same course at Italia Conti that a perfect partnership, and Boxless Physical Theatre, was born. Alex is the writer, while Zöe, a trained dancer, looks after the movement “We’re the other part that’s missing of each other, to make a physical theatre company” they tell me.
So where did the idea for Loop come from? “I’ve always been fascinated with the eighties” says Zöe, “it came from my Mum, she had an old Ford Fiesta with a cassette player and she would play Japan or Adam Ant, she tried really hard to get me in to it, bringing out all the cassettes and records for me to listen to.”
Zöe goes on to explain that her Dad had been a Disc Jockey in the eighties, “I only found that out recently, so the spark definitely came from my parents, which is something that features quite heavily in Loop, passing down the eras and knowledge through music.” Alex tells me “it’s about bonding through music, a shared experience of something you weren’t around for.”
“I know it’s called Loop, and it’s got a cassette player and headphones in it, write it!”
As Artistic Director of Boxless, Zöe knew she wanted a play about the eighties, “I’m not a writer but I had an idea, I couldn’t write it so I said to Alex I know it’s called Loop, and it’s got a cassette player and headphones in it, write it!”, and he did! “And, that’s pretty much what you got” says Alex, “after the scratch night I did some research on the music that came before and after the eighties, and realised that it had to be about one of their parents in the sixties, and then tied together with something contemporary. It was already called ‘Loop’ so it made sense to make it a cyclical story.”
One of the original monologues is still the opening to the play “I read a book recently, and apparently you’re not supposed to open with a monologue, but I think it’s turned out alright” he laughs. The monologues are important to the story, “I listened to all kinds of music and watched a few documentaries, then worked off the back of those monologues and turned it in to dialogue.”
Loop was written, but it needed a cast, and Alex and Zöe turned to old friends from Italia Conti, “Aaron Price and James Demaine, who are coming back for this run, were in our year at Italia Conti”, explains Alex, “when you train with someone you get to know them really well as a person, as well as a performer, and we knew we wanted to work with them.”
Ruby Ozanne and Emily Thornton are unavailable this time round, so there are two new members joining the cast. “Emily Costello was in the year below us at Italia Conti, and will play the girl” says Zöe, and Alex co-directed Lucy Annable in Last Man Standing at Theatre N16, “she had a really emotional monologue, so Theatre N16 seems to be the place where we find people doing great monologues.”
“…maybe I’ve written a really weird self-portrait.”
The characters feel so well-rounded, they must be based on real people? “There’s an element of Zöe’s mum in there, and Zöe’s dad said he felt like some of the scenes were like memories he had, it wasn’t something I set out to do, but there is a sense these are people I might know if they were put in that situation, and I’m glad that sense of nostalgia is in there.” Zöe adds “I think there are characteristics of people we know, I see myself as the girl.” Alex laughingly disagrees, “I see you more as the woman…maybe I’ve written a really weird self-portrait.”
I ask Zöe about the movement element of Loop, which had impressed me the first time I saw it “It’s a seventy-minute piece and there’s always someone moving, especially in that first monologue, I needed to make sure the scene was moving around her, but she wasn’t swept away in it, it was about finding a journey for them, to go along with what Alex had written.”
“I mixed all the music as well, so I had a really clear idea of what needed to happen and what themes we had to pick out. In rehearsals I had a blueprint of what needed to happen, especially with the four black boxes which go on to make busses, and trains, and flats, I would have an idea, and then someone else would have an idea and we would try it a different way, it was a really exciting way of working. I trained as a dancer for eighteen years, and I’ve always been fascinated by how actors can move, and characters can move differently.”
“I’m Looking forward to doing it again this time with the blueprint already there, adding new flourishes and getting down to the nitty gritty, and perfecting the bits I didn’t have time to do the first time.”
Alex and Zöe are keen to point out they aren’t brining back an identical show for the sake of it “the audience reaction gave us the confidence to bring it back, but we are giving it a fresher take” says Zöe, “we’ve hired a sound designer, that should make the sound really stand out, straight off the bat the audience will know they need to use their ears as well as their eyes.”
“53Two is an old car showroom, it was built up from nothing, and it’s Manchester’s hottest new arts venue.”
So, why did you choose London and Manchester for this updated version? “Well, Loop is set in London and Manchester” Zöe reminds me, “so that felt pretty perfect to us”. Alex adds, “Simon Naylor, who runs 53Two, used to be head of the foundation course at Italia Conti where we trained, he was also the first person to read the play, and really encouraged us to take it forward. 53Two is an old car showroom, it was built up from nothing, and it’s Manchester’s hottest new arts venue.”
Zöe and Alex have also built Loop up from nothing, the first time round they rehearsed it in the kitchen of the flat they share, and Zöe’s dad built the set in an afternoon, yet, this homespun collaboration turned in to a wonderful piece of physical theatre, delighting audiences on it’s very first outing.
It’s still bitterly cold as I say goodbye to Zöe and Alex, but there’s a warmth in my heart generated by this perfect pairing; words and movement brought together with real passion, which will undoubtedly shine through when Loop takes to the stage again.