Bryony Kimmings: DIY Nativity

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“For me, Christmas is totally commercial,” Bryony Kimmings happily confesses to me over the phone. Her admission voices the strange, finance sapping grip that the festive season has on us; from dedicated shopping weekends to the cluster of Facebook groups declaring that Christmas begins with the advent of the Coca-Cola advert, little about the season of goodwill slips outside the fairy-lit net of fierce consumerism. In this heightened commercial atmosphere, even Christmas entertainment can become a commodity, sold on the fame – or occasionally the infamy – of its B-list panto star.

The interactive family show that Kimmings proffers as an alternative is, like the Pritt-sticked Christmas cards about to be received by legions of proud parents, rather more homespun. “The design is all brown paper and ribbon,” says Kimmings; unlike nearly everything else we encounter at this time of year, “it has an element of ‘this doesn’t cost anything’”. As the title DIY Nativity hints, this is a festive gift of the “it’s the thought that counts” variety – homemade, a little messy, heartfelt without being schmaltzy. “This show is very much a celebration,” Kimmings explains simply. “All we really want is for people to have a bloody lovely time with their families or mates and to leave feeling totally joyous.”

When commissioned by The Junction in Cambridge to create the venue’s Christmas show this year, Kimmings was immediately attracted to the idea of reinvention. Much as her clash of live art, cabaret and pop culture borrows from and appropriates various different forms, her intention in using the framework of the traditional school nativity play was to transform it into something new – in this case, a nativity that is not necessarily about religion.

Talking about the origins of DIY Nativity, Kimmings describes the slightly “touchy” reactions she received from some people when suggesting the concept of a show based around the idea of the nativity, a response that convinced her it was “the perfect thing to do”. Although of course religious in essence, Kimmings argues that the form has become increasingly secularised in schools, leading her to think that it could be interesting to create a nativity from the perspective of someone not particularly religious.

Her intention in twisting this form, however, is not to undermine it. “I would never make it in any way offensive,” she is keen to assert. “My work generally isn’t offensive; it might tackle things that are a little bit taboo or a bit edgy, but it’s never deliberately offensive.” Speaking to her, it soon becomes apparent that Kimmings is instead aiming for the opposite, attempting “the impossible task of making Christmas perfect for everybody” and engaging with the inevitable challenge this brings with it. The narrative drive of the show is this desire to “create a version of Christmas that everyone’s comfortable with” and the barriers that this desire finds itself running into.

While Kimmings isn’t one for loftily condemning the commercialism of Christmas in modern society, she does question it, as much in herself as in others. “My own selfish greed is probably going to be exposed and hopefully challenged by making this show,” she laughs, speaking about the ways in which her understanding of the festive season is set up to be tested and subverted by the attitudes of her two collaborators, Stuart Bowden and Sam Halmarack. Through this process, she hopes that – as well as having a good time – audience members might stop to think a little about what Christmas really means to them.

“Children think of Christmas as presents and chocolate and Coca-Cola and TV – probably – and I’m not 100% convinced that’s what it should be about,” Kimmings muses, her tone flipping from light to thoughtful mid-sentence. This train of thought flags up a new direction in her work, which is currently moving through a pop-culture-filtered consideration of what it means to be a child in today’s society, set to culminate in a new show she is making with her niece. The irony of this sudden turn, when held up against the likes of Sex Idiot and 7 Day Drunk has not escaped Kimmings.

“It’s really weird because I totally hate people who work with kids,” she says with characteristic frankness, seeming genuinely startled that her interest has been piqued down this unexpected path. This new direction began when Kimmings was asked by Battersea Arts Centre to contribute a piece to its children’s show The Good Neighbour, initiating a process of making that revealed a surprising level of reserve in the children she encountered. “I imagined kids would be really wild and do whatever they wanted to do,” she says, “but every kid I worked with was so stifled by what they might look like in front of other people.”

This embarrassment, which Kimmings attributes to the ubiquitous goals of fame and perfection, has been attacked with a heavy dose of the ridiculous. In her section of The Good Neighbour, kids were asked to pull silly faces, the more grotesque the better; in DIY Nativity, they are rewarded for discarding their embarrassment and getting stuck in. This level of involvement is an element that has been central to Kimmings’ work for both adults and children, and audience participation is a subject she launches into with obvious passion.

“With me it’s always a case of asking the audience to do something, from just doing my zip up to cutting off their pubes,” she says, naming the controversial example from Sex Idiot. “Obviously cutting off their pubes isn’t going to happen,” she hastily adds with a giggle, “as this show is four plus, but my version of how something will be DIY is that it starts off very easy and very nice, but by the end what we’re asking them to do is something that’s a little more risky or invested. My work is a slow build to something that’s quite a big ask, but that’s done in a very friendly, hand holdy way.”

While Kimmings talks about the importance of “building an affinity” with the audience and gaining their trust, she has little time for shows that label themselves as interactive without a clear artistic purpose for that audience involvement. For Kimmings, audience interaction is integral because “it’s important to hold a mirror and say I’m the same as you; I’m a dirty human being and so are you”. It is through this holding up of the mirror that she believes her work gains its power.

“Theatre isn’t life-changing in the same way as lots of other things,” she goes on, “but it can be, and having a positive experience that isn’t just watching a play, that’s getting up, getting involved and doing something outside of your comfort zone for a reason, is so fucking powerful, but people are really abusing it.” There is a brief flare of anger that quickly dissipates, much as when Kimmings talks about the inhibitions of the children she has worked with and her horror at discovering that her niece aspires to be on The Only Way is Essex. For all the glitter, there’s also some grit at the core of what drives Kimmings to create her own brand of “light art”, as fellow artist Scottee has dubbed it.

Kimmings is refreshingly free of pretensions, however, placing audience experience at the centre of what she does. “It’s not really for artists,” she says of theatre and performance, “it’s for audiences, but people forget that.” With a touch of sparkle and some joyously silly joining in, Kimmings hopes to remind us of that, as well as reminding us that Christmas might be about more than just spending. At its heart, as with all good Christmas shows, DIY Nativity is about the simple pleasure of having fun in the company of others. But, Kimmings is keen to add, “if it also had a moment of ethical reflection I’d be really pleased, because I think that might be the crux of where the mirror is held up.”

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