‘The meaning of life is that it stops.’
‘When you’re 30 dark circles appear under your eyes and fine lines and wrinkles begin to show.’
Anti-aging wrinkle cream advert
A woman stands on the brink of a life she is failing at and a death she is also failing at. ‘To be or not to be?’ is the question. Through one doorway she dies, only to have failed at life, through the other, she lives, only to have failed at death. Or she could have succeeded at life and death respectively; I suppose it depends which way you look at it.
A show about show, performance and the ego: an existential crisis told through a variety of mediums including opera, clowning and conceptual dance.
‘Theodora van der Beek is a brilliantly understated comic writer and performer who draws on the work of Andy Warhol and Lady Gaga, as well as the punk spirit of Deborah Harry and the Sex Pistols.’
My Death is my first solo show, the story of a woman who thinks that she's failing at life and decides to die, only to find that she's not very good at dying either. I first performed it at The Rag Factory, just off Brick Lane, and then at Camden People's Theatre as part of their SPRINT festival 2015. I return in January 2018 to The Pleasance in London, before a run at Edinburgh in their 2018 fringe festival.
Here is an interview I did for online theatre magazine The New Current.
Hey Theodora, thanks for talking to TNC, how have things been going?
Hectic but exciting! The big jigsaw is gradually taking shape...
How does it feel to be part of CPT Sprint 2015?
Very special as it’s the first festival I’ve been in with a solo piece. I’ve always loved CPT as a venue - it has a collaborative ethos which makes you feel welcomed and inspired.
Any finishing touches?
Always! There are a million more ideas I want to try out. I’m particularly excited about some ‘Moon Shoes’ I just won on eBay, that I’m going to use for my ghost scene: they let you bounce as you walk. I’ll need to practise walking in them so I can sing at the same time. I will have a big skirt and restricted vision, so I hope I can make it work; though either way it will be entertaining! I want to develop this piece a lot, and getting it out there in front of this audience is an important step on the journey, not the final one. I’m excited to see how people are going to react.
What has been the biggest challenge you've faced putting your new show together?
In writing the show I tried not to let anything get in the way of my imagination, silly little things like not being able to sing opera or speak Russian - so when it was written there were a few things I needed to learn how to do. I’ve tried to make each part as close to as the real thing as possible by asking professionals to teach me different skills. My Technical Director Andrey Kastelmacher’s first language is Russian, so he translated and helped me with the pronunciation. The tap dance: I definitely still need to work on!
Do you ever get nervous when you're bringing your work to audiences?
The moment before I go on stage is always the same: my whole body’s shaking and I’m thinking ‘Why do I do this?’ But when I get on stage there’s this enormous sense of release and enjoyment. When it’s your own work you’ve only got yourself to rely on or let down and you’re just there, having an interaction with the audience. I’m used to live, improvised events so I’ve had to embrace the idea that things will go wrong and that’s okay, it’s part of it, and it’s what gives those performances their renegade edge. When you have no time to think and you just have to open your mouth and say something, that thing can turn out to be outrageous or inappropriate. You never know until it’s too late. I try to retain that element of danger because I think the audience can tell.
Has it been surprising to get the type of reaction you've gotten for your work?
It sounds stupid but the laughter always catches me by surprise. Even though I’m trying to make people laugh, my characters all take themselves very seriously, so the first time I do something in front of an audience I always get caught out by it. First I’m confused and I wonder why they’re laughing at me, and then I have to stay with it instead of seeing the joke - laughter’s contagious, so I’ve had to practise not laughing when other people laugh. I’ve never been good at that.
Tell me a little bit about My Death, how did it the show come about?
My Death is about a woman who thinks that she’s failing at life and so decides to die, only to discover that she’s not very good at that either. I describe it as an existential crisis told through a variety of performance styles including opera, puppetry and conceptual dance. In this sense it is a show about show, performance and the ego: a mockery of the conviction every one of us has that the world revolves around us.
