GEMMA PAINTIN IS a member of Action Hero, a theatrical collaboration between herself and James Stenhouse. I recently talked to her about her journey with Action Hero, their creative process and what audiences can expect from their new show Wrecking Ball.
You and James have worked together for many years. How did that collaboration start?
We studied together as undergraduates and we both did a master’s degree at the same time. After that we just started working on a project together that had come out of James’ final master’s piece. We saw an opportunity to show it at an open call and it went well, so we applied for another one and got invited to show it there. It was a gradual process of us starting to show our work and each time we would be invited to show it somewhere else. So the first thing we made together was in 2005, but we have known each other since 1999.
Action Hero strives to connect with the audience in a profound way. Why did the two of you want to focus so heavily on that aspect of theatre?
We decided we wanted to make our first piece of work – A Western – in a bar purely for practicality. We didn’t have any money to buy stuff or make anything, so we thought we’ll work with the fact that there will be eighty people in the room with us. Then we just became really interested in the relationship between the audience and performer. Most of our shows ask a question of what is the nature of the relationship between the people on the stage doing something and the people sitting down watching something. Wrecking Ball is not really a participatory piece. It’s still very much to us about the relationship between the audience and performer because it thinks about the way that the audience look and how the act of looking might be an active thing in itself. So in the very beginning the way we worked with the audience was a practical thing, but in the decade that we’ve been working together it has become a more sophisticated way of thinking about participation and the many ways that might manifest.
Wrecking Ball is the first ‘play’ from Action Hero and you have previously described it as ‘a site-specific piece for a theatre space.’ What was the writing process like?
Our process is always different because our pieces are always different, so we always end up making them in various ways. We were interested in the subject matter of the show and were searching around for what might be the right medium for it. We realised half way through that it would be a play. We say it’s a play half–jokingly. In a way the piece doubles back on itself within the play. We spent a lot of time in the rehearsal room working with those texts that we had written and thought about how they would work in performance. Right up until about six months ago we had showed it a few times and it was shifting a lot in terms of we knew how it was going to end, but the structure and narrative in the middle was unclear. The narrative of what happens is not as important as the kind of overall sense of the piece as a whole.
So the narrative tends to come after the wider theme of the piece is decided?
We tend to write collaboratively and the act of writing itself is very broad for us. We will often end up with chunks of text sections which we try and put together, so often a narrative or through line of the piece can be left until the last minute and we don’t know what that would be. We will have a sense of the feel of it, but we don’t necessarily know how we are going to get from A to B. That reveals itself along the process.
What is the dynamic like being both a writer and a performer? Would you ever want to change that?
In Hoke’s Bluff there was another performer and she was involved in the devising. We might work with other people if that’s what the project demanded, but we’ve never worked with a director either. It’s a whole process for us and we’re not really interested in the division of labour as it is in the traditional theatre process. Unless there was a particular reason why one of us didn’t want to perform it then I imagine we will continue to work this way. We’re invested in a long term collaboration with each other, so no piece stands alone as it’s always in relation to the rest of the work that we’ve made. For us it’s not about individual pieces of work, it’s about pursuing this creative collaboration; we’ve worked together for eleven years now and we hope to work together for many more.
How does your process intertwine with James’?
I guess neither of us have ever made solo work professionally, so our process has developed together. It somehow fits in between us, so it’s hard to know where the edges of my process end and the beginning of James’ start. It’s interesting for us as to why some collaborations really work and some don’t and I don’t know why we work together well, we just do. We invest a lot of time and energy into the collaboration as this kind of third space.
It must be easier to work together when all of your pieces are so different…
Yes, even though I feel pretty experienced as a maker in terms of my professional career and as a student, every time we start making a project I feel like I have no idea how we are going to do it! Quite often we will have a strong idea or vision in our heads about what the piece is going to be, but most of the time we have absolutely no idea how we’re going to get there.
Finally, what do you hope audiences will take from Wrecking Ball?
The piece is interested in how we look, what it means to see some of the images in popular culture constructed for you and the way that they shape the world around us. What’s interesting to me is our ideas of who we are and what the world is are being shaped by people who we might not necessarily think we want to world to be shaped by.
Wrecking Ball will be performed at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 30th November at 7:30pm.