I’ve just completed a mini-tour of ‘Jeu Jeu la Foille’s Testy Manifesto’, and now that the props are packed away, the costumes are washed, the invoices have been paid, and the thank you’s have been written, it’s time to do some emotional unpacking.
I am DELIGHTED with how the show has developed. It’s now in a place that’s better than I could have imagined or hoped for. I have performed the entire thing, with full theatrics, three times in the last two weekends, and four times in total. I began writing it in 2019, did four WIP performances from November 2019 to March 2021, and a scaled back version in September 2021. It feels very old, but I still feel very new to it, if that makes sense.
I returned to the script on an extremely hot day in July, fresh from a week’s residency with my favourite theatre company: Gecko. Spending five sweaty days working in such a physical, ensemble-based way opened me up to some new possibilities with the words, or maybe I had been changed, cleansed in some way. Gecko work a lot with a full expression and range of emotions, all accessed through the breath, and played out to their maximum through the body, in a way that was playful, and at times slightly traumatic. I was in a good place to return to the text I had written what seemed like so long ago, but now I was different. No longer shy or scared of big emotions, letting them rise up authentically and float away, allowing the movements to emerge, breathing, always breathing, searching for a balance between precision and freedom.
There is still much work to do, but I am starting to find my boldness, and it’s coming from a centred, grounded place. I’ve noticed that my hands don’t shake as much when I’m onstage, though I am as nervous as ever. I’m going to give a breakdown for each of the three performances; how they went, the feedback I received, what they cost me, and what they’ve made me realise I need to work on next.
Yes, next! I thought I might pack this show in early, as writing it and making was such a wrestling match with myself. The pandemic slowed things down, and I began to prioritise my physical and mental health in 2020/2021. Just performing ’Testy Manifesto’ for the first time at Guilford Fringe July 2021, and having my family there, felt like enough. I had done it, and I had nice photos to show for it.
But the show works, people like it, and I enjoy performing it, so I’m carrying on. The rest of this year and into next year is a period of experimentation for me. I’m going to work more intentionally on my design skills, which fell by the wayside over the past few years as I concentrated on writing. I have an idea for a third solo show, which will be my final one as Jeu Jeu…probably.
I just knew as soon as I saw the pretty park in Ventnor, with the colourful tent that I would be performing in that it would be fun. Their slogan is ‘Keep Ventnor Weird.’ There is no way to get to the Isle of Wight without going on a ferry. I hadn’t been there since I was 11. I was excited.
It cost me £70 to register, which included the venue hire and tech person, and once I’d paid for an AirBnb for three nights, so I could have a little holiday there too, the total cost of this fringe was £300. I decided to go flyer-less and keep all of my publicity digital. I saw that Ventnor Fringe had printed out a picture of Tempest Rose – another burlesque performer – and included my show details below it on their billboard. This was a bit of an oversight on their part, and I hope no one came to my show expecting to see Tempest.
My tech was on the Saturday afternoon, the performance was a few hours later at 6pm. I was surprised that 19 people had pre-booked, and even more so when at least 25 people showed up to watch – including a sweet dog. The audience were lovely, they actually laughed. At the start of the show I give an introduction in French, and then remove my beret and eye-patch and start speaking in English. A man in the front row said ‘Oh, thank God!’ when this happened.
The raised stage was a bit awkward to get around, and maybe the performance wasn’t as smooth as I would’ve liked. At one point I was carrying the skeleton around the chairs in the centre to place him on them, and I clunked him on the lights behind me. A while ago I had bought a beautiful vintage perfume bottle to use, not realising that it could only be stored upright, and it leaked very expensive Opium perfume all over my suitcase and the props inside. The smell was quite overpowering.
Several audience members who I didn’t know approached me after the performance, to say how much they liked it. There were words like ‘bold’ and ‘inspiring.’ I received a text message that said ‘Your performance was a treasure box of rich expressions.’ Two young women came up to express their thanks and say they’d never thought about Barbie in that way. One more elderly man gave me his feedback in French. I couldn’t understand it all, but I know he talked a lot about his heart.
