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Interview: Lyn Gardner talks to Bryony Kimmings about the tough stuff

If you’ve been to a Bryony Kimmings’ show, you will know that even if you think you know the territory it’s likely you will be ambushed by surprise. Even the shyest and most retiring amongst us may find ourselves snipping off our pubic hair so that Kimmings can fashion an instant moustache from it on stage. I did.

Or you could unexpectedly feel the urge to shout out the name of a loved one who has suffered from cancer, your voice joining a chorus of voices which fills the theatre like a fierce wind. Or you might find yourself suddenly aware that your face is wet with tears and be unsure whether you are laughing or crying.  

We often talk about theatre-makers being brave and taking risks, but few artists genuinely lay themselves and their lives on the line and on the stage. Kimmings is one who dares. Her award-winning 2010 Edinburgh fringe show, Sex Idiot, charting her attempts to contact her former sexual partners after discovering she had an STI, set the tone for a body of work. Shows which draws directly on her own experience, and which sets up intimate engagement with the audience.

Fake It Till You Make It was inspired by the depression of her then partner, Tim Grayburn, and her most recent piece - The Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, which premiered at the National Theatre - drew on Kimmings’ knowledge of what it is like to live in the kingdom of the sick after her baby son, Frank, became seriously ill. It is undoubtedly the only musical ever to feature all-singing, all dancing tumours.

Her latest piece, which opens at Battersea Arts Centre next month, tackles the tough stuff too. I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is inspired by events in Kimmings’ life in 2015/16 after she became a mother, her son became ill, and Kimmings herself suffered a mental health breakdown.

Lyn: I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is a pretty startling title. How does it reflect the content of the show?

Bryony: Yeah, hmmmm the title. Ha! Titles are one of my favourite parts of making a new work. They encapsulate a thought, a moment of clarity, a whole year or two ahead and the excitement of that. I love coming up with them.

That rather aggressive title came to me at a point when I was finally able to articulate that what I had been through the year or so previously had been a brutal and damaging trauma. Something comes in that moment; a power. It was like all the injustice, the sheer brute force it took to survive it, the anger and pain all surged in one thought. It’s over. I did it. I wanted to scream this phrase from rooftops: “I am a phoenix, bitch” in my loudest voice. Because you don’t get much from surviving traumatic events, there is little mercy or grace. But you do have one thing. You are still here. And for me in that moment, that was enough.

It isn’t a rude or aggressive work though. It’s rather sad, then I hope, rather uplifting.

Lyn: What makes it the same as your previous shows and what makes it entirely different?

Bryony: I chat to the audience as I always do. Nothing new there. I spent a few years trying not to do that anymore. I felt I had done it too much, I felt it reflected my inability to make people think and feel without telling them to. Until my best friend Tom Parkinson sat me down and told me that was the charm and power of my work. Four bad unfinished plays on my desktop later I realised he had a point.

But the scale has changed. The budget too. So, it’s no longer spit and sawdust. I hope it’s a good balance between old and new. The ability to connect but to tell bigger, bolder and more sophisticated stories.

My voice has also changed in many ways. I’ve been singing a great deal and taking my music more seriously. And the writing is my darkest yet I think.

Lyn: How would you describe a Bryony Kimmings show? How do you think an audience would describe a Bryony Kimmings show?

Bryony: I would call them teary, drunken, truth hugs. Audiences? I hope the same. But I’m not for everyone. Some people don’t like that push for connection which I force. It freaks them out. I have a lot of return customers, and a fair few haters. Marmite I guess.

Lyn: This is your first solo show for a decade. In more recent years we’ve seen you on stage with your niece in Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, and the father of your son, Tim Grayburn, in Fake It ‘Till You Make It, and co-writing and directing A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer. So, does it feel lonely up there on your own again or does your relationship with the audience ensure you are never lonely?

Bryony: It never feels lonely onstage to me. I am there to service, guide and entertain the audience. So, I’m totally with everyone. I feel held and terrified. The latter is new and comes from feeling failure in recent years I think. I know a lot of my fans. I see them dotted around the audience. I hear them. I can see everyone in the dark and it brings me great joy. I love performing. I equate it to how I feel when I throw a lovely dinner (rare nowadays as I live in the middle of nowhere with my dear old mum). Full hearts, full heads and full tummies. Beaming faces. Tears too. Next to one another. Feeling all together. I think theatre is my church. So, no, it’s not lonesome. It’s my paradise.

