Fri 8 May 2015
Ahead of Christopher Brett Bailey‘s show THIS IS HOW WE DIE arriving at Behaviour Festival this weekend we sat down to discuss process, influences and how spoken word may or may not be the best way to categorise his show…
Hey. Tell us a bit about the show and how you made it?
Sure. Show is called THIS IS HOW WE DIE. It’s a monologue by me about sex and death and violence and anger and our pre-occupation with apocalypse. It’s got tricksy wordplay and buckets of blood. It’s funny, at least to me. It’s a joy to perform and it still scares me shitless to get up and do. It’s a pleasure to be bringing it back to Scotland. Never been to Glasgow before actually. What was the second half of the question?
How you made it? What was the process?
It was a writing process mostly. I kept two journals, writing one or two evenings a week for about 18 months. In one I wrote down all the creative ideas I had – jokes and stories, poems, staging ideas, bits of music, whatever. And in the other I just cleared out the gutters – did free writing. So when I had the opportunity to present a short scratch at a venue called the Basement in Brighton I started to turn whatever this was into a theatre show. I looked for patterns in the writing and found that a surprising amount of the creative ideas were mirrored by things written as journal entry. I guess cause there’s a pretty limited bandwidth of noise in my brain at any given time.
And then there was magically a show?
Ha. No. I um, started by compiling my favourite material into a single word document and performing it straight through as one speech. Lasted nearly 4 hours. And that was just the essentials. So, my friend Anne got involved who is a brilliant young Dramaturg from Germany, trained in Holland. And she helped me to edit it down to a more manageable length and the two of us worked closely with the lighting designer and…
Have you just realised you can’t say any more without giving something away?
So, on the flyer it says it’s a spoken word and storytelling show.
It probably shouldn’t. I mean, that’s not wholly inaccurate; it’s just a little misleading. In the writing I see three distinct strands – a story strand, a comedy strand and one that probably does borrow a bit from spoken word or performance poetry. I don’t see much connection to the contemporary British scene except that it’s happening on the same island at the same time. And nothing against those girls and guys – I have never seen Kate Tempest or Luke What’s-his-name, The Essex Lion guy, but, um, there’s some awesome people ploughing that field. Uh… Rob Auton, do you know him? Really psychedelic, a lot of heart. Whimsical but not annoying. His show The Face Show was one of the best hours of my 2014. And I love the two Hannah Walker / Chris Thorpe shows, of course. But those aren’t purely spoken word-y either. They have one foot in indie theatre.
Maybe THIS IS HOW WE DIE is a bit like that?
Well the writing in their shows is a lot better… I would kill for their turns of phrase! And their stuff is elegant and maybe that’s why I squirm whenever this show gets talked about like it’s poetry. It’s not. It’s a rant. But I guess there’s a form connection in that we both take forward facing, non-theatrical text and place it in a theatrical frame. But neither are spoken word, really. Like, I think a real spoken word show relies on authenticity – that it’s a real person up there, actually reading their poems and that those poems express what they actually think or feel. Either that or they’re written as sarcasm or something, but largely the contact with the audience is more truthful. I think the theatrical setup of my show – the lights, the comfy seats, the sacred code of turning your phone off and not being able to leave to buy a drink and come back in again – I think all that contributes to a fiction that allows me to slip in and out of characters and modes of performance, one of which maybe looks a bit like spoken word. Or more accurately beat poetry and sort of… scat rap.
Yeah, like poop.
I wondered if there might be some jazz scat in you…
Scoobee-doo-doo-poo-poo-poop-poop. Take it away Mingus..! (laughs) Uh… I actually didn’t mean scat. I meant acapella.
Right. Like some of it’s a rap vocal with no backing track? One long free-form verse?
Exactly! And rap is a huge influence. People always spot the Beat thing. Kerouac and Hunter Thompson – neither of which I’ve actually read that much or consciously drank in, but both of whom cast long shadows over the American road trip and the sex and drugs rite of passage, youth rebellion, you and me against the world – all those tasty cliches this show is playing with. But… um… Burroughs has been my favourite author since I was a kid or early teen and his voice is definitely in there. But people rarely see the rap thing. And I think it’s partly cause I’m white and partly cause the narrative skits in the show conjure a retro America – 50s, early 60s maybe. But definitely a pre-rap world. I hear a lot of Kanye West in it though! His last record, Yeezus, has been half of what I’ve listened to since the day it came out! And Saul Williams is in there for sure – couple people pick him out cause there’s a direct reference to him. And he conjures a sort of 60s/70s thing himself sometimes, even though he is screamingly late 90s in other ways. Industrial rap, I mean that’s properly turn of the century! But I think you hear some of the Beats in him and some Gil Scott and a little Patti Smith at times. And just going back to the form question a minute… Saul is largely thought of as a poet and MC but he mostly refers to himself as an actor. As an actor playing the part of a poet and MC. And I can relate a bit to that. Some nights I connect to the text very easily, some nights I have to trick myself into it. And that’s an actor’s process, I think. Cause at that point you are more concerned with the performance being good, the delivery, the effect, than with the material as written.
