Features Q&A and Interviews Published 23 March 2012

Action Hero

Action Hero are Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse, a duo of performance artists based in Bristol.
Diana Damian Martin

Action Hero are performance daredevils: their work is risky, playful, uneven – constantly shape-shifting and preoccupied with the idea of failure.  They capitalize on performance as ‘event,’ tinkering with the social and cultural context whilst at the same time exploring the very nature of the live encounter.  In Live Art Tattoo Parlour they set up a one-on-one interaction involving a marker pen and a shot of vodka. In Watch Me Fall, they played with hero figures, Evel Knievel and Chuck Yeager; and A Western  was just what it claimed to be, a western performed in a bar.

Action Hero are protagonists in their own adventures but their work always includes a measure of audience collaboration; their theatrical language is physical and risk-taking, whilst the form of their performances always takes on the shape of other recognisable live events: the comeback gig , the Mexican wrestling match, the daredevil feat.

“We’re interested in making work about things that we experience and see around us every day; how can you not talk about pop culture? It’s the way you experience everything”, they tell me.  Gemma Paintin (one half of Action hero, along with James Stenhouse) explains, “I always want to make work about things I don’t understand. I’m interested in something because I am intrigued by it. “ There is something counterproductive and didactic about engaging with subjects that are too familiar; for Action Hero, being inquisitive is necessary and ensures their work remains open. “What’s the point, unless you’re questioning the world you live in?”

The downfall of an icon. Photo: Briony Campbell

Both A Western and their most recent production, Frontman, attempt to debunk some of the mythologies surrounding pop culture whilst picking apart the very nature of the ‘event.’  “Form is really important; often we’re interested in the form of another event that isn’t necessarily a performance. In Frontman we were interested in the structure of a music gig, and how that would be interesting. We’re always thinking about how the audience will engage with that, and often this is how the work begins.”

This willingness to play with and appropriate form is something that has developed over their six and a half-years working together. Failure, or the idea of potential failure, is a key element of their practice. In A Western, it’s evident in the piece’s inability to capture the reality of the Wild West, in the humorous collision of the epic and the intimate, whilst Watch Me Fall looks at the inevitable downfall of those who seek to attempt the impossible. “In Frontman  we were interested in the comeback gig, and gigs that have gone completely wrong, in the balance between risk and failure and the moments of breaking both.”

“There is a trajectory; the beginning of a comeback or return, the attempt to really make it work and the gradual collapse, the deconstruction of those moments. We are not trying to tell a story as such, but we were interested in how a piece might echo the trajectory of a gig.” Frontman doesn’t have a dramatic climax in any traditional sense, but rather it rolls downhill towards collapse. The piece clearly echoes its live counterpart:  there are bursts of music punctuated by intervals of talk, a sense of whipping up expectation in the gathered crowd, all underlined by a desire to explore the nature of that encounter. “We want to open it up from the inside, put everything on display. There is no glorification; I sing the way I really sing. My body can only act according to its own limitations.”

In Frontman, Gemma is the protagonist, something that doesn’t come naturally. This better allowed the duo to interrogate the iconography, to unpick the concept of the frontman, the person out there under the lights, bathed in applause; they didn’t want simply to replicate an event, but to reflect on it. The piece is as much about her attempt to embody that persona. “However hard I try to do it, I can’t do it very well, so the piece becomes about vulnerability, collapse of the performer and the structure. This exposure is funny at the beginning- my body onstage doing those things is what’s intriguing, whilst James is a counterpart- a scornful, bored or jealous technician.”


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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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