Choosing The Right Space
This week I’m thinking about venues and spaces, because there are Edinburgh Fringe deadlines looming, and I’m busy getting all my ducks in a row for that, and it’s got me wondering about some stuff. Yesterday I was chatting to the brilliant Rob Kemp about the Bunka in the Hive, the venue where I made three shows from 2016-2019, which I often think of as being a sort of spiritual home for the shows I’ve taken to the Fringe. Rob might be doing a show there, and wanted some advice about how it works as a venue, so I was singing its praises as one of the best rooms in the city for a specific type of show. In some ways, this year I’ll be sad to not be going back to the Hive, as it meant a huge amount to me over the years, but in others I feel no separation anxiety whatsoever about not returning to it, because the show I’m making wouldn’t work there. Instead I’ve ended up going to one of the “Big Four” paid venues for the first time since 2014 (had a not-great time, hopefully have learned the lessons to have a better time this year), because the show requires specific stuff in terms of tech infrastructure, and in terms of the formal language of the space in which it’s performed.
In a similar way, for a little while I had a lot of anxiety over the fact that next week I’m doing a run of three work-in-progress shows at Soho Theatre, (have I mentioned this? I might have mentioned it a bit, oh God, please buy tickets). Soho is a venue which previously served as the place where I performed my last show’s final victory lap, so I felt a bit anxious using it as a place to launch a brand new show. I felt a bit like a fraud trying to sell so many tickets there, when ordinarily I would build new shows through performing loosey-goosey previews in rooms above pubs to whoever turned up. The idea of selling tickets to work-in-progress shows in order to perform them in a professional venue felt a bit presumptuous, a bit like I was asking a lot of my audience. But as the weeks have gone by and the tickets have been selling, I’ve realised that a lot of the tribalism, self-doubt and anxiety that comes from performing in certain venues as opposed to others is entirely manufactured and exists only in our heads, and that the only thing that actually matters as a factor is what best serves the requirements of the idea you’re working on.
Soho Theatre didn’t offer me these dates because they were in some way challenging me to “step up” and big myself up as someone who had to charge £10 a ticket. They did it because they knew the show I was making could only be performed in a theatre space, and that a 3-night run would be a hugely beneficial thing to help me make it. If after this show I was to go back to making something loose and simple that I could easily preview in pub spaces, I imagine they wouldn’t afford me the same opportunity again, I would just be left to my own devices to make the show using the methods I had used before.
What I told Rob was that the Hive Bunka was a difficult venue in which to perform a show that had any aspirations to presenting itself in a way that felt formal or theatrical, because the audience is so acutely aware of the fact that they’re sat in a disgusting, smelly, sticky, chalky, dimly-lit alcove in the back of a really horrible nightclub. Anything that aims for any levels of technical proficiency, or the ability to play with the imaginative freedom provided by a black-box-studio space, which can morph into whatever it needs to in the audience’s minds, will be inherently a bit compromised. But it’s by far one of the most interesting rooms in the entire Fringe for creating strange, immersive worlds that play with tone and do something experiential with the atmosphere created between performer and audience. In 2019 the Bunka’s programme incorporated a run of three shows back-to-back – Ben Target’s Six Endings In Search Of A Beginning, Sean Morley’s Soon I Will Be Dead And My Bones Will Be Free To Wreak Havoc On The Earth Once More and my own Joz Norris Is Dead. Long Live Mr Fruit Salad. that I think built something really unique and strange and tonally odd and immersive in that space, and I loved the way tones and feelings shifted and changed over those three hours. I think not many other rooms feel like that one.
But my mistake, in the years I was making shows in the Hive, was my assumption that all shows being made for a different sort of space – a cleaner, blanker space, a space with more capacity to play with lights and sounds and projections, etc, were somehow cynical and crass, or more preoccupied with their own ambition than with their ability to create an interesting atmosphere. I misunderstood that different sorts of spaces mean you’re able to create different sorts of atmospheres. I had so much fun building independent shows for odd spaces that I assumed the Big Four venues were an elitist clique that exploited their artists. The last few months have been really interesting for me as I’ve been made to challenge the foundational assumptions I made while making different sorts of shows; as I find myself making what is essentially a theatre show and requires specific things from the frame I put around it in order for it to work.
I think when you first set out on any sort of creative endeavour, you’re predisposed to assume that the methods you find yourself stumbling into that work for you are somehow the “correct” ones, the right decisions being made for the right reasons, and that people you see who are pursuing different methods are somehow misguided, or not to be trusted. Then the longer you keep doing it, keep making, keep exploring, the more you realise there is no path, no right way. There’s just decisions made in moments, and you gradually get better at recognising which decision is the right one for the ideas you’re currently thinking about. At the start of the year I felt very nervous about making something that occupied such a different formal territory from what I’ve done before, but now I just feel very excited by it. The day I feel like I’ve been doing this for long enough that I no longer have big lessons like that to learn will be the day I stop, I reckon.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Improbably-haired clown Luke Rollason, who sadly died recently, has happily come back to life in order to curate a two-day April Fool’s Festival of clown shows at the OSO Arts Centre in Barnes, with shows from Christian Brighty, Elf Lyons, John-Luke Roberts and more. Should be a lot of fun!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – There’s a bit in this BBC Four documentary about my favourite two silly boys in the world, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, where Tutu tries to get the Dalai Lama to dance despite the fact that it’s against his monastic principles. It’s really funny. I slapped my thighs and everything.
Book Of The Week – The Growing Pains Of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend. Probably just gonna make my way through the entire Adrian Mole saga for the rest of the year.
Album Of The Week – Exile On Coldharbour Lane by Alabama 3. I used to work with the daughter of Alabama 3’s Larry Love (real name Rob Spragg) back when I worked at a children’s magic cafe, and have half been meaning to listen to them for years. Oh boy, they’re funny. It’s sort of 90s dance/rave music crossed with Americana country-blues-rock. They’re all constantly pretending to be from the Deep South despite also frequently making it clear they live in Brixton. They’re all in the grip of an immense midlife crisis, and it really makes me laugh.
Film Of The Week – Death On The Nile. This is so shit. And I say that as someone who really liked Ken Branagh’s Murder On The Orient Express. The titular death in Death On The Nile doesn’t even happen until 70 minutes into the film. Branagh does an extreme close-up of his own eyes every time he has an emotional scene, so we can see that he’s crying. Poirot’s moustache gets a 10-minute origin story. The cast includes a cannibal, a rapist and an anti-vaxxer. It’s car-crash bad. Highly recommended.
That’s all for this week! As ever, please do let me know if you have any thoughts, and if you wanted to recommend this newsletter to a friend or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves until next time,
PS Here’s a behind-the-scenes peek at me being a photo assistant and stand-in glasses model at Miranda’s photoshoot for Cerys Bradley’s Edinburgh poster this weekend.