Fake It ‘Til You Make It, Soho Theatre

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During the conversation I was lucky enough to host with Tim Crouch the other weekend, there was a question from the audience about care in his shows. Particularly with a show like The Author, which made the audience disturbingly complicit in the violence and abuse it described, the idea of care becomes crucial. Tim replied that it’s about a relationship of openness with an audience, about inviting them into a contract. That, perhaps, is why it was so important for audiences in that show to know that they could leave, that part of that contract was the option to walk out and refuse to be complicit.

I was reminded of a (rich and brilliant) conversation I listened to about a year ago between Alex Swift and Chris Goode, which also grappled with this notion of caring for an audience within a piece of theatre and what that really means. It also reminded me of Fake It ‘Til You Make It, the show Bryony Kimmings has made with her partner Tim Grayburn, which I’d seen at Soho Theatre just a few days earlier. In that show, care is everything. There’s the very visible care that Bryony and Tim take of one another on stage throughout the show, there in little looks and fleeting touches, but also the care they show towards their audience. This is their story, but they’re telling it for us.

Like Bryony’s last show, the brilliantly galvanising Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, Fake It ‘Til You Make It is a potent blend of autobiography and activism. Also like that show, made with Bryony’s young niece Taylor, this new piece features a non-professional performer in the shape of Tim. And just as Taylor was the catalyst for Credible Likeable, it’s Tim and his experience of clinical depression that form the starting point for Fake It ‘Til You Make It, opening out into a wider look at men and mental health. The personal is always political.

Care starts with the tone. After a gloriously silly opening dance, Bryony steps up to the microphone to explain to us what’s happening here – to set out the contract. “This is a love story,” she warns us. “I know. Gross.” She elaborates: this is a story about men with clinical depression (like Tim) and the women who love them (like Bryony). It’s going to get dark, Bryony admits. But she also wants to look after us, hence the good luck dolls scattered around the stage and the purposeful silliness of the aesthetic. Sometimes, the only way to seriousness is through humour.

And every silly touch is there for a reason. Tim’s face is kept covered by ridiculous headgear – binoculars, paper bag, fluffy cotton-wool clouds – because one of his conditions for appearing on stage was that he wouldn’t have to look at the audience. When he comes out with a tangle of ropes atop his shoulders, this initially whimsical device has transformed into a simple but affecting metaphor for Tim’s mental turmoil, making it all the more emotional when he is finally revealed to us and speaks, exposed, directly to the audience.

The love story itself is also silly in the telling, cute and self-mocking in equal measure. Bryony and Tim collide, literally and metaphorically, their lives unexpectedly smashing into each other. Their early romance is almost childlike in its sweetness, played out in cartoonish smiles and dorky dance moves, and when the couple move in together they drape a tent across the stage like a kids’ den. When Bryony discovers Tim’s anti-depressants, then, it’s with a rude jolt. The illness that he has kept secret for years disrupts the bliss of their shared life, injecting the romance with darkness but also with honesty.

Honesty – always startling, sometimes embarrassing – is a recurring trait of Bryony’s work and right at the heart of what she’s doing here. What is as damaging as the depression itself for Tim and other men like him is the shame that has needlessly become attached to it. When he does eventually speak to us, Tim confesses one of his greatest fears: that suffering from mental health issues would somehow make him less of a man. There’s a tangible release in banishing that shame, in forcing it out with frankness.

In lots of ways it’s also an illustration of the same blunt but necessary point I made in writing about Violence and Son: patriarchy shits on everyone. Masculinity is oppressive to men as well as to women, its demands to “toughen up” and “grow a pair” stifling the possibility for many men to even acknowledge their feelings, let alone talk about them. Having seen this social pressure inflict its scars on men in my own life, the bold openness of Fake It ‘Til You Make It is a deep sigh of relief.

That’s not to say that Fake It ‘Til You Make It can’t also be difficult. When I saw an early scratch of the show, at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh last summer, I was an emotional mess by the end. Returning to it over a year later (and minus the deadly cocktail of stress and sleep deprivation), I found it less tear-jerking, but there are still some really black moments. When Bryony searches blindly through the streets of London for a floundering Tim, it’s painful to watch, like an icy fist grasping through the ribs, and the more exposing moments of the performance feel just as raw as in that charged room in Leith last year. Talking about reality or truth on stage is always problematic, but when Bryony and Tim laugh and cry together it’s real laughter, real tears.

