As Made In China embark upon a UK tour with the popular Gym Party, Emily Hardy talks to company co-founders Tim Cowbury and Jess Latowicki to find out what makes this company so special.
Made is China’s Gym Party is a razor sharp, darkly comic exploration of hopeless determination and the universal desire to win. It explores the psychology of pride in all its triumphant and ugly incarnations and packs a powerful punch with both hilarious and horrifying consequences…
Tim Cowbury, playwright and theatre-maker, co-founded Made In China in 2009. Jessica Latowicki, Polish American live artist, writer and performer, also co-founded Made In China and is part of Gym Party’s cast of three.
What was the inspiration, the ‘big idea’, for Made in China?
JESS: We decided to start a company after we finished at Goldsmiths University. We had worked on a collaboration project during the winter and I asked Tim to collaborate with me again on my thesis performance. The show ended up being much better and more collaborative than either of us expected, so when we were asked to perform it at Shunt Vaults we thought we should keep working together. We found that our clash of styles, but shared interests in social issues and formal goals, worked.
TIM: Our initial intention was to make just one show in Jess’s name. (I got a thank you in the programme). Once we’d decided to keep working together, I remember trying to think up a name together; all my ideas were about people communing and loving each other, while all hers were about smashing and breaking stuff. Made In China was literally the only name we could remotely agree on. It was a phrase that seemed to speak about the paradoxes of our little lives in a globalised world – the starting point from which we both wanted to make shows. And we were both fascinated by theatre as event, getting a load of people in a room and making them uncomfortably and excitedly aware of themselves and the act of watching.
What, in your opinion, makes Gym Party a must see theatrical event?
TIM: If we set out to explore the concept of the event that makes theatre, Gym Party probably does so more than any show we’ve made. The whole thing is set up as a competition between three performers. There are three rounds of games, which are played honestly (nothing is fixed) each night. The audience has a massive say in how the night pans out and who wins. So, the winners, the atmosphere and, in fact, the whole show changes radically from one performance to the next. Even though many bits are scripted very precisely, there’s a thrilling amount of unpredictability and also more vulnerability and commitment than we’ve ever asked of performers before. In turn, it’s raucous, challenging and moving, lurching this way and that in a way we think is quite unique.
To what extent can you anticipate the audience reaction?
JESS: Each audience is different- the different combination of people creates a different ‘group’ personality. Because the show faces out to the audience and because the audience has so much responsibility for our well-being as performers, it’s hard to know how people will react. We’ve had audience-members walk out in protest at other audience-members’ reactions, and a couple of cases of mild concussion amongst the cast!
To whom would you recommend this show? Is it for everyone?
TIM: Gym Party is funny, dark and extremely relatable, and yet not like most things you’ll have seen before. It’s for anyone a little bit adventurous who is over the age of 14. We try to make all our shows work for people who have no prior knowledge of our work or the context that it has come out of. We try to take as many risks as we can while still telling a good story, making people laugh, and allowing audience-members to remain quietly in their seats (almost always!). We tend to be popular with younger audiences and performing arts students but if you enjoy a good spectacle and thought-provoking ideas this show is for you regardless of age (if you’re over 14) or background.
What is the most important skill to possess as a performer in Gym Party?
JESS: Performing in one of our shows requires pretty extreme commitment and an ability to be a controlled version of yourself on stage. We don’t work with “character” but we do have set text. Tim and I wrote the show with Chris and Ira, who are both writers and dramaturgs in their own right and Jenna (who stepped in for Ira in Edinburgh when she was performing her own show, A Cure For Aging) is a writer and performer as well. It can feel very vulnerable to be a version of yourself on stage so we need people who love talking to their audience and have no shame or vanity in their performances.
Has the company’s progress already exceeded your expectations? Where would you like to see it go next?
JESS: Looking back, it all seems very fast, but when you are inside of it that’s difficult to see! We are really pleased we’ve had the opportunity to make our shows and that audiences have liked them and keep coming back. We are starting to research our new show and with this next one we’re hoping to challenge lots of expectations – our own and that of the audience – about what we do. It’s going to be a tap-dancing show (cue a year and a half of tap lessons for me) but it’s also probably going to be made more like a play than a devised piece. We’d also love to make a children’s show.
TIM: We were commissioned to make a show at the National Theatre two years into Made In China’s existence and there was a period of going ‘we’re here, already? Now what do we do?!’. But, two years on from that, we still have loads we’d like to do and so much more to learn. It feels as if we’ve made a lot of shows quite quickly, built the company up, and now we almost need to catch up as individuals. We want to make a show that will be created slowly, in order to be more substantial, richer and unexpected than before. We’d like to challenge a little the notion of Made In China as a ‘fringe’ company, to put our work in different contexts both in the UK and abroad.
Let’s say no to being pigeon-holed!
For tour dates and further information please visit www.madeinchinatheatre.com