PLAYING WITH TROGLODYTES IN ONESIES

An interview with Theatre Bang Bang before their performance of ‘The Trepidation of the Tower Traipsing Troglodytes’ at FRINGE WORLD Festival.

On a rare stormy Saturday afternoon in summer, I walked down William Street toward the city, until I came upon the shopfront at 224A. Inside, Katie-Rose Spence and Hannah Pascoe – the two pretty twenty-somethings who make up Theatre Bang Bang – were busily working their phones. They were dealing with yet another catastrophe at the end of a long week as the unseasonable weather had made the roof leak all over their lovely set. But, they said, smiling, “the show must go on! We’ll find some buckets.”

It’s an unusual venue for a Fringe show. The space is whitewashed, with high ceilings, and generous windows overlooking a bustling Northbridge. Spence professed to have emailed every shop on William Street trying to find a cosy space to host their show ‘The Trepidation of the Tower Traipsing Troglodytes’. In the end, an application to the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority (MRA) yielded this beautiful shopfront, and Spence and Pascoe have used the space to display artwork by some local female artists (Kirsty Jade, Sarana Haeata, Eleanor Fairweather and Francis Spence). Throughout our conversation, it’s clear they are committed to being part of a supportive arts community, especially for women in Perth.

Ignoring the dripping ceiling, they introduced me to their performance space. Their show is about two women who live together in an attic, cut off from the world except through the Internet. They are happily going about their reclusive lives, until they suddenly discover an audience has infiltrated their space.

Pascoe and Spence created the attic room entirely from boxes, and I am immediately reminded of the lounge room forts I used to make as a kid. The two women invited me to pull up some floor, and we sat in a circle and to talk about how they came up with their show.

“We’ve known each other for fifteen years,” Spence begins, immediately at ease and familiar. “We went to high school together and did specialist drama, then ended up as housemates in New York. It was always really easy, and that was a good initial sign that we could work together. When we first started discussing putting together a show, we had no clue what we were going to do. We sat at Cottesloe beach and started listing the things we wanted for the show – we knew we wanted to wear red onesies, we wanted life-size cardboard cut-outs of ourselves, and we wanted the audience to feel like they were being hugged.”

But studying and performing abroad meant that getting the partnership together was tricky. “We started developing the show here in Perth,” Spence said. “Then later on when Hannah was away we communicated mostly via Skype, email and Google Docs. We managed to meet up in Germany, [where we had] free space, accommodation, food, and really good wine with my family. It was like a residency… which was amazing, giving us time to finish developing the show in time for Edinburgh Fringe.”

They workshopped their show with friends and family, and drew their inspiration from various sources: their personal history, friends who did mime work, internet memes, formal training and Jeff Goldblum. “In our apartment in New York, I had a life-size, ‘Dr Who.’ cardboard cut-out of Captain Jack Harkness,” Pascoe said, smiling, “and he would scare the sh*t out of everyone walking through the apartment. It didn’t matter how long he’d been there, he’d still get you every time.” This is what inspired their own cut-outs for the set.

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Image by Kirsty Jade

The show feels like the product of a playful, long-term friendship, full of in-jokes and intimacy, and yet it is never exclusive. In fact, a fit of inclusivity so the show developed as almost entirely non-verbal. At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a form required performers “to say what categories your show fits in,” Pascoe explained, “and one of them was ‘suitable for non-English speakers’ – and we ticked that box, thinking ‘we could do that! We like a challenge!’, only to realise that we’d have to avoid speaking.”

“Giving yourself limitations can actually become your inspiration,” Spence commented. “I work better [with limitations]; otherwise, everything is possible.” Pascoe agreed, adding, “even for the set design, our initial image was of a trunk and a pile of clothes. But when we looked up trunks, we found out they were really expensive and really heavy… but then we had this lightbulb moment: let’s just use cardboard boxes for the show! That evolved into us being hoarders, who spend all day shopping online and getting stuff delivered.”

I looked over at one of the boxes, which housed a collection of stuffed animals: ducklings and a squirrel and something that looked like a toy dinosaur. ‘Oh, that’s our taxidermy box,’ Pascoe said. ‘That’s a baby crocodile. You can meet them all, they all have names.” Pascoe told me she had stuffed two of them herself: “I did the squirrel and the scary mouse. Not the nice mouse.”

Creating a non-verbal performance ended up working to their advantage in relating their themes of communication and connection. The characters in their show are both primitive and ultra-modern, products of their age, like hikikomori. They have completely lost normal interactive human behaviour, and instead inhabit a world of online shopping and memes. Spence remembered that Pascoe had read an article describing “how Google has actually changed the way that our memories work, because we don’t have to use our own brains for storage of information. That’s nuts!” Even though Google is great, there is no denying that “we do live in a new world of communication. Your phone becomes an extension of your body, this precious part of you, more important than the person in front of you.” And sure enough, we all look down and see our phones staring up at us from the centre of our circle. “Our show doesn’t offer a solution; it’s just a comment on human communication and the way it is has changed.” Pascoe added, “And how insane the world is.”

They are both rapt with their Perth audiences. “Fringe is still only new here,” Spence commented. “In Edinburgh or even Adelaide, you feel like people kind of wish Fringe wasn’t there, because it is so disruptive. But in Perth, people are excited about Fringe and it’s a great atmosphere.”

They also love having family and friends in their audiences. “We’ve had so many people come out and support us – people we haven’t seen in 10 years. As our show is interactive, it’s great to be able to see these people and play with them. And it’s great to know there’s someone in the audience rooting for you!” They remembered back to the occasional performance in Edinburgh when they’d only had 3 people in the audience, “and they wouldn’t want to interact with us. Which is fine, but it’s a lot more draining. It makes such a difference when the audience is there with you.”

The give and take between the audience and the performers is central to their show. Even though their characters are incapable of behaving normally, they are also playful and childlike, sweetly willing to share their bodily fluids with the audience in an attempt to connect. Spence recalls her favourite nugget of audience feedback: “After a show, one woman said, ‘thank you so much, I was so tired, I had a bad day and I nearly didn’t come, but I’m so glad I did because now I have so much more energy.’ In our show, people often leave excited and energised and ready to go on with their night. We, on the other hand, are exhausted! We give all our energy to our audience, they suck it out of us.” Pascoe nods, saying, “as long as people have a smile on their face, I’m happy. I hope people can find that part of them that can be silly for just fifty minutes of their day.”

Their absurdist performance is charming, reminiscent of the innocent, physical humour of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The set design is integral to that atmosphere. Spence comments that having a permanent space allowed them to “transform it and make it a different place, a world the audience enters. We got to rehearse in the space, stretch and warm up before the show, and take the time to centre ourselves.” Spence explains that this is important, “because it’s supposed to be our home, so we needed to inhabit it and make it feel authentic.” In devising their piece, they were influenced by their extensive international training in various types of expression, from mime to acrobatics. However, Pascoe commented that all the formal training, “and the language and terminology that goes along with it… can sometimes just get in the way. They are just tools, to help you get from one place to the next in telling the story.”

The next chapter from Theatre Bang Bang will likely come in 2017, when they hope to be in the same country for long enough to put something new together. They have so much energy between them, you’ll probably be able to feel the air vibrate whenever they next land in Perth.

Interview by Clare Parker

The Trepidation of the Tower Traipsing Troglodytes ran as part of Fringe World Festival. A review of the show is available here.