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Paula Varjack In Conversation with Louise Orwin

Paula Varjack: Through our tag team challenge Videohead2head, we have been setting video prompts for each other. Why did this appeal to you as an idea?

Louise Orwin: I had a moment of clarity doing a press interview last year, where I was asked where inspiration for my work comes from. This is a question which I’ve been asked over and over through the years- and despite being part of a community of incredible makers with a rich heritage, I felt I always struggled to answer the question in a satisfactory way. But when this question was asked to me last year around the touring of my show Oh Yes Oh No, I had a lightbulb moment where I realised that so much of my work is actually inspired more by cinema than theatre or performance. Don’t get me wrong- I love so many aspects of both those things (liveness, community, a chance encounter with a stranger), and I wouldn’t continue to make in that form if I didn’t, but it slowly dawned on me that my head was full of these aesthetic ideas that come from being a huge cinema buff.

I’m actually having a bit of a lol now as I write this, because this is probably SO obvious to anyone whose seen my work [eg A Girl and A Gun and CRYCRYKILLKILL which draws massively on cinematic references]. But sometimes that’s the way it works as an artist doesn’t it? I find over and over again in my practice that I’m suddenly conscious to some unconscious process that had been working on me and my work for years. Anyway, after having that revelation about where so much inspiration comes from in my work it made me really want to lean into that, and then over the course of our lockdown chats and chatting over both of our processes and interests, it felt like this would be an amazing way of beginning to do that. The great thing about the challenge for me is that having these deadlines we set for each other, make it feel so much about process rather than outcome, which makes it the perfect platform for true experimentation with and interrogation of the form. And its obvs a great way of getting to collaborate and share process insights with you which is the cherry on top.

PV: How would you describe the role of video in your practice and how do you see it developing/ want to develop it?

LO: I’ve always seen myself as a multi-disciplinary artist, and that’s important for me because it allows me to play with framing and experience more: I understand that an audience’s experience of a monologue, for example, will be completely different if its done live, or mediated through video, or even if it’s just presented as projected text on the wall. I’d say all of my shows play with these different forms (I’m a sucker for beautiful long form text as you know!), and I’m always challenging myself to really ensure the form is always informed by content and vice versa. These things are important to me because I think in many of my works I play with a murky, ever shifting sense of self-identity. So, even if I’m playing a ‘character’, there will be slips in text or form which allude to the artist ‘Louise’ or writer ‘Louise’ underneath. As so much of my work has a real-life research element, it's important to keep reminding my audience to interrogate where the material has come from- so this slipping in between personas is a way of doing that.

In terms of video in particular, there are several reasons. I have a full on fetish for CRT televisions and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. JK. No, but honestly I fully embrace my vintage TV and analogue video perviness. As I mentioned I am a huge cinema fan and so much of my work is in dialogue with what I see as either a conscious or unconscious archive of cinema or TV that we all hold in our heads. The idea that so many of our cognitive horizons are formed from what we’ve consumed in these forms in terms of politics, gender, sexuality and so of. I love playing with cinema tropes because I think they can be a really effective way of interrogating our own unconscious biases around these topics. I feel like I slept through life for so long with all these things working on me unconsciously, and I see a lot of my work as a personal untangling of these things, hoping that audiences might relate as they become witness to that process.

#CRYCRYKILLKILL - Photo Credit Ludo des Cognets

PV: What are filmmakers/films that you find yourself returning to for inspiration and why?

LO: This changes with the seasons. When I was making A Girl and A Gun it was nouvelle vague and B movies, but it’s currently Sofia Coppola and Celine Sciamma- which were inspirations for my most recent VIDEOHEAD film ‘Everytime’. Sofia Coppola is a long time love in terms of her work with how she presents teenage girls and boredom (which now I think of it was probably partially an inspiration for my show Pretty Ugly). With Celine Sciamma, I’ve been obsessed with the way she presents queer femininity, and her use of colour and natural lighting. She also has a thing for working with teenage girls, which is something I come back to time and time again in my practice. For me teenage girls are this fucking incredible apex of fashion and culture and beginning to know yourself which is so heady and important- as I used to say: women want to look like them, fashion designers take their inspiration from them, men want to fuck them (gross sorry, but its true). I think back to those years of my life- the emo diary writing, the wannabe singer-songwriting days, how its a time of firsts, of immense highs and lows, and often think I might have been at my most creative then. (Hopefully that’s not really true, but you get the point).

