The author Jordi Casamitjana interviews writer Grace Joy Howarth and theatre director Anastasia Bunce about how they manifest their veganism through theatre making
Life is dramatic.
It begins with a melodramatic birth, it develops with a series of intense dramatic arcs involving interactions with many characters, and it ends with the most dramatic way to exit a story — with the inevitable death. And this drama works at the individual level and a collective level. It works as the framework of a biography, as the structure of a culture, or even as the fabric of the entire history of humanity. And now, with all the current global crises in the form of climate change, the sixth mass extinction, animal Armageddon, and pandemics, it feels more than ever that we are entering the final act of humanity’s play.
It’s not surprising that the word “drama” has two distinct meanings that are very interconnected: a) an exciting, emotional, or unexpected event or circumstance; and b) a play for theatre, radio, or television. That is because the latter, the play, only works if it talks about something exciting and emotional. We use plays to tell stories about the dramatic part of life, in real-time with real people (or very convincing imitations) because this is the closest we are going to get to the real thing. As the bard said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” Turning this around, we could also say that all plays are representations of the world, and all the actors are merely members of humanity replaying part of their lives with variations of interpretation.
If we do live in very dramatic times when it feels that the curtains of humanity’s play are beginning to twitch, and if the drama of this existential story involves victims, heroes, and hopefully a happy ending, we could not have a better play than one involving the vegan message. We could not find better victims than any of the trillions of non-human animals brutally exploited, we could not find better heroes than those fighting against overwhelming human supremacy and speciesism, and we could not find a better ending than the arrival of the vegan world.
I expect that storytellers and playmakers on planet Earth would now be wrestling with vegan narratives to make their stories more relevant and dramatic, and I would expect that, if they are vegan themselves, they would be doing this much more intensively. And sure enough, I have already met some who are doing precisely that. Anastasia Bunce and Grace Joy Howarth are two young vegan storytellers from the UK who have been telling the vegan story for some time now. One by directing plays with a strong vegan message, and the other by writing them. They are both vegan theatre-makers who are already performing several successful vegan-themed plays around the country, and I was very interested in interviewing them and finding out how they do what they do.
Read on and you will see what they said.
The Vegan Journey of Two Storytellers
As it has become customary in all articles I write about interviews of vegan people, I always start with the same question because it is the one I think helps to simultaneously connect the interviewee with the reader and show how diverse vegans can be: how did you become vegan? This is the first time I have asked such a question to two people at once — thanks to Zoom — and Grace, the playwright, author, and composer of the two, is the first one who responded:
“My journey is a very easy one because I was raised vegan from birth. From day one, I didn’t have to do much thinking about it because I was raised by vegan parents, so I guess it’s kind of a simple story. My parents were both vegan and when they had me, of course, they were going to continue their ethics and their morals, and they decided to raise me vegan. And it’s the one thing that I’m most grateful to my parents for in the whole world.
My mum went vegetarian when she was really young. Her dad was a butcher and so I think she saw a lot of things in that world when she was maybe eight years old. She saw animals going into this place where they were slaughtered and she said, ‘What are these things that you sell in the shop? are those the animals that go in there?’. Her parents said, ‘Yes, that’s right,’ and then, from then, she said ‘I’m never eating an animal again.’
Then, I think in the 90s, she met my dad, who wasn’t vegan at all. After a while of dating, my dad said, ‘Oh, have you noticed anything? ‘I haven’t eaten meat in three months. They never looked back from there, and I suppose, as social media kicked off, they learned even more about the cruelty within the dairy industry and the egg industry.
I was born in London but when I was very little, around three, we moved to the north, so I lived in Glossop, in Derbyshire, and then I moved to Macclesfield, in the Northwest, when I was a little bit older, around eight. Not much vegan stuff going on there at the time but close enough to Manchester where we could get some vegan cake and coffee when we needed to.”
Anastasia, the theatre director based in London who is the Artistic Director of the theatre company Patch Plays, said this about her vegan journey:
“My parents were pescatarian when I was born, not vegan. I did grow up eating dairy, and I did eat fish as a child. Then my mum was the first one to go vegan when I was about 13. At the time, we were living in America, so we travelled around quite a bit when I was younger. We lived in L.A. for two years, and that might be a connection as to why she went vegan, because I feel like L.A. was kind of ahead of the game with veganism, rather than the UK. It was more for health benefit
y reasons at first.
