There are three things that you should know about Made in China’s work in progress, Gym Party. The first is that it’s not about a gym party, per se. The second is that it’s only the beginning of a piece that might or might not be about gym parties. And the third that it’s the first piece to be developed as part of a new collaborative framework for developing work launched as part of this year’s Sprint Festival by Camden People’s Theatre in partnership with Pulse in Ipswich, Mayfest in Bristol and Sampled at Cambridge Junction.
So below are brief thoughts in progress, in no particular order, about some of the above.
“We call upon you, the congregation, our audience, to be pious and dutiful consumers in chief. Chris, get the muthafuckin’ guitar.” Made in China
There’s three of them, in gawdy fluorescent wigs and shorts and white t-shirts and the various levels of enthusiasm of a class of primary school kids waiting for their gym class. They’re facing us. They tell us all about how they are, and yet are not characters. They tell us a bit about competition, and backstories. At one point, we’re at a gym party. The kind that you see in Carrie before the shit hits the fan (you know, disco ball, punch, dancing at arm’s length, time warp, freckles and lipstick).
And then, in usual Made in China style, competition ensues. This is the kind of tongue in cheek, real effort competition where a punch is an actual punch and where stuffing your face with marshmallows is taken very seriously.
Punctured in between, some sharply written monologues that expand and contract the piece; personal, playful, pensive. A bit dramatic, a bit loaded. You think David Cameron might be in there, but he never comes. You think you might get to find out a bit about these guys, but you don’t.
“These are the brains of Those who Have Passed. Those who could not keep up” Made in China
There’s some implications about writing on work in progress that I won’t get into here, as we’re all probably familiar with the ever variable, malleable and uncertain dos and don’ts. There’s something innately engaging about the way in which works in progress swallow and showcase processes as part of their skeleton. In particular, Gym Party felt more than a collection of ingredients, or the potential beginning to a show as it was introduced; it provided a way to observe the company’s own language, developing, tentative and promising.
Made in China’s piece is raw; yet for me, there were some glimpses of motifs, some particular devices that stuck out and I think are worth mentioning here: the navigation between text and action, at times imbalanced, at others highly precise; the use of humour as stylistic approac; and the commitment to non-linearity. There was something about the return to the gym party, to the space with the awkward social politics, the out of time microcosm, that re-framed everything else within the piece – trajectories real and imagined, mentalities and frameworks. Sometimes we’re all back there in our high school gym, trying hard to have a party; sometimes we get caught up in progress and competition without really understanding what we’re fighting for.
I don’t know what Gym Party will end up being, in the end. But there’s a couple of things I found striking in this early collage. The shift between resistance and action; the curious exploration of identity within the remit of competition; and the proposition of comparison as a political tool. Performers Chris, Jess and Ira have a skill for playing on expectations of character, and delivering lines that make you, the audience, distant and involved at the same time. There’s a level of projection taking place here, and an interesting relationship to the role of confession in performance. Not confession as a sort of transitory way of engaging the viewer, but more as a way into a topic. Jess, Chris and Ira reveal a bit of themselves, but the framework keeps that at an intriguing distance. Here is where the writing comes in: the juxtaposition between the energy and rawness of the more action driven scenes, and the tenderness and sharpness of monologues that play with the identity of the speaker create thematic intersections that reveal a lot about the show’s scope.
Made in China have a talent for bringing in politics and popular culture together, like a promising, early career Charlie Brooker of theatre. Here they do so more tentatively, at times, in the figure of the man they worship and at others, in the enactment of the social dynamics of those American gym parties I mentioned earlier. Because what keeps coming back in their work is a keen interest in social dynamics, and a particular, stylistic capitalisation on that American frankness; Made in China play that very well, deceptively well.
That manifests itself in the dynamic between the three performers too; whilst there’s something unifying about Chris and Jess onstage, Ira adds a particular power shift that’s very suited to the nature of the show, and what it might become. That plays off within some of the themes this version touches upon: violence, identity, promise.
From Sprint to Sampled
On a side note; the performance was followed by a Q&A with representatives from the festivals involved in this partnership. Essentially, one company is offered support each year to develop a piece of work across the festivals involved, starting with Sprint and ending with Sampled. The scheme not only brings together key festivals that produce experimental work across a range of contexts, but also provides an intriguing timeline and framework for presenting work in progress, making a process particularly visible.
At the same time, there’s strength in the emphasis on regionality: the performance would start in London with Sprint and tour across the country in its various incarnations. This not only invites a collaboration between the festivals themselves, but also provides a space for potential dialogue with audiences and artists involved. By creating an infrastructure that is context-specific and nomadic at the same time, this form of support can really showcase a company’s work as it’s taking shape- placing equal emphasis on the skeleton of a production and getting input from a range of audiences.
There’s of course some contentions to the scheme too; in this instance, Made in China are a company that already have a number of collaborations and mechanisms for support. Whilst they’re a very promising group of theatre makers who can really benefit and make use of the opportunity, I wonder whether a lesser known, even younger company might benefit even more (as in Made in China’s case, the partnerships were already, more or less in place). There is real potential here for the process to benefit in various ways, shaping the experience of a company via a set of clear parameters. But also a question of modes and contexts of presenting work on progress; the implication of a piece at different stages, of proposing ways of viewing and modes of enabling discussion.
Either way, it’s a scheme full of promise that proposes a particular mode of collaboration across producing organisations very much encouraged and encouraging, as long as it doesn’t result in homogeneity. With questions of the kinds of work that might emerge within the confines of this scheme’s architecture, and the artists who might best benefit from it, it’s at an infant stage and packed with promise to grow.