Times are tough for young theatre companies. Getting your work seen, let alone funded, can be a constant battle – particularly if the work you’re producing strays from the commercial norm and requires your audience to take a risk and try something new. I met with Jonnie Bayfield and Will Cowell, founding members and Co-Artistic Directors of Caligula’s Alibi Theatre Company, to talk about a new wave of surrealist and absurdist theatre.
Telling me about the group’s artistic intentions, Bayfield explains how they often find contemporary theatre “quite dull”, or at least, not particularly along the themes that they enjoy, and, “like the ‘decadent’ Roman emperor Caligula, we want to see if we can’t adapt that. We tend to delve into the surreal, the absurd, the slightly more ‘maladjusted’ routes”. Cowell continues, “we like to hark back to things gone by. To look at them, to mess with them, change them, learn from them. We like the old as much as we like the new, so we’re always referencing and looking back. Harking. We like to hark. We do a lot of harking.”
Clearly a big motivation for the duo is a desire to stand out in the world of contemporary theatre. “We’re trying to offer something different. We don’t think there’s a lot of work out there that’s quite like ours. We don’t have a tag, which can be more difficult commercially, but we don’t have that because we choose to dwell in the gaps between the labels. But it’s where we belong,” Cowell laughs. “We call it a gutter.”
If they were to have a label, they would go with “contemporary absurdism”, yet equally they hope to produce what Bayfield describes as “something that has emotion and heart, and humour and humanity, and that sense of naturalism at the core. Then it all clashes together to make something which is a bit peculiar!” “We call it a ‘maladjusted reality’,” Cowell explains. “Everything is partially recognisable but we’ve just tweaked it into a world that is somewhat distant from our own.”
As Caligula’s Alibi endeavours to deliver theatre that is new and exciting it finds itself with an all too familiar problem when trying to pitch work to theatres and audiences. In the two years it has been operating as a company, Caligula’s Alibi has found that “there’s a danger in doing something a bit peculiar, as the mass will tend to go towards work which is more commercial”. However, “as soon as we find people who like it then they keep coming back. We have a bit of a ‘cult’ following starting up now. And because the shows are often based around improvisation, people enjoy seeing the same show again and again. It’s great when we find the people who like it,” Bayfield enthuses. “They find us, or we find them; the other gutter dwellers…”
Yet the company feels a sense of frustration at the apparent reluctance of theatre audiences to see shows with a less conventional selling point. As Cowell points out, “lots of people have less money and who wants to risk a tenner if you’re going to end up wasting it and seeing something shit? I think that getting audiences to part with that £10 is a much bigger ask than it ever was before. And the theatres know that about their audiences so everyone is much less willing to take that risk.”
This is an unfortunate sign of recent times and they speculate about how the greats of surrealism, comedia or absurdism would cope as new writers in today’s climate. Despite the struggle to crack wary audiences, both press and public responses to their work has been “overwhelmingly” positive and they seem optimistic about their “gutter in the marketplace”. They clearly have confidence in their work and their bravery in setting up their own company – particularly one that is exploring less conventional forms of theatre – has to be admired.
The company met at East 15 drama school and took its first show to the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Since graduating in 2013 it has survived a second year on the Fringe and has been managing the logistics of running the company ever since. “The production side is great,” Bayfield explains, “because you have complete creative control; I write, Will directs, and then me and Stu are in the show. So you’re completely self-sufficient. We’re like River Cottage in a theatre company!”
Cowell continues, “we’re really happy with where we are at the moment, happy to keep working our way up, me and Jonnie do most of the paperwork, and that’s lovely! What we hope we’ll be able to do in the future is allow ourselves to be paid for this kind of production work as well as performance, that’d be the dream – because we actually quite like writing silly emails to theatres or producers, and handling that side of things as well.”
Finally, I ask if they have any advice for those thinking about starting their own company. “I think the best advice I could give would be the advice of my lovely father,” says Cowell. “He says: JFDI.” Here Cowell looks to Bayfield and they both recite; “Just fucking do it.”
“If you’ve got something that you want to do, an idea, just do it,” concurs Bayfield. “Show your colours. It happens to me, even though I like to think I’ve worked out who I am as a writer or a performer, there are still moments where I think, ‘hmmm, maybe I should write that knife crime play…’ just because it might get picked up, but no, you’re playing the long game, and I might have to stay in my gutter for 20 years before someone picks up one of my plays and says, ‘hang on this is great’. But whatever happens you should stay true to yourself.”
It’s encouraging to hear that Caligula’s Alibi is sticking to its artistic guns and striving to offer something new to the London theatre scene. However, it is not just the job of theatre companies to risk it all on doing something different; in order for groups to produce experimental work, audiences have to be just as adventurous in what they’re willing to see.