As a stubborn teenager, I didn’t have any time for it. At that time, we stopped eating fish, I was like, ‘I’m already vegetarian, I’m doing enough.’ But I didn’t know anything about the cruelty of the dairy industry. Two years later, in 2013, I watched the documentary Earthlings, and that was the thing that opened my eyes to the horrors of it all, and I went vegan overnight. It was about nine years ago.”
The Storytelling Journey of Two Vegans
When I asked them how they became the storytellers they are today, Grace replied the following:
“Since I was tiny, I was always writing funny little stories everywhere. During my whole childhood, I knew I wanted to be a storyteller; I wanted to write books. I was a real bookworm as a child, so I felt a real affinity for novels. I think that was just something I innately always knew I wanted to be involved in. I wrote lots of short stories and I tried to write novels when I was younger.
I really wanted to write musical theatre, so I came to London when I was 18 and did a three-year degree in song writing. It was really funny because there aren’t any musical theatre writing courses in the UK. I was writing a lot because we had to write three songs a week, so it was a really great learning experience. At the same time, I was delving into the London theatre scene, so I was writing lots of short little plays, trying to send them off to loads of places, to get them performed at little scratch nights. I was doing a lot of that, which was great fun, and I wrote my first full-length play. Then, just before the pandemic hit, I wrote and self-produced a radio play. I was really excited. I thought I was truly going to become a theatre-maker, and then, one month later, all the theatres shut down.
I was focusing a lot during that time on writing multiple different things, little plays to do on Zoom, which was kind of the thing to do back then. It was fun at the start, but then, after a few months, we were all getting a bit burnt out by Zoom Theatre. I was writing mostly short plays, and then that was when I and Annie met. I usually say I am now an author, writer and theatre maker, because I try and do writing in many different spheres, so whether that’s novels, plays, short stories, as well as factual articles.”
This is what Anastasia said her professional journey was:
“When I was little growing up I initially wanted to be a dancer, but I didn’t get on to the dance course I wanted to when I was 14, so they took me onto the acting course. I then wanted to be an actor, and then, by 18, I decided I didn’t want to act. The spotlight was too much for me, but I still knew I loved theatre. I went off to Uni in Exeter and I did an English Literature and Art History degree, which whilst I enjoyed it wasn’t my greatest passion. I spent most of my time however at University making theatre.
Then, I discovered directing, which I had never done before, and I actually wrote and directed my first play in my first year of Uni. It was a silly comedy, but I had such fun doing it, and it opened my eyes to this new career path that I could do within the theatre. I carried on directing at University and I set up this small theatre company, Dice Box Theatre Company, where different students from different courses could come and do plays, and they did a play that I wrote about factory farming called ‘Plucked’. We took the show to Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2018. It was my first vegan play.
Then, after University, I did my MA in directing at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. I had a great time doing that and thought this is the thing I really want to carry on doing. And then, pandemic times hit. It’s funny how the pandemic became this year when we felt all hope was lost, but somehow it ended up being the beginning of Patch Plays, which is the theatre company that Grace and I are both working with.
I founded that in September of 2020 because at the time I was working with a friend who was also vegan, and we were thinking we really wanted to put on some shows to do with veganism. We did this outside event in Richmond by this beautiful river, of these four short new plays, and it was such a wonderful time.”
It was then when Grace and Anastasia met. Grace used to work at Unity Diner, a vegan restaurant in London run by the famous activist Earthlings Ed. When Patch Plays reached out to him trying to promote the theatre company, he passed the message to Grace. In 2021 Anastasia commissioned a play from Grace which took her a few months to write, and Patch Plays put it on in Spring of 2022.
Birdie’s Adventure in the Animal Kingdom
That first collaboration between the two theatre-makers was the musical theatre play for children titled “Birdie’s Adventure in the Animal Kingdom”. Grace explains what the play is about:
“It’s a story of a little girl called Birdie. She lives in London, and she basically goes on an adventure with a friend who’s an actual bird called Robin, who takes her around the world sharing with her the plights of all of these different animals. The Animal Kingdom is in dire need of help, so we look at icebergs melting, we look at deforestation, and things going on in the jungle; we see all these wacky fun characters who all have a problem, and she needs to help them. And we also see farm animals, which I think is what makes this piece very different from other work, because we tackle themes of veganism, which I think a lot of other work doesn’t do.
