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Interview: Christopher Brett Bailey & Sleepwalk Collective, Psychodrama

UK/Spanish experimental theatre group Sleepwalk Collective have teamed up with motor-mouthed writer, performer and musician Christopher Brett Bailey, and they are bringing their new show to Battersea Arts Centre this month. Psychodrama is 'a gooey, drippy dream of a show, a pop-cultural exorcism, a runaway train riding a burnt synapse through the centre of your skull...that asks who are all those voices inside your head? and how did they get there? and if you could silence those voices… would you?' If that description doesn't whet your appetite (how could it not?! check your appetite receptors!) the Psychodrama company were kind enough to answer some of our questions. Have a read below and get your tickets booked!

photo by @ladalianegra

How does it feel to be opening a new show with a live-audience on the tail-end (fingers-crossed, touching wood, etc) of a pandemic?

Sammy (Sleepwalk Collective): It’s obviously a little nerve-wracking given how unstable things still feel, but the truth is we’ve been relatively lucky over the last couple of years: we managed to premiere two new shows in the second half of 2020 - Psychodrama, and a new Sleepwalk show called Swimming Pools - and since then have managed to tour both, mostly in Spain where the pandemic’s been better managed. It feels really good though to be coming back to London, and back to Battersea Arts Centre - when the pandemic hit in Spring 2020 we were just about to come over to premiere Swimming Pools, so the fact that we’re finally getting here after all this time carries a lot of symbolic meaning for us. Plus Battersea Arts Centre has always felt like our UK home-from-home.

Christopher (Christopher Brett Bailey): I’m sure glad theatre is back, that we can all huddle together around the campfire again. If Psychodrama is the first show you’re seeing live after two years at home on the couch, well it’s a privilege to reacquaint you with the live spectacle, and we’ll try not to fuck it up.

Chris, I watched Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain cause I heard you recommend it in an interview (I loved it by the way - a filmic smorgasbord of rich and surreal meats) - as two artistic entities working together, is there any media you could point people to that was an inspiration for this piece?

Christopher: Oh good! I’m glad you liked Holy Mountain. For me, that is the perfect movie. Funny, tragic, spiritual, erotic… it has everything. If you haven’t seen it you should stop reading this and go watch it.

Sammy: In terms of inspiration, the first residency for this show we watched a lot of old cartoons. A lot. Mostly classic Betty Boop and Popeye, but plenty of others too. We also watched the 1992 movie Cool World, although I’m not sure we’d actually recommend that (Chris?). Outside of those direct influences there’s a 2002 documentary on The Weather Underground (it was still up on YouTube last time I checked…) which was a big influence on this show for me (and also on most of the other Sleepwalk shows from the last decade in some way or another…).

Christopher: I would recommend Cool World. You read the back of the DVD and you think “this could be the greatest movie of all time… it’s an x-rated remix of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, in which a baby-faced Brad Pitt is a human detective who has vowed to not copulate with cartoons. Only problem is the cartoons are really attractive. What is not to love about that premise?” …But then (spoiler) the movie squanders it and more or less sucks. Despite that, it was a huge influence on this show, as were two other movies we didn’t enjoy: Robert Altman’s Popeye musical, and that awful TV movie about the Manson Murders that we never finished. I think it’s useful to see things that don’t work, to try to figure out why they don’t work, and learn from that.

Sammy: Oh jesus that Manson Murders movie I’d forgotten about that.

The hair looks amazing in the trailers. Wigs? Hairspray? How do you achieve the anti-gravity look?

Sammy: Yeah those are wigs, I don’t think even Chris and iara could make their hair do that :) Both wigs were made by Katie Du’Mont especially for the show, and if I remember correctly the brief was essentially “Chris’ and iara’s regular hair, only more so”.

You’re both artists with distinct, unique styles - what drew you to work with each other on this project? And why now? What instigated the project’s conception?

Sammy: We’ve been fans of Chris’ work for ages and friends for almost as long, and I think we’ve always felt an affinity for each other's work and where it’s coming from and how it’s made. We first started joking about making a show together 5 or 6 years ago I think, and that gradually (and accidentally) turned into more serious thoughts like ‘well what if it could actually work without destroying our friendship, what would that show even look like…?’. And then in early 2019 we did a Top Secret week of tentative no-pressure R&D together in Madrid just to see how it felt, and we had a good time together so we decided to commit for real. And in terms of specific conceptual stuff, we began the process knowing that we wanted to make a show that was in some sense “about cartoons”, and we decided pretty early on that this was going to be a show where the audience would wear wireless headphones throughout, but everything else we ended up figuring out as we went along…

Christopher: We had this running gag that we were completely serious about… that the show was making itself. It felt like an algorithm was programming the show and we were merely puppets. For years I’ve sat in the Sleepwalk audience wishing I could go up onstage and crawl inside the gooey womb that their shows exist in. They’re my favourite little league theatre company, and I am very glad that making a show together hasn’t dinted my appreciation of their work, or shat all-over our friendship. It hasn’t, has it? Or has it? I guess we’ll see if there’s a dressing room punch-up on press night…

Sammy: Yeah it hasn’t ruined our friendship yet, but hey the show is young…(if it does come to a dressing room punch-up though I’d put money on Chris, even if it’s two against one…)

How did you find the writing process, as you collaborate outside of your usual teams?