It’s important, then, for our laughter and tears – our presence in the room with them – to also be acknowledged. Fake It ‘Til You Make It cares for its audience by never pretending that we’re not there and always keeping our responses in mind, right up to the invitation to speak to or email Bryony and Tim after the show itself has finished. In many ways, the piece they have created is one long, generous act of making visible – and that includes us.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

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Inventing Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Back in 2009, Andy Field wrote a piece on the Guardian Theatre Blog with the bold and frankly brilliant title ‘All theatre is devised and text-based’. His argument, essentially, was that theatre is theatre is theatre. As he explains, “To devise is simply to invent”, making distinctions between devised and text-based theatre ultimately meaningless. Whether something is brought into being based on a set of instructions or a collectively built model that is constructed in a rehearsal room, in the end it’s all just inventing.

It’s extraordinary to look back on this now and realise that Field’s argument was being made so persuasively four years ago, and yet the debate continues to rumble on. Only last month, I attended a conference at Reading University at which an entire heated session – prompted by a provocation from David Edgar that was certainly provocative – revolved around the binary that Field effortlessly dissolves. As blindingly obvious as Field’s breakdown of this dichotomy might seem, the institutional structures supporting British theatre, from development programmes to universities to theatre critics, perpetuate the cleaving of work into these two misleading categories.

Duska Radosavljevic’s refreshing new book, therefore, is more necessary than a glance at Field’s blog might suggest. Theatre-Making lays out its most important intervention in its very title: Radosavljevic proposes this term as the foundation of a new vocabulary for discussing contemporary theatre, bringing it all under the inclusive umbrella of making. While the context of current binaries is acknowledged with frequent reference to genealogies, the book is persuasive in arguing why they are now outdated, with the actual work that is being made often defying the restrictive terms in which it is discussed.

Radosavljevic makes the case for transcending existing binaries by documenting a range of different contemporary practices that challenge the straightforward categories of devised and text-based. The book moves through the staging of Shakespeare, processes of devising and adaptation, new writing, verbatim theatre and relational practices, demonstrating in turn how each of these different practices bridges the gap between devising and playwriting, as well as inviting audiences into a kind of co-authoring. Examples range from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Tim Crouch, from Simon Stephens to Ontroerend Goed.

As well as making the case for doing away with the devised/text-based binary more clearly and succinctly than any other text I’ve read on the subject, Radosavljevic adopts a striking and perhaps telling approach to the supporting criticism she draws on. While it is not uncommon to see newspaper critics referenced in academic texts on theatre, thus far the new forms of criticism that are evolving online have been largely ignored. It’s intriguing, therefore, to see an almost perfect balance in Theatre-Making between print and online writers – if anything, that balance is tipped slightly towards the latter.

This shift is highlighted in a section on Three Kingdoms, which is the production to provoke perhaps the most vociferous online reaction to date. After considering the critical debate at length, Radosavljevic concludes that “the most important outcome of the controversy around the Three Kingdoms reception […] was the way in which the blogosphere managed to outweigh the mainstream press in the depth of insight and its intellectual enquiry”. While this is one very specific example, it suggests that the potential for a new vocabulary of the kind advocated by Radosavljevic might lie in new forms of criticism rather than in the mainstream theatre press.

Having traversed a wide variety of contemporary theatre-making practices, Radosavljevic eventually concludes that these works, “emerging through the encounter between theatre and performance-making strategies”, represent a convergence of what Patrice Pavis defines as “text” and “mise-en-scene”. The implication of this convergence is that it “finally makes it possible for the text to be understood as one element of the theatre or performance-making idiom, thus transcending previously entrenched hierarchies”.

In light of developments that just happened to coincide with my reading of the book, Radosavljevic’s observations and suggestions seem to be vindicated at every turn. Returning again to Field, Forest Fringe (which he co-directs) have recently published the second issue of Paper Stages, described by them as “a festival of performance contained within the pages of a beautifully designed book”. This is not a blueprint for a performance event, but an event made into paper, ink and imagination.