But it is written. The pages are in front of you. We never forget that it’s written down.
I guess that makes it a written word show, like, “why has he bothered to write all that shit down?”
And literature is obviously an influence.
I would never call the books I’ve read literature.
You are seated at a desk. And the monologue is read, not memorised.
I perform in a show by Andy Field from Forest Fringe called ZILLA! and it’s sort of a news report setup. Half the action takes place behind mics at a desk and I guess before then I’d never seen that done. Very bold move having a mostly static stage image. It’s a different temperature of show but it’s a similar density of language and I guess I owe him and that show a thank you for teaching me I didn’t need to be standing up, moving around or even making eye contact to hold an audience’s attention. But again this loops back to Burroughs. Writing-wise I never went back and looked at any Bill in detail but I think his is a stink cloud that surrounds mine, and when all the centenary stuff was being trumpeted around last year he was on my mind again. Seeing the Howard Brookner doc Burroughs: The Movie when it was re-released gave me the courage to commit to the desk-reading stage set up. There’s great footage of him reading selections of his books, touring around to punk clubs and cinemas, wherever, seated behind his actual writing desk from home. And he’s performing to a standing audience full of rock ‘n’ rollers! I thought, “Well you don’t have shit on him as a writer but the expectation will be lower cause at least your audience will be sitting down…”
Have you got any recommendations for people who are not up on William Burroughs?
Well, that movie is a great place to start. Excellent footage and a more loving portrayal than the Yony Leyser film (A Man Inside). Avoid that one til you love him already – it’s a real downer, focusses on the addiction too much. My favourite books of his are Exterminator, Naked Lunch and Wild Boys. Probably in that order. Oh and also, The Job, in which he interviews himself.
Didn’t Warhol also do that?
Warhol interviewed everybody!
Yeah, it was only fair. Like a self portrait in a way. Desk-wise there’s Spalding Gray, of course. He loved a desk. Any influence there?
Since the show came out people have often brought up Spalding Gray, who I’d not looked deep into. Vaguely remembered his suicide and knew that he did monologues in front of a projection screen but that’s about it. I recently read Swimming to Cambodia and a few pages of Sex and Death to the Age of 14, and really loved him. Man, has that fella got a way with a run on sentence! Ha… I’ve actually not watched any on YouTube cause I don’t want to be overly influenced by it. I don’t want to become any more similar. That could be superstition but until this tour is over I am trying not to soak up any impure influences. Tell you who I was thinking about recently that is totally out of fashion – Eric Bogosian. I remember studying him a bit at uni and loving his movie Talk Radio and I found online his one man show Sex Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll and it’s like The Scorpions or something… painfully 80s but really gosh damn good. I mean, it’s real acting, like character theatre stuff and way, way, way over the top… but I reckon there’d be a great show in finding a modern style in which you could smelt down all the ire and histrionics he’s got. Such flamboyance and such skill. It’s almost, like, pantomime villain over the top, but because it’s just him and the crowd the form is more naked, more accessible than if he were in a play-play.
Doesn’t Spalding Gray mention Bogosian in one of his pieces?
Yeah, that’s in Swimming to Cambodia. He holds him up as a good example of a cool artist, I think. Along with Whoopi Goldberg!
And on that note, Chris, I think we’ll say goodbye. Anything more to add?
Come to the show! Please. Print details beneath this… um… sentence. When you type it – you are typing it up? Listing details and what forths… And I’ll um, forward YouTube clickers for some of the stuff we talked about.
Christopher Brett Bailey: THIS IS HOW WE DIE
Sat 9 – Sun 10 May 2015 | 7pm (70 mins) | £12/£10 (Behaviour Festival Pass: £60/£53) (£1.50 online-only TF) | 16+
Christopher’s YouTube mixtape:
BURROUGHS: THE MOVIE (Trailer)
SPALDING GRAY: SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA (which Chris has not watched)
ERIC BOGOSIAN: SEX DRUGS AND ROCK N ROLL
KANYE WEST: YEEZUS
SAUL WILLIAMS: S/T LP