Interview Teddy’s Last Ride: from naïve idealization to concrete project
Discovering Groningen’s cultural scene: a series that looks at the insides of the city’s cultural institutions
Interview with Agnese – creative producer of Teddy’s Last Ride
Sharing a cup of coffee in the city center of Groningen, I took a trip in the wonders of Teddy’s Last Ride with their creative producer, Agnese Fiocchi. Our first stop in the Groningen cultural scene is the performance world, and to be more specific, the universe of Teddy’s Last Ride. The company, born from the Poetic Disaster Club, was founded in 2017. They take a multidisciplinary approach to debunk theatre’s seriousness and make it pop.
The start of a dream
In the beginning, they started as a group of very close interns at the Poetic Disaster Club (PDC) from Club Guy and Roni. They would spend their days dancing and dreaming about the future. During their first year of internship, a crazy idea germinated: to create a company. As Agnese tells, it started as a very naïve dream. They had no idea of what they were doing, and it was only with time that they would learn and develop. Starting with 11 people from PDC, they are now 2 (Andy and Agnese) to carry out the dream.
During the first year of PDC, they had an established program, including the minimum requirements that they should meet as a group for the company. But they had the freedom to do as much as they wanted in between. It was exactly that window of freedom that allowed them to dream further. Of their own initiative, they began hosting evening lessons and gigs at Paradigm, the bier garden, festival and venue in Groningen. Club Guy and Roni would be there to support and make sure that the quality of the performances was at the standards of the company. But the support went even further when they offered the interns to stay another year under the protective wings of the company so they could safely develop their own. It was during the second year that the idealistic dream started to become a complicated truth. They had to learn what it actually means to be a company, how to make a piece and sell it, and even the basics of how to do a budget.
“It was going to be a challenge to show and tell people what the difference between Teddy’s Last Ride and the Club was because we were born there and especially at the beginning, the aesthetics, the style was very similar. So that took us a year or so to kind of show the difference and still I think it’s a process of making sure that we won’t get messed up in one whole company. But I think it’s getting there”.
Because of the beginnings attached to Club Guy and Roni, it wasn’t simple to detach themselves from it (we all have had some difficulties in getting out of the nest and figuring out who we are by ourselves, haven’t we?). This challenge was both internal and external. It was a matter of asking themselves what was their own voice, but also on how to convey that difference to people. I truly believe this to be the hardest part of a cultural company, and the most crucial one. To know who you are, is to be aware, not only what you are going to sell to the world, but to have the confidence of knowing that you are worthy, your reason for being and what difference you are making out there. Yes, apparently companies also have to answer existential questions.
Consolidation of a company
And so it began. Groningen, with its cultural networks and their willingness to help, became Teddy’s home. It was the support of Grand Theatre, Club Guy and Roni and the municipality that allowed for their establishment. Now, let’s take a moment to think about that. First, for those who think the art scene is only about competition, getting the best audience attendance, having creative ideas protected so they don’t get stolen… I’m afraid I have to say that you got it quite wrong. The cultural scene is a network that, by definition, is connected through mutual support. Creativity doesn’t come from an artistic genius, but it usually originates from collaboration, dialogue and experimentation. It seeks inspiration and challenges in others to overcome, not their competition but, their own limitations. It requires looking on the outside to improve and grow on the inside. And before moving on to the next point, I just wanted to reinforce that it was also because the municipality helped Teddy’s Last Ride that they could become an independent company. So, yes to the subsidization of the arts! (Okay, now that I’m done with my political moment, we shall move on.)
Their establishment in Groningen, according to Agnese, is not only for the network – of course that always plays a big part. It is also because it’s a sparking city that is small enough not to have too much competition but is challenging enough so that they still have a lot to do, people to reach and ways to spread. Sure, it has its downfalls. It is, for example, complicated for companies in the North to present themselves and create networks in the rest of the country. But this isolation is what makes the city what it is, a place where everything needs to happen in the here and now.
Their business model also counts with corporate performances. Although, as Agnese puts it, it can be “morally controversial”, this is a financial strategy where they create tailor-made performances for other brands. She gave the example of the Hermès show in Amsterdam where all movements and atmospheres were according to the brand’s desire, leaving their own aesthetics at home. Although the audience wasn’t what they were hoping for (influencers and famous people who were more focused on their phones), they kept in mind that they pay well and this money will allow for them to make performances with Teddy’s voices.
To figure out what their company would be like, a lot of experimentation took place. Agnese told me about her own experience. She started her career out as a dancer. However, the production work came quite naturally for her in the process of establishing the company, and eventually she stopped dancing. “There was a moment which I understood that it was either doing the office work or the stage work. And I really saw also how I could still be creative within the other job”. I believe that, in a similar way to Agnese, I know what it is like when dancing stops being a healthy practice. “You develop this inter-judge all the time that is constantly telling you that you are not good enough”. But we don’t leave the practice without carrying its baggage. On the one hand, she reveals that she is still perfectionist and overly demanding. On the other hand, having been part of the scene helps to know what performers needs. She distinguishes herself in her production work by being aware and empathetic towards the practitioners. Even with many collaborations, she manages to create a good communication – key element for a good performance – with people who ‘vibe’ with the company’s values.