PV: You have directed, made live art solo work, theatre performances and events, is there anything you see similar in your approach to making, or do you feel they occupy very different ways of creating?

LO: I think I occupy very different roles in all those spaces, but that those spaces might have something in common. So for example me as a director or facilitator is very different to me in performance which can be often any combination of provocative/adolescent/princess-y etc. I think what makes those spaces similar is something to do with tone. These spaces are always playful, surprising, provocative and aim to have you leaving the space somehow altered to how you arrived.

PV: Your new show ‘CRY CRY KILL KILL’ involves a big cast and a lot of physical contact, its the opposite of a show in the current climate. How do you now imagine it? Are you planning to adapt it for different possibilities, online, distanced etc? Or do you feel that you want to hold onto it in its current form so you can present as you originally intended? If both, how do you weigh up both?

LO: Yes this is something I’ve been grappling with recently. CRY CRY KILL KILL is definitely my most ambitious project yet. The vision for it is that eventually it will have a core cast of 4, including Alicia Jane Turner my sound collaborator who will be creating the score live on stage, alongside an ambitious AV set up of TVs and live video feeds (there’s that fetish again), algonside an additional cast of different non-professional wrestlers, who will make up a different CRY CRY KILL KILL fight club in each different touring location, and will join us on stage live every night. When COVID19 hit, we were due (as you were) to finally present a full work in progress with all these moving parts at Barbican, and then moving towards a premiere in the autumn. When all that got cancelled, I thought seriously about downsizing the show until I reminded myself that so much of this show is about taking up space and I thought- fuck it, this show happens in its full form- with a glorious mess of ‘othered’ bodies (the cast is entirely made up of queer, trans, femme and disabled humans) indulging in taking up space- or it doesn’t happen at all.

Through the pandemic, me and my core collaborators have been trying to keep up some sort of artistic process together (which tbh to date has just meant group watching horror movies on zoom- try it!!!), and there are plans afoot to begin some remote working around the show’s audio later in the year (which will hopefully appear in the public domain in October- watch this space). But for now, I don’t think it proper development will resume until early next year. Which is sad, yes, but I can’t tell you how good it feels to create proper boundaries around an artistic vision, and really say YES to that even if it means saying no to other things.

#CRYCRYKILLKILL - Photo Credit Ludo des Cognets

PV: Do you have any questions for me?

LO: I spoke a bit about realisations I’ve had in my work around things unconsciously informing my practice. Do you feel like you’ve had any moments like this in your career? If there were things unconsciously driving your work what would they be?

PV: As I've made work over the course of my practice, I have generally been someone who lives certain experiences that raise questions for me, who then uses those experiences to create something from them. It’s only recently, because now it's been ten years or so of making performance, that I've created a body of work I can look back on and go: What are the themes that I've returned to? What are the forms that I've returned to? What are the links between everything that I've made? And what I can say is that ever since I began to develop performance practice, I've been committed to continually and consistently training, and finding points of inspiration. So I'm actively always going out of my way to be informed by societal trends, to be informed by different artistic practices, to challenge myself in the ways that I make work.

In terms of moments that have specifically taken me in certain directions in my career , I think probably the first one that comes to mind, was very early in my practice. I was in Madrid coming to the end of a residency, and then realised I was running out of steam applying for things and also running out of my overdraft. It felt like I had only started my performance career, and it was already screeching to a halt. But then suddenly, it occurred to me that I might not be the only person having an existential crisis around how to survive from making artistic work. That set me on this journey to have a series of conversations, that then became interviews, that then became research, which then became the basis of a performance video and research project Show Me The Money. And what that did is embed me in a much broader way within the UK performing arts community. It gave me quite a national network to lean on, and strengthened relationships with those that I already knew within it. I suppose it also strengthened my position and profile talking from within it (because of all the research I had done) It started a research based practice, that still very much frames how I make work today.

