Interview: Esther McAuley brings Great Odds to theatre





What was the inspiration behind Great Odds?

Working as a Communication Support Worker and finding myself in a situation where I needed to translate the phrase ‘Follow Your Dreams’ from spoken English into British Sign Language. I went away questioning how much I truly understood of this phrase because it’s very conceptual.

When translated literally, it conjures quite an abstract, fairy tale-like picture and when I thought about how to interpret the concept, I thought of ambitions, aims, hopes, wishes and a fire in the belly. I thought about how those things have driven me, but the subject of them has often changed and then I thought about how I’ve never actually caught hold of one or experienced that really weird idea of  ‘living’ one.  There was irony in the situation I won’t go into now…but the experience made me simultaneously furious and fascinated  by our use of language and how these common English phrases get thrown around, without being truly understood or interrogated. It drew me towards wanting to explore more about what it means to follow a dream in a world that can be so brilliant and at times, so unfair.

 Can you give a summary of the story?

Great Odds is about ambition and identity. It asks what it means to follow a dream and through the story, it weighs up the external pressures of needing to fit in, conform and make money, against the internal (and conflicting) pressures of needing to find your own voice and tell your own story.


It’s set in Grimsbridge, a town suffering hardship, cuts and booming rent prices where Great Odds; Grouch Jewels and Marco are living a threadbare but happy existence running their theatre and making shows. They are just beginning their oldest most favourite show of the Tummy Flutter, when they are interrupted by a call from The Big Boss who tells them their rent is going up and unless they can pay, they’re out.


They set about creating a new, sell out hit show, enlisting the help of the audience (The People of Grimsbridge) about a small person played by a puppet and named by the audience, who’s dream escapes from his/ her ear one night. Our brave puppet protagonist leaps out of the window to follow his/her dream through the night.


There’s lots of surprises, wobbles and it’s not your typical fairy tale… but you’ll have to come and see it to find out what happens after that!!


This is Macs Arcadian’s first production- how do you feel ? Are you nervous?

Yes. Really nervous! I feel a big sense of responsibility to live up to all the things I’ve said I want to achieve with this. I’m interested in playing with theatrical conventions, I want to push boundaries, I want to be bold with storytelling that is socially conscious and it’s important to me I stay true to the challenges of life in 2017, without being overtly political..! The challenge is wanting to do all the above while (vitally) creating something that remains truly accessible to our young and very diverse target audience.

At the heart of the play is a concept which is by nature, really quite complex; ‘What are our dreams and can we follow them?’. The complexity of this makes it feel like an exciting and necessary play to make, but at the same time, risks being tricky for everyone in the audience to grasp. I’ve tried to weave together different story lines so that we explore the concept in different ways (literally and metaphorically) and in the hope it will be possible to ‘get’ in more way than one. Of course we won’t know if that’s worked until we put it on stage… I guess that’s the thrill and angst of theatre-making!


Tell us a bit more about the characters? What are Marco, Grouch and Jewels like?

Grouch, Marco and Jewels are a troupe of theatre makers. They are like family to one another and together they run ‘Great Odds’ Theatre’. They pride themselves on living up to their namesake, telling the audience through song at the beginning of the show ‘We’re odd oh yes we break the mould, we’re great because we’re odd!’

Grouch communicates through British Sign Langauge, Marco through spoken English and Jewels through music and sounds. They are optimistic, creative and love telling stories. Their home town, Grimsbridge, is in a very bad way and the three love nothing better than creating off-the-wall plays to transport their audiences –namely The People of Grimsbridge – to made up places they never thought they’d be able to escape to.

The thing is, they’re not conventional, they don’t conform and they are accustomed to scraping by on no money … and as the Grimsbridge economy worsens, the Great Odds find their values, dreams and identities challenged, wondering if what they are doing and who they are being, is good enough to survive on.

Do you see yourself in any of the characters?

As the play has developed through two phases of research and development and plenty of re-writes, I’ve distanced myself further and further from the characters and the story… although ultimately it started off as a story that I knew very well and felt very much a part of.

