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Interview: Spymonkey's Toby Park talks about the revival of their 2001 pulp gothic romance novella turned physical comedy Cooped

Every clown is likely to tell you that in order to get a comedic moment right, you have to dedicate equal attention to yourself and the audience, and play with danger too: if you have to fail onstage, it must be an epic, catastrophic fail; if something goes right, it needs to be painfully precise. That tipping point is what makes the comedic moment work, and it’s what places clowning as a highly appropriated theatrical device that lingers at the potential of play and toys with risk. Spymonkey- Toby Park, Petra Massey, Stephan Kreiss, Aitor Basauri- have managed to redefine its position in British theatre in the ways in which they bring comedy to physical theatre. Their work has been dealing with such theatrical currencies since 1997, engaging with a long British tradition of comedy, taking inspiration from the farcical and splastick as much as the pulpiest of pop culture.


Cooped, their second show first developed and produced in 2001, returns for a UK tour this year. A pulp gothic novella that masquerades as thriller and turns out to be a melodrama, Cooped holds all the elements of a Spymonkey show: laugh out loud comedy, highly articulate physical theatre and a lot of play with the expectations of genres. We spoke to Co-Founder Toby Park about how comedy in theatre has changed since then and what it’s like to bring back a show twelve years later.


Run Riot: Cooped was one of your first productions, premiering in the UK in 2001. Tell us about its return.

Toby Park: Cooped we first made in 2001 and went on to tour it all over the world. It started quite small for Edinburgh, and then as the show took off it has morphed into something bigger, both physically and comedically. It is a bit like a very intricate box of tricks - it looks at first like a rather staid 1960s provincial rep production of a country house Whodunnit, but as people who have seen our work will know, rapidly morphs into something delightful, mad and strange, stuffed with brilliant surprises and unexpected visual flourishes. It is a bitch to tour because all the tricks take a long time to set up - we created it in the days when we made everything ourselves rather than get things made in proper theatres, so it has the feel of a very lovingly hand-stitched suit, parts of which have worn out and been repatched with even lovelier bits of needlework. We’ve been asked a few times in the past five years or so if we’d like to revive it, and we finally relented for a theatre in Berlin. Since we were getting it out of the box we thought it would be fun to do it in London and Brighton again.


Run Riot: The show engages with a range of theatrical and literary tropes: there’s physical theatre, comedy, pulp gothic romance plotting and elements of farce in there. How do they mix- and how have you returned to the ingredients after twelve years?

Toby Park: We made the show very early in our life as a company, it’s our second show. It was interesting getting it back on its feet again, coming back to it with fresh eyes. You notice that it doesn’t have the rigour in the writing that we would be looking for if we were creating a new show, some of the plotting is wilfully, joyfully irresponsible. But it has an energy and charm about it that is really infectious, and nothing stands in the way of a brilliant piece of comedy or clowning. It’s irrepressible, in the best sense of that word. I think we were less concerned when we started out in making something that had a narrative coherence, and more intrigued by having as much fun as possible in juxtapositioning of unlikely styles, volte face turns of plot, and delivering an arc of laughter that leaves an audience gasping for breath.


Run Riot: The show was developed in collaboration with Gaulier-trained Cal McCrystal, who also directed the physical comedy in One Man, Two Guvonors and is now back to work as Director. Given his background, what was that collaboration like? And can you tell us a bit about your current process?

Toby Park: He was hugely important in establishing our work, he really put the company together in terms of defining how the four of us work together on stage, the status relationships and comedic interplay between the four of us, what we would term our clowns. He has a remarkable eye for putting his finger on and wheedling out the bits of you as a person, and as a performer, which are particularly funny about you, and making that the most extraordinary comedic material. And of course he is a genius at creating devastatingly funny material.


I guess the main difference in making work now is that we have got faster at making it, and faster at getting it good - it’s taken a long time, but after thirteen years of being together we are extremely intimate with how we work. We know who we are, how we harmonise or create dissonance, and that short-circuits a lot of time. We have also started working far more in collaboration with a writer as part of our creative process, starting with Joel Horwood on Jekyll & Hyde(ish) in 2011, and recently with Carl Grose on Oedipussy and Bob Farquhar on Spookshow. It is wonderful to have someone in the room who is there to gather together, digest and process the good bits of the raw stuff and to come back three days later with it actually written down and ready for us to demolish all over again.


Run Riot: With all these ingredients, do you give priority to any- say narrative or the comedy? Does your visual language emerge from this mix, and what would you say your major references are for Cooped?

Toby Park: Cooped definitely gives priority to the comedy and full reign to clowning. Lucy Bradridge has worked as designer on all our shows to date, and she knows what makes us funny, what gives us pleasure and shares our love of expensive cheapness.


