The Theatre Beating Movement [by James Wenley]
If you saw only one show at this year’s Comedy Festival, I hope it was Kraken. Trygve Wakenshaw’s solo psychical comedy/what-even-is-this? imaginative tour-de-farce was quite unlike anything else at the Festival. In a show that sees him strip completely bare, not once, but twice within the opening minutes, and not even begun to peak, speaks to both his fearlessness, his mad genius, and the totally unexpected (and joyous) places his shows go. It was brilliant to see Trygve recognised with the Comedy Festival highest honour: The Fred Award at Last Laughs.
I met with Trygve the day after winning his award, alongside his Theatre Beating co-founder Barnie Duncan. They created the Theatre Beating company 11 years ago (later joined by Director Geoff Pinfield), and are known for shows like The Magic Chicken and Constantinople. In the final week of the comedy Festival, while Trygve’s sweaty knees were drenched after performances of Squidboy and Kraken at The Herald Theatre, Barnie was warming up the turntables as the outrageous Juan Versuvius in Juan, two? at The Basement.
It was an odd day for the pair as they had just visited the dump to drop off a number of old Theatre Beating props, set pieces (and presumably chickens) that they could no longer keep in storage. It was a good opportunity to reflect then on their collaboration as well as bad stand-up comedy, hallucinogenic chutney moments, hanging out with the audience, and why theatre should embrace potato chips. It was a good time too for thoughts of future challenges, as Barnie steps into the directors hat for Theatre Beating’s next show, Ollie is a Martian.
They’re a spirited, passionate and sometimes weird duo (Trygve stole food from Barnie’s mouth), and the interview comes with a disclaimer… Trygve’s not sure if these are his opinions or not. He says he only thinks these things when he’s saying it. Never trust what a mime has to say? No, just don’t put Trygve in a box…
James: Since you’ve just had to give all props to the tip, I guess a good place to start is what Theatre Beating has achieved over the last decade. What did you set out to do, and how does that look now?
Trygve: When we started, we wanted to make theatre our mates wanted to see. We were both really unhappy with theatre etiquette. We thought it was shitty and it was no wonder people didn’t want to go to the theatre. You get forced to sit there in the dark and told to shut up and told that you are meant to enjoy what you are watching.
Barnie: We started as a slapstick duo. We wanted to explore that whole style of storytelling – silent slapstick comedy and how you can do that live. The first three shows came from that. That grew our confidence – you can make plays that will tour and people will come to!
Trygve: We were sort of a slapstick company, and then we started different things that didn’t have both of us in it. We’ve never really known exactly what it is. We kind of do physical comedy. Still.
Barnie: Except I made a show called Him...
Trygve: Oh yeah….
Barnie: As we’ve been making these shows we’ve kind of developed our own methodology and way of working and things we feel are important. And I wanted to see if I could apply that to something that wasn’t trying to be funny. I wanted to make something poignant and beautiful but not comic.
Trygve: Yeah I want to do more of that. I think I want to make a contemporary dance show. I think that would be great.
James: Thinking about Squidboy and Kraken part of the appeal is the entertainment and joy you create with the audience, but on top of that it’s such a unique proposition compared to everything else within the comedy festival. What’s your take on that in terms of what it is you do?
Trygve: There was an interesting thing that happened last night at Last Laughs sitting backstage. All the young Billy T nominees were saying “All the house lights are on, you can see everyone in the audience, it’s horrible”. They like performing to this black hole, which just flipped me out. I’m so used to having house lights up the whole time. It’s really weird that they were shocked by being able to see the audience. The more I’m doing now it’s more and more important to see the audience. I have to now request that there be some light on the audience so I can see them and they can see me. Barnie does it too.
I used to hate audience interaction, I was really opposed to it. And I feel it’s different to what I’m doing now. It’s being responsive and playing with the audience, acknowledging the fact that we’re all here being idiots together, to have a nice time playing together rather than just sitting there watching me as I do my funny thing.
