IS IT OKAY TO LAUGH? – an interview with the tragically comical Idiot Child

ImagesAnna Harpin & Jimmy Whiteaker are joint artistic directors of IDIOT CHILD, a new theatre company making playful and peculiar work in the South West. Drawing on autobiography and memory, the company devise bleak, comic tales that emerge from the facts, objects, and oddities of their own lives. Playwright and journalist, Rina Vergano, recently saw their show ‘I Could’ve Been Better’ at the BOV and liked it so much that she wanted to know more…

‘Could’ve’ is an unusual mix of theatre, performance, cabaret and film that’s hard to pigeonhole. How would you describe it?

Anna: Theatrical. The work is very much about a live encounter. We are just greedy magpies and play with ideas and then find the form(s) that best express the feeling or idea we’re wrestling with. We want an audience to engage and care and that only happens if they are on the journey with you, if they give a stuff. Otherwise you are just goosing about on your own.

Jimmy: Playful. There are definitely elements of performance, stand-up, poetry and cabaret in Could’ve (just as in Nostalgia) – but they’re all there as theatricalities. For us, theatre is simply telling a story in an exciting way. A number of people came out of Could’ve saying it was challenging for them because they found it funny, but couldn’t work out if it was okay to laugh. That means we did our job: we use comedy not just for itself, but in a considered way, to throw up questions for the audience.

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‘Could’ve’ has a tragically comical feel, and an innocence which seemed old-fashioned, in a good way, and very British. What are your influences?

Anna: The humour I grew up with – Reeves & Mortimer, Chris Morris, Steve Coogan – and now put in Idiot Child is undeniably British in its influences. It is funny and often crushingly desolate in the same instance. There is a bleak comic heart to our work that comes both from the autobiographical quality of our style and also from our interest in how you communicate with an audience through laughter, the heart, and the guts.

Jimmy: It does have an old-fashioned feel – mainly because we use autobiography so much as a starting point for devising and writing; to be congruent with that, we want audiences to have a sense of nostalgia. I’m fascinated about how people re-imagine their personal histories. We’re interested in a particularly British sense of despair and comedy. Mikhail Bulgakov said that laughter must liberate the truth of the world from the veils of gloomy lies spun by fear, suffering and violence. We’re interested in British veils, and how to satirise them. It is innocence – but with some very dark waters running beneath, to get under the ribs of an audience.

What makes you tick? What makes you excited, happy or angry in the world of theatre?

Jimmy: When I go to the theatre, I get excited when it’s a genuine encounter between me and the performers – because then it could only be a piece of theatre, not television or radio or a novel. I get excited when what I’ve seen unfolds in me over time, rather than being spelled out to me. Things that really make me tick… The Marx Brothers. And Robert Lowell. Tim Crouch’s My Arm. The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. Spike Milligan. Topping & Butch – excellent satirical cabaret that changes by the day.

Anna: Things that make me tick….Daniel Kitson, Hoipolloi, Sarah Kane, Anthony Neilson, Analogue Theatre, Terrible Infants, Tiger Lillies, Jez Butterworth, Shane Meadows, Park Chan Wook, Cyrano de Bergerac, Jonny Sweet, Caryl Churchill, Grace Nichols…the list goes on. Turns me off:  theatre that forgets I am there. When actors shout a lot and look above my head. Or being offered an argument in place of anything human.

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I’m curious and nosey about your artistic affair… do you ever scrap?

Anna: Our first project together was Nostalgia last October. We don’t scrap. We tried once for about 80 seconds and failed and both felt slightly embarrassed and then got back on with devising. There is some scowling every now and then but that’s usually during our regular owl impressions. The reason it works between us is that we trust one another completely in our roles as writers, actors, directors. We’ve developed an intuitive sense of one another’s thinking and that leads to really exciting devising work as well as offering useful shortcuts in the rehearsal room.

In ‘Could’ve’, Jimmy is centre stage and Anna is in the boiler-room. Is it always like that?

Anna: Boiler room Harpin eh? Jimmy always performs. I always direct. We both write. It is a happy balance. I occasionally perform too. It all depends what the work needs. We’ve both made work independently and will continue to do that but Idiot Child’s stuff is exhilarating because it is total freedom to make the work we want to: playful, peculiar, autobiographical, bleak comedy.

Jimmy: We collaborate as much as we can, but I write and perform professionally, just as I did before I met Anna, with a number of other theatre companies.

Your work has a childlike quality. How did your childhoods influence the way you see the world and make work?

Anna:  That partly comes from us being quite childish ourselves. But hopefully the work marries that childish simplicity with philosophical and emotional textures that means it is not superficial or trivial. We just try to keep it honest and simple. The best thing about my childhood, that has continued into adulthood, was being surrounded by very funny people and just endlessly improvising, telling stories, and trying to make each other laugh. I am ignoring adulthood currently and intend to carry on this way. The bleaker spots of time in the past have also left indelible marks on the kind of work we make. They speak for themselves.

Jimmy: My childhood was spent playing, getting in to trouble and not listening to adults. That’s not really changed except that I justify it by calling it a creative process – imagining is a very childlike state of mind. I often feel that however much we think we’re adult, we’re not that far from being children.

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Jimmy, you were recently nominated for the prestigious Meyer-Whitworth award for your play ‘Nostalgia’. Can you still feel pleased even though you didn’t win it?

Yes, I still feel pleased. It was hugely disappointing as I was down to the last five, but that also helps in its way. I’ll be more pleased when someone wants to read my work because I was shortlisted.

What are your hopes and dreams for your work, and your greatest fears or challenges?

Jimmy: I want our work to build a relationship with an audience over time; I spend a great deal of my time on this work, and I want an audience to walk away knowing that I put that time and effort in for them. I’d really like to develop a piece of work from the audience’s autobiography, re-imagining their stories, once we’ve built up their trust in us. My greatest fear would be that I stop playing.

Anna: I have just had a new idea for a piece for Idiot Child, so in the short term I would like to develop that and keep developing I Could’ve Been Better. Long term – keep working, keep experimenting, keep playing, keep trying, keep failing… and keep failing better.

Thank you
Interview by Rina Vergano, Oct 2010

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