Here’s what happened when Cuffer Rosie James exchanged a few questions with Joni-Rae Carrack from BearDog productions. (Catch Joni in ‘Do You Mind?’ at 16:45 in The Pit, and Rosie in Off the Cuff’s 10th Anniversary Spectacular)
Rosie interviews Joni
Hey Joni! For the uninitiated… who are you, and what can people expect from your show?
So, I’m Joni and I’m a puppeteer/performer and I’m one half of BearDog. We’re an interdisciplinary company that make lo-fi, honest theatre. Calum Anderson (Off The Cuff’s Artistic Director) is our director and ‘Do You Mind?’ is our first show together.
‘Do You Mind?’ is about the experience of having Generalised Anxiety Disorder and how it affects the life, sense of self and relationships of one woman, expressed through a single moment in her life. It’s me, an overhead projector and a handful of puppets. It packs a bit of an emotional punch but it’s also a funny, sweet little show. We have a lot of fun doing it.
When did you first start to work on ‘Do You Mind?’, and where have you performed it?
I’ve had the idea for ‘Do You Mind?’ since 2012, and it was always there in the back of my mind. I knew I wanted to do a show about mental illness with puppetry but I didn’t know what it was going to look like or what story I was going to tell. When I met Calum in 2014 we started talking about it and it started building momentum. And then I was at the Kate Bush concerts in London last September and the show just finally appeared in my imagination – it would be my own personal story of anxiety and how I’ve tried to tell people about it (a pretty scary experience!). So cheers Kate!
We started working on it after that and it all came about very quickly. I started showing it at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama where I was studying for an MA and we did a scratch performance at the Battersea Arts Centre. We premiered it at the Brighton Fringe Festival and got a really great reaction to it. We’re so excited to be performing at the Basement in Cuff’s All-Dayer. Then in November, we’ll be at the Pleasance in London for the Little Angel’s Suspense Festival.
Was it daunting at first, performing such personal material? (And is it still?)
It is a little, maybe the first few times! But it’s nowhere as near as scary as telling one person by themselves, which is what the show is about. I’ve always been quite honest about my anxiety, and mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and OCD are a lot more common than we think, but there’s still a little stigma around having one of these conditions. I can’t remember how many times I’ve talked about my anxiety and it’s let someone else feel more comfortable about opening up. So if I can do a show about anxiety, throw in some puppets, make it fun and open up a dialogue, then I’m really happy with feeling a little daunted at first.
What do you hope people will take away from seeing ‘Do You Mind?’, and have you ever had any memorable reactions from audience members?
I suppose just more of an understanding of anxiety and all mental health problems, but also of recovery. We can all do with a little bit more compassion. I really like hearing an audience laugh! I like knowing they’re enjoying themselves and are invested in the story I’m telling. Mental health can be a serious and deep subject, but finding the funny side is one way of making it approachable. I do remember seeing one woman – she had blue hair – at the Brighton Fringe shows. And then the next performance she came back to see it again with someone else. I didn’t talk to her but knowing she wanted to share it with someone made me know I had got it ‘right’ for her.
Aaaaand finally… How many puppets do you have in your house?
Haha, great question. I recently was sorting out my parents’ attic which is where most of my puppets end up. And I have a lot! A lot of them are half made, or test puppets for ideas I had. There’s a whole box for ‘Do You Mind?’ I almost made a life-sized dog puppet! There are maybe 5 or 6 who I get out a lot and perform with, they are the ones that have names and personalities and I talk about like human actors. I did have to chuck a few out… I felt pretty guilty…
Joni interviews Rosie
Bit of a cliché question to start off with but what got you into improv in the first place?
It had always really appealed to me, ever since seeing things like ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ on telly growing up. The thing that I think of as my real introduction was when I was at drama school and my favourite three hours each week was a lesson called Clown, which involved loads of what I now recognise to be improv comedy techniques. It was all about getting out of your comfort zone – It is scary and difficult at first, but kind of addictive, and I became a sucker for punishment trying to crack it. I then moved to Brighton a few years later and I was dying to get back into it, so I joined Off the Cuff by turning up at one of their rehearsals.
What’s your favourite kind of improv to do (games, short-form, long-form etc.)?
I love short-form improv games, like what you see in ‘Whose Line…’ – I think they are a great invention. I enjoy them so much. The structure makes them both more constricting and more liberating somehow, forcing you to think in different ways and come out with things you never knew you had in you. And from an audience perspective, I think that a good short-form show can be one of the most ridiculously funny and energising things you can go and see. Having said that, sometimes long-form really hits the spot as there is more room to explore, and it doesn’t rely so much on gags and punchlines so it can be more of a challenge. It can even turn sad or dark sometimes, but if you can create something that rings true for people it will still be entertaining and funny. Short answer: erm, dunno – I love it all.
Do you have a favourite Cuff show?
Of the special formats we’ve devised, I would say my favourite thing has been ‘Crime And Funishment’, the improvised TV detective drama that we’ve developed this year. I’m proud of it and think it’ll live on for a long time. And I will always have a soft spot for ‘Bingo! It’s Off the Cuff’, the show we took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010. It’s a great way to do short-form, and the addition of real prizes (of questionable taste and worth), a proper ’70s bingo machine and a shiny host’s jacket were also bonuses. I’m very happy that we’ll be revisiting that format in our set at the All-Dayer.
Has improv ever helped you out in the ‘real world’?
All the time. It’s well handy. I know I can get onstage in front of 50 people, without a single thought in my head (yeah… that’s what it’s like in there) and come up with something. That makes a lot of situations easier – whether it’s a daunting work meeting or a social life thing. It has also definitely made me better with little kids! When hanging out with nieces or friends’ children, etc, it’s amazing how easy it is to keep each other entertained when you spend every Tuesday evening in a room with your mates indulging each other’s spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness ideas and making up weird stories.
What would you like an audience to get out of the All-Dayer?
I’d love people to see as many of the shows as they can, because there is a real variety of styles and they could find themselves laughing, crying, learning and questioning things all in one day. I hope lots of people give the free improv workshop a go as well. Basically though, like with any birthday party I just want people to come along and enjoy themselves, and maybe make some new friends or get off with a stranger in a pile of coats.