Barnie: My show Juan, two? is similar. He’s an expert on some types of music that he’s passionately trying to tell people about, but he gets simple things wrong. He’s an idiot who is educating you. The end result is a shared experience of joy, we couldn’t have had this much fun if we weren’t doing it together. It’s completely dependent on the audience helping me out, rather than sitting there and being in awe.
Trygve: Especially compared with what everyone else is doing, which is ‘shut up audience, we are doing some acting and some funny over here, watch it, like it’. Both our shows really developed in front of an audience, because we see them and we play with them. I feel like so much comics do just sitting and writing.
Barnie: Then batter people about with it. I can’t stand stand-up to be honest. I went to see Last Laughs which Trygve was doing. There are comics who try to beat people around the head with their gag, and if they don’t get it they insult them.
James: How often do your audiences surprise you?
Trygve: Sort of always, and not that much. I think we’re pretty good at managing stuff. Kraken I’ll go with the whims of the audience. They’ll do things and I’ll go ‘that’s brilliant’, but you can see where they are going. Very rarely do you think “wow that is amazing, where did your brain come from, I’m surprised”. But always surprising as well. I haven’t thought a lot about this so this might not be my actual opinion. But I think there is something about just being quite open, because we’re playing with the audience, being genuinely interested and surprised by everything they do.
Barnie: I think it’s like being pleasantly surprised (that’s a horrible phrase). Like with Juan some of the components of the show I’d tested out at various spots, so I knew some bits. But some were totally conceptual, like thinking I’ll stage dive and they’ll catch me and I’ll crowd surf; that would be a cool way to end. But I’d never tested it out till opening night. I was surprised about how quickly they were ready to do it. I trip out with this dude. We have a hallucinogenic chutney moment together. I want him to have a drug experience, just with me. That’s been getting bigger and bigger each night. It’s really surprising how fully dudes go with me, and how we both get lost in the ‘drugs’. The song has finished and we’re lying under a ski suit, just holding each other’s faces, genuinely forgetting we are in a show for a moment.
Trygve: Neither of us have anything where we force the audience to do a thing. It’s about come and hang out with me and do this thing. Come and play.
It’s a this point that Trygve makes a, well, surprising back-track…
Trygve: All that stuff about me managing audiences and not being that surprised? That’s a lie. Sometimes weird things have happened in Kraken. Especially when the lights go out. One night that happened and a girl in the audience let out a blood curdling scream and the lights came back up again and I looked as shocked as everyone else. But she was playing, she wanted to play along, and that was a funny game. It freaked everyone out so much.
And then the other night the lights went out and came back and a dude was up onstage next to me suddenly. I didn’t see him get up, he just appeared there. That was really good. Some night’s people really want to play along and you play a really funny strange game with them. That’s lovely. It’s a little bit surprising. It’s not as surprising as it is rewarding that they go into this happy comfortable place that they can go up on the stage and play around. Because they are not performers, they are people that live in offices and have a nice life.
Barnie: It’s just as surprising as something that would happen in the schoolyard when you have an hour of playtime. Whatever can happen might.
Trygve: Hey woah… I just realised that’s kind of what we wanted to do ten years ago as well. You remember that Galatos gig? We had the bar open and you could still smoke inside. So people were sitting there with beers and cigarettes while crazy Nick was shouting out stuff the whole show, and it was the best. It was that anti-etiquette thing.
Barnie: Anti-sit there and shut up. I love hecklers. Rummage around, do whatever you want, eat your peanuts, open your noisy potato packet, you’re a human.
Trygve: It’s such a good thing. In the Globe theatre in London they do that. You are welcome, if you’re bored, to leave. No-one cares. You’re not getting in anyone’s way. The show has to keep you involved. It would be great if theatres were open bar, you’re watching Hedda Gabler, you get bored, “what are they doing in the Norweigan countryside? I don’t care anymore”, and you go and get yourself a martini from the bar. It would make the show really good.
Barnie: it kind of used to be like that. It was all rowdy. Rowdy is good.
I asked Trygve how he makes a show like Kraken. The official answer is he had a four week residency to make the show in Norway with a big room and lovely facilities. The full story?
