What separates theatre and live art? Marina Abramović, grandmother of performance art and flogger of Adidas trainers, has a quote doing the rounds at the moment: “theatre is fake,” she says, “the knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.”
I’m pretty sure the blood in Made in China’s Gym Party – a darkly anarchic game show that satirised our “brilliant, terrible desire to win” – was the stage kind. But when audiences had to choose which performers should endure increasingly severe and humiliating punishments, between hearing monologues of (possibly) personal testimony, shit felt pretty real. Using their actual names, thriving on unpredictability but also following scripts, the company’s work – made by Jess Latowicki and Tim Cowbury, frequently with associate artist Christopher Brett Bailey – is difficult to formally pin down. While it may fall on a “spectrum” between those two poles, basically, Latowicki says, “we make shows”.
At a bar in Exmouth Market, the pair are telling me about the first, fragile stages of their next piece. “We often find that at the end of making a show, we’ve come onto something really interesting that we want to carry on with,” says Latowicki. “In some ways this is a direct continuation from Gym Party – the idea that you can be whoever you want to be – and in some ways it’ll be completely different. Should we get drinks?” She opts for a white wine spritzer, as she’s going straight on to a tap lesson. “The show came out of Jess’s desire to learn tap-dancing,” Cowbury explains. “That experience and desire led to everything else.” The piece, currently running at just over ten minutes, will be shown as a work-in-progress at Latitude. Titled Tonight, I’m Gonna Be The New Me, it explores transferrable skills, lifestyle flexibility and “how we make our identity by changing it”.
“For better or worse,” Latowicki explains, “people used to be defined by what they did, but now we’re defined by our ability to do multiple things. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad thing; Jeremy Deller deals with this a lot – the fall of the industrial revolution and what that means. In some ways it frees people because they don’t necessarily fit into a certain environment; mobility isn’t inherently negative.” In an age of precarity, of multiple “hats” and frantic freelancing across different sectors, it’s a theme that’s likely to hit home with audiences – as Latowicki points out, “most people’s jobs are undefinable now”. So is the show inspired by their own experiences of profession juggling to survive in the arts?
“We might be examples of that,” Cowbury says, “but this isn’t a big social comment – it’s more personal.” “I sometimes feel like I can’t do anything,” Latowicki explains. “Like I can’t fix my bike, I can’t surf, I’m not awesome at drawing.” After crying on a group holiday because she felt she had no skills, Latowicki decided to spend a year-and-a-half learning to tap. In Tonight, she’ll incorporate dancing set pieces into “an increasingly intense stream of consciousness” about learning new skills – hitting that combination of performativity and the “real” that’s often the hallmark of Made in China’s work. It’s a “showy show,” she says, “but we’re interested in using a traditional, virtuosic performance skill in a new form.”
Fluctuating roles and multiple talents are an apt topic for the pair, whose supposed writer/performer split is increasingly blurring. Whilst Latowicki’s background is in live art and Cowbury’s in playwriting, “that makes it sound clear-cut, which it isn’t” he says. “There have been times when I’ve done all the script, unless its editing –”
“But editing and dramaturgy are two different things,” Latowicki cuts in. “You would send me loads of different things and I would put them together and write the links, but thats not editing – that’s writing, and dramaturgy. In some ways,” she reflects, “the only thing that’s changed is what we call it. When I wasn’t calling what I was doing writing, it was easy. When it became clear that what I was doing was writing, it got sticky – because it was like, well, what are we doing?”
At the moment, they’re early in a long process of writing, devising, research and development. At Latitude, Latowicki says, Tonight will be at a “crucial point”. The festival will “allow us to really try something and see it in fruition, because then we’re not having another showing until November”. This early performance, she hopes, will help them “really start to look at what the show is going to be, how we’re going to make it and write it, and how far can we push certain tones.” Plus, Cowbury says, its themes are “really big – we haven’t narrowed it down yet.” Do they ever? Having skewered competition in their last show, and empathy and optimism in We Hope That You’re Happy (Why Would We Lie?), Made in China seems to enjoy a fairly epic scope. “I feel like with Gym Party we could say what it was about, though,” Latowicki ponders. “Whereas here, at this stage, we’re like, ‘it’s kind of maybe going to be about this…’.”
Tonight, I’m Gonna Be The New Me will be shown at Latitude Festival.