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Features London TheatreNorwichQ&A and Interviews Published 12 April 2016

Christopher Brett Bailey: “I don’t really live in the real world.”

Christopher Brett Bailey, the punk-haired mastermind behind ‘THIS IS HOW WE DIE’, reflects on his desire to overwhelm both audience and performer.

Andrew Youngson
Christopher Brett Bailey. Photo: John Hunter.

Christopher Brett Bailey. Photo: John Hunter.

“Ugh, I could vomit,” says Christopher Brett Bailey, hunching over his half-eaten bowl of mac and cheese. The 28-year-old artist’s demeanor has been contemplative and serene up to this point, but now in this short break from our three-hour interview a queasy fear is clearly creeping up on him.

He explains that in a few hours he’ll be performing some new material in a Bethnal Green scratch night – ‘green’ being the appropriate word as his face begins to drain of colour.

“How does it feel?” I ask. “You wanna feel my heart?” he offers in his light North American accent (the product of spending formative years flitting between the US and Canada). I place my hand on his chest where, beneath the grey, black and red geometric pattern of his woollen jumper, his heart is fluttering like a rabbit’s.

“When I’m nervous like this I start to shake. And sweating in the ear canals is also a feature,” he adds.

In a perverse way, I’m glad to see Chris wearing his emotions on his sleeve. After all, the writer-performer of THIS IS HOW WE DIE (TIHWD) should be an intense sort of guy. Any one of the hundreds of people in the UK, Spain, Australia or Canada who have experienced the production’s theatrical cocktail of high-speed literary monologue, philosophical meanderings and eardrum-splitting rock orchestration would agree.

But if the prospect of a 15-minute slot in a scratch night makes Bailey want to blow chunks, I wonder why the hell he puts himself through performing anything.

“Adrenaline,” he says simply, quickly subsiding into a more contemplative mood. (He later explains that when a performance is drawing near, any distraction helps, even if it’s talking about nervousness).

“It’s interesting, I heard a thing recently about substance addiction. We have this notion that an alcoholic can hold their booze, when perhaps what actually drives you towards a certain substance is a having a low tolerance for it, because its effects will be far more profound.

“Each night on stage being a mild trauma to my system becomes a fluctuation in energy that is, in itself, addictive. People ask me a lot, ‘would you write for another performer?’ I’m not in any way against the idea, but the two things are completely inseparable for me right now, because I’m writing with a view to performing. It’s designed to sound good in my voice, and the piece isn’t finished until it’s up in front of the audience. There’s a certain catharsis and closure in that.”

The Fort-Erie-born artist goes on to explain he is increasingly drawn to his work being “an overwhelming experience for the audience and the people who perform it”. Since moving to the UK in his late teens – initially to Portishead, then on to Essex – Bailey’s engagement with the arts appears to have skewed towards the punchy end of the spectrum.

During his contemporary arts degree at the East 15 Acting School he wrote a punk opera, which he would take to the Edinburgh Fringe, then tour across the UK. From there, he worked with London-based creator-performers such as Made in China and Caroline Williams, with whom he shared a passion for mining their internal worlds to see what theatrical gems could be unearthed.

A love of music also ran parallel to his post-punk-opera theatre work. This expressed itself in the electro-acoustic sounds of his duo Moon Ate the Dark – currently in hiatus while his bandmate Anna Rose Carter works on a separate project – and in his explosively experimental punk rock group, This Machine Won’t Kill Fascists But It Might Get You Laid. (The best name for a band ever?)

Then about three years ago, the desire arose within Chris to weave those two worlds of theatre and music back together again. It was a journey that needed embarking on alone he decided, at least initially.

“My writerly voice is pretty pungent. And I had a desire to unleash that again,” he says.

He knew he wanted to create something thought provoking, challenging and humorous, but as to what exactly that would be, he would just need to find out. And so he began writing. And boy, did he write. Theatre, prose, poetry, hallucinogenic surrealism, fictional memoir, sociological satire – whatever this was, it began spilling out of him in the wee hours of night as he sat planted at the desk in his Lewisham flat. Any creative sparks flying out of this he would catch later in the light of day. For now, in the moment, he was on a caffeine-fuelled midnight train. Heck, he was the train. The Eraserhead-Haired Engine That Could.

