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Q&A: Paula Varjack on Cash, Poetry and Bad Dates

Paula Varjack is a writer, filmmaker and performance maker, working across and combining disciplines; performance, theatre, documentary and spoken word. Her book of collected poetry and prose, Letters I Never Sent To You, explores identity, sexuality and belonging. She is the creator of the Anti-Slam - a satirical take on poetry slams - as well as performing as part of Varjack and Simpson, whose show Worst. Date. Ever. takes place at Camden People's Theatre in February.

Eli Goldstone: Hi Paula, you're in Greece at the moment - what are you doing over there?

Paula Varjack: I have had this ritual for years where I always leave the city I live in for New Year's Eve. It began with two friends in New York. We did it together for years, going to Miami, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Mexico City. I then continued the tradition on my own. This year I decided on Athens because another good friend of mine had just moved there and two friends I knew from Goldsmiths were also there. It's a beautiful and crazy and confusing city and I love it. I will definitely be coming back.

Eli: You’ve been embarking on a project looking at how people in the arts are getting paid (Show Me The Money). Why do you think the subject of money for artists is so particularly taboo?

Paula: I think talking about money in Britain is complicated generally. Talking about money makes most English people uncomfortable. But the added complication when it comes to money in the arts is many people don't value the time and craft that goes into making art, and many artists are uncomfortable and uncertain about discussing fees. This is partly because many feel guilty asking for money for doing something they enjoy. The other issue is transparency; many artists are scared to talk to each other about money, to admit when they are struggling, because there is so much shame around not living from your work. This makes me so frustrated because, for me, making a living from your art is not the best barometer for valuing your work. Some work is less commercial and harder to sell, some people are better at selling their work (and themselves). Some cities are easier and cheaper to live in than others so less challenging to survive as an artist in. 

I hate this idea that having a non-art job, to support your art, makes you less of an artist. If you make art you are an artist, end of. But because there can be anxiety around having other jobs, a lot of people don't admit to having other jobs, and that's not helpful either, because it creates a false impression of more people being able to live from making work than there actually are. when actually it's incredibly hard - in london it's becoming almost impossible.  

Eli: What needs to change in terms of how artists’ work is valued?

Paula: I would love if more people respected the time, energy, heart and craft that goes into making art. I also resent the idea of art only being legitimised by its monetary value. If you write but don't make a living from it you are still a writer! I think even enthusiasts of art massively underestimate the human cost of the art they experience. I wish people would consider it more, particularly when it comes to ticket prices. This is something I have thought about a lot, and the reality of choosing to follow a career in the arts and the precarity that comes with it is something Show Me The Money explores. 

Eli: Did you compile material for your book, Letters I Never Sent To You, from work that didn’t lend itself to performance?

Paula: The book is a compilation of stories and poems from three sources. Some of it is material that has been performed, some of it is material that I liked but never felt was right for performance, and the rest is from a solo show I wrote and shelved because it felt more like prose than performance. Funnily enough though, doing the book tour to promote the book in November, I discovered many of the pieces I felt were more page pieces worked very well being read out loud. 

Eli: Do you feel when performing your work you are opening a dialogue with your audience in a way that is impossible when they are alone, reading?

Paula: I feel like all of my work comes from a desire to connect with and have conversations with others. Even as a solo artist, essentially performing long form monologues, these monologues are a conversation with the audience. I write and devise with audience in mind. I haven't thought much about whether performance is a better way of connecting with an audience than through writing, but I think both provide different ways of connection and dialogue. I make performance and video pieces because those are the mediums I feel most drawn to and suited to. But I wouldn't say that this opens up a dialogue in a way writing can't. It is just a different way of opening up. It has  been really interesting with Letters I Never Sent To You actually, because having a book has enabled me to connect with different audiences and  to reconnect with audiences who for example may have seen me once in place I toured to but never went back to again. 

Eli: I’m looking forward to the Women's March on London this weekend as an opportunity to feel connected to other people – how and where do you best find comfort in turbulent and frightening times?

Paula: This varies but my approach is either to be together with close friends in a cosy low-lit bar or to be on my own in a city where I don't speak the language. Travelling on my own is increasingly the way I find a sense of calm, and being in a place where I don't speak the language always gives me more head space. It's also a great starting point to create.

Eli: What do you have planned for your anti-Valentines night, Worst Date Ever?

Paula: Worst Date Ever is a night by Varjack & Simpson, my co-production and co-hosting partnership with poet and performer Dan Simpson. We invite performers to tell true stories of dates gone wrong, or to perform short performances on the theme of terrible dates. Then in between this we play games with the audience that get everyone talking to everyone else. It's always super fun.

We started the night partly because we wanted to create a space for people to meet people in a way that was engaging and entertaining. Rather than a dating night, which London has enough of, we wanted a night where people of all relationship statuses and all sexualities and genders could mix up together and make new friends, which can be hard to do in London, hard to do as you get older, and hard when you are in a long term relationship. Dan is engaged and I am single so we approach the night with very different perspectives. Also having been on all the dating apps and trading stories with friends, I often found trading stories of the bad dates, was more fun than the dates themselves, so the night is also inspired by that. 

Eli: Finally, what is the most unromantic date you have ever been on?

Paula: I once went on a date with a brain surgeon I met on Guardian Soulmates. I was working in animation at the time. His sister was a fairly successful visual artist, and he spent most of the date talking about how what she did was not a real job. I think I mainly went on the date because I had never been on a date with a brain surgeon before. I don't think he asked me many, or any, questions about myself. He just talked at me and complained for most of the meal, not noticing that the more he spoke the quieter and less interested I was. I think it would have been enough of a turn off for him to be so disrespectful about his sister to a stranger, but it was even more of a turn off that he saw no value whatsoever in art. The only fun thing about the date is my two friends of mine kept texting me to say "but its not brain surgery is it" as a response to anything he said. I think they texted me this four times. It's the only thing that had me smiling.

Oh wow, I just remembered another one! There was this Italian guy I went on a date with. I am bi and I had recently come out of a long term relationship with a woman. This was also a guy on Guardian Soulmates (sorry Guardian Soulmates, I had a bad track record with you). It was one of the first dates I had been on with a guy in a long time. When he arrived I though he was really attractive and the date seemed promising, but then as soon as the wine came he went on and on about how he really really fancied black women. It was like the only thing he wanted to talk about. Eventually he shifted gears - I think maybe my profile said I was bi. He told me he also really liked lesbians, especially black lesbians. I didn't see him again either. 


Worst. Date. Ever.

Camden People's Theatre

14th February