In a way that also set the scenes in motion for TheBabyQuestion, because in the original version of Show Me The Money, there was a section before the end of the show, where for the duration of me eating an apple , the audience could ask me wherever they wanted. There seemed to be a preoccupation with whether or not I was going to have children, because some of some of the stories I spoke about explored how having this unstable career framed decisions about “settling down” and the future.

I guess the other big milestone, in terms of something changing my way of working was when I was invited to apply for the Oxford Samuel Beckett Award. The key part of the brief is you're meant to do something that is pushing your practice into a new way of working. Previously my interest in working with interviews was always about contextualising my story among other stories, so that I was speaking to something more universal. So I was trying to think of how I could do this differently. And that's when I realised, there's an even easier way to contextualize my story alongside other stories than interview material, and that's to not be the only one on stage! It sounds so obvious, but I had found my groove as a solo maker so it felt very new! That application led to thinking about inviting other performers to work with me, on TheBabyQuestion. That project led me to thinking, oh actually think what I want to do is make something that's collaborative from the ground up. So I approached Chuck Blue Lowry and we started our company Varjack-Lowry.

LO: I also want to throw the questions around video back to you. I know you come from a film-maker background (although I feel maybe we’ve never chatted much about it?)- how do you think this informs your work now?

PV: My work is informed by an intersection of training in different disciplines. It started at sixteen with a fairly robust study of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare library, which holds the largest collection of first editions in the world. The program was for teenagers in the Washington metropolitan area who could demonstrate an advanced interest and knowledge of Shakespeare for their age. There were maybe ten of us, and over a term we would meet Shakespeare scholars and theatre directors on a weekly basis, and then we would see all the productions that season at the Washington Shakespeare theatre. At the end we had to write a dissertation and present a portfolio as to how you would imagine designing or directing one of the plays. I then trained in stage management and technical theatre for two years at RADA. followed by training in filmmaking and much later an MA in performance making.

In terms of the influence of Shakespeare, I guess this emphasised an interest in text, but more so an itnerest in tackling big societal questions. I always say when I'm giving workshops or I'm giving talks related to my practice, that for me everything is text. If I have a period when I'm devising for example, often the thing that I lead with will be visual. For me creating a world and imagining the look and sound and space of it, very much comes from my filmmaking. And maybe also the fact that I come from filmmaking is why I'm always trying to find ways to integrate video into the theatrical space. I think projects on screens have the potential to extend and expand theatrical space in a way that excites me.

LO: Why did you migrate from there into working in theatre and performance? And what is it about our Videohead challenge that appeals to you?

PV: I am someone who likes having briefs and deadlines, even if they are self set. If I tell myself I'm going to do something , and I have a deadline, and a frame, and even better someone else also doing it, I am a hundred percent more likely to make it happen. Because I think I think the thing is, as soon as I know I'm doing it with someone else, I feel like if I don't do it, then I'm letting them down. This is one reason I like collaborating. With VideoheadI I also like that we are making artist-led challenges, and playful challenges. It was a way to make myself make video explorations in parallel with you, an artist who I also felt had a practice where video and performance intersect.

In terms of how film affects my way of work, I'm always going backwards and forwards between thinking that everything I make comes from my understanding and passion for filmmaking, or everything I make comes from a passion and lifelong interest in theatre. I have always been obsessed with both. I remember even when I was in high school, I was trying to decide about going to film school or drama school. I think my drama teacher told me that (and I don't think this is the right advice now in retrospect !) that if I earnt how to direct for theatre, I would learn how to work with actors, and I could just carry that over into film (!!) Which completely negates that working with film, is also knowing how to work with a cinematographer and thinking about camera and thinking about the lens and visual storytelling as well as like dramatic storytelling .

At sixteen I decided that I was going to go for theatre because I was into the fact that it only happened one time and was live. At 18 I wanted to be a filmmaker because you could make something that always existed and could be seen over and over over time. By 24 I was frustrated with film as it demanded resources and people. At 30 I got into spoken word because I could do it by myself with zero kit. But within months I craved theatrical elements, costume, sound, props,set. Soon I was playing with video projection. I guess in the end I wanted a live experience that could draw on cinematic language.

LO: We share common ground in that both of our practices use research from the ‘real world’ and participation (which I see as another way of bringing the ‘real’ in). What is it about these things that feels important to you as a maker? Why do you work with them?