Trygve: I didn’t have a director, I was working alone. It was really depressing, I couldn’t write anything. The show that I wanted to make, which became Kraken, wasn’t able to be written. The thing I was trying to do was play with the audience, get them to find things in their head. I kept showing up in this room, leap around, write lists, put music on and dance, and I came up with nothing.
I did two showings were I tried some stuff out. None of it flew. None of its in the show now. I had this idea. Ideas were so precious as I had so few of them, so I’d hold onto them for too long. This idea was me wearing speedos and covering myself with baby oil, because in my head it would be this beautiful, weird shiny image. I eventually tried this out in front of people and they just started at me, it was silent and disgusting. I was even sadder after that.
Barnie: You’re too hairy to be shiny.
Trygve: I know… it was a really bad idea. But it was one of the few that I was so convinced was a great idea. I based everything I was doing around that image.
So Trygve didn’t have a show, but he did have a one hour show booking. So with only his memorable introduction planned (which he had tried out at The Basement at a Scratch Night), he went onto the stage in Adelaide to make the show for the first time.
Trygve: Some people showed up. And I started. I had a rule to be to open and vulnerable and not to apologise for anything. That night there were a couple of ideas that worked that I tried them out again. It mostly came from me moving my body around, getting into a shape, and then going with whatever shape my body was.
James: It’s really interesting how you use the mime and pyschicality, and then put the dialogue on top of it to keep surprising us.
Trygve: I don’t do it on purpose. Squidboy I had to talk a lot because there was a narrative that I couldn’t tell just with mime. [In Kraken] the talking and moving around always feels very natural, it will come out because it wants to come out. I like talking, I don’t feel I’m as good at it. Barnie’s good at talking. He wrote Constantinople, it was excellent.
Barnie: Yeah I like talking. But I also like not talking.
While Trygve continues to tour Kraken, Barnie is directing his nephew Ollie Cox in Ollie is a Martian.
Barnie: I’ve known him since he was six months old. He’s always loved making people smile. His main focus is getting smiling situations happening. He was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy, but that wasn’t figured out for ages, we wondered what’s Ollie’s thing? It was around the time that he was in special needs class that he discovered drama (it was next door to the drama department). And that was a really good outlet for him to express himself. When he finished high school he was getting in some shows in Wellington. Theatrebeating was going on a little hiatus while Trygve went to drama school in Paris [led by Master Clown Philippe Gaulier]. I thought, this is what Ollie needs to do. So we made that happen with some fundraising. Ollie was in the same year as Trygve.
Everyone that I met from Trygve’s year says Ollie is the best clown. We’d always use Ollie, he’s the yes guy, he’s got zero fear. This is about him being able to use some of the tools he learnt at Gaulier, however it manifested for him.
Trygve: There’s not really a technique. It’s about being open and practicing showing yourself to the audience, rather than hiding behind acting tricks. It’s the reverse way. Stop the acting tricks and show us your beautiful joy and humanity. Which is why Ollie is so good.
Barnie: He just does that naturally with people everyday.
Trygve: He was magic at school. When he’s just open and doesn’t apologise he’s amazing.
Barnie: He can send the chills up your spine. He needed to be showcased. Auckland needs to know this amazing dude.
I also wanted to have a go at directing. I’ve directed things that I’ve devised that I’m in, but I haven’t directed something that I’m not in. And I want to see if the Theatre Beating thing can work for other people. We’re writing it together. I came up with the concept that he’s a Martian and you’re on earth talking about that. The cool thing is he’s realising the parallel of the Martian story to what happened to him when he was at high school. He’s fully embraced this Martian character now, and he doesn’t take the character’s costume off. He goes to the supermarket with it on. It’s a story about alienation and how he felt that. Nisha [Madhan, the show’s producer] and I said it would be cool to involve the community a bit more. We wanted to make an impact somehow – Ollie thought about it, and he wanted to be able to show special needs classes what he’s doing bow. It doesn’t just have to be: I’m going to rehearse till I make this show, it’s going to earn me reviews and money, and be a great success. Ollie is learning all these things about his life; I don’t think he ever thought he could be a role model, but now he’s going to be.
Ollie is a Martian plays at The Basement 3-7 June at 7pm. Details see The Basement.