This project demonstrates a deliberately playful approach to the text, with a gleeful lack of regard for the categories it has previously found itself forced into; Paper Stages is neither script nor record, but a set of suggestions for performance – even the word instructions feels too prescriptive. The book is what its reader makes of it, requiring them to reconfigure their own understanding of the relationship between text and performance.

Around the same time, I was also intrigued to see that Bryony Kimmings had published a script of Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model to coincide with the show’s run at the Soho Theatre. This is the culmination of a conversation between Kimmings and publisher Oberon that started last year, when Kimmings began to wonder how her work might take textual form. Would it be a kind of documentation, or a set of instructions that might allow others to reconstruct her shows? I have yet to see a copy of Credible Likeable Superstar Role Modelmyself, but I understand that large chunks of it take the form of poetic descriptions of the onstage action, acting not as stage directions, but also not quite as a straightforward record.

These are just two examples that spring immediately to mind. Everywhere artists are subverting restrictive and prescriptive understandings of the theatre text, but many of the structures around them remain out of step. The hope is that, following Radosavljevic, our critical vocabulary might begin to catch up.

Lack of female role models? Make one up

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Originally written for The Guardian.

At the last count, there are currently more than 40,000 Disney Princessproducts on the market. It has been estimated that pre-teens now spend seven hours a day staring at a smartphone, computer or TV, and witness many thousands of violent acts online each year.

These are just a few of the startling facts performance artist Bryony Kimmings uncovered during research for her latest project. Part social experiment, part educational project, part theatre show, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model – now showing at the Edinburgh fringe – is a response to Kimmings’ mounting anger at the commodification of childhood and the pop industry’s objectification of women and young girls. In her attempt to push back, she has recruited an unlikely ally: her niece, Taylor, now 10.

“I was a bit shocked at what was available to her,” Kimmings explains during a break from rehearsals. As the two talked, it became clear that the female role models on offer in the media were worryingly limited, and that they all seemed to offer the same bland version of success. Kimmings names flesh-baring pop stars such as Rihanna and Katy Perry, who perpetuate a similar idea of femininity. As she points out, young people can get “a really limited view of what women are”. So the pair decided to take matters into their own hands – and invent an alternative.

Dreamed up by Taylor and brought to life by her aunt, Kimmings’ new alter ego is a pop star created with a child, for children. Catherine Bennett – CB to her fans – is a dinosaur-loving, bike-riding, tuna pasta-eating hero who squeezes in a pop career around working in a museum as a palaeontologist. As Taylor explains, it was important to make CB “very different” to the female celebrities children usually see. Where most stars straighten their hair, CB wears hers defiantly curly. While other singers opt to bare their flesh, CB’s skirts are kept firmly below the knee.

But, like all pop stars, Catherine Bennett wants to be famous. Kimmings repeatedly refers to the project as “the fame experiment”, approaching it with all the hope and mischief of a kid with a chemistry set. To help Bennett hit the big time, Kimmings has assembled a true pop-star entourage: real-life makeup artists who have worked with Girls Aloud, i-D magazine stylists and a PR company. The team have offered their expertise to turn Catherine Bennett into a viable superstar, giving her the best possible shot at fame. “I just copied what they did with real pop stars,” Kimmings says, noting the enthusiasm and generosity she has met from those in the industry – many of whom feel just as disillusioned about how the system works.

Catherine Bennett’s successes so far include recording two music videos, closing the Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield in July and appearing as part of Yoko Ono’s Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre in London. For her to be considered truly famous, however, Taylor has decided she needs to achieve a series of “fame aims”, including reaching a million hits on YouTube and making three celebrity friends. But the ultimate target, Kimmings adds, is to spawn a copycat.

While it might be said that the project’s fixation on fame runs the risk of reinforcing dominant definitions of success, it is important to Kimmings and Taylor that their creation makes her mark. If CB’s influence can be seen elsewhere, says Kimmings, the duo will know that they have “changed a bigger thing”.

