Interview with Daniel Bye at Edinburgh Festival 2007

I went up to Edinburgh festival for the first time in 2007. I was operating tech for a one-man show called ‘Wunderkind’ and writing reviews for a website called ‘Fringe Review’. Probably the most successful piece of writing I did that year was the following interview with theatremaker Daniel Bye. We met in a dingy dressing room on Cowgate and talked about performance and politics. At that point I hadn’t made much work, so I was coming at things from a position of untested ideology – but these are still the kinds of questions I am seeking to explore in practice.

HC
You’re involved in two productions here in Edinburgh, Can of Worms, which you’ve devised with Strange Bedfellows and Man Across the Way, which you’re directing.In many ways they’re very different shows but they seem to share some themes – both deal with terrorism and appear sceptical of the authorities that protect us from terrorist threat.

DB
It’s fair to say both shows ask questions about civil liberties – what it’s permissible or necessary to do in order to defend liberty.

HC
So which comes first for you – theatre or politics?

DB
Well I read newspapers, I follow abstruse internet blogs; I try and keep in touch with what’s going on politically…and theatre is my medium so my interests come through in my work.

HC
But you don’t set out to make a political statement?

DB
I think I’m attracted by the relevance of these themes at the moment. I didn’t bombastically set out to make two shows about the (presumed) terror threat and the subsequent attack on civil liberties that that’s kind of…enabled, but I’m very pleased that those themes have allowed me to ask questions that I think should be asked now.

HC
About a year ago there was talk of a revival of politically relevant filmmaking in Hollywood.

DB
Oh yeah? [laughs]

HC
With films like Lord of War with Nicholas Cage and so on.

DB
Yeah – United 93 was a great movie.

HC
But what about the danger that a ‘politically committed’ piece of entertainment can easily act like a soothing poultice for our collective guilty conscience? I’m thinking of that horrible, self-congratulatory, Oscar-worthy ‘political relevance’?

DB
Well what I liked about United 93 was that it was intelligible on a completely human level – all of the people involved in that event, including the hijacking terrorists were human beings with human motives and human grievances…and I thought that was a very powerful statement in that it’s a sop to no-one’s conscience and a challenge to everyone’s preconceptions. It asks questions about our presumptions about terrorists. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Without being glib, I think condemning these acts is a big mistake. You don’t resolve a dispute by shooting the other guy. This is the kind of territory that both the shows I’ve brought here are rooting around in.

HC
Well that’s a nice philosophy but does it produce any change in the problems it identifies? It’s not as though people were storming out of the cinema ready to change the world after seeing Nicholas Cage as a dodgy arms merchant.

DB
I’m not sure that kind of angry activism is so productive. I had a discussion with one of my actors the other day about the journalist John Pilger, who’s a very angry man. Now I agree with Pilger on about 85% of issues, but I don’t like his work because he treats it as a war – a war to convince the Right that they are wrong, to convince Capitalism to go away…but he’s not really trying to convince them, he’s just chucking stuff at them. If I want to convince someone of something I’ll sit down and have a chat, perhaps write an essay, bash out another page of the blog. But that’s not what I’m trying to do with theatre. For me theatre is about providing an experience that surprises an audience, which perhaps causes them to re-examine their conceptions and beliefs. I was just talking to a friend of mine outside who saw MATW the other day, and I don’t think she particularly liked the show, but afterwards she went and had a two-hour conversation with her friend about terrorism. Obviously I’d have preferred her to have loved it, but if we’re provoking those kinds of discussions I think we’re succeeding on at least one level. It’s about a process of questioning. Condemning the authorities as fascist bastards can be satisfying but in my view it’s unproductive.

HC
What you say about United 93 seems very appropriate to MATW – Oliver Emanuel’s script skilfully turns an encounter between the police and a terrorist suspect into a very human drama. But COW takes a much more farcical approach to authority –

DB
Yes, you wouldn’t accuse COW of subtlety! That’s just the nature of the show – the clowning and comedy aren’t subtle. From the start of Strange Bedfellows we’ve been trying to use clown to explore things that clown shouldn’t be used to explore. Was it Jacques Lecoqwho said that clowns can’t engage with politics because if you give a clown anything to do they’ll fuck it up. That’s the nature of being a clown – clowns can’t do anything properly. So if you give a clown a political opinion to hold they’ll immediately debunk it. But actually I think that’s a really interesting way of exploring politics.

