Laughter, fur and feathers are probably what Jammy Voo are made of. If the latter two constitute its anomalous, physical form, then laughter is definitely the spirit of the company. Laughter is the jam in Jammy Voo. It’s nearly ten years since the company started out on the simple premise that these five women, who I’d attended Jacques Lecoq School in Paris with, made me laugh. A lot. (Of course, we also wanted to change the world – but we’re still getting that one off the ground.) Laughter, however, is what lifted us off. It was the impetus behind our first clown show, and it’s been a continual source of creativity, as well as the jam which sticks us together as a company. Looking back on ten years together, I began to reflect on how this theme of laughter has threaded through our experiences of making work and making the company work. And whether being an all-female collective produces particular kinds of laughter-bonds.
We’ve studied the art of laughter by clowning with some incredible teachers (and doff our feathery hats at Mr Lecoq himself of course – who lives on through his ingenious pedagogy, Jos Houben, Angela De Castro, Peta Lily.) For us laughter hasn’t just been an art, it has been a way of life. Those of you who work in theatre know what a unique and precarious adventure each project is. Working as a collective is a challenge: creatively, organisationally, logistically. There probably aren’t that many companies who make it to ten years because of inevitable differences in at least one of these areas. Group dynamics are complex. Groups of women are (possibly) more complex still. In a company, you spend intensive amounts of time rehearsing and touring with each other. Sometimes you may spend more time with your company members than you do with your actual family or partner. Your partner may feel like they are in a relationship with four women instead of just one.
Through all these challenges, it is laughter which has seen us through the opinion differences, excitations, frustrations, absurdities, exhaustions, financial insecurities and emotional instabilities of working together. There are times when you play to an audience of two people one night and two hundred the next, when everyone has run out of money and energy to get through the final week of the Edinburgh Fringe, when it’s midnight on the eve of a tour and the set won’t fit in the hire van, when there’s eight of you staying in a two-bedroom apartment and the toilet is blocked. And these are nothing compared to navigating the interpersonal relationships. Still, we found that as a company, even if we couldn’t see the funny side at the time, it’s a rare occasion that we’re not able to laugh about it later and move on.
It’s hard to say if there is something unique in the way we have adopted laughter as a coping and strengthening mechanism because we are all women. I heard an interview with feminist writer Erica Jong recently who said that women draw inspiration from the same well of personal, family and work life, whereas men tend to compartmentalise these different aspects. Certainly, it is true for us that there is a transference of laughter, from our lives and our relationships with each other, into our work. But having recently seen master clown, Jamie Wood’s, show Oh No, in which he blends self-ridicule, art, politics and love into a rich mix of anarchic laughter-inducing invention, I’m not convinced that ‘only women draw from the same well’ is true or particularly helpful. Rather it seems to me that many artists draw from this same well which informs both their creative work and their personal relationships.
There are infinite different colours and hues of laughter. In our shows, we’ve touched on the silly, ridiculous, absurd, hysterical, shock, violent and knowing laughter; so many varieties tied into different emotions. In our new show Birdhouse, one of the characters, who is coping with a traumatic event, talks about laughing until the laughter turns to crying and she can’t stop. There exists always this enigmatic line between laughter and sadness, the comic and the tragic. Part of the intrepid work of venturing into comedic territories is to tread the borderland between the two, where we stumble across insights into what makes us human.
The clowning journey we’ve taken though our shows has therefore been at the heart of our creative process and has evolved, through a lot of playful trial and error, through deliberate as well as happy accidents and haphazard processes. We emerged from the Lecoq School with our red noses, which taught us about being vulnerable, open, spontaneous and deeply stupid. We used red noses to develop our first show Something Blue; a bittersweet cabaret about love. But as the show matured, we found the stories we wanted to tell brought a different quality to the clowning, until eventually we adopted blue noses instead. The clown women in Something Blue turned out not to be creatures of the daylight like the red nose clown, but of the night and harboured a tinge of melancholy. Their stories were revealed in the light of a rare and magic moon.
Following Something Blue we abandoned noses altogether, but still clowning was always at the core of our characters and performance. For our latest show Birdhouse, we wanted to refresh our laughter by tapping in to a different clowning source. This time we entered the territory of dark clowning, into which we were initiated by Peta Lily; the Grande Dame of dark clowning.
Lily says that while the red nose clown is an innocent and endlessly surprised by everything, the dark clown is experienced, has witnessed atrocities, and is always expecting the worse. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much in a workshop as I did with Peta Lily. But it is an entirely different timbre of laughter; one which expresses the awful absurdities and contradictions of being human.
This exploration of dark clowning fitted well with the scenario of Birdhouse in which four women are survivors of a traumatic event and are dealing with the aftermath. The show was initially inspired by Hitchcock’s iconic film, The Birds. However in our show, the bird attack becomes a kind of metaphor for a personal, domestic tragedy. The madness and absurdity induced by the trauma of the event has turned the women into crazed bird ladies with wild dreams, crooked souls and bird nests in their hair.
This is where we diverge from Hitchcock. In his work, Hitchcock is fascinated by the allure of horror and even fetishizes it. The women in Birdhouse are on the other side of horror. Having lived through it, the reality is quite different. The inner turmoil they go through is more awful and unnatural even than Hitchcock imagines, and yet they survive it. I suspect, in fact, that our bird women would eat Alfred Hitchcock for breakfast (and avenge poor Tippi Hedren in the process.)
And so I come to the point of all this irreverent laughter. It is partly through laughter that the Birdhouse women find a kind of salvation and transform from mad, old birds to being more human; even youthful again. There is a dark clowning scene in the play, we call the ‘horror’ scene, where the women talk about the horrors of depression, of getting old, of isolation and losing your dignity in public. The scene is close to the bone, sometimes cringeworthy and at times outrageous, but it is usually the part that gets the most laughs. It feels good to give these fears and darker aspects of what makes us human a good airing. In this way the laughter of the dark clown shakes things up and gets us unstuck, brings us back to the light and flying forwards.
Jammy Voo are Yngvild Aspeli, Kate Edwards, Emily Kreider and Eliza Wills-Crisp. Birdhouse is playing: Thurs 12th Nov – Circomedia Bristol, Sat 14th Nov – Derby Theatre, Tues 17th Nov – Exeter Phoenix, Weds 18th Nov – Norwich Arts Centre.