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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Small Acts

Originally written for Exeunt.

If global warming persists at its current rate and sea levels continue to rise, half of London might be underwater. There are maps available online outlining the potential damage; just type in your postcode and watch your neighbourhood disappear beneath the deluge.

This is just one of the grim facts alluded to throughout Platform’s operatic audio tourAnd While London Burns, created in 2006 in response to climate change and the complex, ubiquitous oil network that dominates the world’s financial markets. Earlier this week I belatedly traced this tour through the heart of the City, its skyscrapers appropriately garbed in an ominous cloak of fog that was distantly pierced by the Shard, that oddly apocalyptic splinter of steel and glass. Gazing up at buildings that had inexorably sprouted in the six years since the tour’s creation, it was hard to imagine a halt to the onward march of disaster that flooded through my earphones.

But the aim of And While London Burns is not despair. Its end point, or at least the end point that I’m told it would have reached if the audio file hadn’t hit a glitch as I stood awkwardly fiddling with my phone in the drizzle outside Lloyds, is one of action, of hope. Intersecting bleak facts with a deeply human impetus for change, the piece is delicately crafted for maximum emotional impact, making the reality of climate change powerfully felt without ever entirely eradicating an optimistic chink of light. We can still do something.

This immediately brought to mind the contrast with Ten Billion, a piece of theatre that I did not personally see but that was the subject of much conversation around the time it was showing at the Royal Court earlier this year. In essence a lecture given by scientist Stephen Emmott and placed on stage by Katie Mitchell, it was by all accounts an unflinching breakdown of how humanity, as a species, is fucked. In this vision of a future ravaged by environmental catastrophe and over-population, there is nothing to be done.

Although I’m not in any position to make judgements on the respective science behind these two pieces, they do throw up an interesting theatrical tension. Both pieces are, presumably, setting out with the intention of changing our outlook on the world in some way; And While London Burns is explicit about this aim, while it’s difficult to even read about the subject matter of Ten Billion without taking a rather blacker view of the future. The problem and source of tension, however, is the effect of this intended shift in outlook. Stepping out into Sloane Square or between the glass-fronted structures of the City, what do audiences take with them?

In the second of Chris Goode & Company’s Thompson’s Live podcasts, Artsadmin’s Judith Knight mused on just this problem. Is it better, she wondered, for theatre like Ten Billion to leave its audience with hope, however false, than to depart with incapacitating doom? The problem with being told you can do nothing is that it gives you licence to do just that. As Andrew Haydon put it in his review, there’s something “powerful and seductive” – even liberating – about the sheer nihilism of it all. No need to worry about changing our behaviour if it won’t make any difference.

And While London Burns might look our catastrophic future just as squarely in the face, but it also offers the possibility of action. Not only does it retain the promise of a small shred of hope, the very form of this piece of theatre makes it imperative for us to act in order for the piece to work. We are actors, in both the performative and real world senses of the word, made to navigate our way around the busy streets. In principle this necessity of small actions offers us belief in the fact that action on a larger scale is achievable, though in practice the difficulties of winding between human traffic and keeping in step with the audio instructions can be just as much of a obstruction to the piece as the physical obstacles that have sprung up since it was made.

While considering these questions of hope and action, another unlikely comparison presented itself. I was temporarily transported back to Battersea Arts Centre, where I spent Saturday afternoon gleefully exploring the building’s many nooks and crannies as part of interactive children’s show The Good Neighbour, a celebration of imagination, silliness and the capacity of humans to work together. An altogether different proposition, then, to either Ten Billion or And While London Burns.

Yet within the fun and games there is something distilled in this otherwise joyously silly piece of theatre that many more serious shows might take note of. In framing its frolics as an adventure, The Good Neighbour returns to its young participants, already so restricted in so many areas of life, the idea that the possibility of instigating action might lie within their power. Through the underestimated medium of play, it holds up an optimistic vision of human nature in which change is attainable as well as desirable. Unlike the distracting confusion of negotiating the suit-clogged alleyways of the City, a level of performativity that may be active but is more often than not frustrating, the gameplay here produces a sense of triumph and exhilaration.

Whether this exhilaration could be transposed onto a form of activist theatre is another question, and whether this would ultimately make a difference is an even bigger question. The extent to which theatre can inspire genuine political and social change is a well-traversed and still inconclusive debate. But if performance is to provoke action, surely the possibility of agency within the space in which it sets out its arguments is the first building block in the bridge to action beyond that space. To act, we must first believe that we are capable of action.

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 …