Choreographer/Director Eleesha Drennan On Bringing Epic Musical ‘Vanara’ to the Stage This October

A musical that has been in production for the better part of a decade, Vanara is about the last two remaining tribes of humanity living in conflict in the distant future. The show tells the story of star-crossed romantics whose connection blossoms on the brink of The Long Night, amidst tensions between their two tribes.

The show will be performed at London’s Hackney Empire in October 2021.

We spoke to choreographer and co-director Eleesha Drennan about the work that has gone into bringing this production to life and how she’s feeling ahead of its London launch.

Kirstie: Tell us about your show, Vanara the musical.

Eleesha: Vanara is a contemporary musical. It’s an epic show. The story has got a familiar yet very new feel to it, so West Side Story meets dystopian future. It’s a very fantastical world that we’re building.

What I love about this show especially is the way we’ve borrowed from all kinds of traditions and stories from around the world and made something new. Vanara is set in another world, in another time. So it liberates us to be very imaginative when it comes to how the people of that world live.

It’s very anchored by nature. The word ‘vanara’ translates to mean ‘people of the forest’. It’s very elemental, and the people are very shaped by their environment. They’re vulnerable to nature and yet empowered by it. It’s a fragile world, as is very reflective of the world we’re in.

I think it’s very relevant in that sense, too, in terms of how we’re dealing with climate change and how we need to honour and respect the environment more. That’s very true to the people of Vanara. They’re very much at the whim of nature’s course.

There’s a love story embedded in it as well.

Kirstie: What inspired the concept of your post-apocalyptic society?

Eleesha: I don’t know if I would describe it as ‘post-apocalyptic’ specifically. There’s a lot that’s left to the imagination. We’re not really interested in depicting tragedy per se. It’s more like there’s a history that’s happened and it’s put us in a place whereby the people of Vanara are living off the land and in tune with nature and in respect of nature and are vulnerable to that.

The original concept of Vanara was inspired by Tony Cucchiara. There was an initial idea of the love story, like Romeo and Juliet displaced into this tribal setting and stripped down its elements. It’s almost thinking about what it means to be human and what happens when we go beyond geographical or racial divisions and move into a territory where we’re merged into one. That is the big reveal really, that they were all once one tribe. So even though there’s this sense of division, very reflective of how the world can be at times with divisive politics and all that, it’s actually about what makes us human. What are these elements we can all relate to?

It’s a survival story and a love story. They’re confronted by a world with depleting resources. These timeless stories that keep repeating themselves. We’re replaying it in an imagined future and playing with the idea of what happens when we take these classic narratives and we put them in a place that almost brings it back to a primal, instinctive place of people wanting and needing each other. It’s very much a story of dependency. These two tribes need each other. They fight each other and need each other. Ultimately, there’s a challenge evolving beyond that of finding a place of harmony to exist in.

Kirstie: How much of today’s society did you draw on to create that sense of conflict?

Eleesha: It’s a very live creative process. In the same way that the show draws on history and then imagines the future, the whole creative process of this work continues to be informed by current events. At the same time that it’s not trying to represent anything literally, it’s influenced by what’s happening. You can’t not be influenced by the fact that we’ve been living through a pandemic – although, I guess we can’t quite say that in the past tense yet.

What’s interesting about the show is the timing of it. It’s not a new concept in that the music has been in development for almost a decade. I came on board in 2017 and it already had an early treatment and lots of music and a concept. We’ve done two big workshops with it. The script and music keep being developed. The story keeps evolving and it will continue to do so.

So to answer your question, I think only time will tell. It’s not being created as a reaction to what’s currently happening in the world, but it is responsive and influence by our awareness and our attention to global issues. Of course, the pandemic, but also the need for more attention to climate change and respect of nature and equality and how we treat each other. The awareness of these issues is very embedded in the show. It’s not created as a reaction to it, but it has a symbiotic relationship with that because of the timeline it has taken to make the show.

Kirstie: How are the environmental messages incorporated into the show?

Eleesha: I think it’s a lot to do with the setting of the show. It is set in the forest, essentially. In all the workshops I’ve been directing, we’ve been thinking about how we create a language for these people that is all about their sensitivity and responsiveness to their environment.

One of the things I’ve loved about creating the choreography for this is imagining beautiful settings and transporting ourselves to lakes and forests and hillsides and mud. It’s very elemental. It gives us an excuse to get in touch with our inner animals. I connect with it a lot because I grew up in rural Canada. It has this feeling of being in nature. The more you put yourself in that mindset, the more humbling it is. You’re reminded of how powerful the elements are and nature is to override any human will.

It’s to do with the setting and how the people of Vanara build their societal decisions based on fears of one of our fantastical elements: The Long Night. The fear of darkness coming and the sun being gone for long periods of time and what that means for their survival. While that’s an imagined scenario, it also speaks to the threat of environmental change and the awareness and sensitivity we need to have for our environment so that it takes care of us.