However, Teddy’s Last Ride doesn’t make it easy for themselves. They might now be an established, well-founded company, but they keep looking for challenges and ways to spread. Their recent residency in Italy served to see if the performances could resonate with an audience from a completely different cultural background. The answer was something like “this is weird, I might have some questions about it, let’s talk”. And it couldn’t have been better.
Their main target audience is young people, but it is also “for these 40 to 60-years-olds that want to believe that theatre is not for them because maybe they didn’t study enough or it’s too highbrow for them. Art in general can be a bit isolating if you don’t understand it.” A tough challenge, if you ask me. The good news is that they manage to do it by incorporating pop culture and conveying their message in a clear way. Agnese’s joy during the Italian residency, also her homecoming moment, was to hear her mother and friends that don’t go to the theatre usually, say that they understood, they knew what the performance wanted to say.
To reach this impossible audience, they create projects that could resonate and interact in unexpected ways. Before the whole Covid situation happened, they had plans to conceive a performance that was, actually, a party. They would start at midnight and finish at 5 a.m. with a small performance that would come in and out of the party place. It was “a way to also show that a performance doesn’t need to be a 60 minute thing where you just sit and you get bored. But it needs to be interactive and it needs to be involving.” Before the project had to be shut down, the company managed to do three test editions. The results, as tale tells, were amazing, because they reached new audiences, they saw new people coming and watching them. “They were really shocked and surprised by how much you can meet different disciplines together and still have a nice time and have something to bring home after the party.”
‘The Teddy Boys’ or simply ‘the Teds’ was a style adopted by an underground group in the UK after the Second World War. They were young kids who felt like there was nothing to fight for anymore, as everything was destroyed. All they could do was to hangout and party, really. That situation resonated with the Teddy’s. Their – and perhaps yours and mine – generation knows that the world is fucked up (pardoning the vernacular). They wanted to create a company that is “about people who are too old to be young and too young to be old”. To decide on their name, they had a brainstorm session with many post-its on the wall. Teddy’s Last Ride: fun, devoid of real sense, intriguing… nothing could be more suiting.
Their goal, as a company, is to make theatre more relatable to public, less serious. Playing with fun and feelings to get their message across, Agnese stresses the importance of making theatre approachable. If people don’t feel welcomed, if they are not in the right context to go to theatre, they will just prefer to stay at home. People need to see themselves and the culture they live in represented on stage, otherwise, how can the audience possibly relate? After all, we don’t want to fill our leisure time with something that makes us feel dumb and confused for not understanding. We want to occupy ourselves with something that speaks to us.
In order to make that happen, their performances usually start with a pop, lyrical text written by Andy Smart. Then, a choreographer will translate those words into movement. To make sure the piece remains pop, they implement some kind of popular dance or elements of popular culture “because we want to keep it fun and because we know that people are too busy and there is too much Netflix “. In a world of so many distractions, where it is so easy to look at a screen, it is almost uncomfortable to look at people for fun.
“Our conception of theatre is to try to put people in front of the realization that there is not one way to look at things”. Agnese defends the idea that their theatre is not about making an argument on an issue, but rather on showing how many different facets and disputes an issue can have. Leaving out the political paradigm theatre tends to have, it seeks to create empathy towards the different perspectives, as they are not mutually exclusive; they can co-exist and be right from their own angle. Really, the Teddy’s are just inviting you for a conversation.
When I asked her whether this space for conversation was through putting people in a comfortable or uncomfortable position, in other words, whether you need the people to feel comfortable to ask questions or you need them to get out of their comfort zone to ask questions, she hesitated before giving this very insightful answer:
“To bring the people in an uncomfortable position, show them that it’s actually very comfortable because we are going to do it first so that they can be initially provoked and then feel comfortable enough to let go and ask questions”.
The truth is, if we only do theatre about heavy subjects in a heavy way, as Agnese rightly pointed out, no audience will want to go to the theatre at all. We can have fun while asking unanswerable questions about our ‘fucked up’ world. We can share a theatrical moment without being seated in our chairs and laugh together while exasperating about the hypocrisy of the world.
Next in the line, Teddy’s Last Ride is currently preparing a new piece “Nine Weeks from Now”, which will be about gender, who are we and what we share before we develop any aspects that define our gender. Don’t miss out on its premiere in April at Grand Theatre. The next production will (yes, already a spoiler well ahead in the future) probably be about the use of pornography, the good side of it and its dangers. I hope that you had the chance to fall in love with this company as much as I did and that this read got you excited for what is coming up next