She goes on this journey helping all these animals; she meets a dairy cow who’s lost her daughter, she meets a Christmas turkey, and she helps them all. Her mother plays a big part in her kindness and compassion. She ends up defeating the bad guy of the show called The Destroyer. He’s the one leaving all the lights on, eating hamburgers, and travelling by plane. It’s a lovely musical. It’s very light-hearted, and it’s very open to children. We advise five to nine because it’s very light, hopeful, and cheerful, so maybe older teenagers might think this isn’t cool enough for them.
In terms of the music, it draws from a really wide range of styles. Very musical theatre, but also draws from Jazz elements and folk elements — there are even moments with Hawaiian elements— depending on the different animals that they go around to meet.”
Anastasia explains how this play changed over time, as it will be performed in London again in July 2023:
“Two years ago, in 2021, we put the call out. Grace came up with this amazing new children’s musical and then we put it on for the first time last spring at Harrow Art Center, which is a huge 500-seater venue. We also did an R&D, which is a rehearsal period where we play with ideas and we experiment with what the form of the show will be, how we use it, do we use puppetry, do we use music, how many musicians we have in it, what form and shape does it take, etc. We had this period of development, and we presented an hour-long show to a leading Children’s Theatre in London called Polka Theatre. They gave us a lot of good feedback on how to make it more effective, which we took on board.
The previous production version was quite different to what we’re going with this year. Last year, it was a cast of six actors multi-rolling these different farm animals, with the two lead characters as Birdie and Robin, her friend. We did have a live band, with keys, a bass, a saxophone, drums, flute, etc. We had amazing lighting and production elements because it was a huge venue. We also had puppetry. The lead actress, Anna Mooray, is vegan, and she has amazing puppeteering skills.
We’ve now adapted it to be a cast of four, making it a slightly smaller production, largely because of the feedback that we got from this Children’s Theatre where they said to think about minimising it, streamlining it, and simplifying it a little bit so that it was an easier show for younger audiences. It’s going to be in the Greenhouse Theatre, which is zero waste. So, there’s no electricity and all of our props and sets have to be reusable. It’s going to be a completely sustainable show, any elements that we have will either be found in charity stores, or recyclable, and ensuring that we use them in future productions. It’s going to be simpler, it’s going to be more stripped back, we’re not going to have any fancy lighting or set, and it’s going to be very focussed on the storytelling through actors’ performance. For example, having essential but minimal props and costumes but a focus on actors’ physicality with the incorporation of puppetry.”
The Patch Plays Company
There may be plays that have vegan messages, but running a theatre company that specialises in them is something quite special. Naturally, you will find this when the company is founded by vegans.
Since 2020, Patch Plays has produced three plays on vegan themes, including the critically acclaimed Offest finalist Meat Cute (Vault Festival 2023, Chiswick Playhouse, Bread and Roses, Hen and Chickens 2021) going on to perform at Gilded Ballon at Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2023, Blood On Your Hands (Cockpit Theatre 2022) and Birdie’s Adventures in the Animal Kingdom (Harrow Arts Centre/Polka Theatre 2022). Alongside this, they curate regular Scratch Nights across London and have secured Arts Council funding twice in 2022. Their productions have received multiple five-star reviews. Anastasia explains how it started:
“I co-founded Patch Plays with a friend in 2020, Maria Majewksa, and we started off the company together. At first, it was just to do short plays, as these scratch nights, but then we discovered there were really good plays that were submitted. We see which plays have full potential and which audiences respond to the most, and then develop them into full-length plays.
In the first year, in 2020, my cousin BiBi Lucille wrote a comedy called “Meat Cute”, and it was about a woman who tries to veganise her Tinder dates in the name of animal activism. It’s a very silly, very farcical play, which I think is very appealing to people who don’t want to go to a show and think that they’re going to be bombarded with politics. But then it does address the cruelty of factory farming and activism burnout, and it does address really dark themes by the end of it. That show is going to Edinburgh this August for a full month, so we’ve done many productions of that over the past three years. And then, of course, Birdie’s Adventures. We did that last spring at Harrow Arts Centre, which was a gorgeous 500-seater venue.
