We met up with the brilliantly subversive, Balloons Theatre, at Theatre N16 to discuss their show ‘The Rules of Inflation’. A sociopathic clown torments four characters identified only by colour through a series of children’s party games. Audience members are then asked to vote for one of the colour characters. The result was one of the most experimental and daring pieces of theatre the Ginger Wig has seen. Here is our conversation with Bryony Cole (Yellow), BJ McNeill (Pink), Emily Sitch (Green), Nastazja Somers (Blue) and Joshua Webb (the Clown) about political theatre, the show’s unofficial sponsor and the Bedford pub poltergeist…
Ginger Wig: Hello Balloons Theatre! Thank you for speaking to us.
Balloons Theatre: Thank you for having us, Ginger Wig!
GW: What was your process for ‘The Rules of Inflation’?
Emily: It hasn’t been normal. It’s basically been locking ourselves in rooms for eight hours and playing and playing and playing. We generated about ten hours of material!
GW: Does anyone take the lead?
Josh: In rehearsals it is always the same – the clown is in charge!
GW: Does anyone act as director?
Emily: We are terribly communist. But it got to the point where we needed a pair of eyes watching so about a month ago we got a lady called Louise in who is a dramaturge to give us a hand.
BJ: To see if we were successful in conveying our message or not.
GW: There are so many possible interpretations of your piece and potential messages. Do you as a group share a clear idea of what your message is?
Nastazja: Last week we did’t know what we were doing – hysteria was beginning. So we sat down with this massive piece of wrapping paper – it’s our script now – and we went through everything and wrote down what the messages were behind every scene and what it meant to us. You can make ambiguous theatre, but the message will never be there unless the performers know exactly what they are doing.
Emily: And it wasn’t just scenes, it was specific moments. There are a million and one transitions. We wanted to make sure every single moment in our piece meant something.
GW: What kind of response have you been getting?
BJ: It’s very mixed.
Bryony: Everybody has been so shell-shocked. It’s been really nice to come back to people a few days later and discover that it’s been on their mind for days and they’re still processing it. I just love that.
Emily: Because it’s immersive we feed off the audience. So every show is different. The first night was very serious, there wasn’t a laugh, and we came off thinking what have we done? The second night was a completely different story. And then the third night was crazy, it was packed out and people were laughing at every single moment. It felt a bit manic. Then yesterday we had a matinee with a very small audience and it felt amazing and intimate.
Bryony: It really worked.
BJ: We always knew there were going to be some people who would like what we did and some who wouldn’t. Then beyond like and dislike there would be people who would understand certain motifs and others who wouldn’t. Some would connect with something such as colour or smell or balloons popping. We walk a fine line between theatre and performance art. We want people to receive our work differently.
Josh: We want to start a conversation.
BJ: Totally. If you walk out of the last show and you’ve got ten five star reviews, what does that really say about your show – if everyone is thinking the same thing? I think we prefer the variety of reactions.
Emily: We always said from day one we would like every single person to come out arguing and thinking something different.
Nastazja: You focused on the sensory aspects. Another reviewer noticed the floor wiping with the Union Jack. Someone else pointed out the party game theme. Someone concentrated on what political theatre is. One of our friends didn’t get the politics at all. He said ‘I think you shoot yourself in the foot putting Trump and Cameron on the posters because there’s nothing in there.’ Another friend came who is very political and thought pass the parcel reminded him of voting systems in the west. It’s open.
GW: There is a great speech in your show. Whose speech was it?
Nastazja: I put together a lot of famous speeches including the Thatcher one, ‘the lady’s not for turning’ and obviously ‘Mexico and the wall’ because everyone is talking about it. There are also less known speeches, like the David Cameron one. I’m not sure people even realise it’s Cameron, it could be Tony Blair. ‘I know… how much you hate the extremists who are seeking to divide our communities and how you loathe that damage they do.’ It’s a speech of fear, planting fear in peoples head. Then one going on about a ‘modern…
They all join in: Compassionate. Conservative. Party.’
They all laugh.
Emily: Where everyone is invited!
Nastazja: I tried putting Obama in there and it just didn’t flow. I realised maybe it’s because he means what he says.
GW: Who gets voted for the most?
All: Pink and Yellow!
GW: Why do you think that is?
Bryony: Yellow because I think she is fun. The comic relief.
Emily: The Boris Johnson.
BJ: I think Yellow represents a safe place. Because a lot of the content isn’t so safe people go ‘Oh! That’s happening! – Yellow looks nice’. I think Yellow represents escapism. Then someone said to me Pink represents the person that says ‘fuck you’ to the man. He’s the closest to real life.
Bryony: The voting has been really interesting.
BJ: Maybe people just like pink and yellow.
Emily: Yeah, I mean how basic is it? Why do you vote?
Nastazja: Someone voted clown yesterday.
Josh: Just the one. It’s strange because afterwards people say they wanted to vote for the clown, just to see what would happen. But no one ever does. I think they’re scared of what might happen.
Nastazja: There are rules! Can you break the rules?
GW: Having followed the build up to your show on social media, we realised we had forgotten about the clown. Was it intentional to keep him hidden?
Emily: Keep him wrapped up!
