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Stuart Bowden is an Australian theatre maker. He creates and performs his own solo theatre shows and also works professionally as a writer and director. His work has received multiple awards and nominations in Australia and the UK. He’s bringing his show She Was Probably Not a Robot to New Zealand’s International Comedy Festival this year, 26-30 April at the Herald Theatre in Auckland. I had a great wee cyber sit down with him. After the initial polite faceless hellos, Skype kicked in and we got right down to it.
How’s your morning going?
Nice, but I’m a bit sleepy this morning.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.
No that’s fine, I’m happy to do it. I’m just in the middle of the Melbourne Comedy Festival at the moment so I’ve got my days free, pretty much.
Just clarifying, this isn’t your first show in Auckland, how many has it been now?
This’ll be my second time in Auckland. I was there maybe three years or four years ago, I can’t remember. I took two shows over for the Comedy Festival.
How’d did that go?
It was so much fun! I was doing three different shows. Two of them were with Dr. Brown who’s a clown performer/comedian. He’s a crazy guy. So it was really fun to just hang out with him doing shows together. We were doing a kids show, then an adults/night time show and then I did one of my solo show as well.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with your work and hasn’t seen your unique performance how would you describe your style to them?
*Chuckles playfully* I think mostly I start off by saying that I am a comedy storyteller, as a good place to start. This show specifically is a long story I tell to the audience. It’s a very playful and physical form of storytelling.
That sounds like it sets the scene for a positive experience.
Well yes, it is a positive experience. Although in the first five minutes of the show I tell the audience that they’re all dead. Maybe that’s not the most positive way to start a show but I really like it.
What do you want people to come away with from seeing the show?
Most of all I want people to have a really fun time. I think the most important thing is that people have a really nice warm feeling when they leave. They’ve just had a lot fun hanging out in a big group, with heaps of people and we’re all just laughing at someone being an idiot. There are also some big messages in the show. The show is about the end of the world. It touches on climate change and a few other of those deeper messages that people are thinking about at the moment.
It’s funny but still relevant at the same time?
Can you tell us about how She Was Probably Not a Robot come into being?
So I first made the show in 2013 for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival because I was living in London at the time. I’d done shows in Edinburgh the previous two years and I was excited to do a new show. I came up with a title and came up with a description, even though I didn’t have any material for the show! I had to have a picture to promote show, so I wracked my brain as the deadline came closer and then finally I got a box covered in tin foil and put it on my head. As soon as I did that, literally the moment I put it on, while I was taking photos, mind you I didn’t have a photographer I was just taking selfies, I was like, “This is a really good character!” and it changed the way I was standing there. It made me feel like I wanted to talk funny. So from that point on I had a character, a really fun character for the show. That was the very first process.
I had this idea in my brain that had been bubbling away for a while, that I wanted to do a show about the end of the world. About a man who survives the apocalypse because he’s asleep on an air mattress, and he floats out to sea as a huge flood rushes through the city. He eventually wakes up, realises the end of the world has happened and he’s the only one who survived.
To me, that was a really beautiful poetic image that I want to make a show out of. I thought it was going to be a proper dramatic theatre show. I thought it was going to be really deep and important. But then as I started making the show I had so much fun with it, it was such a stupid and playful idea I realised it was a comedy show.
So it became a comedy.
So you were in the UK when you created it. You’ve taken it to places like Kuala Lumpur and Norway. Where would you say your favourite audience experience has been?
That’s a really good question. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was incredible because the audience was so engaged with the show. They do this funny thing where every time you do a joke or something they think is funny they applaud. So they laugh but then they just clap, and they clap for ages. So I found myself during those 3 or 4 shows with a packed audience in a really big theatre, performing and it kind of destroyed the rhythm of the show. I was doing something; they’d clap; and I’d do a little bow; and I’d carry on; and then they’d clap. It was so much fun. They appreciated the show so much. It was a great experience.
So looking at those international shows where the cultures are very different, what would you say are the key differences between performing for NZ & Australian audiences to other countries?
When I’m going to countries where English isn’t the native language I have to make big changes. When I had to perform specifically for Kuala Lumpur I had to change quite a bit because of the language. I had to slow it down and make it very visual and physical so that those in the audience that, maybe, didn’t have that strong a grasp of English could still engage with the show based on the physicality and visual aspects. I did some shows in Norway for a younger audience, around 14-16 years old. Which meant I had to adjust the show a lot for them because they were young and Norwegian. I think those are the main things I have to do.