The central notion ofCooped - a slightly pulpy gothic romance novella, innocent girl arrives at country mansion to work for handsome but mysterious aristocratic boss, intimidating servants, quintessential Englishness - was based on Cal’s obsessions with that literature when he was growing up, plus lots of the original Dark Shadows series. And there are bits of Pink Panther in there, Crouching Tiger (which had just come out when we first made the show), vaudeville, music hall, variety, Fawlty Towers, Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Hammer, Mel Brooks.


Run Riot: What’s a physically led Gothic Melodrama Comedy in 2013?

Toby Park: A bit painful. We made it when we were in our early 30s, and now have to suffer the bad knees and dodgy backs of people in their mid 40s (and one of us is 50 now, blimey). We have been in training so we can do all those lifts and ridiculous carries, but even so, it’s a bit ow-ey.


Run Riot: Your characters hold a certain iconography: a tragedian, a Spanish soap star, an Expressionist and a pop diva. Can you tell us a bit about how they came about, and their relationship to each other?

Toby Park: They are basically bits of the four of us which have been through the Cal McCrystallographier and exploded, warped and expanded into oversized cartoon-like dimensions. But they are all rooted in a bit of truth. I am and remain slightly pretentious and pompous in my artistic ambitions, but I look good in a suit. Stephan really doesn’t give an arse whether he’s pissing us off or not, he remains an anarchist, very unpredictable. Aitor would always like to be considered a great serious theatre actor rather than a very funny Spaniard, and will be very upset if you laugh at him when he is being serious.


Run Riot: Both in Cooped and across your work- Oedipussy and Moby Dick to name but a few- you engage with a particular British tradition of humour that becomes malleable in your hands. How do you engage with this British narrative, and as a European troupe, is that recontextualised?

Toby Park: Yes it is odd this thing that we are considered part of a very British tradition of comedy, when half of us are dodgy continentals. I don’t think we have aimed at being part of any tradition; as an artist the only thing you can hope to be is in work, and if you are lucky enough to be in work, to be making stuff that you like. We’ve been lucky to have met each other, and the best work comes about by sticking at it, and we’ve stuck at it for quite a long time now. It makes you notable just for that fact, after a time. Stephan says we will be known for being that bunch of idiots who are still working together at 80. I guess we won’t have much competition by then.


Having a German and a Basque in a British company is something interesting, it, brings the language down to a level of playfulness. When we do international work that Latin/Nordic faultline seems to get reinterpreted wherever we are, it chimes all over the place as a recognisable source of conflict. Added to a slightly nobby Englishman (me) and a slightly brassy English bird, it is a singular combination. Maybe the willingness to play with and explode those stereotypes is a very English thing, and that’s why it is seen as part of a British tradition?


Run Riot: Tell us about the role of risk in your comedy, and whether failure has played any part in your work.

Toby Park: For clowns failure is everything, it’s the whole generator of material. All of our shows are just ways of setting ourselves up for failure. Moby Dick, Oedipussy, even our very first show Stiff, all had as their starting point people trying to do something great and missing - to make something artistically impressive and fail appallingly.


Aitor talks a lot when he teaches about the fact that it is being open to failure on stage that makes comedians vulnerable, and therefore human, and therefore funny. I think that is really true, and I think that is what makes performing comedy such a mystery, and something I haven’t tired of trying to do, because it is so damn hard. You have to be risking everything otherwise you’re not going to be good. And to be really good you have to be prepared to be shit. And it doesn’t get any better.


Run Riot: What do you feel has changed in terms of context since Cooped first opened in London? Do you feel visual and physical theatre has a particular cultural position, and if so, where does this leave you as a company?

Toby Park: I think people understand better what we do 12 years on. I was watching a Dr Brown TV thing the other day and the continuity announcer mentioned ‘clown’ - the first time I’d heard it used in a non-derogatory way on TV ever I think. We’ve become quite cagey about talking about our work using that word, just because it is so open to misinterpretation, but I hope that that is changing. When we started out I think physical comedy and clown were considered fringe, and now there a whole generation of new comedians starting out who have a more diverse set of influences, which is great. Certainly shows like One Man Two Guvnors have reminded audiences that Britain has a long theatrical comedy tradition. That sense of celebrating the silly, the outrageous, the ridiculous, of enjoying laughing really hard, I think is stronger now than it was. I hope we’ve had something to do with that.


Spymonkey presents 'Cooped'

Performed by: Aitor Basauri, Petra Massey, Stephan Kreiss and Toby Park

Directed by Cal McCrystal

Leicester Square Theatre

6 Leicester St 

London WC2H 7BX


18th-23rd March 2013

Running time: 105 minutes


For more information visit Spymonkey and Leciester Square Theatre.