Couple bust taboo

John Bailey, Interview: Bryony Kimmings

Bryony Kimmings, Tim Grayburn, Fake It ‘til You Make It

Bryony Kimmings, Tim Grayburn, Fake It ‘til You Make It

Bryony Kimmings, Tim Grayburn, Fake It ‘til You Make It

When we talk about taboos there’s usually the frisson of the forbidden. There’s a fascination that seems to draw its energy from the tension between repulsion and freakish curiosity, but in most cases it’s because bestiality or cannibalism or whatever British MPs get up to behind closed doors is so far from our own experience that we can peek at the awfulness without getting too close. The subject of Bryony Kimmings’ latest work is billed as a taboo topic, but if it doesn’t carry that same crackling electricity, it’s all the more daring for it.

Before proceeding, a caveat. Kimmings is one of the most provocative and exciting artists working in the UK today, and she could make a story about auditing your taxes into something hilarious and heart-wrenching in equal measure. I can’t think of a more promising talent to take on the topic of male depression without falling prey to the pitfalls of therapy theatre, righteous sermonising or ‘boring but important’ art.

Fake It ‘til You Make It

Fake It ‘til You Make It sees Kimmings sharing the stage with her partner of seven years, Tim Grayburn, who has never performed before. Six months after they moved in together, Kimmings found a packet of anti-depressants in Grayburn’s backpack and what followed was another six months in which they discussed what had led him to keep from the world the fact of his depression and anxiety for close to a decade.

“We went through this whole process of battling with this conditioning that he’d obviously had since he was a child,” she says. “Most men probably have, where it appears weak to have the crying disease. He was pretty much the classic locked-box geezer, and we spent a lot of time going backwards and forwards about why that might be. Just exploring. After that six month period I think he’d come around to the fact that actually talking about it made it 50 times better just in itself…He was suddenly like ‘I feel so liberated, I cannot believe I just spent eight years hiding it. I need to pass this information on.’”

Before agreeing to make a performance with Kimmings, Grayburn presented her with four rules. The first was that it had to be about clinical depression and men (the only alternative was advertising, “and advertising would be the worst show ever,” she says.) The second was that Grayburn wouldn’t have to look the audience in the eye, which became its own artistic catalyst. “So he spends 50 minutes of the show with various things covering his head, from sunglasses to paper bags to these elaborate structures that we got our designer to make. Then right at the end he’s got the delicious opportunity to stand there, in that moment, and take that thing off.”

The third rule was that Grayburn got to learn to play the guitar and take professional lessons, which Kimmings admits was less a creative condition and more of a bribe she agreed to. The last stipulation he put to her was that “he always appear like a man’s man, ‘like Robert Redford in Out of Africa’.”

Male mental illness is really less of a taboo than a “public secret,” says Kimmings, and though statistics indicate that there are few lives untouched in some way by depression and anxiety these are still diseases too often suffered in private. Fake It features singing and dancing and the “usual plethora of crap” Kimmings introduces into her work, but the normalcy of its subject matter is what has proven most engaging. “Everyone really seems to like it when we just talk to each other like we do at home. Or there’s moments where he might trip me over, or I might get really annoyed with him for not putting something in the right place. It seems to be that part of the collaboration that’s actually the most interesting and most humanity-focused.”

A circuitous career

Kimmings’ artistic career has been a circuitous one. After finishing high school she found herself working an unfulfilling retail job at H&M and thinking, “I cannot do this.” But she “didn’t have any ambition and was a bit muddled up,” she says. She decided to enrol at London’s Brunel University (“I only went there because my friend went there”) and opted for a degree in Modern Drama Studies.

“Luckily it was like Marina Abramovic, Franko B, Anne Bean,” she says. “Essentially like a performance art studies course. I didn’t study a single text, never had to act, and lots of people dropped out going ‘what is this weird stuff?’ but I thought ‘this is amazing!’”

Upon graduating, however, she spent several years trying to develop work but to little end, due to “not really having much to say, I suppose.” She moved into producing and focused on dance, rather than performance art, since she’d seen others attempting to produce work in the same field as their own practice only to face resistance. In her 20s she became involved in the fertile London club scene that produced a crop of talented performance makers such as Scottee, but it wasn’t until the age of 29 that she premiered her own full-length show, Sex Idiot (RT120).

Six years later, that show is still touring (most recently at this year’s Adelaide Fringe). It’s an exploration of Kimmings’ own sexual history brought about by the discovery that she had contracted an STI, which spurred her to track down former lovers to discover its source. Each encounter led to the creation of a piece of performance, the collection of which make up the structure of Sex Idiot. The work is “such a navel-gazing show,” she laughs. “Luckily the things that happen in Sex Idiot, most people go ‘oh god, that’s me,’ to one or two of those things.”

Her more recent creations have escaped the threat of a similar inwardness by introducing collaborators such as Grayburn and her nine-year-old niece Taylor (in the astonishing Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model; see RT120). Works currently in development include a Theatre Complicite-commissioned collaboration with seven female cancer survivors to produce a musical that explores “the feminist story of cancer, the economic story of cancer, the race story of cancer,” and a Royal Court project working with young men from council estates across the UK who are usually the subject of villainised or criminalised stereotypes.

This act of expanding her practice by incorporating others has brought its own challenges. The day after Fake It premieres in Perth, she says, “I’ve already had to deal with the fact that it’s (Grayburn) that everybody wants to watch, not me. He’s the main character. I’m just the narrator, really, facilitating his story. Last night I came off the stage and thought I really don’t know my place in this work. I think I’m still figuring that out.”

Bryony Kimmings, Fake It ‘til You Make It, Theatre Works, Melbourne, 18 March-5 April

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 32

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

23 February 2015