“Those first moments were transcendent. It feels like an exorcism, or like you are a conduit for something,” he tells me, his big eyes searching the café around us.

“Improvising, whether it’s music, or with language or movement, you’re aiming to be in a state of mind so present, that you’re unaware of what you’re creating, you are purely channelling your subconscious impulses. It’s a very energetic, alert, accelerated state of mind. Free-writing still forms the backbone of my practice.”

Does free-writing produce your best work?

“It feels therapeutic. That doesn’t mean that the work it creates is valuable. I feel there’s a question of balance. My goal is to balance what I need to do, or what feels good for me to do, with what an audience will get something from. Any piece of work that is living fully in one of those camps and not the other, will be incomplete. And I’ve not always got the balance right, that’s for sure.”

By day, Chris would write more conventionally narrative pieces. A punchline or an image would spring to mind while he was out walking or riding the tube, which he would then carefully lay out on paper. Images such as: a girlfriend’s anti-Semitic father whose body is literally contorted in the shape of a Swastika; or being told to ‘go fuck yourself’ by the aforementioned fictional girlfriend, and going on to do exactly that, from romantic first date to sweaty Home Run. Y’know, that kind of thing.

“That writing is comparatively technical. I’m trying to get the jokes across with the minimal amounts of words; trying to draw the images in the most lurid, iridescent language possible. Doing it in the daytime keeps you honest as it feels like a job,” he explains.

As Chris continued to write in these binary modalities – consciously crafted narrative by day; subconsciously generated fireworks by night – the hour-long theatrical thrill ride that would become TIHWD began to coalesce.

For those who haven’t seen the show or read the Oberon Books playbook, the broad strokes are like this: In the performance, Chris sits alone at a desk, reading at a feverish pace from a huge stack of pages in front of him. As author of the show and the voice of the characters within it, he takes the audience on a warped odyssey across cactus-pocked deserts, through consumerist landscapes, and out into the satellite-strewn heavens.

A ‘boy meets girl’ framework provides narrative structure, with the couple’s exploits together stacked in linear fashion, like songs in an album. This is interspersed with poetic essays, lyrical musings on the meaning of life.

The finishing touch comes in the form of music – in many ways a natural extension of the play’s rhythmic use of language. A 10-minute finale played by a quartet of electric rock musicians builds from a melancholically cinematic intro, to a 120-decibel orgasmic crescendo.

Since its May 2014 world premiere at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, the show has enchanted and bitch-slapped audiences, caressed and kicked them to the kerb. It’s as transcendental an experience to watch as I imagine it was for Chris to write. It’s not relaxing by any means, but feels vital and enlivening.

“I have seen a lot of one-person shows that were fragile, gentle, beautiful, caring works of non-fiction and documentary where you are given a cup of tea or a cupcake, asked to ponder some themes and feel as though you have befriended the performer. And I have enjoyed a lot of those shows as an audience member,” he says.

“But I did not have that in me as a creator. I don’t really live in the real world. I want my artworks to be an escape into something poetic, complicated, intense and funny. If I feed something to the audience, I don’t want them to trust me that it isn’t poisoned.”

Christopher Brett Bailey performing This is How We Die. Photo: Claire Haigh.

Christopher Brett Bailey performing This is How We Die. Photo: Claire Haigh.

Earlier that day, we met at the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields, with grey skies above its 18th Century spire weeping lightly. Chris emerged from the church, hair wrapped in a scarf and his thin frame encased in a winter jacket.

He’s fresh from a production meeting about the next steps he and his team will take. Throughout our afternoon together, he takes great care to credit the input of his Bailey Bunch – dramaturg Anne Rieger, producer Beckie Darlington, and his musicians (the latter whom he describes as his “fellow pain sluts”). While TIHWD is absolutely Chris’s solo project, he’s adamant that not a single person would have seen it, if not for the input, talent and commitment of the team.

The show is coming full circle, having toured the globe, and now receiving a homecoming-performance-of-a-kind on 20 April at the Hackney Showroom in ‘B Sides and Rarities’ – a Christopher Brett Bailey double bill, featuring off-cuts of the show, and an experimental guitar recital. After that, the full show will be performed in Brighton, Sheffield and Portugal.