At Battersea Arts Centre, my son Frank will be asleep in a room below my feet in his little bed. Battersea Arts Centre put you up in their artists’ bedrooms and it’s a really beautiful thing. I feel very secure and grounded when Frank is close by.

Lyn: When hewing a show from your own and other people’s experience do you set rules for yourself? Are there no-go areas? How much does it cost you to put your own life on stage, the good and the bad bits?

Bryony: I do set boundaries and rules. I write out everything that happened around a time. And I rant and rave like a lunatic into my phone. Processing without censorship, stuff that no one will ever see or hear. Then I check what I want to keep as mine and mine alone in my locked box of life events that only I know about. I check what feels like it’s come from a place of anger and try to process and rid myself of that, so I can tell the story impartially and with a kind heart. Then I fact check, and check people are cool to be included. Then comes dramaturgy. I break the time line of real events into sections and team them with the emotional and political feelings they trigger in me.

Then decide how I want the audience to feel at each moment and what tools I’ll use to get them there. It’s quite mathematical. Then I test it. With a live audience. And if they say TMI (too much information) I cut it back! Or if too little, I go back to the experimentation.

I never do this without a therapist anymore. I’ve been stung in the past. I was going to say it costs me nothing but that is a lie. It costs a great deal. I have wondered a few times during this last process if I wanted to do it anymore. I realise my practice sits on a fine line between “absolutely integral to my deciphering of life’s events” and “absolutely damaging to all of my human relationships”. It is a complex thing. To want to be heard, to talk with authority, to think people care. That’s why I always try to find out why people might want to know my stories. I delve into the universal of my personal. Try to figure out what might be a progressive new thought and unifying.

I couldn’t do this without Tom Parkinson and Nina Steiger, my two oldest collaborators. Both are excellent at pushing me.

Lyn: Is the Bryony in everyday life and the Bryony we see on stage one and the same. Or are you playing a version of yourself?

Bryony: It’s funny. I am not sure. Probably best to ask my mates! The Bryony on stage is me on a good day. She’s me at my most polished, made up, dressed up, eloquent and brutally honest. But that’s an act. A rehearsed version of myself. She’s more like drunk me. I’m loud and gutsy when drunk. In normal life I am quiet, a dedicated single mum, I go to the gym, I try to practice good mental health, I try to be at peace. I suffer from anxiety and in recent years I have realised I am best at home, cooking, with people I love, cuddling, watching telly. I think people think I’m glam. But I’m not. I’m common, I’m obstinate, I hate travelling away from home and like watching EastEnders. She’s me on theatre speed; with excellent wigs.

Lyn: How has being a mother to Frank changed you as a theatre-maker?

Bryony: Yes. I suppose it has. But I’m still unpicking it. I think in practical terms I need to earn more and ensure a long fruitful existence. I’ve been trying to identify how my theatre skills can transfer and have made a documentary and written a film.

I have become more angry at the world because my son now lives in it. More rage fills me.

I have stopped touring so much, it’s impractical.

My voice has changed. It’s more brutal, more mature I think. Things that used to matter don’t any more. I’m not embarrassed by previous works, but I do laugh at my audacity and simplistic world view sometimes like I really knew nothing!

Lyn: I’ve always loved the way you look after an audience. How do you go about that? I have often thought it might be to do with the vulnerability you display, but what do you think?

Bryony: It’s my main concern. My audience feeling held. I always hate it when I cry. It makes it about me. Too many tears, and you lose them. I tell all my students, it’s a mistake to think people are there to see you. They aren’t, they are there to see themselves.

Essentially, it’s about being vulnerable and honest. Telling the gut-wrenching truth. But there is method and sophistication to how that plays out. I often start with an end image or action; a place I want to get the audience to, an emotion I want to reach collectively. Then I work backwards. If I want them to cry for the loss of their own innocence, they need to feel nostalgic, heard, joyful and youthful beforehand. It’s an emotional map. And I am merely the guide.

