Sh!t Theatre: "We like embracing failure"

Tim Bano talks to Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole of Sh!t Theatre about the housing crisis, the non-threatening side of performance art, and their new show Letters to Windsor House

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The Sh!ts
Published 17 August 2016

Welcome to Woodberry Down, a colossal "regeneration" project in Hackney, slicing the skyline in a thick cluster of concrete and glass. Every apartment has underfloor heating, and there’s a even a lake for kayaking. Just down the road, however, behind the phone box where locals smoke crack, is Windsor House. This is not luxury living. It’s an ex-council block, home to Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole who, collectively, are better known as Sh!t Theatre.

Having looked at Job Seeker’s Allowance, paid clinical trials and feminism in previous shows, their latest sees the pair getting to grips with the housing crisis. They dig into the piles of letters addressed to previous tenants and attempt to find out about the lives of people who made a home so fleetingly in this ex-council flat before them (it’s legal, they checked). They look at urban inequality through songs and comedy, faces painted white like clowns, straddling the line between political sketch comedy and performance art. It’s what Biscuit calls, “our punky, DIY aesthetic”.

The duo’s name, Sh!t Theatre, is a statement in itself. For Biscuit, “people say that performance art is just ‘shit theatre’. We like embracing failure.” Mothersole adds that, “It’s against the idea of virtuosity. Just because you’re not an expert at dance, or some skill, you still have a point to make.” But it isn’t true that Sh!t Theatre are entirely shit. Their reputation has grown over the last few years, Letters to Windsor House has already collected a very respectable clutch of positive reviews, and their comic ability is apparent even when they’re not performing. What happens, then, when they’re no longer shit? Is there a point when they’ll get beyond themselves?

“That’s something I worry about every day. I get up in the morning and think, 'What happens if we get too good?’” Mothersole is joking, of course. But Biscuit has a plan. “We have something we call the UK No. 1 Sh!t Theatre Tribute Band, called Slick Theatre, which is me dressed as Louise and Louise dressed as me. I suppose we could always become Slick Theatre if we ever get too good. It is a massive worry.”

It would certainly solve the pair’s PR problems. On a Radio 4 programme in June they weren’t allowed to say their name because "shit" doesn’t fly on a Saturday evening on national radio. And back in 2009, while being interviewed during a lunchtime slot on local radio, not only could they not say "Sh!t Theatre", they couldn’t even say the name of the show when they were performing, because it was called Sh!t Theatre Presents Sh!t Theatre. “It was pointless. We weren’t allowed to do any of our songs,” says Mothersole. “We weren’t allowed to spell it out loud even though it’s got an exclamation mark,” adds Biscuit. “The mind boggles.” 

The duo met at Queen Mary University of London, where they both studied performance and were united by a love of Taylor Mac. Mothersole was asked to perform at a political night in London by a woman who, she says, “wanted to get into my underwear”. She agreed on the condition that Biscuit came along too. “I came essentially as a vag-block,” is Biscuit’s description. “And so Sh!t Theatre was born, as a preventative measure against unwanted sexual advances.”

Since then, they’ve been creating shows inspired by performance art, but the nice kind – none of that intimidating archness, the self-mutilation, the po-faced self-importance. “We consider ourselves performance art,” insists Biscuit. “Other performance artists might not, but the beauty of performance art is that no one actually knows what the fuck it is.” People who do more extreme forms of performance, Biscuit reckons, “might be upset that an hour-long show with words and trombones gets classed in the same sort of bracket. Our influences are the same as theirs, it’s just we’ve gone in a different direction.”

The comedy aspect has always been important to Sh!t Theatre – or at least to Biscuit. "I don’t think I’d be interested in making something that’s not humorous. But I don’t want to speak for Lou."

"I disagree,” Mothersole says sternly. “I want to do straight depressing Shakespeare plays but I’ve just been following Becca all these years. Comedy’s not my thing."

"Yeah, I’m the leader. You might want to write that down."

By making their shows funny, they make their politics palatable. They’re desperate, according to Biscuit, not to appear preachy. But don’t be fooled into thinking that humour lessens what the pair want to say, particularly about the housing crisis. They’ve been researching the show for 18 months, workshopping with homeless shelters, young people who are vulnerably housed, people of mixed generations who were renting. Even people who own houses (yes, they do exist).

They also looked at 19th-century London, finding the payslips of washerwomen of the time and calculated—comparing earnings, looking at house prices then and now—that a washerwoman in Dickens’ London would have had more disposable income if she lived in Soho in a one-bed than Biscuit and Mothersole currently have now. “The disparity of wealth and poverty is still there in London.”

So what do they want a show about the housing crisis to actually achieve? To inculcate a subtle shift in thinking from its audience members, perhaps? To spread small ripples of contemplation and provocation, like a pebble in a pond, until they grow into a solution?

“Obviously we want it to make us rich.” At least Mothersole is honest. And Biscuit? “We would like to be able to buy a large house that we can then rent out. We’d need £120,000. Last year we didn’t make that, but that’s because we were only performing every other day.”

Still, although they’ve doubled the number of performances since last year it seems unlikely, somehow, that Sh!t Theatre will be enjoying the underfloor heating of Woodberry Down any time soon.