It came about as I was approaching my 30th birthday, with the received sense of impending doom that arrives along with it: there was an advert a few years ago for anti-ageing wrinkle cream with the line ‘When you’re 30 dark circles appear under your eyes and fine lines and wrinkles begin to show.’ It was at the same time absurd and terrifying. There is the sense that by the time you reach 30 you’re supposed to have achieved something or made something of yourself. I found it funny the way we’ve made this arbitrary milestone and treat it with such authority. As my character reasons when she decides to end her life: ‘After all, I was near 30: it was time to go’.
It’s become increasingly possible in this technological age to carefully structure the image you present to the world. So much information is, or can be readily available: our online profiles are the advertisements of ourselves, the brand of the person we want to project. My Death is a reaction to that, a parody of the lengths people go to to appear a certain way.
What was the main inspiration behind your new play?
I always loved something Kafka said when he described all his writing as the childish desire to imagine his own funeral and see how sorry people were that he had gone - the whole show is a playful representation of this kind of Pyrrhic Victory. The sad clown that wastes his life uploading smiling images of himself to Facebook so that people will see how happy he is, despite this process making him perpetually sad.
When did you realise you wanted to create theatre?
When I was little I used to sit in the bath for hours acting out stories with all the different characters. It’s the best place to do it because you can use the water to change your hair and the bubbles can be used to make beards and fancy clothes. It was a race against time before the bubbles popped and the water went cold. That’s probably when I knew...
What has been the most valuable lesson you've learned so far?
Just to leap in and do it. Any problem can be worked out while you’re doing it. And if you just sit around thinking about doing it, you’ll only end up with thoughts that no-one else will ever know about.
Who have been your biggest inspirations?
A long history of clowns - the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Blackadder, Chris Morris, Alan Partridge, Miranda July, Amy Poehler and Sacha Baron Cohen.
But also, in another way, people who meticulously construct their public image and take themselves very seriously: Vladimir Putin, Kim Kardashian, Kim Jong Un. People who take loads of selfies of themselves pouting.
Do you have a favourite theatre quote?
Artaud said ‘We are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theatre has been created to teach us that first of all.’ I like trying to get my head round that.
And finally what do you hope people will take away from your new play?
The central message is quite simple - don’t panic about what’s expected of you or what you think you should be, just worry about who you actually are. It would be nice if no-one still cared what sexuality other people were or what they want to wear, for example… but all over the world people are still being persecuted for being gay or wanting to wear trousers if they are girls or dresses if they are boys. That’s crazy! I hope My Death in some small way gets them to think about that.
Egg is a solo theatre show that hatched from an egg costume. While working for the Royal Society for the Pursuit of Lovebirds (RSPLB: amateur birdwatching society and expert dating agency) I mentioned I'd always wanted to be an egg on legs. They contacted artist Tim Spooner, and my dream became a reality. After developing into a cabaret act I was convinced of the potential for a full length show.
Egg is the story of one yolk's quest to make it in a human world. An analogy for any outsider of underdog forced to navigate within a hostile environment, it discusses the mechanics of power and privilege. A dynamic voyage with feminist undertones: the egg is at once powerful and powerless, comedic and majestic. The yolk emerges from the shell, at first timid and wary, before becoming glorious, and ultimately angry at her fate: fried in a pan. She is born androgynous, but is quickly gendered by the world she has hatched into. Her eyes are fresh, allowing me to ask the audience to look at our world with similarly fresh eyes.
'Delightful and disorientating... a dizzying chain of events, played out with obvious joy' - Plays To See
Surprising! Fantastical! Bold! A coming of age journey that tackles age-old questions like ‘What came first?’
Egg has been to: Camden People's Theatre as part of their SPRINT festival 2016 and then again in March 2017; Winner of the Morley College Edinburgh prize 2016; Impfest at Hornsey Town Hall Arts Centre 2016 and a full run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at Bourbon Bar as part of PBH's Free Fringe.
