15 April 2019

Emma Rogerson on day two at the festival

Three things that happened today →

2:30pm: the discussion hour saw a controversial comment about BAME – only opportunities in the arts, and the consequent restrictions this places on white theatre makers trying to access the same opportunities. It was a discussion that was tense, uncomfortable and so so important.

4:30: I saw Ugly Bucket Theatre’s Bost-Uni Plues that sees “three clowns as they leave the comfort” of university, going off into the deep dark real world.

5:30: I panicked about graduating from university and going off into the deep dark real world.

My panic and fear associated with leaving the practical and financial security of uni isn’t a million miles away from a fear that’s often associated with clowns. I heard that the reason why coulrophobia (phobia of clowns) is so prominent is because the associations of entertainment and childhood can be manipulated to mean vulnerability and lack of power.

Here, Ugly Bucket Theatre manipulate the clown form to mean something entirely different, as the three strong ensemble explore the progression of university from freshers week to graduation. The majority of the time, the form is adhered to pretty closely – language is suspended for the majority of the play, with actors communicating via garbled noises, or lip synch to verbatim interviews. They also adhere closely to the historical roots of clowning, by employing some really gorgeous and hilarious mime sequences. Most of these involve setting up scenarios which demanded certain expectations that they would then go on to break and subvert, from really awkward freshers encounters to a really committed, energetic, lengthy dabbing sequence.

This concept of going against a status quo to engage with the very heart of what the status quo actually is felt really reminiscent of the discussion hour a few hours prior. Regardless of personal political opinions, on a panel exploring representing diversity, when a diverse opinion was presented the room reacted strongly and audibly against it. Disclaimer: this is something I fully contributed to myself, almost instinctively – I covered my mouth, I visibly cringed, because the opinion raised was so different to mine that I didn’t want someone to presume that this was being said on my behalf. Having a room of predominantly young, liberal, left wing artists means that there is a substantial majority in terms of political persuasion, that it felt kind of redundant to have any real political debate. When someone reacted against this, it resulted in a diversity of opinions, fired up voices and conversations which haven’t yet ended.

Similarly in Bost-Uni Plues – the characteristics associated with clowning, like mime and comedy and lack of verbalisation were broken in the end with a really clear intention: that communicating and talking about the isolation and depression many face after university breaks the social convention, which consequently unites people and is, therefore, all the more important. It was a beautiful decision, and one which really resonated with the audiences, which gave two standing ovations today. It felt like a show that communicated and connected with its audience (admittedly, a predominantly young, arts student audience – I’d be really interested to see how a different audience, older or younger would react, as it felt like it addressed a really specific millenial problem that I’m not sure if people outside of this brackout could resonate with). Sometimes even a little too much – I’m not sure if one of the actors meant to look the four critics in the eyes as he nearly bludgeoned another actor to death with a blown up plastic hammer. God, it sounded painful. Some sort of threat maybe to make us write good reviews? Not necessary. The breaking of clowning convention to advocate communication and connection seemed to speak to the audience – only today I was having a conversation with a friend about how desensitized this generation seems; it’s inability to connect.

Breaking out of that culture, being a different voice in a room, starting an uncomfortable conversation is something that seems to have saturated today, and it’s only day two. Setting political opinion and artistic taste aside, it’s only by doing this that we have a shot at achieving progress (a progress that we, as young artists and future programmers get to determine) and try and compromise some of this lack of connection that causes post uni blues. The show was entertaining, emotive and significant for me, in this very specific, isolated 2-3 years of my life. I don’t think it will have much relevance for me beyond that, but right now, it felt important. Theatre, good theatre, aligns with individual subjectivities to resonate emotionally, and that’s just what it did.

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Image credit: Beatrice Debney