He catches me up on all of this as we weave through delegations of hardy tourists determined to take in Trafalgar Square despite the crappy weather. As we reach the doors of the ICA – our interview venue – Chris unravels his scarf. I secretly hope his hair will spring up into its signature Wishnik quiff but today it’s a muted version of its on-stage persona.

So what does the future hold, I ask as we find a dark corner of the café. He’s already putting pen to paper on the new piece, and a cool £5,000 has been crowdfunded to help make it a reality. So can we expect a bigger production? Increased marketing activity? A further ‘professionalised’ CBB brand?

Certainly not in the ‘corporate overlord’ sense, he explains. Some bookers on the international circuit have expressed concerns over the avant-garde nature of his website (itself an expression of his complex humour – I highly recommend spending some time on it). But if bookers don’t get his website, he shrugs, they sure as hell won’t get his shows. So no, any further ‘professionalisation’ will be strictly on his terms.

“The person who I want to be is a person that’s focused on the artwork for its own sake, and doesn’t care about the paycheck or whether or not it represents a scaling-up from the last time,” he says.

“You need to have your mind as much as possible in the work, and out of everything else. But like all ideals, in our weakest moments it’s impossible to live by, and I’m drunk-Googling my own name just the same as you are.”

As to what the next production will be, he remains pretty tight-lipped. But here’s what he does give up: it will likely include more music. That’s it basically. What a tease.

When we turn to the topic of autobiography ­­– in particular the fact he was born two months premature – I wonder if Chris’s real life will play more of a feature next time round.

“I just couldn’t wait. I could comfortably fit in the palm of my father’s hand, and to some extent, I still do,” he quips about his birth. But however lightly he seems to take the situation, its seriousness hasn’t escaped his notice.

“I had no cartilage in my nose and ears, my skull hadn’t fused, my skin was translucent, and my nipples weren’t fully formed. I think a lot of my outlook has been shaped by the knowledge that, in an earlier period, I would have not survived birth.”

Impacted on your outlook how, I ask? He says right now he can only talk universally on the matter, having not yet fully mined his psyche on it. But now that he’s in the early stages of writing his new show, could the time be right to see how deep that rabbit hole goes?

“I want more definite answers about what that does to a child. The next piece will likely be no more autobiographical than the last one, but the kernel that started it, or my psychological motivation for doing it might be a little closer to the surface.”

We go on to discuss the philosophical stance of THIS IS HOW WE DIE – a, let’s face it, auspiciously-titled play for someone who seems so aware of his own vulnerability. Could this be why I noted a spiky undertone to the show, pessimism about mankind’s trajectory, and anger because of its tendency towards apathy and ignorance?

“Your summation does not ring true for me. It’s a reading of the show, and it’s an interpretation that a lot of people come out with,” he politely pushes back.

“I tried very hard to close-bracket every strong opinion with an alternative, so that the text is a tangle of voices, my politics or philosophies are hidden, and the audience doesn’t feel as though I’m either confirming or contrasting something that they believe. Because they don’t have to trust that I believe everything I’m saying. This is a technique for saying nothing, and an attempt at making the statement that ‘saying nothing is a more political statement than saying something’. I don’t live a life of great certainty. I’m agnostic about everything. Even agnosticism.”

Do you enjoy your agnosticism? He pauses.

“It seems to me that having a definite opinion is a false economy. There’s duality to everything, and everybody’s truth is their own to decide upon, to narrate, colour in, manipulate, forget, etcetera. And this is as much me finding a way of expressing what I believe reality to be, as it is a kneejerk reaction against what seems to me to be the single topicality of a lot of other artists’ work.”

If audiences come out of the show having heard a ‘call to arms’ against climate change, materialism or right wing politics, that’s a perfectly valid interpretation, Chris explains. But that’s entirely their prerogative and not necessarily the intended purpose of his show.

It’s the same with the cultural references people read into TIHWD too. From the psychedelia of the Beat Generation, to Tarrantino’s visceral storytelling, to Back to the Future 3’s Wild West japery, audience members have plagued Chris throughout the show’s run with their theories of the artists who have ‘so clearly inspired his work’.

“I think people often come out of the show having had wildly different aesthetic experiences in their mind’s eye,” he says.

“And I think that the way we map cinema onto our actual experiences is definitely something that the text is interrogating; and is an ongoing investigation in my own writing. That’s not a contrivance – that’s how I perceive the world.”