Sammy: In Sleepwalk we’re used to writing collaboratively in some sense or another - we don’t really know how else to write - but this was our first time working with an artist coming from outside the company, and our first time working with an active interest in how that artist’s work and creative voice might re-shape our own approach to writing and the kind of text that would emerge from that process. It felt good! We already loved Chris’ writing and it was great getting to make a show that now holds a load of things we don’t really know how to do ourselves, but which Chris excels at. Plus I think we all felt like we had permission to try things that we might not normally attempt, and to write in each other’s voices, stuff like that. It all worked weirdly well, and the show’s ended up pretty much a 50/50 split in terms of the writing, and more or less seamlessly assembled - there’s a few sections which maybe feel more obviously like Chris’ voice or like our voice, but a lot of the time authorship shifts imperceptibly from line to line, and there are plenty of sections where I can’t remember who wrote what.

Christopher: And there are instances of me parodying the Sleepwalk voice and vice versa. As the show deals with cartoons, caricatures, exaggerations, and how culture eats itself, that felt like more than just yuks. Conceptually rigorous yuks.

As artists, you seem drawn to exploring the nightmarish, darker side to pop-culture - what is it about pop-culture that you find so alluring?

Sammy: I guess a short answer would be that pop culture - as a vast and constantly evolving language we all write and are written into - now suffuses more or less every moment of our waking and dreaming lives, and so as artists we’d be remiss if we failed to engage with that. And beyond that I really just love the texture of pop culture, the way it can feel cheap and shallow and ephemeral whilst also carrying this incredible imaginative and emotional weight if it wants to (or if we let it…).

Christopher: As for the other part of your question: why explore the dark, nightmarish side? I’m not sure that my work is dark. I find it very uplifting, and I think so do the people who really get it. And Sleepwalk’s stuff? Practically daytime television. It’s a walk in the park… compared to how dark reality can be.

You’ve both been creating experimental live-art/theatre for a number of years now - what’s your advice for anyone hoping for longevity in an eternally changing artistic landscape?

Sammy: It feels fraught trying to give advice for working in an industry that’s so unstable and dysfunctional, especially right now, and I think the onus at the moment should really be on arts institutions to create a coherent system that actually works properly to sustain artists… In truth though, my experience over the last decade or so has been that the secret to longevity doesn’t seem to be much deeper than ‘carry on doing it’. And carry on developing and doing things that feel new to you - the artists I know who have survived aren’t necessarily the artists who were making the most interesting work at the very beginning, it’s the artists who have continued to evolve the furthest. And I guess the advice I most consistently give if I’m asked is make sure that you’re emotionally invested in the artistic work that you’re doing and interested in the process of constantly learning and growing because otherwise you’re going to burn out pretty quickly. Most of the real and tangible rewards come from somewhere inside of that creative process and your own personal journey through it as an artist and as a person, and a lot of the trappings of success - whatever they are, and whenever you actually get to them - can end up feeling hollow and symbolic. Plus a lot of the best and most exciting performance work goes unrecognised anyway. And ok one more thing: take responsibility for your own artistic ecology - supporting work by other artists is hugely rewarding, and creating something together (a scene, a community, whatever it is) is always easier than going it alone.

Christopher: Another way of looking at it is that theatre is antithetical to longevity. Theatre is a dead art form, irrelevant to most people, barely registering as a blip on the radar of mainstream culture, and the moment the show ends it evaporates and is gone forever. Better make peace with that, learn how to ride the wave. And be prepared to do something else to pay the bills and put bread on the table. Almost nobody makes all their living from small scale theatre shows. Everyone has a side hustle, whether they do voiceover work or flip hamburgers or teach yoga.

If someone was considering coming to see your show, what would you say/do to convince them to come along?

Sammy: I’d say it’s a trip! This show was designed to absolutely prioritise the experience that you as an audience member have as you’re carried through it, and while we’ve written it deep enough that there are plenty of hidden details to discover if you want to dig down into the narrative, it’s also totally fine to forget all that and let the words and pictures and music wash over you. However you want to engage with this show is the right way to engage with it.

Christopher: I’d also point out that tickets are ‘pay what you can’, with a minimum donation of £3… so even if you’re bored out of your fucking skull, at least it didn’t break the bank.

Psychodrama is at Battersea Arts Centre from 23 March – 9 April. All tickets are Pay What You Can

All performances are Relaxed, which at BAC means you can take a break, visit our ‘chill out’ room, use our ear defenders, move or make noise during the performance if you need to.

Friday 8 April, 8pm: Captioned performance

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