Features Q&A and Interviews Published 11 August 2015

Jamie Wood: “This liveness of bodies and of sharing.”

The performer, live artist and clown talks about his Edinburgh Fringe show, O No!
Alice Saville

Yoko Ono chose to name her book of instructions Grapefruit because she believed that the citrus was a hybrid of an orange and a lemon: like her, a spiritual hybrid. Performance artist and clown Jamie Wood is a hybrid, too. His wince-inducing, joyous Fringe poster image squeezes pink grapefruit halves where his eyes should be in a tribute to the avant garde artist who inspired his performance. But there’s so much more to him, and it. He’s an artist with Chris Goode & Company too, and made Longwave, an entirely silent comedy with Tom Lyall, last year. And a professional clown doctor, too. And his performance squeezes so many segments into its whole: not just Ono, but The Beatles, their music, his parents’ relationship, his own marriage.

It’s a lot of ideas to juggle, but Wood’s more than adept at keeping multiple balls in the air. His last solo work Beating McEnroe in 2013, is a riff on the great 1981 tennis rivalry. But it’s also the result of his work as a clown with sick children in hospitals: “It came out of thinking, what if I asked my giggle doctor to make a show, I wonder what he would make? My only premise was to try and lose all my defences and to actually share what I feel and I think and I fear. Aesthetically I made ridiculous choices: the tennis court is made of towels, I’m dressed like a shaman with a toy lion. People laughed a lot but I wasn’t really trying to be funny, but I was not trying to stop people laughing at me, and that really excited me.”

He explains that “O No! Feels like a further step in that direction: that’s about stuff I really believe.” There’s an incredible emotional intensity to Wood’s performance that feeds directly off the relationships in his own life: with his partner, director Wendy Hubbard, who also directs his performances, and with their newborn baby daughter. He tells me that “We’re not married, but in a way this show is like a marriage ceremony. It’s supposed to open up a space for talking about love. There’s a quote that goes something like ‘love is experiencing the inconvenience of another’. I loved that idea of just how difficult it is to share a life with someone else, and yet thst so many of us try to do that with one another.” His performance uses the story of the relationship vilified for breaking up The Beatles, that of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as a way of looking at why it’s so hard to let someone in: “I wanted people to actually imagine them as human beings not iconic figures, to see this woman who fell in love and lost her husband.”

Her story gains a new emotionalism by appearing alongside Wood’s own relationship, and the story of Wood’s parents’ marriage: his mother’s constant disappointment with his father, and the love buried under it. But Yoko Ono’s own work as a conceptual artist is crucial here too. She came into a 1960s art scene that could be cold and clinical, full of Warhol-slick reproduction or grotesquely sexist, like Allen Jones’s bound women as tables, and dared to be female, and to play with her own vulnerability and emotional lyricism. Her 1964 book Grapefruit is full of instructions, so called ‘event scores’ that are tinged with a Buddhist mindfulness, part spiritual exercise, part absurdist game.

Cloud Piece

Imagine the clouds dripping.

Dig a hole in your garden to put them in.

1963 Spring

Wood worked his way through Grapefruit’s instructions during Hubbard’s pregnancy, and her only mildly impatient voice interjects his performance with refusals to take part in some of Ono’s wilder flights of fancy: like getting in a bag, naked, to talk about love. He explains that “I just love Fluxus. I studied art at university, and a lot of it left me cold but when I came to Fluxus and Dada I loved the sense of humour, I loved the anarchy, and the attempt to question all of the art that went before it. And to say, ‘What is art?’ And I think it’s our responsibility to constantly do that. I think sometimes theatre can land in a very safe place.”

Photos by Alex Brenner

Photos by Alex Brenner

But there’s another element to Wood’s performance that jostles in, feeding silliness and physical fluidity. He squeezes grapefruits, getting every last drop out of Ono’s inspiration, then throws them away to roll gleefully on the floor. Having trained at Gaulier’s school of clowning (fellow alumni include Caroline Horton, the founders of Complicite, Emma Thompson and even Ali G) he knows that being silly is a powerful tool. So where does the clowning come in? “Fluxus, avant garde, clown: they all seem to exist in the same world.”

There’s an experiential playfulness they all share that makes them natural partners. But Jamie Wood has another theory. “I remember reading that in the circus, you have incredibly skilled performers and acrobats who do superhuman feats. Apparently the clowns are the bridge between the superhumans and the audience, because if the audience just watched the superhumans they’d feel shit about themselves because they can’t do a triple somersault flying through the air. Clowns are the translator.”

“I thought maybe I could do the same thing with avant garde art, a lot of people think it’s weird or not for them or they’re even scared of it. I thought, huh, I’ll be the bridge between these worlds.”

He’s a qualified clown doctor: and although the name might suggest some kind of horrendous pantomime of dropped medical instruments, squirty syringes and slipping in puddles of blood, the reality sounds much simpler. In his work for Theodora Children’s Trust he has to “drop any snobbery, any superior sense of what a clown is, because a clown only exists in a meeting between you and a person in a moment.”

O No! Is a piece that’s built around moments of connection. And this intimacy and hold make it that rare thing: a performance that can appeal to anyone, of any age. Wood wants to tour it to community centres and village halls. He rues that “Sometimes programmers say that we have to warn people there’s audience participation and I’ll always say ‘Please don’t!’ In my first show Beating McEnroe quite a few times I had people come up afterwards and say ‘If you’d told me I was going to be on stage I would have punched you, but actually I loved playing with you.’”

Photos by Alex Brenner

Photos by Alex Brenner

To keep Wood’s nose intact through the Fringe, he’s introduced a pre-show game “that teaches the audience that you’re not going to be left alone here. We’re all human beings and we’re all part of the same group.” The moment someone steps on stage, the atmosphere shifts: there’s a sense of potential, of unpredictability. Children clamour to go on stage, to step into the out-of-reach fantasy world ahead of them, but adults are frightened – primed, maybe, by stand-up comedians ready to use them as the butt of a joke.

Wood tells me that “in terms of inviting people onto the stage, the piece is purposely saying it’s up to you if you want to come up. I think that’s a really interesting transaction because it means that everyone immediately has it planted in their head the question of do they want to come up?” This question is a way of appreciating the emotion core of his performance: the recognition that “we are all alive, we’re all in this room, and these things will never happen again in this form so it all feels quite essential that we appreciate this liveness of bodies and sharing.”

Even in week one of the Fringe audiences can feel more dead than alive, worn out from the endless emotional labour of giving and/or receiving flyers, or the sheer scope of the festival’s endless assault of creativity. Wood says that “it’s overwhelming when you look at the huge cake that Edinburgh in August is: this is the music, this is the art, this is the dance. And we’re these hungry human beings who want our palettes satisfied. So I really hope that this show will be almost like an antidote, because I think the Fringe can be very chaotic and cutthroat and egotistical.” Peace, love, and avant garde: it’s a clown doctor’s cure for a festival that sorely needs it.

O No! is on at Assembly Roxy at 7pm until 31st August 2015.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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