[An interfiew with George Fenn]
Just over a week after the Tahi Festival of Solo Performance closes in Wellington, improv comedian and solo performer George Fenn will be opening a mini-festival of his own works. Five completely different shows, per night, over the course of a week at BATS.
First off on Tuesday is improvised magical tour Router Sidewalker, which he has performed up to 87 times throughout the country. This will be followed by the premiere of two completely new works over Wednesday and Thursday, How to Apology and Post Modern Bon Jo Vi.
Following that on Thursday is Solo Yeet on Friday which is an hour of fully improvised comedy. And closing the festival on Saturday is the return of Sexy Ghost Boy, which was performed earlier this year during Wellington Fringe.
NATHAN JOE: What was the driving force or inspiration behind something as masochistic as a season with a different show every night?
George Fenn: The programme director [of BATS] suggested it. There was just a gap in the programming and I filled it with… so many things. I’m actually the only show on at BATS that week.
NJ: And what was the decision-making process behind doing five different shows versus doing one show five times.
GF: It was just like a big flex.
To elaborate on why I did it, I think it fit in with the brand that I’ve cultivated of myself or the parts of myself which are my creative brand. I feel like doing a bunch of random stuff in quick succession is pretty on brand for me. So it felt like a good, consistent decision.
NJ: Can you talk more about what your brand has come to represent? Or what audiences have come to expect from your shows?
GF: Well everyone thinks I’m quite whacky. I’ve noticed people seem to think I’m quite whacky. My work has formerly been described as lateral, which I wouldn’t necessarily agree with one hundred percent of the time. But that’s sort of what I’ve become. I am quite whacky, though, in general. So the whackiness is kind of the flex. A whacky flex.
I really am into creating work which the audience feels they’ve contributed to. It doesn’t mean they’re getting up and doing… it’s even just their response – to whichever degrees – shapes how it’s done. All my work sort of fits into that paradigm.
NJ: With that in mind, when we’re talking audience participation or audience involvement, what should audiences expect or be prepared to do?
GF: A lot of audience participation looks like bullying, and a lot of it is, but in terms of getting people up and doing things, I go at the pace of the audience. Audiences can expect to have their boundaries respected, I think. Because that’s something I’m quite particular about. But also audiences can expect to be allowed to make decisions about the performance.
NJ: Do you expect audiences to have an understanding of theatrical conventions before they come into your shows?
GF: I don’t make my shows with that intention. I hope people come to Router Sidewalker knowing it’s a walking tour. I think most of my things are exactly what they say on the tin. Realistically, I haven’t had enough peer conversations to discuss that with. That’s another great opportunity that this presents. That’s the other advantage of having the opportunity to develop five different performances. Two of them new works.
NJ: So the show you’ve done the most is obviously Router Sidewalker. What’s it like to do a show that many times?
GF: Going back into Router every time is cool. It’s fun. I’m very openly using a different uniform every time. Because I feel like Router [the character], between adventures, loses his clothes and finds new ones. For me, doing Router again is kinda fun because it’s a version of myself that I really enjoy. I feel like how superheroes run off and run back on, and come back in costume. I kinda do get an incredible kick. I feel that I have that with my superhero costume of Router. I feel like I’m as close as I can get to being a superhero with the premise. That’s sort of why I’m teaching to do Router Sidewalker (or variants) in the New Zealand Improv Festival, which is pretty cool.
NJ: Is it for die-hard Router fans or newcomers?
GF: The magic is going to be entirely different the second time around, so definitely come again.
NJ: So two of the shows you are presenting are completely new works. Can you tell me about those?
GF: How to Apology is a show I’ve had in the back of my head for about three years.
I’m quite a chaotic human. That’s probably a good way to describe me. So I do find myself saying sorry a lot. And a while ago now I started realising I say sorry in situations which really don’t warrant saying sorry. And I started being more critical of me and everyone would tell me to stop saying sorry, and I’d say sorry… obviously. So, I was interested in having to apologise all the time because at the time I was just hating on myself quite a lot. I felt bad for lots of reasons, but kept wanting to apologise for things, but there being no way to apologise.