HC
But do you think a show as brash as COW can produce the kind of complex response we were just talking about? I mean, doesn’t it just announce a singular, satirical opinion on the issues it deals with? Isn’t it just a (very dark and funny) piss take?

DB
Well the delicate balance in making COW has been how to explore this issue about which we have very strong feelings and which we’re going to blow up to the n’th degree of buffoonery without just hammering away at it. I guess the idea is to make people laugh at the appalling things that are being said and done, and as the show goes on hopefully to start to interrogate that laughter. We want people to think, “I can’t believe I’m laughing at this – why am I laughing at this?” – and to leave them with that question after the show is over.
When I come on stage as the terrorist suspect I’m playing it for real. I don’t know whether you can tell that because I’ve got a bag over my head, but I’m not clowning…actually I’m playing a very similar thing to Nick, who plays the terrorist suspect in MATW, I’m playing a very similar mix of fear and defiance. Again I don’t know whether that comes across fully because there’s these two idiots dicking about around me, and it’s right that you focus should stay with them; but I think its important that that figure is a serious one and that the audience continue to laugh. Every day I stagger on stage and I wonder whether they’ll still laugh, and they do and I think “Christ, I’ve created a monster – what are you laughing at? This is appalling.” And of course that’s the point. A major vein in contemporary humour is creating laughter out of extreme discomfort…well we’re trying to provoke laughter that causes the discomfort. So you laugh and then you think “I shouldn’t be laughing at that.” Can of Worms is much the angrier show – it does just say “this is stupid; what the fuck are we playing at?” But I think because of the precise way the laughter works it’s more complex than simply watching it and saying “aren’t these people stupid.”

HC
Where do women fit into all this? The John Cleese-like slapstick of COW feels like a specifically male condition to me, and Oliver Emanuel’s script for MATW focuses on male denial/delusion – the cop Fraser refuses to accept that his relationship with his wife is breaking down and, losing reasonable judgement, abuses his authority as a policeman to condemn the suspect without any real evidence. Do you see yourself as making male theatre?

DB
Well you’ve just seen the wrong two plays. I work on all kinds of theatre – the last thing I did was a play about Elizabethan women with a cast of 12, only three of whom were men. But yes these are shows about men. Most of the idiotic political decisions that are made are made by men; most of the senior strata of the civil service is male; most cops are male, particularly the more gung-ho cops are male…

HC
So what’s next?

DB
Every year Olly and I go out for pizza and decide what we’re going to do next, but that’s next week so I don’t know yet.

HC
But it might be pizza based?

DB
Possibly.

HC
What kind of topping?

DB
I like black olives and prosciutto. It’s probably going to involve more of a devising process and a more complete collaboration between Olly and I. This is the first Strange Bedfellows show and we’ve got a couple of ideas for future projects but we don’t know what the next show is going to be. We’ve got an idea for a show about Shakespeare, an idea for a show about Pontius Pilote…and there’s some left-over sketches hanging around with some wonderful characters that I want to explore…so we might make a sketch show alongside the next theatre show. And in the Autumn I’m going to be working on an adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner for solo performer on treadmill, where the performer (who’ll be me) will cover 10K in the course of a 50 minute show while talking to an audience.

HC
Sounds almost like performance art!

DB
Imagine a three way Venn diagram with comedy and theatre and performance art, I want to be working somewhere in the middle of that. Maybe in a similar area to the work of someone like Tim Crouch or Will Adamsdale.

Daniel Bye is a theatre maker based in York. On the web he is found at:
http://www.danielbye.co.uk

Interview previously published in URA magazine in 2008

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About hughchapmansblog

Poet and performance maker based in Cambridge and London

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