Interview: Hannah Rooney and Chloe Robinson on ‘Pareidolia’

Ahead of their upcoming final-year performance project, we caught up two members of the Off the Page Theatre Company, Hannah Rooney and Chloe Robinson, to discuss the creative process of their show Pareidolia, and how things have been different from usual under government restrictions.

Firstly, can you talk through what Pareidolia is about and where its inspiration came from?

Chloe: So Pareidolia is to commemorate the anniversary of John Tenniel’s birth, which was 200 years ago this February just gone. He was the original illustrator of the Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass books, and so the show is about taking those illustrations and portraying them on the stage, so it’s very much a visual spectacle. It’s an experience for audience members, showing them how we can push boundaries on stage still, even within the confines of the government guidelines for Covid.

What was the thought behind such an unconventional adaptation using these illustrations?

Hannah: The thought process behind it was, because the theme of the project is ‘anniversary’, we thought that with John Tenniel and Alice in Wonderland it’s such a visual and psychedelic experience, and so we wanted to use elements of light-sound projection to the best of our abilities to create an other-worldly piece. We were also really inspired by Aristotle’s Seven Components of the Soul, so that’s what every scene is based on; each of these different components like ‘feeling’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘character’, and the story follows Alice trying to find all of these components to become her full self again.

What kinds of issues have you tried to tackle in the narrative of the show?

Chloe: It’s very stylised, a lot of it is non-naturalistic. With what Hannah said about the idea of the components of the soul, that stems from the fact that at the beginning of the original Looking Glass book which is a huge inspiration for our piece, Alice goes through the looking glass, and then she can look back at the world she’s left behind. We’ve turned that on its head and said: what if she goes through the looking glass and the looking glass breaks? We’re also seeing the looking glass as a mirror, so she can see herself reflected back. I believe it’s a Roman myth that they believed when you looked into a mirror that your soul was staring back, and that’s why when you break it you get seven years of bad luck, and so there are the seven different components of the soul we include in the show.

Obviously as with everything else, Covid restrictions must have had a big impact on the creative process and your upcoming performance, how have you had to adapt the show?

Chloe: Because we knew about those restrictions from the very start, our incredible stage managers have made us aware of these from the get-go. We’ve kept these restrictions in mind throughout everything; for any piece of direction and any piece of choreography it’s two or more metres apart without a mask, and one metre plus with a mask. We’ve really tried hard to make sure we’re sticking to that. If you’re singing on stage too that has to be three metres plus, although nobody does that in our show, but these are all things we had to consider beforehand.

What’s been the biggest hurdle to overcome under the restrictions?

Chloe: With the process being so different we spend a lot of time together and it’s really sad that we can’t hug each other and give each other physical support as much as we usually would do. So that’s kind of sad, but we’ve been dealing with it the best that we can.

What do you miss the most about the performing arts prior to Covid?

Hannah: What I miss most is really just having the creative freedom to do what you want, because obviously now we have to be so segregated on stage, and there’s so many things to do with costumes and props that we have to change because we can’t use the usual processed anymore. I miss that creative freedom of just being able to do what you want rather than have to follow so many rules and regulations.

Chloe: Yeah, for any prop or costume, only the one person who’s using it is allowed to touch it, and if anyone else touches it then it has to be isolated for 72 hours which brings in its own problems. For example, we have this huge skirt in one of the scenes, and there are four individual pieces that come off that skirt, and only whoever is meant to hold that piece can touch it, which as you can imagine is incredibly difficult, but we’ve tried our best to find our way around that.

What elements are you most proud of that you hope people will take away after watching your performance project?

Hannah: As we’ve said our play is very visual and very focussed on interacting with the senses, I think some of the strongest elements involve the use of projection and lighting such as with UV. In my scene, we’ve made a massive UV caterpillar that’s a puppet so there’s an element of puppetry to it as well. I’m just proud of how many elements we’ve managed to include under the current circumstances.

Chloe: One of my favourite scenes is probably the ‘thinking’ scene which takes place on a giant projected chessboard, and all of the dancers within that scene are chess pieces. So it’s got about eight people at least on stage at one time, and they’re all two metres apart doing this incredible rigid choreography, with an incredible piece of music designed by one of our sound directors, Grace Pashley. She’s done an amazing job and visually it’s an exciting scene, and it’s one of those where there’s so much going on that you won’t consider at all that we’re all distanced and also wearing masks. Throughout the show we’ve tried to have so much going on that the audience can maybe forget that Covid exists, because it’s Wonderland! So that aspect is what I’m most proud of.

Anything else you’d like to add about the show?

Hannah: We just want to shout out how amazing the Leeds PCI technicians have been, and also the production team within our company (Off the Page Theatre). And also how proud we are of everyone for being so hardworking in their company roles and how supportive they’ve been.

Pareidolia will premiere this Saturday (28th November) at 7pm, with pre-show interviews and other various clips. For more information, visit: