Edinburgh Fringe Q&A: Lost Soles

Theatre director and designer Thaddeus McWhinnie Phillips discusses his classic work about a Wyoming tap dancer that's stranded in Cuba

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 5 minutes
33810 large
Lost Soles
Photo by Rafael Esteban Phillips
Published 02 Aug 2023

Tell us about your show and what audiences can expect?

We did it originally in 2000 after I travelled illegally to Cuba (as a US citizen we can’t go there). I snuck in through Canada, on an Irish airline flight called Aer Lingus. I landed in Havana, totally undercover from the US authorities. My passport was stamped with a little toy green train, and there I was in Cuba. The most extraordinary place I’ve ever seen. 

I went there with Tatiana, the director of the piece, back in 2000 to research ideas for a new show. We were struck by the resilience and resourcefulness of the Cuban people – they’re still using these old cars – they fix them, they reuse them, they make new parts, they use the fridges that they’ve had from the 1950s.

On one level, yes it’s a total disaster – the economic embargo that the United States, with the help of most of the world, has imposed on these poor people. But at the same time it’s shown a way to live with a lot less and without wasting crap. There’s a certain ingenuity and beauty to the place that we wanted to explore in Lost Soles.

It’s also about my tap dance teachers. My grandma was in vaudeville – she tap danced with Donald O’Connor and he actually nailed her tap shoes to the floor once backstage in vaudeville, and she fell on the stage. She never liked Donald O’Connor.

I studied tap with other teachers as well – a guy who was a trainer on Singing In The Rain and Jimmy Payne Senior, one of the primary tap dance teachers in the United States, out of Chicago.

Where do you draw inspiration from for your work, both in terms of creation and performance?

I’m not a tap dancer but I'm an actor, a director obviously, and I love tap dancing. So the show is about those teachers. And it's about Cuba. And it’s about theatrical ingenuity. 

I get inspiration from making shows on different themes – there’s a lot about how to be creative. They can have political themes, Lost Soles certainly does. It’s not overtly political but it does touch on certain realities we live in, because that’s part of the world. 

Looking at this production, how would you say it links to previous work personally and thematically?

This is an early work of mine that kind of launched a lot of the stuff I’ve been doing since, so to revisit it here at Edinburgh Fringe, is just fantastic. It’s been really wonderful diving into it, relooking at it 20 years later, remaking a whole new show – because the design is very different – but keeping the same essence and discovering new things at the same time. It allows for a kind of liquid, amorphic theatrical transformation with very few elements that kind of bleed from one to the next telling this theatrical story. 

Why is this an important story to tell?

The story is about art, tap dancing and what it means to be successful. Does success mean you get good reviews? Does it mean you become famous? Does it mean you can live with your art and be creative and satisfied with that alone in a corner? Those are the questions it asks. 

What would you like audiences to take away from seeing this production at the Fringe?

I’d love for audiences to come away from Lost Soles with a feeling of the past. But at the same time thinking about the future.

Do you tend to take inspiration from events happening in the world around you in terms of your work? Do you think artists have a responsibility to respond to what's happening? 

Considering all the things we’re facing, we’re probably going to need to find a more innovative and creative way to live and look towards ‘less is more’ to be happy. Which actually truly would make us happy, instead of all this crap everywhere. Too much junk we wouldn’t even need. We're shipping stuff around the world we don't even need and we don't even want. We need to stop. 

So that’s where I feel there’s some kind of responsibility to respond to what's happening in general, and I’ve always kind of felt that.

How do you feel about the current arts landscape in your country and your part in it? Does it excite you and inspire you to keep pushing the boat out?

Now, internationally, the Fringe is the greatest thing ever. In 2019 when we did a show, we had the German acrobat people after us and this Korean visual theatre company before us. It was just so surreal and wonderful, this mix that’s here. I love it. And it’s a global exchange in every moment – that kind of blows your mind. 

Have you got your eye on any other shows that are part of the programme?

I’m gonna go see Food at the EIF. I’ve just arrived in Edinburgh and have started to see posters of many things that I’ll keep an eye out for. 

What’s next for you and how are you feeling about the future in general?

Next for me are things I’m not allowed to discuss – huge things. So that’s exciting. I can't legally talk about them until mid-September, so that's pretty bizarre. But just imagine the biggest possible thing in a global way – that's it. It's amazing. 
The future obviously is very scary, but there’s a certain kind of energy and drive to try to confront it and face it head-on. It’s exciting, scary, but it’s certainly a very extraordinary time to be alive.