We spoke to celebrated street theatre mavericks Desperate Men, Jon Beedell and Richard Headon, about their life, work and partnership and putting that on screen in a new film: Washed Up – and their crowdfunder to get it finished.
So, Desperate Men are soon to celebrate 37 years of existence. How did it come about? And did you have any sense you’d still be working together all these years later?
Jon: I started DM with Richie Smith in September 1980 in Berlin…it’s a long story…but Richard Headon joined the company in 1995, so we’ve been working together for 22 years – alongside Richie and Shirley Pegna, our company stalwarts and many, many other performers and artists who have come and gone.
Richard: I met first Jon & Richie in the bar of The Watershed. I had just moved back to Bristol and had been just been working with Paddy Fletcher who had previously written three shows for DM so that was my opening chat up line. I guess I was looking for like-minded fools that I could build a committed working relationship with. A 22 minute conversation turned into 22 years.
Jon: In 1980 we had no idea that somehow DM would still be going nearly 40 years later! But of course we’re very pleased to have been making a living and giving lots of other people work from it all this time.
Richard, you speak of ‘working very hard for almost nothing, but doggedly keeping going to produce something interesting, and perhaps worthwhile.’ Why is it that you think you have carried on for so long?
Richard: I didn’t actually write that….It was Jon putting words down on my behalf…typical. He loves to manipulate the past, present and future. However somebody has to keep the world of desperation turning. There’s always itches to be scratched and bills to be paid.
Jon: Yes, he’s right. I did write that. It was one of those moments where we had to invent something quick. Publicity is like that isn’t it? Bending the truth a little.. But I do think that’s a fair reflection of Richard’s modus operandi… and mine. We believe in what we do. It works. Some people’s lives can be transformed totally by experiencing or participating in performance and we like showing work to ‘untested’ audiences.
You’re renowned for your incredibly inventive street theatre shows. What is it you love about outdoor theatre?
Jon: The immediacy and the honesty. You have to look people in the eyes. It’s never fourth wall stuff. It just doesn’t work like that. You are physically much more connected to your audience. I love the fact that you never quite know what’s going to interfere with the performance – weather, drunks, kids, police – but mostly I love that you have to work much harder to keep your public with you. If you’re boring, people will just walk away.
Richard: If as a theatre maker you want to reach and share your work with a broad range of people outdoors and on the street is the only place to perform. Ideally it should be free and fully accessible. It’s about the democratic temporary claiming of space as a forum for a conversation and entertainment. Indoor theatre as a potential tool for enlightenment is largely moribund….discuss.
Jon: There’s this idea of the ‘democratic performative’ – recognising that the audience affects the performance and is irrevocably part of it. This of course is especially true with participatory / celebratory work. I believe it’s politically and socially very important to get to people who wouldn’t necessarily engage with the arts otherwise.
You’re working on a film, Washed Up, with film-maker Nathan Hughes of Rough Glory Films, which you describe as a ‘candid, comic insight into the combustible creative tension that compels them to continue their journey, but also threatens to end it’. Why did you decide to make it, and now?
Nathan: After collaborating with DM on After collaborating with DM on Bristol Loves Tides during 2015, to develop and document the tidal adventures of Jon and Richard’s Proxy & Peri characters, Jon and I wanted to do something different. Washed Up was conceived as if Samuel Beckett and Sergio Leone made a western starring Morecombe and Wise, that riffed on the legacy of classic comedy duos, but also dealt with deeper themes.
Imagine Waiting For Godot as a spaghetti western, with two bickering clowns, washed up in an out of season fishing village. In reflecting on personal legacy and looming senescence, they also embody humanity as a whole, faced by a looming ecological crisis. We made it because it was a ‘logical’ extension of our collaborative dialogue, and the underlying themes, while implied rather than overt – are more than timely.
Jon: We decided to make it because partly because Nathan thought our relationship was interesting. He saw this combustive conflictual slightly chaotic creativity that informs all that we do together, and he wanted to capture it. We thought it would be fun to explore, and we had the opportunity to do some spontaneous filming while in the throes of making a different film, so we’re improvising for the camera a lot of the time, playing slightly fictionalised versions of ourselves, and winding each other up somewhat. I think we’re doing it now because we’re getting on a bit and might fall off the stage at any moment…
Richard: I didn’t. I went with the flow but as it happens it does potentially raise some issues around people creating work for so long.
Hopefully it’ll have some integrity and chime with other makers whilst being entertaining at the same time. We have always worked in different mediums so this quasi-documentary puts another spin on things. Never pigeon hole The Desperate Men!
After 22 years I have a lot to say and nothing to say. Whatever I say will be edited and manipulated but that’s fine.
What can we expect from the finished product?
Jon: Ask Nathan. Hopefully something amusing and engaging..
Nathan: It will be a funny, heartfelt docu-drama, with a reflective, elegaic tone, that celebrates evanescence and a unique, creative partnership. We screened a trailer at Bluescreen – The Cube’s monthly film night, and the laughs worked, so if we get some tears in there too, we’re onto a winner.
Richard: Love will smother our mutual disdain.
Who else was involved in the film, and what was their perspective on your partnership?
Jon: Our main collaborator and director of this film is Nathan Hughes. Nathan’s cinematic eye and dramaturgical instinct offered us an opportunity to venture into new territory, which we naturally jumped at.… and Jacob Parish filmed it all. He’s brilliant to work with.
We worked very fast with absolutely minimal preparation and no technical crew. Just camera and a microphone. Their perspective will be apparent in the final edit. Richard and I have not seen all the footage, so we have no idea what will emerge… and that’s exciting. Though we will have some input on the final edit, we are giving Nathan as director and Jacob as editor free rein to construct the cinematic thrust.
Richard: It is shot beautifully by Jacob and Nathan and in a way I’m leaving it to their vision of the narrative. I am flattered and slightly embarrassed that they are interested and inspired by us. They seem to relish our spiky approach to the process.
Did you discover anything you didn’t know about each other on the shoot?
Richard: How Jon’s observations of me are so wide of the mark and how spot on I am.
Jon: Not yet! Both of us were interviewed at length with the same set of questions. God only know what we said about each other! I think we know each other pretty well, but there are always surprises…and secrets.
What are your plans for the film?
Nathan: We believe it will touch a warm/poignant nerve with a broad audience demographic, so we hope to make a splash on the international comedy and documentary film festival circuit. It’s a natural fit for the True/False Festival that celebrates work that ‘shows a dedication to the creative advancement of the art of nonfiction filmmaking’, and CPH:DOX in Copenhagen. Washed Up will serve as a definitive testament to Desperate Men Theatre and provide a useful insight into how personal differences can be managed to benefit creative production.
Jon: We want to show it as widely as possible, and think it will be of interest to our peers – both to people that have known us for a long time, and to younger, emerging artists as an insight into where a performing life can take you…it’s rewards and consequences..
Richard: Like water from the font, it’ll find its own pathway.
How can we help you get there?
Jon: Any way you can. But helping us get to our target (and beyond) would be brilliant.
Nathan: Our campaign has 21 days left to run and we’re 20% short of our target. We hope TB will help us generate more positive ripples in the time/space continuum to hit and possibly exceed our target. If people have 3 mins 36 seconds to spare to watch our teaser trailer, not only might they chuckle, but they will see that the film’s universal themes are worthy of celebration, support, and sharing with their social media networks.
Richard: If you have any holiday money left over bung it over…Thanks.
Find out more about the film, the men, and watch their brilliant trailer here.