OffWestEnd talks to Rhia Burston, writer of ‘Woebegone’ which is debuting at the Bread and Roses Theatre on 27 June 2023.

Rhia Burston is the founder of Up Yours, a creative company of northern female-led artists creating work that makes noise. Rhia trained at the Guildford School of Acting as an actor, after spending 4 years creating work and theatre-making with artists at the Lowry Theatre, The Kings Arms Theatre and writing ‘Woebegone’ This is the first time Rhia’s writing is being performed and she is very excited to see where it goes next.

What first attracted you to the theatre?

When my mum used to clean the house on a Sunday, she would always stick on the concert version of Les Mis on and that’s the first time I’d really known theatre was a thing. Then one day she took me to see it at the Lowry in Salford when I was probably about 10, and I just remember sitting there thinking – no way that’s real people on stage doing that – and being absolutely mesmerised by it. Then when I went to see my first play, I couldn’t believe that I could sit there and watch these stories unfold and be moved, and feel seen. From that point on I knew I wanted to be involved in it somehow and as I grew up and grafted for the opportunities to learn about it, experience it and see theatre, I couldn’t shake this feeling of wanting people to feel seen. That’s what theatre is about for me, that’s what I write for, and writing stories that I feel like I haven’t seen be told yet, from the perspective of different people who don’t get to tell their stories because nine times out of ten, there’s someone sitting in the audience who will light up when they see themselves and a similar experience happening in front of them. How wicked is that?

If you could pick any one person or theatre company to work with on your next project, who/which

would it be?

Too many choices! My gut instinct is saying either the Royal Exchange Theatre or Frantic Assembly. The Royal Exchange because I grew up seeing some of the best writing and best performances there, created by incredible directors and creative teams, and being from Manchester it would be a dream to go back and do something myself with them. They celebrate everyone and welcome everyone, no matter who you are and it just feels like home. Then Frantic Assembly because I love dynamic, risky and bold theatre that offers you a new way of seeing something. There’s one thing to write something and see it in your head, but there’s another to let an artist read the words, let it resonate and then translate that into an embodied and emotional form.

What is your opinion of Off West End theatre, in general?

I truly think some of the best theatre happens above pubs. Because from my experiences, the work is at its purest stage of passion and there is an excitement to share it with anyone who is willing to listen because it might not have ever been performed before. It feels like it’s a community, both on-stage and off-stage. Everyone is willing for it to be brilliant, and you never know what you’re going to get either. There is such a broad range of productions out there, things that might never tickle your fancy but you’ll never experience anything like that again elsewhere.

What was the most inspiring performance you have ever seen? Why?

I saw a production of Wrestling The Walrus in a Studio theatre at the Royal Exchange, which I got a free ticket to and had no idea going in what it was about. It was a beautiful two hander that explored the relationship of a dad with dementia and his daughter, desperately trying to connect with him. It was inspiring because it was so simple, and full of humility, and didn’t try and tell me how to feel watching it. Although it was very sad and heart breaking at points, it was inspiring because it all fell down to the importance of companionship and being connected with someone. The actors, the musicians were so tender with the writing and the work so that I could feel safe and welcome watching it.

What piece of work are you the most proud of?

As this is my debut, I’d have to say this one. I’ve been writing Woebegone since 2018 and it has had many different forms, different stories, different lives within that time and it has grown as I have grown as an artist. It’s a story that has taken a lot of heart, and a lot of vulnerability – or maybe self-reflection and self-awareness – to be able to make sure it will connect to someone else. I’m often called outspoken, who knows if I am or if it’s because I’m a woman;) but I don’t shy away from uncomfortable or difficult topics and conversations because usually everyone thinks it but no one wants to say it. In my experience too, you don’t learn about things that are different from you unless you make the effort to actively try and make mistakes that you can accept and learn from. This play is for everyone, not just young women, and that was really important to me because the challenges women face aren’t only women’s, it includes everyone. I’m proud of it because it finally has its own voice and I really want to share it with people, it’s taken a lot of time to really make sure I’m doing the story justice and I’m glad that I’ve waited to share this story until I was ready.

I’m also proud of creating my own company off the back of a Covid Zoom Theatre Festival I created which celebrated northern artists which has now transformed into creating a company which celebrates each other, celebrates artists with stories that may be silenced which we want to shout about and creating opportunities for upcoming artists.

What makes a really good character?

I feel like it’s subjective. For me, I know it’s a really good character when you’re not sure if you like them or not. And you can’t quite figure them out, or they throw you off balance a little bit and make you question them. I guess because that’s what being human is, and for me, I go to the theatre to see a human on stage so that I can connect to them as a human rather than feeling a separation from them. No one is ever perfect, and we all say things that we shouldn’t and sometimes we say things that are golden. But characters need to be put into challenges, and that’s when it gets exciting for me.

Are there any actors/actresses you would like to write a play for?

I think I’d prefer to write for the people who aren’t the ones going on stage rather than the ones who get to be on stage because that’s where the magical happens. But if I could, I’d love to write a play with Julie Walters.

What play do you wish you’d written?

Hedda Gabler. 100%.

Can you tell our readers about what you’re doing now/next?

Currently, I’m debuting my play Woebegone directed by Emily Susanne Lloyd at the Bread and Roses Theatre from 27 June – 1 July with a group of incredibly generous actors and creative team which we will then take to York Connect Festival on 19 July. From there, I will be focusing on graduating as an actor and entering the industry as well as planning to take Woebegone around the UK in the summer of 2024.

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