Jess Latowicki’s spectacles are too far down her face for the camera to catch her full expression on screen. So off they must come.
Glasses safely stowed away, she settles back at the kitchen table opposite Tim Cowbury, co-founder of the theatre company, Made in China. They shoot deadpan looks across the table at one other while trying not to crack a smile, as if locked in some fleeting playground face-off. It’s a comfortable playfulness; a clear signal to the fact they’re partners in real life.
“Okay, ready to go again,” asks filmmaker, Ben Harvey, from behind the camera. He is wedged in between the kitchen counter and a radiator (the filming location is Jess and Tim’s Hackney apartment).
Nods all round. A large fan is flicked into life, puffing gusts of confetti up in the air and whipping Jess’s hair to the side.
“Why do you only go up to 30 per cent enthusiasm?” she asks drily in her naturally husky American accent, staring into Tim’s similarly stony face.
“Why won’t you ever stay at parties?” she continues, before finishing: “Why is everything a fucking argument with you?”
“Cut,” Ben chimes with a note of satisfaction.
“Good acting,” Tim smirks at Jess.
“Thanks,” she retorts, squinting her eyes.
And that’s a wrap. The camera crew sets about packing up, Jess nips to the bedroom to change, and Tim retires to a sofa opposite where I have been hiding out of view, trying to glean some colour for my article before our interview.
It’s rapidly nearing the couple’s opening night of Made in China’s (MIC) latest theatrical creation Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me. Within two weeks of our interview they will be up in Edinburgh for a four-day, already-sold-out run at Forest Fringe, before zipping back south for the main event: a three week stretch at Soho Theatre.
Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me, a production which mines Jess and Tim’s real life relationship while also veering over the line into fiction, follows a rich seam of physically arresting and emotionally captivating MIC productions. Gym Party and Stationary Excess, to name a few, have similarly sought to explore themes of modern identity while blurring the boundaries between playwriting and performance art.
MIC’s creative process usually involves the couple collaborating with other London-based artists, such as Christopher Brett Bailey and Ira Brand, but ‘New Me’ marks a significant departure, having been co-authored by Jess and Tim alone. It also solely features the pair on stage (with England-born Tim stepping out of his playwriting comfort zone to perform a small but vital role).
Outfit changed, Jess joins Tim on the sofa opposite me. Smiles all round. It’s good that the pair look confident and energised about taking the production to the stage, I think to myself. From the warning they gave me before the interview, it’s not been the easiest of creative processes…
Thanks for fitting me in to your busy day, guys. So what have I just seen you doing there at the kitchen table?
Jess: We’re making a trailer for our new show, Tonight I’m Going to be the New Me.
Tim: It was mainly Ben’s idea, Ben Harvey the filmmaker.
J: He’s waving. (She waves back) And now he’s sweeping up confetti.
T: We rejigged some of the text from the show for the trailer. So what you saw was us sitting across the table passing questions about what annoys each other.
What’s the show about and how did the idea come about?
T: Well, the funny thing is, it’s changed loads since we started making it. Partly because that was a year-and-a-half ago. We had a very similar idea about two years ago, which was about tap dancing.
That came about because we went to see The Book of Mormon and then Jess said she wanted to dance and have a chorus of dancing boys behind her. But we quickly realised we couldn’t afford that.
But that was the initial spark: tap dancing?
T: Yeah, she started to learn to tap dance.
J: I think I was just really interested in having something that was so inherently vigorous, so performatively [sic] rigorous, with certain connotations, and to put that against something more deconstructed.
If tap isn’t part of the show now, what is in its place?
T: The show is about us. And I don’t think we knew that for ages, or didn’t want to admit it. We had all these ideas about ‘change’, and how we change ourselves, which is what the title of the show refers to.
J: And it still is about that in many ways.
T: But it’s more towards how we try to do that in couples.
J: Yes, how we try to change each other. The thing about change is, it’s about living up to unrealistic expectations. We’re all sold the narrative of how our lives should be, and you pick which one you want.
There are so many templates of what protagonist you’re supposed to be, but then what happens when you have two people? You feel that somebody is encroaching on your movie. You think, “wait, I can’t be the hero of my movie if you’re the hero too”.
That’s so true. At the start of a relationship, you think, “great, this person could be a good character in my movie”.
J: Totally. In fact, there was a point when there was a line in the show that said: “There isn’t an award for the best supporting character”.
T: For me, that idea of being the protagonist doesn’t mean being centre stage. It means going through trials and tribulations, and coming out the other side glorious or changed at least. That comes from movies and classic narratives, but also our awareness of other people in different parts of the world where things are more exciting or more challenging.
J: (Quietly) This is Tim’s middle-class guilt talking, by the way.
And you don’t have any of that, coming from Harlem, of course. Haha!
J: Oh man, I wish I was from Harlem.
T: She’s from Connecticut, but she says she’s from New York.
J: That’s because no-one knows where Connecticut is. I was actually born in Queens.
T: Everyone knows where Connecticut is!
J: No, you know where it is because you’ve been there.
This is great stuff. You see what I do? I just needle you guys just to wind you up.
J: Haha, yeah that’s right.
The subject matter of this show is quite an intimate thing to explore. It must be tricky to mine your relationship for your art.
T: That’s probably why we didn’t want to admit that’s what it’s about.
J: But it’s also a level up from the way we’ve worked before. In the past we’ve directly used my experiences. I mean, we’ve used Tim’s experiences sometimes, but not so overtly. They would always filter through me.
In a nutshell, what is the structure of the show?
