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The Outbound Project and Mass Epidemic Hysteria

23rd April, 2019
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We recently caught up with Lucy Bishop, Artistic Director of The Outbound Project to talk about their new exciting project, M.E.H, coming to Greenwich Theatre 27 - 29 June.

Mass Epidemic Hysteria

A sixteenth century case of group hysteria – in which some individuals literally danced themselves to death in France – has been cited as the inspiration for a new show coming to Greenwich Theatre in June.

“We were having a company meeting and a few members had heard of the Tarantella dance, so-called because it was understood to incorporate the movements exhibited by people bitten by the Tarantula. Historically the dance was even used as treatment for the hysteria brought on by arachnid bites,” says artistic director Lucy Bishop.

“After some initial research we came across an account of the 1518 dancing plague of Strasbourg and were all instantly very excited for a couple of reasons. As a physical theatre company, the story already had huge scope for creating an exciting physical language – something which we try to create fresh for every show. At the same time, our research brought to our attention the disparity of social reactions to mass epidemic hysteria (M.E.H) based on gender.

“This was something that we all saw still existed in contemporary cases and with that the idea, themes and concept were conceived to take us into a full period of research and development.”

Lots of other M.E.H. cases were discovered during the company’s research. “Some will also feature in the show,” said Lucy. “For example, there was a convent of nuns who meowed like cats for weeks and a school in Tanzania where many schoolgirls laughed uncontrollably.

“Whilst male soldiers were also reported to suffer from the same symptoms, with them it was less referred to as a case of M.E.H. The word hysteria is an incredibly gendered one - it literally came from a theory about wandering wombs, experienced when a woman was not having children or fulfilling her ‘womanly duties’.

“She would find her womb wandered around the body in search of a purpose resulting in all sorts of ‘strange behaviours’ such as novel reading, laziness and even political engagement. Can you imagine!”

Humour inevitably plays a big part in The Outbound Project’s approach. “I think we just really enjoy having a laugh in our rehearsal processes and a portion of that finds its way into the work,” said Lucy.

“Physical theatre can sometimes run the risk of being very moody and over serious. After our first show - The Mission - a mentor of ours, Ailin Connant of Theatre Temoin, sat us down and said ‘but you guys are a funny bunch - this is all very sombre’.

“When dealing with something like the treatment and marginalisation of women throughout history, there is a lot of seriousness but there’s also a lot that was frankly ridiculous.”

As well as receiving Arts Council funding, The Outbound Project also won the Les Enfants Terribles/Greenwich Theatre Partnership award two years ago which led to an ongoing relationship and period of support from the South London theatre. “Without it we would never have been able to make the work we have made so far. All the staff at the theatre are brilliant, and they have come to our rescue, supported our work and been there as mentors in more ways that we can mention.”

M.E.H plays at Greenwich Theatre from 27-29 June. Book your tickets here