In terms of audience responses in Australia & NZ, I think that people don’t go to shows that often. Whereas in the UK people go to shows all the time. In Australia it might once a year or a once every six months, so there’s generally less expectation of what the show will be and they’re open to anything. But there’s also more pressure for it to be the greatest thing because the audience think, “This better be good because we only come once a year!”. I haven’t really performed much in NZ so I can’t say exactly but from memory I had a similar sort of experience.
Yes, you’re right, it is a similar vibe here, people don't go to shows as regularly as in the UK.
The people in Edinburgh are often going to 4-5 shows a day. They see so many shows it gets to the point where they get in, they sit down and they know exactly how it works. In Edinburgh the people think, “Right, let’s sit in the front, sit anywhere just get the show done.”
They a bit more savvy. That definitely set the atmosphere because everyone knows what to do and there’s an atmosphere of “Ok we know how shows work, now show us how your show works.” Whereas in Australia you get people giggling, shuffling around, and not really knowing where to sit, “Can we sit in the front? Or should we sit in the back? Or...”
You’ve performed the show for a lot of people since 2013, how do you keep it fresh and satisfying for you yourself as an actor?
That’s a good question because I’m at the very end of the Melbourne Comedy Festival now and I’m just starting to feel like there’re a few bits of the show that I just need to spark up! Give a bit more life. That’s the thing when you’re touring a show, you need to keep it fresh. So this show has been specifically made with games throughout it. Not games like we play “Hide and Seek”, but I might do a specific thing that’s quite repetitious and I just do it until the audience builds to a certain level, and then it drops down, and then builds again.
Having those moments in the show means I’m never just repeating the same thing every night. It’s constantly responsive to the audience. I think the most important thing to me is that I’m always ‘with’ the audience. Every audience is different and they respond to different things. As long as I can be attuned to that I keep the show fresh.
While you’re touring, where do your draw creative inspiration from?
I love festivals because you get to see so many different shows, and you get to hang out with people coming up with new shows and getting ideas. That’s the great thing about these festivals, you can go and see a show every night and you can go see different things. Some of the things you may not like. Some of shows that I find most inspiring are actually not my favourite shows. They’re the ones that I think, “Ah, that’s interesting but I wonder if it would be more interesting if you did something else with it or ...” and I think that keeps me inspired everyday.
This year I really liked a show called But Kavinsky. It’s really great. I can’t remember if it’s coming to New Zealand but it’s here in Melbourne & Adelaide. Also I loved Barnie (Duncan)’s shows Calypso Nights. He plays a character, Juan Vesuvius and it’s just so much fun. It’s really silly and playful. Loved that show.
So from Auckland you’re taking the show to Manchester. What’s next?
After Auckland and Manchester I have a few other dates in the UK for other shows of mine. She Was Probably Not a Robot is one of five solo shows I’ve made in the last five years. So I’m touring most of those around as much as I can.
Then I’m coming back to Australia. I was living in London for about five years and I’ve just moved back to Melbourne and I’m FREAKING out because I have no idea what I’m going to do next. I feel out of touch with Melbourne. Yeah, so I’m just going to be hanging out in Melbourne, make some friends.
Have a holiday, it sounds like you well and truly deserve one!
Yeah, I don’t know. I get too scared to take a holiday.
Lastly, your show is about a soul survivor and the last hope of humanity, what’s your survival plan for the inevitable Zombie Apocolypse?
OOOhhh that is a good good question! When I was a kid I originally grew up on a farm, so I was outside all the time. I used to make little cubby houses and stuff. I think in a way those sorts of childhoods are training for the apocalypse. I didn’t realise at the time because I was being so cute and sweet and it sounds like a really romantic childhood but it’s actually serious survival training. Also I remember as a kid I’d just eat different plants and stuff. I’d walk past a tree, pick off a leaf and just nibble on it. It was probably really dangerous... But I love just nibbling on things. I often just nibble on leaves so I think that would keep me going for a while.
Cool! That’s a really solid answer.
Good, I’m glad! What would you do?
I’m in New Zealand! So I feel like we could get away with killing most of the Zombies and just shutting down every possible way to get into the country… Maybe hop over to Great Barrier Island, they seem really sorted over there.
Yeah! Maybe if it happens while I’m in Auckland we can just stick together.
Thank you so much again for chatting with me and I look forward to seeing you soon.
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