Nastazja: Two days before the opening we decided to release the clown.
GW: And who made the trailer?
Josh: My brother. He does it for a living. He made it for us in a day. A lot of this piece has been favours, brothers, sisters, friends.
Nastazja: Poundland! This show has been sponsored by Poundland!
Emily: It used to be the 99p store and now its Poundland, what does that say…
They all laugh.
GW: So outside of the show what are your favourite party games?
BJ: Something to do with dancing for me.
Nastazja: I like charades.
Emily: Musical statues?
Bryony: I was thinking spin the bottle?
Nastazja: Musical statues is never going to be the same to me again.
Emily: Mine would be something to do with cards. I love cards.
GW: Have your characters’ relationships changed over the run?
Bryony: The relationship with the clown is so different for each of us. But every night we all feel the same thing. It’s weird – it’s such an intimate space. We share these moments that feel quite real sometimes. One night we all felt really sad and emotional.
BJ: There’s a lot of us in our characters. We use a lot of our own lives and things from our past as you would in any acting performance. But this is a bit closer to home, it’s a bit sensitive and sentimental for us.
Nastazja: I think we all tell such strong messages in this piece. For me it’s the musical chairs. The clown tells me to dance like a whore and the audience starts laughing. Everyone thinks ‘this is going to be hilarious’ and I take off my top and everyone’s like ‘yea…h’ and then it’s not funny anymore. It’s quite empowering to see that reaction in people. They start seeing the objectification of women as something disgusting. It hits them in some way.
Emily: That’s when the balloons come in handy. That’s what we started out with – a balloon. That was our… what do you call it?
BJ: ‘Original impetus.’
The others laugh at BJ for his accurate terminology.
Emily: Basically, we found a balloon in the street. People have a relationship with balloons. My mum hates balloons – the noises in particular – so straight away we had something rich to play with…
Nastazja: …the things that balloons are not. Making balloons into a penis or a pregnancy, the idea that if a ballon drops someone dies – the imaginary power of it. How a popping balloon becomes a gunshot. It brought the child out in all of us.
GW: BJ and Nastazja you are also part of No Offence Theatre. You’re taking a show to the Brighton Fringe?
BJ: Yes we’re going to the Brighton Fringe with a play I’ve written called ‘Torn Apart (Dissolution)’. It’s quite different to this.
Nastazja: It’s naturalism meets abstract continental theatre. It’s nothing like this experimental piece of bonkers theatre. We did a preview here in November and it was quite well received – five star reviews and…
There is much laughter among the group.
Emily: Drop that in.
BJ: Basically it’s a play about love and relationships and three couples that are together, but for different reasons are being torn apart.
GW: And what’s happening next for Balloons Theatre?
Bryony: We are in talks with Edinburgh. We are hoping to get there.
Emily: It definitely belongs at a festival. Ideally we want a circus tent with thousands of balloons and drunk people.
BJ: Or as an isolated art piece or site specific with small audiences.
Emily: Like at a playground…
BJ: I think we’d be arrested. We are putting out feelers for other spaces. It will live on but we are just not sure in what capacity.
GW: Do you have any funny stories from your time working on ‘The Rules of Inflation’?
Emily: The poltergeist!
Josh: Oh yeah! This building is haunted.
Emily: It is one of the top haunted buildings in London! We were downstairs rehearsing, and the lights just switched on and off and on and off again.
Bryony: We were playing quite a dark game as well.
BJ: Surprise surprise.
Josh: And then it just went silent. And then… Wow…
They all laugh.
Emily: It’s still with him! Then last night, we are at the end of the show, Josh the clown is dead on the floor.
Nastazja: The most dramatic moment in the whole play.
Emily: Silence. Above Joshua’s groin there is a cock shaped balloon that we filled with helium. We didn’t normally do those as helium ones…
Josh: …I said pre-show don’t fill up a willy balloon with helium. It doesn’t look good.
Emily: So Josh dies and this balloon, very slowly, vertically, falls onto Josh’s crotch.
They are all giggling at this stage in the story.
Emily: And it’s there.
Bryony: Literally pointing up to the heavens!
They are all laughing.
Bryony: BJ and I held it together actually.
They all crack up.
GW: What’s it been like working as an ensemble?
Nastazja: It’s great. We are all really honest with each other. Brutally honest.
Emily: It’s got to be like that otherwise we would never get anywhere.
Nastazja: There is no time for diplomacy, you just want to create, you don’t want to get stuck with ideas because someone is being precious. But we have a laugh. Otherwise we would kill ourselves.
Emily: Blind man’s bluff with the clown was the worst experience of my life. We contemplated putting that in but it just doesn’t work for an audience to watch it.
Nastazja: It was terrifying.
Josh: We locked everything. The lights went out, all the colours were wearing blindfolds and then I just got weird with it…
Bryony: Got handsy…
They all laugh.
GW: Well, thank you so much for letting us into your mad world. We wish you all best with the future of ‘The Rules of Inflation’!
Balloons Theatre: Thanks Ginger Wig!
Keep up to date with Balloons Theatre on Twitter and Instagram @BalloonsTheatre. ‘Torn Apart (Dissolution)’ will be at the Brighton Fringe from 28-30 May at Distrikt.