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R+D Week: Hot Cousin

written by Madeleine Lewis

Hot Cousin was born out of an earnest and unabashed love of playing with performance. There is no laid-back cool to how we create, it’s full blown commitment to experimentation at all times or bust. It’s rewarding and exciting, but also means that we have a lot of big ideas (orchestra comprised of all the sound playing equipment ever invented, yikes), that require a lot of time and space and energy to realise. That’s three of the most precious commodities in theatre – you may as well be digging for gold. That’s why we can’t stop raving about CLF Art Cafe. With one of our group having worked with them previously we approached them with our new collaboration and were offered a full week of R&D with a scratch at the end, exactly what we needed to kick off the creative process for our first show Don’t Talk to Strangers. There were a lot of exclamation points in the group WhatsApp that afternoon. A whole week of dedicated rehearsal in a space so full of character it effectively becomes another group member is already pretty great, but CLF Art Cafe also do this incredible thing where they totally trust you to just go ahead and make whatever art you’re inevitably going to make. It’s how we ended up with a naked alien, a system of planetary orbits, a trashy romance in space, a love letter to the extra-terrestrials. In the end some of it worked really well, some of it left the audience with questions and some of it inspired them to come up with their own ideas for the work. It’s exactly what you want from a scratch in the early stages, particularly for a company like Hot Cousin who love to throw it all up in the air and see how it lands.


Don’t Talk to Strangers is an interrogation of The Golden Record, a project created by NASA and Carl Sagan in the 70’s to communicate what it means to be human to aliens. It’s a gold plated record, it’s in deep space right now and it’s probably going to outlast humanity. The problem with the record is that it’s an intensely beautiful idea, and it’s also a mess of problematic choices. Encapsulate ALL of humanity on ONE record? A record created by white Americans…in the 70’s. And remember, it’s probably going to outlast us all.


We entered the week knowing we wanted to explore that dichotomy in the record rather than simply tell the story behind the record. The tension between the sincerity of its intention, juxtaposed with the weight of its ethical failures, is where we found the most theatrical inspiration. Another really big idea, which meant our week was spent experimenting with ways to gather that idea into a workable (and watchable) form. To put it in sports terms for no real reason at all, it felt a lot like we were kicking balls at a goalpost but every now and then the goalpost would mysteriously be behind us… and we were in space… and the ball would explode with hidden neo-colonialist rhetoric at random intervals. In other words, it was super exhausting, academically challenging and extremely fun. By the end of the week we had devised a piece that plays with time and rhythm, with each performer existing in their own ‘orbit’. These orbits intersect at different points to create a form which is both complex and subtle. Meanwhile an alien travels through the space, distorted at first, slowly becoming more ‘human’ over time - a theatrical ostinato around which the rest of the piece is built. And of course, taking inspiration from the records own medium of communication, sound design plays a huge part, with an orchestra of tape decks, record players, mobile phones, bluetooth speakers and the PA system working together with the live voice.  


We walked into CLF Art Cafe with a list of great big ideas and walked out with the skeleton of a piece of work just waiting to be fleshed out, the perfect end to a dream week of earnest and unabashed creative experimentation.


Photos: Bartosz Kielak

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