So I wanted to make a show about saying sorry from many different angles. To try to find some answers and maybe find some lights. Because I feel like it’s something we don’t… apologies are so important right now. Just in terms of the changing political zeitgeist. People in general have a lot to apologise for. And I’ve noticed a trend of shows that attempt in some way to apologise. Kind of like the counterpart to the Nanette. Like the sorry for the things said in Nanette. I wouldn’t say the anti-Nanette because that would be a different thing. A companion. A post-Nanette comedy. I feel like we’re in that stage of our creative practice. I’m interested in finding some answers as I haven’t really found… not that I’ve seen all the shows doing that recently. I just felt like I wanted to explore it from a more abstract perspective. In order to find something more useful to a broader range of people.
NJ: Should people expect it [How to Apology] to be different from the rest of your shows?
It’ll still be me talking at a room full of people and acknowledging that I can still see them and they can see me. Because that’s pretty much the common trend in all these shows.
But it’s [How to Apology] not improvised?
No, there’s no improv component.
[Post-modern] Bon Jovi though. That’s another thing entirely. It contains no actual music from Bon Jovi. It’s an experiment in economy of language. So it’s a show about… It’s the story of a cowboy. That is all I will say.
So it’s a story of a cowboy and an experiment using the economy of language and the economy of language being Bon Jovi songs?
Would you say it’s narrative-heavy or more loose?
I’d define it as an abstract narrative. In the way mime is abstract whereas pantomime is… that’s a digression.
Of the five shows you’re doing, which one are you most excited to… flex?
I think my new shows are pretty exciting, however I really hate this question. I don’t like that question. I don’t think it plays the game of the festival. There’s a lot on offer. And, while there are similarities between them, they are all distinct experiences. So I can’t recommend a particular show to you. Any show that you choose will stand out to you.
What does rehearsing solo-improvised work – your work in particular – look like?
Me standing in a room talking to myself jumping around.
Is there a particular reason you prefer to create solo work without directors or collaborators?
I would welcome a director, but logistically it’s stressful. I’m also quite protective of my shows, if I’m honest; it’s probably my least effective quality as a theatre-maker. Realistically, I don’t have enough money to pay everyone for their time appropriately… yet. When that happens, though, I imagine the scaling of my work will definitely increase. So, pretty much, until I can consistently provide a budget, I’m happy to work like this.
Who or what are some of the influences behind the work you make?
A lot of the improvisers I met four years ago at the Improv Festival. A lot of them do very challenging, very conceptually interesting, improvised performances. Rick Brown was the first who made me think I could do a solo improvised hour.
The Boy With Tape on His Face. I saw him as a youngster in Christchurch at Burnside Hall. I’d always been interested in comedy, but he was the first person to make me cry with laughter. He’s also really smart. Him just talking about his process. Talking about his solo performances. As well as timing things well. And he taught me how to cultivate mystique.
As a baby artist looking up at these grown up artist who’ve done all this travelling, I found it really interesting listening to them and their experiences, and listened to them when they said they had a bad time doing this. That’s probably a good idea: don’t just take the good stuff.
What do you plan to do when this mini-festival wraps up? Is it a benchmark for you or does it bookmark a period of your body of work or career?
That’s an interesting question.
I didn’t plan it to be. But it does emotionally feel like it at this stage, especially with the first play I ever did in Wellington being restaged at BATS this week, Lovin’ It. I was part of the devising process when it was called Assisted Living. So, it does, but it also doesn’t as well, as I’ll just continue to be making this work for the foreseeable future. I’ve got a sense of how far I’ve come is more accurate.
Inter-FENN-tion runs from 3-7 September at BATS Theatre in Wellington.
Solo Yeet (10-11 Sep) and Router Sidewalker (13-14 Sep) will also be returning to Christchurch as part of the GoMedia Comedy Carnival.