So, for the record, who categorically has influenced the show?

“For me, the influences on the text are (William S.) Burroughs, Richard Brautigan, (Charles) Bukowski, Kathy Acker, J.G. Ballard. These are people who I read as a kid, most of whom are funny, and all of whom are challenging the notion that books should be boring, and the notion that the author should somehow be smarter than the reader.

“There’s an intensity to the experience, and a punkish outlook that connects it to music and more visual media, which make it very accessible to a young reader.”

During the course of the interview, we hit upon some other popular audience theories, plus those riffs and homages that audiences have missed:

  • Beckett and Brecht were very important for me in considering what theatre is, what it’s for, what it can do.”
  • Jack Kerouac: “I have never comfortably finished one of his books. I find them pretty dry, and not nearly as wild as I was expecting.”
  • Hunter S. Thompson is not boring and is awfully wild, but his writing hasn’t been a conscious influence on mine. I think the similarity, between what I’m doing and what he is doing, ends with a car driving through the desert. I think it was a cliché (in American cinema and literature) that was popularized (and extended comically) by him.
  • “The only intentional quotation in the narrative is from George Bataille’s ‘Story of the Eye’.”
  • On Spalding Gray’s ‘shouty man at table’ live reading shows: “Had I known there was someone who had cast such a long shadow over that very functional staging idea, I’m not 100 percent sure I would have done it.”
  • “People rarely see the female influences in the piece. They rarely see the Patti Smith and Kathy Acker.”
  • “Also, few people pick up on the hip hop influences in the text, like Kanye, Public Enemy, and Saul Williams. Those things get drowned out by what I look like; and because the piece, early on, plants this idea of it being set in the ‘60s.”

For the most part, Chris is delighted to let people have their theories. Sometimes, though, it’s a bit of a pain in the arse.

“A guy emailed me not that long ago asking, ‘what writers do you read? I would like to know more about that’. Perhaps coquettishly I sent him an entire inventory of my bookshelves,” Chris recounts, grinning.

“I just sat there for an hour and typed out a couple hundred books I had in my room, sent them to him and said, ‘these are the books in my house’. He wrote back and said, ‘Oh, I just wondered whether or not you have ever heard of Fight Club?’”

If audience members want to high five over finding echoes of a favourite film, poem or song, that’s fine for Chris. He says it means they are engaging with his work in a way that sparks something within them – perhaps invoking their own cactus-pocked deserts, consumerist landscapes, and satellite-strewn heavens.

But he isn’t here to placate us. He’s here to make us all feel sick with nerves. He wants to challenge, to entertain, to shock, and to offer up equal helpings of chaos and order.

“There’s an analogue here in the music,” Chris says, reflecting on his desire to find ways of transposing the chaos of his night-time free-writing, and the relative order of day-time narrative writing, onto the theatrical experience; his desire to fluctuate in and out of abstraction, and to overwhelm audiences and performers alike.

“The really beautiful string sections provide a hook that leads us into sections of dissonance, improv and chaos. And the relationship between those two elements is very similar to that between these two types of writing. That isn’t to say the audience will only enjoy one and not the other. It’s not a question of sugar and medicine. It’s a question of balancing complexity.

“The intensity of standing in front of the amplifiers while they’re on full and overheating, is not dissimilar to being caffeinated up to your eyeballs and thinking faster than you can write your thoughts down, thinking things you didn’t even know you had in you.

“It’s a bliss. But it’s also masturbation. I’m never happier than when the amplifier is screaming back at me. If the audience gets anything out of that, it’s up to them. Some audience members would probably love to watch me masturbate, and others wouldn’t.”

Christopher Brett Bailey will next perform in THIS IS HOW WE DIE: B Sides and Rarities at Hackney Showroom on Wednesday 20 April. The double feature will also include a performance by This Machine Won’t Kill Fascists But It Might Get You Laid. This will be followed by performances of TIHWD at the Brighton Festival (Caravan Showcase, Tuesday 17 May), Sheffield Theatres (Saturday 21 May), and Culturgest, Lisbon (1-3 June). For all forthcoming events, visit his website.

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Andrew Youngson

Andrew recently escaped the crazy world of newspaper journalism, but hasn’t quite shaken his love of interviewing interesting characters and whiling away many happy hours writing them up

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