J: The structure of the show is kind of the fight between the abstract and the narrative − does that make sense? It moves from very in-the-room/in-the-relationship chat and something that could be real or could be fiction.
It also has some more abstract dances that tie into the fight for control Tim and I have.
Where does the audience feature in this piece? Are they involved as a third person in your relationship?
J: The audience is always the audience. They are needed because the game of the relationship is that we need witnesses. If you have two people that both want to be recognised as the hero or protagonist in the room, then you need an audience.
And if you have two people in a relationship who are authoring something together, and you’re flip-flopping between having control, you need an audience to witness this event you’ve made.
T: You need them to slightly judge or referee, without that being too active a role for them. Ultimately, in all our shows, while the audience is acknowledged and talked to, they mostly get to sit quietly and watch.
In this show, Jess puts words into the audience’s mouth, which is a nice echo of the idea that I’m putting words into her mouth as a silent, on-looking writer. Though not completely silent either.
Jess is the main one performing in the show, but what’s your role during the performance, Tim?
T: A creepy, taking-notes-in-the-background-kind-of-guy. (Laughs)
J: No. He plays a version of himself. One of the things we directly talk about in the show − just as we’ve spoken about in this interview − is authorship, and whose voice is speaking the most. So the idea that Tim is in the room, and the oscillation between me saying my words and me saying his words, is very particular. We bring up the fact that Tim is there watching, and not on the stage.
T: We find that’s a very interesting tension in real life and in this fictionalised relationship – the guy who’s not on stage, but asking her to say things.
What was the creative process for this show once the initial spark came two years ago?
T: We basically made two shows. We made another show last year that we thought this show was going to be.
J: I didn’t like it.
T: We did a couple of closed-door showings in the winter, and we had about an hour of material, with some tap dances and other dance moves. But we’ve now changed it into what it is.
There isn’t a single word or dance move left. So there’s an alternate universe out there where we made that tap show.
A universe where you’re desperately unhappy?
T: (Turning to Jess) Well, it came down to the fact you wanted to change it and I didn’t.
J: Part of the reason I wanted to change it was because I didn’t want to keep doing the tap dancing.
T: You didn’t want it to be about you failing a skill.
J: Yeah, because I didn’t want it to be about the victimization of someone who can’t…it was just too ‘victim-y’. It was also…it felt very much to me like a plot-driven, character-based monologue, which I wasn’t into.
I didn’t like the story we were telling, and I became less interested in it than some of the other ideas we had. So we pulled back from that to look at what we were trying to do, and then find better ways to achieve it.
Since dropping that show, what’s the process been like?
(Both erupt with laughter.)
Wow, don’t sugarcoat it, guys.
T: It nearly killed us.
J: No it didn’t.
T: Well it nearly broke something in the work/life-relationship.
J: But we managed to come out the other side of it. (Leans into the microphone) Don’t worry guys.
It was hard because, Tim really wanted to push forward with a show that I really felt strongly that I didn’t. That caused tension, because one of us was going to have to concede.
I said that if he wanted to go forward, that’s fine, but it couldn’t be something under Made in China’s name. I would act in the show, and we could get a director in, but I couldn’t write that piece with you.
T: So then there was a phase of, “let’s work together as a writing partnership, and remake the show. Perhaps there will be some shreds left over”. And that was quite difficult too.
Why was it difficult?
J: What ended up happening was, we made a bad job of splitting up who was doing what and when. We both were doing all of the same things at the same time, because we thought that would mean it was all equal.
But what we needed to do was say, “I’m going to do this, and you do that. And once we’re done, we can switch”. And once we did that − starting to split the tasks up − we were able to very quickly see what we needed, to work together and be playful.
And also, once we admitted that this show is about us, it stopped being terrifying.
Having recently previewed the show at the Latitude Festival and one night at Soho Theatre, how do you feel now?
J: At Latitude, we felt like we were really close. We thought, “we know what it is. And what it is is exciting to us”. Now it’s just about making it more than what it is.
T: It’s a kind of a perfectionism and an ongoing negotiation too.
As difficult as the process has sometimes been, do you feel that you’ve helped develop and enrich each other’s skillsets?
J: Yeah. It’s really interesting. This process has been hard, but what I’m learning is that it’s always going to be hard. And when you’re collaborating with someone you care about, it’s going to make it harder. So you need to say, “it’s going to be hard but we have to remember to like each other”.
T: Editing and writing is very cold work. It’s that whole “kill your baby” thing of having to let go of ideas. And within the context of a loving relationship…
J: That’s the bit that’s really hard. You’ll output and output and output, and the other person will say, “I don’t like it”. And we both get really defensive. You would think we would both recognise that we’re not saying it because we don’t think each other is a good artist. But, at the same time it’s like, “why don’t you fucking love me anymore?” (Laughs)
And it’s so easy to make that leap when you work with your partner. So one of the things I’ve learned is to be gentler in the way that I handle other people’s material. And another is that, “It’s not about you. Be better at not taking it personally”. We’ve both made leaps and bounds.
I love a happy ending. So what’s next?
T: A kid’s show.
J: Yeah we’re making a show for kids. It’s going to be really fun. We’re working on it with Christopher Brett Bailey, and there will be two kids in the show, alongside me and Chris. Two comedy double acts.
All you need is a show with animals, and you’re done.
J: Haha, yeah. “Don’t work with kids, your partner or animals”. Oh my god, I can’t wait to make a show with puppies. That would be so cute to have puppies helping us through the writing.
T: I don’t think much work would get done.
J: But that would be the show. It would be a hundred pages of ‘look how cute the puppy is’!
Sounds great. I’m there.