Features Published 13 November 2018

Jess Latowicki: “I became really interested in what the expectations are for female artists”

Rosemary Waugh chats to Jess Latowicki, one half of Made in China, about how their new show Super Duper Close Up draws inspiration from anxiety, feminism - and skincare.
Rosemary Waugh

‘Super Duper Close Up’ at Yard Theatre. Photo: John Hunter

‘It’s a show about anxiety. Particularly, a female anxiety,’ starts off Jess Latowicki when asked to describe Made in China’s new show, Super Duper Close Up. ‘Anxiety inside the female space and what that feels like right now.’

Made in China were established in 2009 by Latowicki and Tim Cowbury. Regular collaborators with Chris Brett Bailey, their previous shows include Double Double Act, Tonight I’m Gonna be the New Me, Gym Party and We Hope That You’re Happy. From that list, Super Duper Close Up, which premieres at The Yard from 13 – 24 November contains some overlaps with Tonight I’m Gonna…, a show that played with our expectations of coupledom through an unreliable narrative and sweat-inducing tension.

This new show sees the company use live feed for the first time. Latowicki’s solo performance as a tightly wound female character is almost continually filmed, offering the audience the dual perspective of her ‘real-life’ actions and the ones shown on screen. Unsurprisingly then, Super Duper Close Up latches onto debates about social media and the connection – or disconnection – between our online and offline selves, especially where women are concerned. ‘We’re so used to looking at screens that you can’t differentiate between if what you’re seeing is real and what you’re seeing is staged now.’

But what’s clear from talking to Latowicki, and from watching a morning of rehearsals at the Battersea Arts Centre, is how the show is far from one-dimensional, both in its approach to what would probably be considered its ‘topics’ – women, feminism, social media, beauty standards etc. – and the variety of influences and ideas underpinning it. Along with Super Duper Close Up’s more obvious themes, the piece touches on memory loss, Alzheimer’s, inherited trauma and, by extension, the legacy of the Holocaust. It’s also evolved considerably since appearing at The Yard as a First Drafts production last year, when it initially focused on using the repeated filming of the same scene as a metaphor for anxiety.

On paper, it’s a lot to combine in one piece of theatre. But watch Latowicki perform segments of it, or listen to her describe it, and the mirror-ball of flashing ideas makes strange sense. Perhaps this is because one of the major concepts running throughout is contradiction, specifically what she calls the ‘look-at-me-don’t-look-at-me of the female space’ and how ‘I think we’re allowed to do something and then feel literally two opposing things. Like, you can feel something for more than one reason and those reasons can be fundamentally opposed to each other.’

Latowicki gives the example of skincare, a branch of the cosmetics industry that she’s very interested in and spends a lot of money on. One the one hand, skincare is ‘harmless. It’s fun. It’s frivolous.’ Yet simultaneously, ‘I realise one of the reasons I’m particularly into skincare is because it’s been marketed towards me, and beauty companies make problems and then sell women the solutions to them.’ Added to this is the idea that, in times of increased stress, following a multi-step skincare regime ‘makes me feel in control of something’.

Latowicki namechecks an article by Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker called ‘The Year that Skin Care Became a Coping Mechanism’, in which the author opens with the statement that changing her skincare routine is ‘one of many small, ridiculous attempts to affirm to myself that I will outlive the Trump Administration.’ Self-care can, as Latowicki mentions, be seen as a ‘radical feminist act’ at times – an idea she was introduced to through reading Audre Lorde – not least in the way it shifts the emphasis to ‘looking after yourself and not necessarily needing to be so nurturing to other people.’

It’s characteristic of Latowicki’s way of thinking, and Super Duper Close Up, to give serious consideration to a topic, such as skincare, that many people would dismiss as too superficial and female-centric. We conduct the interview sitting on a very fluffy pastel pink rug with strands of silver glitter thread running through it. The rug, which features in the show, is like something from a Juno Calypso installation, another contemporary artist creating work that critiques and celebrates femininity, and all its paraphernalia, without removing any of the inherent contradictions that inevitably emerge.

The marketing describes Super Duper Close Up as ‘feminist’. What exactly, I ask Latowicki, does that look like in the context of this show? ‘I feel it’s super-complex. Because it’s feminist in that I’ve tried to write something and make something that is really in a female space. It’s about asking questions like: why is this the space women often have to occupy, and then playing with that.’ The show, she explains, is as much ‘feminist’ through its structure as its overt politics. By this, she means the shape of narrative and how it goes against linear, masculine traditions of storytelling: ‘I became really interested in what the expectations are for female artists and how this gets used and manipulated. Like going back to the time of Virginia Woolf and the modernist idea that women write descriptive literature and men write active literature.’

Instead of conforming to the how stories are frequently told on stage, Latowicki focused on ‘how narrative could be if you take it out of that really penetrative “beginning, middle and end’’’ pattern. She continues, ‘This is about me saying: why is this the way we normally tell stories and let’s tell stories in a different way. I think that’s where the feminism comes in.’

Along with reconfiguring narrative, Latowicki is also inspired by ideas orbiting female writers creating female characters. Whilst researching the new show, she was reading ‘a lot of Sheila Heti’ and became interested in ‘this idea of the female protagonist where people assume that everything women write is autobiography anyway. So it’s playing with that. It’s creating a main character who could be you, but it’s not: it’s a character.’

Heti riffs on this concept by having a character named ‘Sheila’ who is not 100% autobiographical, she’s also a work of fiction. Sophie Collins’ poetry collection ‘Who is Mary Sue?’ takes up this same idea from a theoretical perspective, while Olivia Laing’s Crudo – another book Latowicki references as inspiration – creates ‘Kathy’, a character who may be Kathy Acker or may be Olivia Laing, or may be neither/both. In turn, the character Latowicki performs both is, and very much isn’t, her.

But it’s not just female protagonists who are/aren’t the author, that’s being considered here, it’s the very idea of being an author or an artist. Early feedback repeatedly suggested to Latowicki that she either not cast herself in the work, or that she change the profession of the character so that they weren’t a writer anymore. ‘I found that really interesting,’ she says. ‘Because there is a lot of work by men where they talk directly about being a writer.’

The same advice, she implies, would not have been offered to a male creative making a show where the performer reflected on being an artist or a writer – and reflecting on just how singular and divisive Ella Hickson’s The Writer was (there were rave reviews, and there was The Times describing it as “irritating, self-involved”) she might be right. Made in China’s rehearsal time at the BAC overlaps with Irish theatre company Dead Centre performing Chekhov’s First Play at the same venue, a show Latowicki greatly admires and suggests was a subconscious influence on Super Duper Close Up. ‘Part of that [show] is about the act of making art and the relationship between art and self, and that’s a totally great piece of work! I’m a big fan!! But you know, no one lays into Chekhov’s First Play the way that they sometimes do when….’ she trails off. What if a woman had made Chekhov’s First Play? I ask. ‘I think that it would have been harder,’ she offers ‘this idea of the director in our mind is still a man.’

Super Duper Close Up is on at the Yard Theatre until 24th November. More info here.

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Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

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