Go Deeper Ready, Set, Sew: An Interview With Theatre SKAM

Ready, Set, Sew: An Interview With Theatre SKAM

Posted January 15th, 2018

Since its founding in 1995, Victoria, BC’s Theatre SKAM has built a strong reputation for their innovative theatrical works. From intimate, elegant plays to boundary-pushing site-specific performances, they always seem to be actively widening the scope of what a contemporary theater company can, and should, do. Case in point: Fashion Machine.

SKAM will bring this widely acclaimed theater/design/education project to FringeArts later this month. Gathering a group of 28 local children, ages 9-13, SKAM artists will lead these budding fashionistas through a few days of intensive training and teaching. They’ll learn about the history and current state of fashion, play some drama games, and, most importantly, learn all the fabrication skills they’ll need to invite a handful of lucky audience members into the Fashion Machine. From January 23-27, these children will take the outfits of seven brave (and willing!) audience members and, over the course of an hour, transform them into something entirely new.

Recently we spoke with two of the projects core artists, Matthew Payne and Shayna Ward, to learn more about how this wild work came together, the benefits of working with children, and the experience of the performance.

From the 2014 premiere of Fashion Machine.

FringeArts: How did the idea for Fashion Machine first come about?

Matthew Payne and Shayna Ward: In 2009 SKAM co-presented the show Haircuts by Children in Victoria by a Toronto company called Mammalian Diving Reflex. We were in the room as children participated in training sessions with a professional hairstylist. It was remarkable to see children grasp concepts quickly while having a blast doing it. Seeing that spark made us want to embark on something equally audacious in spirit.

FringeArts: What made clothing the right vehicle?

Matthew Payne and Shayna Ward: We wanted to try something where the training session made more of an impact than the 2 two-hour sessions the kids received in Haircuts by Children before they started giving free haircuts to people.

As it turns out, remaking someone’s outfit is harder than cutting their hair. Fashion Machine requires more training (12 hours). Part of that time is spent discussing where our clothes come from, the state of the fashion industry, and how new clothes are presented to the public. So the kids who train with us learn how images are manipulated and what they can do to break or better this cycle.

FringeArts: What are some things about children’s creativity and ways of accomplishing tasks that you find compelling?

Matthew Payne and Shayna Ward: Individual creativity is so diverse; there are never two kids that think, act, and design the same. We’re always seeing new ideas and personalities and it is constantly changing how we view the training and the meaning behind the show itself.

Our biggest lesson has been the importance of space. The human brain needs time to absorb skills and lessons. Cramming the 12-hours of training into two days will not make for as high quality a show as spreading that same training out over a week. The children are more relaxed and their creativity is flowing when they have time to settle into the machine.

Everybody needs a day off.

FringeArts: How does the audience take in the show?

Matthew Payne and Shayna Ward: The show plays out as a kind of hybrid between theatre and gallery installation. There are specific moments where we steer the viewer towards specific moments- the introduction of the kids, the part where we all yell “Ready, Set, Sew”, and the super brief fashion show at the end. There’s also videos that play at intervals where the audience meets the kids on screen.

The rest of the night is intended to be spent walking around viewing the children at work, watching the ever growing slide show (candid shots of the action and still life), engaging with other audience members, snacking and, if you feel like it, having a drink.

FringeArts: What have you worked on most in fine-tuning the process of making each Fashion Machine?

Matthew Payne and Shayna Ward: As we write this (and by the time we arrive in Philadelphia it will be complete) we’re working on a version at home in Victoria of Fashion Machine 100, with, you guessed it, 100 kids. We figure by the time we’ve done that, we’ll be very good at working with 28 kids (the maximum number of participants in Philly).

On our last tour to the UK, we added the video element I mentioned earlier. We now consider that an essential element to the show. The adults on the project had been and still do wander into the workspace to attempt to conduct brief interviews with kids while they work, but the videos have proved a great way for us to introduce these new artists to the audience.

From the 2017 production Fashion Machine 100.

Fashion Machine
Theatre SKAM

January 23-27

140 N. Columbus Boulevard

$29 general
$20.50 members
$15 student/25-and-under
$5 children 12-and-under


Interview by Josh McIlvain, 2017.
Photos by Pamela Bethel Photography.