The whole message of the company is that we do shows that are raising awareness of the themes of animal ethics and sustainability. I’m vegan, Grace is vegan, and my cousin’s vegan, and the three of us are working with the company now. All the plays are raising awareness about veganism, sustainability, or environmentalism. The three main shows that we are currently working on are Meat Cute, Birdie’s Adventures in the Animal Kingdom, and the third play, Blood on Your Hands, which Grace has also written.”
Grace explains what this play is about:
“Blood on Your Hands was the second play I wrote for Patch Plays, and we staged that last Summer, in June of last year. We’re hoping to bring it back again this year. This is completely on the other end of the spectrum than Birdie’s Adventures. This is a very gritty and dark show that’s set inside a Slaughterhouse, focusing on these two men that work there from very different life circumstances. We have an ex-vet from Ukraine and he meets a local lad from the town, Dan, and they form this very unexpected friendship, which has a lot of hope and light in it. It explores masculinity and mental health and how to work in such brutal conditions. It was initially a 10-minute piece. It started in one of these Scratch Nights that Patch Plays do and then we extended it and it became this hour or so long piece. We’ve just been in the process again of rewriting to make it even a little bit longer.
Although Patch Plays is run by vegans and performs plays with strong vegan messages, not all performers and creatives who work with the company are vegan. Anastasia explains why:
“Even though the core team of the company, myself, Grace and Bibi are all vegan, we don’t just work with vegans. A lot of the actors in the company who do work with us aren’t vegan. The reasoning behind that is that when we started the company, if it had been only for vegans, there would not have been any point because we’re already on the same page. I wanted to create a company that gives a space for vegan writers, and vegan directors, to start their projects, and producers to lead on these projects and create a community for them, but to also make sure that it’s open to people who haven’t thought about veganism ever, and maybe this is the way that they start thinking about it, and start being part of the conversation. At the end of the day, we want to be open and welcoming, rather than judgmental and closed.”
Theatre and Veganism
Birdie’s Adventures in the Animal Kingdom will be performed again in London on the 10th, 12th, and 13th of July 2023 at 5 pm at the Greenhouse Theatre in Canary Wharf, and it’s a play perfect to introduce vegan values to 5-9-year-olds and their families. However, funding for it has not been secured yet, so if you want to help, Patch Plays have set up a crowdfunding page where everyone can donate. Grace said this about it: “None of us are going to be walking away with money at the end of it. It’s just to cover actors’ travel expenses and to sort out a few props, costumes, and bits and pieces.”
My last question to Grace and Anastasia was about how theatre can help the vegan cause. Anastasia said the following:
“If you think of theatre as being not only an opportunity to have a dialogue about these subjects but also to present events that are larger than life, there’s this weird thing where actually larger than life things are happening, which shouldn’t be happening. We can use theatre as a form where you can present those things on stage. I also think it’s a way of engaging people’s empathy because documentaries are amazing — as I said, Earthlings is what got me vegan — but a lot of people don’t want to watch them, but many do engage in entertainment. If you use culture as a form to do it, you can do it in a way which pulls on people’s emotions.”
I agree. There is a huge potential to express the vegan message in narratives that use fiction and drama as a vehicle. This is what Grace said:
“I feel my veganism and my activist side are such a core part of me, and then I have my theatre-maker and creative and writer side. Those two things are the building blocks of who I am. I think I just always knew I wanted to be a writer, and I always knew I was going to be vegan for my whole life, so it was meant to be that I was going to write about things that I care about, because I think that’s what makes the best art. That’s what makes people care, something that comes truly from within. And veganism, and climate activism, and all of those things, really are the core foundation of who I am.”
Having core foundations is an essential attribute of survival. It grounds you, and once grounded, you can move in the right direction without fear of tumbling down. Steadily moving towards a compassionate, fair, and true future is what we vegans are trying to do.
If every vegan in the world managed to express their vegan identity in an authentic way that shows how we are embodying the current drama of humanity, perhaps we all could become the writers, directors, and actors of the next act in the Great Planet’s Play, and create a happy ending for all. A happy ending for all people, for all the animals, and for all the elements of the natural environment.
Life is indeed dramatic. Let’s play it well.
Get a ticket for Patch Plays: Birdie’s Adventures in the Animal