Features Q&A and Interviews Published 28 July 2014

Clowning and Killing

Clown Slut is a new semi-autobiographical theatre piece from London-based actor and writer Joanna Griffin. She previously starred in The Same Deep Water as Me at the Donmar, in KLOWNS with Rob Carter and Brian Martin, and in the coming-of-age play Why Is John Lennon Wearing A Skirt? A slave to the Edinburgh cause, this year she will also be starring in Richard Herring’s new play, I Killed Rasputin.
Lorna Irvine

Lorna Irvine: Clown Slut puts growing up under the microscope. Were there any moments where you had to censor yourself?

Joanna Griffin: As Clown Slut is my first play, I wrote out of instinct. I started with my own experiences but inevitably I had that feeling of ‘would my parents mind me saying that?’ Josie and Pat always have to be considered as they’re my only guaranteed audience. The title alone, how do you explain that to a pair of Irish Catholics?

The initial idea for the play came about after I was kicked out of a night club for “dancing too aggressively”. Whoever knew lateral movement – lunges, star-jumps even – on the dance floor could be deemed a threatening act? I headed for the night bus (N20 to Barnet), with a consolatory kebab in hand and once on the top deck, I continued dancing and ranting about the injustice of my night being cut short. Upon hearing my tale, a drunken heckler leaned over to enlighten me that I was “a slut trapped in the body of the clown”. Boom: a Clown Slut was born.

Mixed with my own stories and stories from others, I started getting immersed in the feminist debate. I wanted to poke fun at the ludicrous things I (and many others) do on a daily basis. Could I show the humiliation of going for a wax on stage? Was I happy to go on all fours with my arse up in the air, with my dad in the front row?

Yes (as long as I got to keep my Adidas tracksuit bottoms on – audiences have fertile imaginations enough – better than having to see my dimpled derrière in the name of art).

That’s why nothing ever felt too raw for me writing and performing Clown Slut. It’s from the perspective of feeling genuinely clueless, which I still am around many of the questions the play asks. With every show I want the audience to go on a journey with me. Hopefully together we’ll start to untangle the messy business that is equality of the sexes.

LI: There are many shows nowadays which fall between stand-up and theatre: is that something that interests you, the blurring of the two?

JG: I think there’s an honesty that can be achieved in stand-up theatre – there’s the possibility of a more direct connection.  Each genre comes with its own set of expectations which at times can feel limiting.

I’m not a stand-up. I do like to make people laugh, but stand-ups have to make you laugh, it’s a measure of their success. Theatrical monologues have to keep the fourth wall up and maintain the ‘truth’ by always staying in character.

With stand-up theatre, it’s all up for grabs. You can break out of character, wink at the audience, there’s a ruggedness to it that I’m really interested in. If something goes wrong on stage – I forget a line, I fall over – I’ll use it, I’ll laugh at myself and look at the audience (even if it is just Josie and Pat), and say “well don’t I look like a twat? Shall I crack on?” By acknowledging my vulnerability I hope people will be more inclined to go along with this fallible fool.

That said, I try not to think too much about genres. Take Bryony Kimmings, her work does something completely revolutionary. She makes her own rules and how much more exciting is that?

LI: In performative terms, who/what most influences you?

I’m a huge Chris Lilley Fan – Jonah from Tonga, Mr G and Ja’mie: Private School Girl have been watched on loop – I think my laptop might melt. He takes something really serious and important, examines it with forensic detail, then holds it up for all its absurdity and makes it completely hilarious. If you can make people laugh you can start to open an honest discussion.

Bryony Kimmings – I saw Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel last year and she’d done something I’d never seen before in a theatre. It was universal, accessible, devastating. She talks to you (not at you) and brings you with her on the journey aiming straight for the jugular. Everything is seemingly off the cuff, but every moment of apparent whimsy, every image she creates, has been intricately constructed with huge imagination and insight.

Lena Dunham in Girls has definitely been an influence. I’m keen to explore the new ways we can represent a woman’s body on stage and more widely in society. Dunham presents another image of the female form to counteract the narrow version of female beauty we’re surrounded by and sold everyday. Even better, she doesn’t seem to care. Yes, it’s a considered decision to bare so much flesh, but in doing so it’s immensely liberating, it’s as if she’s saying “Yes. This is my body. Get over it. Now can we focus more importantly on what’s coming out of my mouth instead?”

Whilst writing Clown Slut, I was also reading 50 Shades of Feminism, a book with 50 short essays by a range of interesting woman from different backgrounds – directors, lawyers, writers, doctors, activists, actors. It made me realise how wide and diverse the conversation is. Laura Bates also does great work with Everyday Sexism. It is an amazing campaign she has established which reaches internationally showing how far the battle for equality has to go.

LI: Who are you looking forward to catching at the Edinburgh Festival this year?

JG: Loads of people!  Adrienne Truscott, Josie Long, Cardinal Burns, John Kearns, Cariad Lloyd, Frisky and Mannish, Damien Slash, All At Sea, Bridget Christie  – and I’m looking forward to taking the odd punt and getting surprised too.

LI: What do you think of the recent resurgence in feminism on stage, and the performers who have contributed to it?

JG: I think they as artists – and the resurgence of feminism – is bloody brilliant. About time. Whether you want to call it feminism or equality, the school I subscribe to is a simple one – men and women should be equal. End of. We’re all just DNA at the end of the day. Yes the differences between men and women should be celebrated, but when you have a system in place which seeks to exploits them to the detriment of others, we all lose out.

I think it’s really hard not to objectify a woman onstage (whether you’re a man or a woman). I catch myself doing it. It’s part of our everyday language, it’s like a reflex.

I am yet to experience Adrienne Truscott so she’s top of my to-see list this coming festival. As I’ve already said, I could rave about Bryony Kimmings till the cows come home but I was also lucky enough to catch Bridget Christie’s Bic For Her last year too. Two completely different shows but both were flying the flag for something tremendously important. Christie and Kimmings both held up a mirror to our contradictions, to how we contribute to a sexist system and how we’re also the victim of it. Their dynamism, the content and their delivery ensured objectifying them was the last thing I did. They were hugely inspiring and gave me tremendous hope.

LI: You are also starring in Richard Herring’s play I Killed Rasputin. Can you tell us a bit about your role?

JG: Working with Richard Herring has been lots of fun. I’ve never worked with a playwright who is also a stand-up so it’s been really interesting to see how his process works. In contrast to my solo show, it’s lovely to be working in a company with five other actors. They are a very talented and ridiculously funny bunch.

I play about eight different characters – it’s completely bonkers – so rehearsals are definitely keeping me on my toes. In amongst discovering how many accents I’ve got up my sleeve, we’ve been learning lots about Russian history which is new territory for me. It seems Communism, Feminism and hefty pints of beer will be my diet for August.

LI: What’s next for you after the Edinburgh Festival?

JG: After performing twice a day, everyday, for four weeks – a holiday somewhere hot please!

Joanna Griffin’s Clown Slut is at Dario’s Restaurant, Edinburgh, 2-11, 13-23 August; I Killed Rasputin is at Assembly George Square, from 31st July – 24th August 2014

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Lorna Irvine is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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