Interview: Coin Toss Collective on FREAK OUT!, ‘Expect the unexpected’

by Jim Keaveney

Inspired by the UK’s disappearing coastline and drawing on our research on affected communities in East Anglia, FREAK OUT! experiments with theatrical styles and genres, blending human stories with live art elements into an offbeat, high-energy cocktail of a show. The show has been created by Coin Toss Collective

Appropriately, given their non-hierarchival and collaborative ways of working, Coin Toss Collective have answered our questions about the show as a collective. Find out the real-life inspiration for FREAK OUT! and their views on the importance of VAULT Festival continuing beyond this year’s festival.

Q&A with Coin Toss Collective

What can you tell us about FREAK OUT!?

FREAK OUT! is a ‘high-energy cocktail’ of a show exploring the themes of climate change, the UK’s “disappearing coastline”, and our responsibilities to each other as a community.  It was made and performed by the collective. It’s eight of us so it’s a big ensemble show.  It incorporates elements inspired by performance art and lots of movement. This week we’ve had the great pleasure to be working on it with some help from our favorite choreographers, Anthony Matsena and Deepraj Singh and we are excited about what they brought into this piece.

CTC has been working in a non-hierarchical and intensely collaborative way, since the beginning. Instead of having a single director, we took turns acting as an outside eye and rehearsal facilitator. Stylistically we are drawing from a breadth of different theatrical traditions and other art forms, blending elements of physical theatre, clowning, performance art and naturalism, using to our advantage that the company members come from very different artistic backgrounds.

There will be sandcastles building and lots of water on stage. Expect the unexpected.

What was the original inspiration for the show?

The show is about opening up a conversation about climate change and how it will affect all of us, but also emphasizes that not all of us will be equally affected.  The show highlights that the effects of climate change are already affecting us in the UK. Coastal communities are at the forefront of it.

At the beginning of the process we were looking into devising something around The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe. This story s about a prince who attempts to avoid a plague known as the Red Death by hiding in his abbey with selected individuals from his kingdom, throwing lavish parties. The Red Death manages to get into the abbey anyway. We wanted to experiment with the idea of hiding from the inevitable doom. One of our members brought a podcast episode from This American Life into the rehearsal room. It was about the town of Pacifica, California which is set on a cliff where many houses are in danger of coastal erosion accelerated by climate change. During a heavy storm season, despite the panic, one resident threw a ‘fuck you party’ to the cliff, asking attendees to wear life vests to it. The hosts’ back garden fell into the sea a few weeks after the party.

The podcast episode prompted a lot of conversations and difficult questions about climate denialism, the importance of and the dangers of hope. Is hosting such a party an act of climate denialism or an attempt to raise people’s spirits and fighting against the helplessness of the situation? Is practising hope in the face of the inevitable threat dangerous? Is it essential?

After doing much research, we learned that England has one of the fastest eroding coastlines in Europe and what’s happening in Pacifica is happening here as well. We even found information about a fundraising party for sea defences that took place in Happisburgh (pronounced hayes-buh-ruh), Norfolk, during which someone’s house fell into the sea.”

When we performed it at Bristol Old Vic, lots of people were surprised to learn that the piece was inspired by the problems that real towns in East Anglia and the communities in Norfolk and Suffolk face. All communities will have to be adapting to climate change, but this is an urgent, time-pressing issue for coastal communities and it’s crazy to think that, often we think of distant places when discussing the tolls of climate change when it’s happening here and now.

The consequences of climate change pose significant threats for example to our home county, Somerset. It is one of the UK’s most climate-vulnerable areas, facing increased risks from sea level rise, river flooding and drought. London will be subject to flooding in the coming years, so we thought it’s apt to bring it to the VAULT Festival.

What’s it like to be bringing the show to VAULT Festival?

It’s been brilliant, we loved connecting with other companies who are part of it.

We’ve actually started a podcast series Coin Toss Conversations featuring other companies such as Bradán, Hypok Theatre and Yellow Hat Productions, who have made theatre in response to climate change. It’s been important for us to have conversations about the role of storytelling and arts in the climate debate with other theatre makers.

We’re always excited to watch new fringe theatre in the UK, as our work is influenced by what we’re watching constantly, and VAULT is amazing for showcasing so much exciting, fresh and bold theatre and up-and-coming artists and bringing us together. We were devastated to hear recently that 2023 could be the last year of VAULT Festival – this is also your reminder to donate and support the #saveVAULT campaign! – so we’ll be making the most of every minute that’s for sure.

How do you think audiences at VAULT Festival will react?

We have had a real range of reactions so far. Shock, laughter but also genuine reflection. We think it is a visceral piece, which involves strong sonic and visual layers.  We ultimately hope it encourages a more detailed reflection on how the climate emergency will socially manifest.

How would you describe the show to some considering buying a ticket?

The show is unpredictable, loud and lively, with a mix of styles. Abstract at times, rooted in research. It gets messy. Has audience participation.

FREAK OUT! plays at VAULT Festival’s Network Theatre for four performances across 18 and 19 March