There is a sense of honouring and respecting nature at the heart of what Vanara is about, which is told by amplifying elements of how nature can throw us in the deep end, straight into things completely out of our control.

Kirstie: What made you decide that a musical was the best way to tell this story?

Eleesha: The big driving force behind this has always been the music. The songs are so powerful and so inspired. They’ve always carried the soul of the show and everything is fleshed out from the music.

The story is there at its heart. Of course, there’s a symbiotic relationship between the story and the music. Gianluca Cucchiara headhunted early on to look for a contemporary choreographer who had a distinct style that he thought would be a good aesthetic and style for this show. My background is more in contemporary dance and theatre rather than musical theatre, so I thought that was a really interesting choice.

We’ve been developing this show together for years now. The elements that make up this unique show transform it into this contemporary, genre-defying musical. It’s about using music, dance and theatre to reach a new scale. It’s so epic and it’s so ambitious in the world-building way of thinking. I think musical theatre is the only way to reach all those elements at the level that it needs to tell that story.

Kirstie: What was the process like for establishing how different elements of the story would be told through music and movement?

Eleesha: Adam Lenson and I are co-directing this show, and I think we bring a very complementary skill set to the team. The creative team is a really fantastic, international, special group of people. How we work as a team is really about bringing those elements together.

Gianluca along with the producer Giovanna Romagnoli have really shaped an initial launchpad for this as the remit for the show. As the creative team has been building, with the lyricist Andrew Whelan, the book writer Michael Conley and Adam and I co-directing, there are a lot of people pushing and pulling from different directions.

There’s a very layered approach. We often use the analogy of a lasagna, thinking about the elements in their own individual parts and then cooking them together to become one. It’s a very collaborative process.

I think that’s why it’s needed to have different stages of workshops, as well, to trial and error different focusses. The first workshop we did was very much about the initial concept album. That had some amazing singers on it, with Eva Moblezafa, Rob Houchen and Carrie Hope Fletcher in the lead roles. They were driving the music, and I was brought in to help realise the choreographic language.

Dance is such a big part of this show. It’s very physical and visceral. The first workshop was very musically and choreographically driven. Then there was a real focus on developing the script. Michael Conley was brought in, and Adam Lenson was focussed on it dramaturgically. So then we were focussed on fleshing out the core of the story, almost like a tree with branches that kept growing and becoming elevated to a level where we needed new music. And the choreographic elements became less dance-focussed and looked more at the wholesomeness of the people of Vanara.

Now that we’re casting the show, we need extraordinary dancers. All the performers need to be triple-threats, they’re all very talented across all elements. I see it like a tree growing, with these strong roots to begin with. Then with time and nurturing from all these different angles and collaborators, the process makes this wholesome beast.

It’s a very live process. We’re in the midst of it now. Sometimes you have to focus on one element at a time and then intertwine it back into the lasagna and taste-test it to make sure it fits. It’s a lot of experimentation.

Kirstie: How are you feeling about it coming to London in October?

Eleesha: I couldn’t be more excited, especially after the past twenty months that we’ve had. It’s thrilling. It’s going to be such an invigorating show. It’s also slightly terrifying, because it’s been so long since we’ve been able to function normally, in theatre in particular. I think it feels like the stakes are so much higher.

But I also feel like it’s a really important time for this show to come to life, because it is a survival story and because it celebrates coming together to triumph over adversity. It’s so relevant. And yet it’s not directly about the pandemic either, which I think is also important. It’s a bit of respite and relief from the constant confrontation we’ve had with current affairs. But it feels like it’s connected to these themes we’ve been dealing with as well.

What I’m so excited about is having this group of incredibly talented people being able to work together for this mission, launching this show. It’s such an ensemble effort. And during the pandemic that’s been something we’ve not had. We’ve been so isolated and having Zoom meetings from home and doing everything virtually as much as possible. This is a bit like a celebration of everything we couldn’t do in lockdown. It’s a coming together, that’s the story.

Kirstie: What do you hope people take away from the show?

Eleesha: I’m always really ambitious with these hopes, but I like to scale it. My wish is always to strive for the best. I want people to come away completely elated and invigorated and reminded of what people are capable of, and with a feeling of triumph over adversity. But also, if people come away just having had a good time and feeling refreshed and inspired by seeing something beautiful and powerful, that’s fantastic.

I think it’s going to be a really fun production. I can’t wait to share it with the audience. I think it’s important to celebrate what it means, that it’s about people living true to nature.

I like to scale my ambitions. Of course I want people to have a life-changing experience, but also it could just be an uplifting and fun time out. Anywhere in that spectrum is good with me.

Vanara is showing at Hackney Empire from the 22nd to 30th October 2021.

Find out more about the show at its website here.
Book your tickets at the Hackney Empire website here.


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