Egg as a cabaret act has performed at: Duckie at Royal Vauxhall Tavern, FLESH Hull, CUNTemporary at Bethnal Green Working Men's Club; for Rueben Kaye at the Cockpit Theatre; Theatre Mono at The Coach & Horses; Shoreditch House; the Salon Collective; Cossall Arts Cabaret; Properganda at The Others, The Breakfast Club, as well as Glastonbury, Wilderness and Bestival festivals with the RSPLB.
The Adventures of The Bearded Lady is a show I am currently writing. It's a fairytale Bildungsroman, a feminist voyage telling the life story of our heroine, her struggles to understand the societal limits on her gender and eventual acceptance of herself as a woman.
I've tried out some ideas for it at Camden People's Theatre, and Richmix with Mingbeasts. These photos are from a project by artist Immy Webb, who wanted to recreate old paintings that were usually of men, but with women. The subject was asked to gather together items that represented their personality, and then photographed with them. The portrait behind me is of my mother on her 16th birthday. The Bearded Lady felt like the right subject fro the portrait, and stares defiantly at the artist.
I'm the Bearded Lady,
I'm fearless, and I'm shady,
I've hair on my back and my muscles are stacked,
My Adam's apple is fully intact
And I eat my meat with gravy.
At my time of the month I'm doolally,
I'll stay in and bake scones with Aunt Sally,
I'll iron my shirts though they're covered in dirt,
And you'd get a fright if you met me at night,
Tiptoeing home down an alley!
And I weep all night when I drink,
I eat Spam but my underwear's pink,
I once killed a cow,
But don't ask me how,
And I work on the land with my manicured hands,
And nobody cares what I think!
A dialogue between masculinity and feminity. What does it mean to be masculine or feminine, and what does it mean to be male or female?
How do we display our gender outwardly? The Bearded Lady clings to these outer signals, defining herself in turns as male and female, trying desperately to gain identity as one or the other. She poses, distorts her body into appealing shapes, though these are extreme to the point that they become meaningless or ridiculous. She switches between the male and the female, and at times appears to be almost one or the other, never quite managing to settle.
She panics: trying so hard to find somewhere to belong that she doesn't realise she might have somewhere. She is blinded by the lights, show business persuades her that the loss of her beard at puberty was a tragedy. In this way she parodies the preoccupation for (especially) women of the loss of youth, those that try anything in order to remain young at any cost.
The Bearded Lady embodies a beautiful ugliness and an ugly beauty. She cannot be real. Even when she is baring her soul she is governed absolutely by what she looks like to an audience. There is a private way of crying and a public one. The private way has informed the public way, but it is a diluted, shadowy copy, that aims to retain the sadness - a romantic image - but also the ugliness of the act. Her songs martyr her:
I am a fraud.
In my quest for adoration
I misplaced the invitation,
I'm neither fish nor fowl
Though I won't hand in the towel
I'd live by the sword and die by the sword;
If only I had a sword.
Which I don't.
But I won't be deplored
& I won't be ignored
Though I'll admit to you and yours
I am a fraud.
I am a broad.
Broadly speaking I have traits
That the other sex demonstrates,
But in the biblical sense
I've got two sets of lips
And childbearing hips
& two perky... Oh, what's the use?
I am obtuse.
A loose cannon
I suppose I amuse you
I am a fraud.
The artists are allowed complete freedom to show what they want, and I try to get a big variety in the works shown. The word 'artist' is used inclusively to mean 'person who creates something', and has included chefs, scientists, business executives and the homeless.
One of the best things about Scribble Pie are the collaborations, ideas and romantic liasons to have come out of it. The event that is always happening!
If you would like more information, or to apply to show work, please contact me. I am all ears, and welcome any suggestion - however wild or seemingly impossible.
What started as an adhoc experiment with a video camera quickly became a multi-faceted project, with filmed content and live shows, in which the audience become the live studio audience. We collaborate with over 30 artists to create immersive theatrical experiences, and Emilia Crimble and Susan have become stars in their own rights, presenting club nights and award ceremonies all over the world.
You can follow Emilia on Twitter @emiliacrimble