Lyn: Your recent C4 TV documentary Sex Clinic: Artist in Residence seemed to suggest that while art may not cure STDs it should be a cure for all sorts of other ills both physical and emotional. Should art be on prescription and does making art make you feel better about yourself and your life?

Bryony: I truly believe this. I am a huge ambassador for the healing power of art. Particularly autobiographical creation. It’s like therapy with glitter and clapping. People are never really taught to decipher, process or move on from emotions. Unless they have excellent, excellent parents. So, we spend a lot of time in knots; trying to figure out why we or someone else did or said something. I think that documentary taught me that the way I make work is infinitely transferable. I want to do so much more of that stuff. My practice has saved me many times. I want it to now help others.

Lyn: It often feels as if you are always a little ahead of the curve. Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model explored the sexualisation of children, Fake It was about male depression—something still not much talked about—and this latest show is about surviving trauma and the shit life throws at us. I have friends who found both Fake It Till You Make It and the Pacifist’s Guide enormously useful, those shows made them feel less alone. Is that part of their function and what else do you hope they do for an audience?

Bryony: That is really beautiful feedback from your friends. Good to hear. I hope to be a bit zeitgeist-y if that’s even a word. I think as artists that’s our job. To be forging ahead. I look for the topics we struggle with and I have experience of and set about doing my bit to make discussing them a little bit easier. I think once I experience something that is teamed with injustice I have to make something, I’m compelled to. We seem to talk about or do things just one way because of cultural or social history but often it’s outdated, wrong and even damaging. I try to reinvent those old wheels. I try to be a friend. A beacon in the dark. We all need this so much.

Lyn: How does an idea for a show come to you, and what is it about it that makes you go: Yes! that’s the one to go with?

Bryony: Life just throws them at me. I just listen. That and being alert to not doing the “I’m sad my dog died” story. By that I mean, other humans need to care. I test ideas with friends a lot. I ask: Are you interested in this? No one cares YOUR dog died, we all care about death.

I have ideas way in advance sometimes. Like I hear something and think... that’s a show. Later it presents itself and I say, “I remember you and now I’m ready.” Not all shows have to be made immediately.

Lyn: Do you always use the same process for making a show or does it change depending on the material?

Bryony: Sort of. There are two main things I do.

I chose a question to work from. Always.
Phoenix is...
“How does one fly instead of drown when dealing with trauma?

Then I choose a form.
For this show it was important to be alone onstage looking down the barrel of the gun. So, it had to be a solo. It was also important for post-natal depression, childhood illness and grief to be mid-scale. I’ve seen too many plays with female victims and tropes. This story has to be grand, dick swinging and epic. I am happy that we have beautiful male auteurs making shows on the Barbican main stage, and I respect and love their work. But it scares me how few women there are who get to do that, who ever get that chance. I’m blazing to be midscale. To pave the way for all who identify as female too.

It is important to note that form comes not from ego but from what suits the topic best. Cancer was a musical, because we sing as a community traditionally to process feeling and musicals are for the people, just as cancer affects all types of people.

After that, it’s a combo of writing, larking about with props, improvising and sharing. With my best mates. I love making time. It’s so rare, so precious.

Lyn: What’s the one thing that would make your job easier?

Bryony: Childcare.

Lyn: Which other artists working in performance would you go that extra mile to see and why?

Bryony: Scottee, because he’s my best friend and would kill me if I didn’t say him.
Zoe Coombs Marr, she just kills me every damn time.
Ann Liv Young, she’s thrilling, unexpected and terrifying.

Lyn: What question would you want to ask yourself or that you wish someone would ask you?

Bryony: Do you think you are any good at this Bryony? I have spent a lot of years living in doubt in more recent times and now I finally feel I could write an essay on how I’m born to do this job and how my voice in this eco system is extremely important.

During my career I have been told a lot, mostly by men, to shut up. But I am not going to. I nearly stopped after The Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer at the National. I just felt spent. It was no-one’s fault. It was just that that world wasn’t for me. I often feel too common, too out there, too for the people. But that’s why I SHOULD continue. I am good at this. I am needed. So, I do continue. I’m a Phoenix, Bitch.

Bryony Kimmings
bryonykimmings.com

Lyn Gardner
lyngardner.com

I'm A Phoenix, Bitch
3-20 October 2018
Battersea Arts Centre
Info and tickets: bac.org.uk