Interview conducted by Lena Šimić and Emily Underwood-Lee Interview edited by Emily Underwood-Lee. 22 July 2020, Online.
Paula Varjack is a theatre-maker, video artist, writer and performer. Her body of work includes performance, film, monologue, installation, and participation. She makes work as a way of amplifying marginalised stories and voices, engaging in a way that both provokes thought and entertains. Having begun her practice as a solo artist, her work has become increasingly collaborative, shaped by the artists who inspire and collaborate with her.
Catriona James is a theatre-maker, mover and actor. Her work is broad, covering traditional theatre to contemporary dance to online durational live art. In addition to making her own work, Catriona has collaborated with companies throughout the UK and abroad, including National Theatre Wales, Constanza Macras/DorkyPark, Hannah Rickards Studio, Paula Varjack, Greg Wohead and Jo Fong. Catriona is based in Cardiff, Wales.
Luca Rutherford is a writer and performer working in theatre. She is an Associate Artist of Unfolding Theatre, Northern Stage and ARC Stockton. Her work is rooted in the autobiographical, expanding out of specificity into the universal, without being indulgent, exclusive or boring. Humour is vital to her process and performance. Her current show in development You Heard Me is an ARC Stockton Production, co-commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre, Cambridge Junction, The Albany, Theatre in the Mill, Northern Stage and supported by Newcastle University. She has a collaborative history working with Action Transport Theatre, Chris Thorpe, fanSHEN, Maddy Costa, Paula Varjack, RashDash, Selina Thompson, Unlimited Theatre.
Emily Underwood-Lee: How did you come to be working on TheBabyQuestion?
Paula Varjack: Four of five years ago, I suddenly had ideas for a number of shows at the same time, which was new for me because up until that point I had only ever really had one thing at a time that I was particularly focused on. One of the ideas that I had was around the question of whether or not to have a child and how that weighed on me. It came out of the previous show I’d made, Show me the Money (2017), which looked at how to survive as an artist.1 There was a point at the end of Show me the Money where I opened it up to the audience and they could ask me any question they wanted for the time it took me to eat an apple. There were a number of questions around whether or not I was going to have a child, so I think the seed of TheBabyQuestion was in that show. Of the four or five ideas I had for new works, TheBabyQuestion seemed to have the most traction because it was relatable and I had a feeling that I had to do it at this time in my life as the questions around having children were really live and personal, but it was also the show I’d least wanted to make out of the four or five I had imagined. Instead, I decided I was going to make a show about my relationship with fashion.
While I was in Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) on a residency to make the show about my relationship with fashion, everyone I spoke to didn’t seem as sold on the show about fashion as they did on the show about whether or not I wanted to have children. Because I had two weeks at BAC, and because I was nervous that they were not interested in the fashion show that I was there to develop, I thought I would spend one week working on this show about my relationship with fashion and I would spend the other week starting to devise ideas around the show about my relationship to having children. I always like to create an atmosphere and experiment with ideas around set and costume before anything else. At the end of the two weeks at BAC, half of the room was the world of the fashion show, which became Cult of Kenzo (2018),2 and had designer dresses and prints and wild colours and expensive makeup and then the other half was TheBabyQuestion, with pastel pink dresses (I was obsessed with idea of pastel pink feeling oppressive), baby dolls and clocks. There were also drastically different lighting states on either side.
Those first weeks of making TheBabyQuestion were very mixed. I had some really exciting discoveries around the seventies and 1974 and glam rock, but it was also just too heavy and too painful. On the first day of rehearsal I had had the coil inserted, so I was literally in pain, clawing the ground going, ‘Why do I want to make a show about this? This is a terrible idea’. By the end of the week I thought it was probably a very good idea for a show but I did not want to make it. I didn’t know what to do with it.
After the residency at BAC, I was invited to apply for the Oxford Samuel Beckett award and the main condition is that you have to do a new project and it has to be outside of the way you normally work.3 In my career to that point I had always been a solo maker, but a solo maker who was interested in using interview material, through video and sound design to contextualise my experiences so that they felt universal. And then I thought, there was actually a much easier (and obvious!) way of me contextualising my story around the baby question, and that was not being the only person on stage. I thought: ‘Okay, but who would I actually want to work?’, because I hadn’t collaborated since my masters. I remembered that I had done a residency with Cat, 4 an R&D of another project and, although I didn’t actually know her that well, I just really liked her and really enjoyed working with her. I don’t know if I’d asked Cat about kids, but somehow in my head I knew that whatever position Cat had would be an interesting position regardless. Luca and I met at a symposium called ‘All Tomorrow’s Theatre’ (2016) at Camden People’s Theatre and I was really drawn to her as a performer.5 Luca and I had gone out socially once, although we didn’t know each other very well, but had had quite a heavy conversation related to all these things about babies and I knew that Luca had been in a relationship at the time with someone who desperately wanted to have a baby and that made her feel pressured. I had been through a whole number of relationships where I really wanted to have a child and then, for whatever reason, it didn’t work out. We had three different positions around the same question, and three very different practices. I was also interested in the fact that we would create together but we weren’t a company, as I saw it, we were three solo makers who were coming together for one project. That was a real interest to me because I had seen a lot of work in the recent years by solo makers I knew who were now working collaboratively and I knew I wanted to do that too.
Catriona James: I did TheBabyQuestion because Paula asked me. I’m not going to say no to work with somebody I like and who I find interesting. I do remember that when Paula asked me to do it, I was a bit surprised because I don’t want kids and it’s never been a heartache kind of issue for me, so I wasn’t sure what I could bring to it. It’s been an interesting journey because of that.
Luca Rutherford: I remember the phone conversation that I had with Paula when she asked me. I remember where I was – I was in my dad’s back garden. I thought: ‘My God, she’s amazing!’. I had never had someone go, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about making a project, it might not happen for like two years but I just want to sow the seed now, would you be up for doing it’. I was really keen but I also remember thinking at the time that babies felt so far away. I’d forgotten that Paula and I had had a conversation about babies. It’s easier now to look back and see it all makes sense. At my age, this project has been phenomenal for me. I’ve just turned thirty and it was really important to frame life and this baby question.
Lena Šimić: It’s interesting to see how the piece developed. The stories you tell in this piece are very diverse. Are they drawn from your own experiences or more from the research you did with a range of women?
To read the full interview, download the PDF interview here.
‘The Baby Question’ comes to Attenborough Arts Centre, Thursday 12 October, 7pm – 8pm, Pay What You Can tickets.