PV: So by research for the real world I think you mean that we both have an interest in exploring participation as a way of making work, and using interview material as a way to inform what we make. For me it's about contextualising my perspective. Everything I make is rooted in conversation. It’s a conversation that I'm having in response to popular culture. There are things happening in the world that consume me. I am responding to them by reading conversations about what is transpiring. I'm having conversations about this conversation with my friends. And then when I realise I'm consumed by whatever that theme is, I want to draw on other voices. Through that I am explaining my understanding of whatever I want to explore, and hopefully expanding the question, to open it up more for audiences. I think I'm always making work in a dialogue, with an interest to create more dialogue.

Interview is my favourite way of creating a basis for that. But I'm not prescriptive about how and if the material is going to be used. I just know it's going to inform the work, and it can manifest in lots of different ways. It can be that I film an interview and I'm projecting part of that, or just using the audio, one sentence someone has said in a two hour-long interview, is a jumping off point for me to write a monologue, or it's just feels like it's in my body so my thinking is different. I don't know how I'm going to use it at the start, and I like to keep it open. I just know it's going to manifest in the work somehow.

LO: Bonus Question which is more personal- so only if this appeals/you feel good about answering it!!
I’ve been thinking about about our friendship, and although it feels like we’ve been each others spheres for years, it really feels like we’ve become closer over the last 6 months due to having found ourselves in very similar situations suddenly- both being Barbican Openlab artists and having to deal with the grief of losing our showcase there, and then both losing family members unexpectedly in the last 6 months. So in some ways, it feels like we’ve been talking about grief for 6 months now. (Also FYI readers, Paula and I now have a 2 person club called the ‘No Euphemisms Club’ and it’s the best) Something I’ve been thinking about is how grief changes you, and maybe it's too early to tell now, but I find myself thinking about who I will be on the other side of this experience (fully well knowing there is no other side to grief!!). For me I’ve wondered how it will change my work- will it change the themes, the content, the style. Will it make me care less about the bad reviews (here’s hopin’). Will it give me more of a punk rock attitude. So I guess my question is how do you think these experiences will change you or your work (if at all?)

PV: Unfortunately the time I've been making performances, I've experienced quite a lot of loss. When I first started performing eleven years ago on the poetry slam scene, I was writing mainly about heartbreak and hedonism. Then a close friend died, and it hit me in a particular way, and I began writing about loss for the first time. Some years later, before before I was meant to finalise the script for what would be my graduation piece on my masters, another friend of mine died, and it affected me so profoundly, that the only thing I wanted to make or talk about was this person, what it meant to experience losing her, and losing her at a distance and when the only way I could speak to her in that time, was through digital means.

It was a very intense experience of making work at a formative stage of my practice, because I was really in the middle of my grief. I was making work about it immediately, and I was working with a director who really believed that the best way to make the work was to lean in as fully as possible to the pain. It was a challenging experience. Working with her on that show made me more rigorous as a performer. It was my first time working with a director and dramaturg. But it was also the first time I was dealing with that kind of loss, and it was work that was being assessed for both our masters. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone else in my position. But I think it was so unbelievably hard, that it really made me an actress somehow, a dramatic actress, for that performance.So I guess what I'm saying, is that grief and loss have already shaped and challenged me as a maker.

Now most recently, losing my father I think I definitely think there's something about having less of a space for bull****, and needing things to matter, and needing to express things with even more power and desire and impact, but also desperately needing joy and compassion to be central in the work. I think there’s also needing to be honest about pain, and having clearer boundaries. I'm still figuring it out, but what I will say is I am a different person. I don't know what I'm emerging through. or into, but I know that I'm not the same as before. I don't even think that's a good thing or a bad thing.

I think it just is.

Louise Orwin makes research-based performance and video projects about what it means to identify as a queer femme, in a world that prizes masculinity, straightness, whiteness. She works across text, performance and video, and has a substantial body of work that has toured internationally to performance spaces, galleries and festivals. Her works to date have grappled with a range of themes exploring femininity and violence, and often have a participation and research focus. Her work is preoccupied with liveness, the fe/male gaze and queer and radical feminist theory.

Cover Photo Credit: Field & McGlynn