The theatre show, which debuted as a work-in-progress at the Almeida festival in London ahead of its run in Edinburgh, is rejecting the “show and tell” format of Kimmings’ previous fringe successes, Sex Idiot and 7 Day Drunk, which dwelt, respectively, on Kimmings’ acquisition of an STI and her problematic relationship with booze. Instead, Kimmings is adopting a more “abstract” and “fantasy-based” approach, taking inspiration from the aesthetic of shows such as Game of Thrones to tell a coming-of-age narrative with a twist. “There’s quite a lot of symbolism,” Kimmings says, “but hopefully not in a cheesy way, hopefully in a cool way.” In the show, she and her niece appear together on stage to explore the darker side of growing up, from inappropriate dance routines to internet violence. The version I see is still being developed, but you can expect fake armour and a healthy amount of leaping around.

After Edinburgh, the show will tour until the end of 2014, while the mission to meet the fame aims continues. By the time Kimmings says goodbye to Bennett, she would like “just the tiniest of shifts in the brains of loads of children, or just a couple more cool representations of feminist women in the media”.

Kimmings is realistic about what she and Taylor are up against, but she remains resolutely optimistic. “I’ve got this blind hope that it’s going to happen,” she smiles, making it clear that this latest show is not about to let audiences off the hook. As Taylor adds cheerfully: “It’s a bit like being kicked in the stomach.”

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.”

The Good Neighbour, Battersea Arts Centre

In a dim room draped with sheets, water steadily drips into dozens of half-filled jam jars, illuminated as if from within. This is the momentorium, where memories bleed from the architecture. It’s in this oddly magical space that the stuff of lives accumulates, a constant trickle of joy and excitement that the room’s keeper collects and orders with gentle fervour.

It’s a pause of gasp-inducing beauty, an enchanting lull in the gloriously silly pandemonium of the Battersea Arts Centre’s new children’s show. This one room among many, created by Kirsty Harris and Matthew Blake, is an exquisite reminder that art created for young eyes can be just as captivating and contemplative as its adult counterpart. Leading its participants through the labyrinthine corridors and hidden spaces of BAC, itself already a gorgeous if slightly crumbling-round-the-edges building,  the Young Adventurers strand of The Good Neighbour offers a peek into historical and fictional worlds, a journey that takes us into a series of carefully crafted scenarios.

The purpose of this romp around the building, an adventure aimed at children aged between 6 and 12 but one that should be prescribed for big kids of all ages (especially those with a streak of cynicism), is to retrieve the story of George Neighbour, a real inhabitant of Battersea at the beginning of the 20th century. Carved off into small groups, audience members are all handed this quest, to be undertaken with the rest of our team and with the help of a guide.

Each of the rooms contains clues, but they are also miniature theatrical scenarios in their own right. Sheila Ghelani’s piece asks us to participate in the simple, tender activity of wrapping a gift to give to a stranger, while the quivering branches of Ruth Paton’s tree seem to breathe with us as we lie on the floor and float on collective dreams. In Coney’s meeting room, the grey, grown-up solemnity of the agenda and the in-tray clashes with jokes told through stifled giggles. Asked what happiness feels like, I’m startled by the imagination and eloquence of the kids in the room, while I mentally fumble for hackneyed phrases.

What the piece is really best at is giving its young audience members the permission to be silly and creative and goofy without having to feel embarrassed. This is exemplified by Bryony Kimmings’ offering, a story about an exploding room that is really just a vehicle to free us of our inhibiting self-consciousness. Urged on by Kimmings’ flame-singed, glitter-decked figure, participants stage their own explosion, grotesquely contorting faces, limbs and voices in an eruption of silliness. The words “laughter is the best medicine”, written inside a butterfly-lined cabinet, are a fitting subtitle for the piece.

Messages of teamwork, inclusion and mutual support – quite literally being a good neighbour – are lightly threaded through the afternoon, but at its core it is a celebration of imagination, creativity and the sheer exhilaration of being silly. It’s a love letter to the undervalued power of play, both play as performance and play as game-playing, activities that are of course intrinsically linked. It is also something of a love letter to the beautiful space of BAC itself, a space as drenched in human history as the momentorium. In its myriad corridors, tattooed with the footsteps of the small and the not-so-small, past, present and future all meet in moments of laughter and community.

The Good Neighbour is at Battersea Arts Centre until 4th November. There are also two other journeys, one for under 5s and one for bigger explorers.

And in case you need proof that the kids enjoyed it as much as I did …