Spooky stories, scary cupboards, and inspiring strangers – Bernadette Russell in conversation

White Rabbit is an alternative performance group which uses the stage, installation, films, music and sound to create exciting storytelling events. They will be spooking Spitalfields at their upcoming Are you sitting comfortably? event at our Winter Festival. We chatted with Bernadette Russell, co-founder of White Rabbit to discuss scary cupboards, the importance of stories and how talking to strangers can be inspiring! 

Niharika Jain: First of all, Are you sitting comfortably?

Bernadette Russell: Quite, sitting on my vintage Chesterfield, drinking eye-wateringly strong coffee. Thanks for asking.

NJ: The image of the White Rabbit is strongly linked with the rabbit who is always in a rush in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It evokes a sense of curiosity, and wonder. Any chance you were inspired by Carroll in naming your group?

BR: Yes! I am interested in nurturing and creating as much wonder and magic in our live shows as possible, and I love the topsy-turvy world that Alice discovers, it’s dark and light, funny and frightening, confusing and illuminating. All the things that theatre and stories can be.

NJ: So what is the story behind your White Rabbit?

BR: I was sitting in the North Laines in Brighton waiting to meet a friend and I heard a woman say “curiouser and curiouser.” Strange but true. Ironically, I am never late, and I once got my foot stuck in a rabbit hole. Rabbits have loomed large in my life, as I was in the now legendary anarcho-vaudeville double act ‘WonderHorse’ and spent much of my life dressed as a rabbit. Our White Rabbit is enigmatic and cheeky, and invites you to follow him wherever he goes…..

NJ: What is unique about White Rabbit’s style of storytelling?

BR: Gareth and I wanted to create a supportive atmosphere and an exciting platform for writers to showcase their work: having your work read out means you can sit back and enjoy the experience, whilst observing how the audience reacts. The writers are often pleasantly surprised: characters speaking in ways they never thought of, laughter where they didn’t expect it! The audience has an immersive experience as we include them in the creative process by running literary competitions throughout the night, and we make it as friendly and relaxed as possible. Plus we feed everyone when we’re allowed to. A lot.

Bernadette Russell - White Rabbit

Bernadette Russell - White Rabbit

NJ: Stories are the basis of your performance, and indeed theatre, why are stories important?

BR: They are what make us human. Although I suspect animals tell their own stories, when we’re not looking.

NJ: What is the best story you’ve ever seen performed?

BR: A totally impromptu performance by a man who called himself ‘Billy The Poet’ who told us raggle-taggle crowd of tourists and drunks a meandering tale by a fire in Galway. I have never forgotten it. Can’t remember what it was called, but that doesn’t matter.

NJ: What are you and Gareth working on at the moment? [Gareth Brierley is the co-founder of White Rabbit]

BR: Gareth  and I are just about to read the next lot of submissions for the next two shows: there’s always some in the mix that are exciting and some that are a challenge! We are lucky because there’s always something great to perform.

Gareth Brierley - White Rabbit

Gareth Brierley - White Rabbit

NJ: Where are the best places to find stories?

BR: Inspiration for stories is everywhere; I like talking to strangers, the opposite of my mum’s advice! Also London is full of stories, so it’s good to go for a walk somewhere you’ve never been before and keep your eyes open. And ears.

NJ: A lot of your performances are based on submissions from budding writers and members of the public – is involving the community something you believe strongly in?

BR: I think it’s important for live shows to include and involve the community they are in. For every show Gareth and I write something new, and whenever possible we include local writers in the shows.

NJ: What do you enjoy more – writing or performing? And how important is each for you?

BR: Both, can’t choose. In the same way I can’t choose when people ask if I prefer dogs or cats. Writing – I do that every day; it would obviously be inappropriate and annoying to perform every day uninvited. Writing and performing feed each other, so I need both for inspiration. I would add that performing, especially cabaret means you meet some truly extraordinary people, which is priceless.

NJ: Did anyone tell you stories when you were young or did your own imagination and creative story writing skills suffice?

BR: My grandparents told stories, my Nana wrote poems and I always got a birthday poem; my mum read stories to me; and my sister Natalie wrote brilliant stories usually involving Vikings! I wrote a book about a vegetarian dinosaur when I was five or six called The Adventures of Thathilegthornjessie.

NJ: Do you still have a copy of The Adventures Of Thathilegthornjessie?

BR: Good question. I think so, in the cupboard under the stairs I refer to as ‘HELL CUPBOARD’ because when I open it the contents attack me! You know, one of those cupboards. [NJ: We recently tamed our stationery cupboard here at Spitalfields Music HQ, so no attacks as yet!]

NJ: Where do ideas for your performances come from?

BR: Firstly, from stories. Then I usually create a character, a narrator, and think about them, and their story informs the performance. I collect bits and pieces that become shows: snatches of overheard conversations, things I have seen, stories people have told me, urban myths.

White Rabbit Are You Sitting Comfortably?

White Rabbit Are You Sitting Comfortably?

NJ: Your theme for the Winter Festival is ‘Ghosts’ – are you looking forward to ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ at the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival? What can the audience expect?

BR: I am very excited about working with the musicians; we have wanted to do this for a long time. The audience can expect to be chilled, in a Georgian coffee house, in Spitalfields, in London, in December! They can expect a great night, and the hairs on the back of their necks to rise, and beautiful music. They can expect to enjoy being a little bit afraid, like they were when they were children tucked up listening to scary stories.

NJ: What plans does White Rabbit have for the future?

BR: We are planning a show of my year long project #actsofrandomkindness (I have been doing something kind for a stranger every day since 18th August 2011 and recording the results. I’m doing it for a year) and we are planning a big project HOTEL for the Brighton Festival 2012, working with Marcella Puppini. We would like to continue to work with live music and musicians, as music is a big influence on our work. [NJ:And we certainly hope you will!]

White Rabbit are also currently looking for story submissions. If you have a spine-tingling tale brewing away in your head, put pen to paper, make sure it is around 1000 words and send it to areyousittingcomfortably@live.com by midnight 26th November 2011. Your name and the title of your spooky story should appear on every page. You can read more about the White Rabbit here. White Rabbit will be performing at our Winter Festival on  Sunday 18 December at The English Restaurant from 8.00pm-10.00pm. In the beautiful Georgian interior of The English Restaurant, White Rabbit will bring you an evening of ghost stories written by Londoners, accompanied by haunting live music – book your tickets here.

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