People comment a lot on the dialogue I have with the skeleton at the start, it seems to really set the tone and provide a way into what a normal conversation with an abusive person sounds like. I never wanted to be preachy with this show in a kind of ‘Hey guys, domestic abuse is bad’ sort of way. My intention was to show victimisation, without being a victim. This was one my main sticking points with the show – how to be personal and authentic but separate enough from the story so it doesn’t become confessional, and yet still move an audience. I think I have achieved this.
This fringe happens over a whole month, in multiple theatres throughout North London. I’ve done it twice before with my theatre company The Mist: We Are Not Cakes, but not for a few years. This time I was at the Hen and Chickens in Islington, which is a place I love. A cute 50-seater above a pretty pub in a nice part of London.
The registration fee was £99, but the venue and tech were not included, so I paid another £300 on top, taking the total cost to around £500 for two nights. As a former Londoner I know plenty of people there, and so didn’t need to pay for accommodation. Sadly not many people were able to come, and my audiences were small. I did get the second performance filmed though, which was my main reason for taking it to London so my friend Ana Morphic could film, and I’m seeing this as a steppingstone. There’ll be a trailer made, and I’m hoping this will pique more curiosity.
Looking through all the other shows on offer during Camden Fringe, I also realised that I’d priced myself far lower than most other companies. The Hen and Chickens normally make you pay a £1.50 membership fee, and so I’d set my tickets at £8.50, as I didn’t want anyone to pay more than £10. I didn’t realise that they waive this for the fringe, so I could’ve set the price a bit higher. The theatre also take 25% of ticket sales revenue, so it’s safe to say I’ve nowhere near broken even. I don’t expect to make money or get paid, but I always hope not to lose money. I did as much as I could to publicise, I’m just one person with limited means, and I did my best. I wrote to all the publications with my press release, and although I kept my flyers digital, I did print out a few for the venue. I remember when I did Brighton Fringe a few years ago, I got flyers printed and went there a few weeks before to distribute them in as many pubs, venues, cafes and shops as would allow. I got good audiences then, and maybe flyering is worth the time, money and steps. It always seems like such a waste of paper to me, but I can see how it could make a difference now.
I was really happy with my performances, especially the Sunday night one – but I have yet to watch the video back. The real bonus was talking to the audience afterwards, some of whom were friends, and others strangers. They all had a lot of profound thoughts and questions. Many asked about what the cave story at the end meant, and what the tricycle, rose and frog represented. And I told them, though it is too personal to share here.
Overwhelmingly the response was that I’d managed to build and release the tension expertly. There was a delicate balance between what was heart-wrenching and moments when the audience could laugh. The French character, Jeu Jeu the Revolutionary, narrates the story and appears four times; “Bonjour encore, C’est moi!”, the music also provides breaks, and a chance to process what has been said. My friend T who saw the show twice had some really interesting points to make on the idea of the skeleton being ‘a body with no body’ and the way that they pass Barbie’s small naked body around, touching and controlling her. She later wrote in a text to me; ‘You play with what is there and not there, the absences within a presence.’ Wanda the Wandering Womb was a hit as ever, I am planning a little spin-off poetry set for her.
The subject matter hits home – pun intended – it’s pretty damn relevant topic. What I need to do now is upgrade the props, work with a director, play a bit with lighting, and figure out how I can attract more audiences. With ‘Frontal Lobotomy’ I made changes to the writing during the Edinburgh run and into the 2017 tour, and again for the 2019 revival. For this one I don’t feel the need to change anything, I have achieved what I set out to do in terms of the piece, what it needs now is some polish and more people to see it.
This was an almighty beast of a blog, I hope that someone finds it useful one day.
With love and sunflowers,
PS: Our performances at the end of the Gecko Residency were filmed. You can check them out at this link if you’d like.