As I moved forward and tried things out, that felt less and less comfortable. I think in writing / performing / directing, I always start with what I know (which ultimately has to be myself) but as I develop an idea, that becomes less and less direct, deliberate and conscious. I think I’m at the writing stage now where the characters are equally rounded individuals who exist a good distance from me or any of my personal experiences.


I see that BSL is going to be weaved into the piece- Can you tell us a bit more about that and why you decided to incorporate BSL into Great Odds?

 The story came from an experience I had in BSL, so it would seem really odd to omit that from the play. I also had a wonderful experience when I first left drama school, working in a co-production with Graeae and Birmingham Rep, which was directed by Jenny Sealey.

It really changed the way I thought about theatre and was ultimately the reason I began learning BSL 10 years ago. I still love working as a performer and rarely have the opportunity to use BSL or work in shows that integrate it… so when I am making theatre of my own, it’s something that I want to do as much as possible.

I just think there are such huge and exciting possibilities that come about from creative access in theatre, that if it’s something you have the opportunity to try, why wouldn’t you?!

Each character has disability/ is able to communicate in their own way- is disability central to the play ?

 That’s a really interesting question – I’m so glad you asked it! Y

ou are completely right that each character communicates differently and that is very deliberate. It gives us the opportunity to explore so many avenues, linguistically and culturally, through language and non-verbally…  but actually the character who struggles most with being understood and accepted by the world around them, is Jewels, who has no disability as such. She communicates through music and sound. Grouch and Marco are both fluent in English and BSL and understand each other perfectly but often leave Jewels out because of her difference. Through the story, this is a big theme, but at no point is a language or disability named or discussed. I totally understand why people ask what made me interested in ‘disability arts’ and why I want to integrate BSL; it’s not necessarily standard practice and therefore an interesting talking point… and it is most certainly a feature that we hope will engage a wider, more diverse audience, I’m not suggesting it’s something that is ignored… but I’d just love it if we could start shining the spotlight on this being exciting and challenging children theatre that tells a universal story about difference and just happens to be made by a D/deaf and hearing, disabled / non-disabled company. It’s a play about individual stories, voices and dreams and actually never discusses disability at all.


Will audiences who may not understand BSL still understand the story line? Will it still translate onto the stage?

Yes 100%! Integrating BSL very rarely means something will be inaccessible to an audience who don’t sign; it’s just another language used in the show, equally to the spoken English and the music.

Again though, I’m really glad you ask as a few people have assumed it wouldn’t be for them or their children because they don’t sign and this is a great opportunity to address that! Perhaps that pre-conception comes from the more conventional idea of BSL being delivered by an interpreter standing on the side of the stage, rather than a D/deaf character integral to the show, but this is written so that the three characters are always, by default, translating each other. It’s a layer which will hopefully enrich the story and potentially make it easier to engage with – regardless of the language the audience is following.


Your play sounds like it is going to be very immersive- is this important to you- that the play is engaging and accessible to all audience members?


Yes. It’s so not Chekhov! No forth wall or any of that business. Everyone is in the room together and invited to join the journey (but never in a pressured, on the spot kind of way!) We’ve just been talking about some special sound equipment because I wanted to create vibrations through the auditorium; I’m very excited about how far we can push it in terms of making it an all round immersive experience.


Apart from BSL, do you use any other forms of performance art in Great Odds?

There will be puppetry, live music, songs, audience participation and lots of good old fashioned acting going on… but for some silly reason, the words ‘performance art’ make me think of when I was at college and installed my interpretation of a Tracy Emin piece in the girls changing rooms, adding ‘atmosphere’ with tons of antibacterial air freshener. We definitely won’t be having any of that going on. Just FYI.



The show says Dreams change shape, unexpected things are uncovered and success comes through surprising discoveries.- What is your advice to people who have a dream/ big ambitions?


That’s a great question. It’s why I made the show 🙂



You can see Great Odds at The Egg, Bath on Friday 3rd, Saturday 4th, Sunday 5th November,  York Theatre Royal on Tuesday 7th November and at Northern Stage, Newcastle on Wednesday 8th and Thursday 9th November.


For more information click here 

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