Features Guest Column Published 30 January 2014

Winners and Losers

Made in China on competition, satire and Gym Party.

Tim Cowbury and Jess Latowicki

As is often the way with ideas, lines and sometimes physical moments in our work, it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly the theme of competition – the central idea explored in Gym Party came from. It must have been brought up in one of our early stop-start “rehearsals”, in which we would lie on the ground thinking for ages then get up and play a game, or make a complex plan of exercises then ignore it and, instead, spend the whole time arguing the minutiae of a specific idea. “Rehearsals” in which we would chit-chat about inanities, show each other music videos online, write or speak memories or personal confessions we thought could be good raw material for a show.

These are some of the things we did way back in autumn 2011.  At that point, we thought we were making a show about identity and place, about how where we come from affects who we are.  By the time we did a scratch at The Basement in Brighton just before Christmas that year, what we had were three rambling monologues, Jess smashing up loads of food and crockery all over the stage, followed by a competition between her, Chris and Ira (the other two performers in the show) to see who could get changed into gym kit the fastest to a song by 80s rock sisters Heart. Somehow, with this strange twenty minutes of material (favourite overheard audience comment: “well will someone tell me what that was all about?”), Gym Party was born. Then we were offered a commission at the National Theatre and everything went on hold, give or take a few meetings and just a couple of those “rehearsals”, for a year.

As we were getting back into Gym Party after making Get Stuff Break Free for the roof of the National, David Cameron made his keynote speech at the Tory Party 2012 Conference.  “I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it,” he said. Hoarse from churning out nearly an hour of soundbites, he ended by bellowing what for us was a breathtakingly idiotic but perversely appealing call-to-arms:

“We know what it takes to win … to win in the tough world of today … to win for all our people … to win for Britain. So let’s get out there and do it!”

Reading these words and watching the speech, we had a burning desire to respond satirically. As Cameron said this, in autumn 2012, the happy glow of the Olympics was still papering over the cracks in a national psyche that had been wounded by the financial crash and its social repercussions. Cameron was trying to milk the Games for all their worth. It seemed to us about as audacious as it was poisonous to use the Olympics to chivvy the country back towards the mind-set that got it into such a mess just a few years before.

To us (untutored as we are in economics) it seemed that, broadly speaking, unchecked competition had brought our society (and, indeed, half the world) close to its knees. We were now being urged to embrace unchecked competition once again. Not that there had ever really been much of a shift in the mainstream conversation away from encouraging competition and good ol’ buccaneering capitalism, but to be so obviously urged right from the “top” to embrace the thing that got us into the mess, in order to get us out? It may have been predictable Tory philosophy, but it was the Prime Minister and it was dangerously well-timed as a PR stunt, so it seemed worth challenging. It seemed like the sort of paradox around which we could build a wonky Made In China satire.

Looking back, we took Cameron’s idea and put it very directly onto the stage. Funny to say that when the camp, bubblegum aesthetic, rapid-fire dialogue, absurd moments and gleeful, reality-TV flavoured games that make up the show seem a world away from politics and party conferences. But we deliberately used some of Cameron’s words verbatim in the final winner’s speech of Gym Party.  And we used a series of games to precede, and so contextualise, these words. In doing this we turned Cameron’s intended message of hope about competitive game spirit into a dark, cruel exposure of what competition yields in the real world. That is, winners and losers, often relatively arbitrarily judged; gain for a few that is only made possible by suffering for numerous others.

We didn’t want, as we started making the show, to purely satirise the desire to compete and win. We all felt it and measured and motivated ourselves by this desire in different ways. Anyway, to satirise the obsession with winning we sensed we had to make it really fun. The story of Gym Party is told by turning tempting narratives on their heads. Specifically, that games are just games, silly and meaningless, without “real” repercussions, that pre-teen competitiveness (the show title refers to dances held for pre-teens in North American school gymnasiums) is cute and ultimately harmless, like in the movies. Our thinking behind using these two tropes of games and pre-teen dances was that they were both apparently soft and easily accessible for audiences. They were familiar cultural reference points ripe for being gradually taken to more uncomfortable places as the show progressed: towards unexpected honesty, vulnerability in the case of the pre-teen stories, and towards dark violence in the case of the games.

The pre-teen stories did help us to give the relatable, “we’re all competitive, it’s sewn into us and it’s kind of OK” narrative a chance, but the games were only ever likely to lead to a damning indictment of Cameron’s call-to-arms. We probably sensed this as soon as Jess suggested Sports Day-style games as a central element of the show, quite early on after hitting on the competition theme. It took us a long time though to create the appropriate final round of games. We were stuck on ways to test which performer would go furthest in a “game” of violence. We toyed with ripping the wings off butterflies live on stage. We listed everyone’s worst nightmares and had a go at enacting them on each other just before previewing the show (a highlight/lowlight of which was burying Ira alive in porridge oats).

And, when we did preview, we had an ending that never made it to the final cut, in which the performers played one-upmanship violence culminating in Chris smashing a golf ball out of Ira’s mouth into the audience. This ending definitely had some things going for it (there’s an interesting discussion of the different endings on Catherine Love’s blog), but a few days before the premiere of the show, we found a final round of games that involved a new level of audience commitment rather than that of the performers. In some ways, it’s a gentle ending, but with a big sting in its tail – and it’s the one which remains in the show as it tours this spring. Let the games (re)commence.

Gym Party is touring the UK from 19th February – 5th June.

Photo: Jemima Yong.