Check out this interview with Urban Foxes Collective ahead of their Edinburgh hit Be Better, which comes to CPT in November as part of Fitter Happier More Productive
What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
This show was inspired by an idea. The idea was to explore a particular brand of contemporary narcissism, informed by various cultural sources and our own experiences as young women trying to make work while living in London.
The initial inspiration came from Shelia Heti’s book, How Should a Person Be (right), a sort of memoir with a dash of pop-philosophy. It reads like a journal and follows Heti’s attempt to find self-actualisation and artistic fulfilment. While reading the book we felt equally enamoured and horrified at her blatant disregard for narrative structure and character development, as she didn’t seem to feel the need to impress the reader.
She embraces the fact that she has a published book that is essentially about herself (a fairly privileged white middle-class woman in her 20s) figuring it all out, and the psychological and often existential battles she faces while trying to become the person she always thought she would be.
The book inspired a lot of discussion and we couldn’t decide if it should be deemed self-indulgent narcissism or a brave display of vulnerability, told unashamedly from a female perspective. In hindsight it is perhaps a mixture of both. This sowed the seeds for Be Better, as we tried to understand stand where we stood on this matter.
What can the audience expect to see and feel – or even think – of your production?
The audience can expect to see a heightened version of a reality that some will already recognise. We critique the culture of self-improvement and social media (amongst other things…) that some audiences are bombarded with every day. We take this idea of aspirational self-improvement and push it to its logical conclusion, which is something that is ultimately monstrous. We set the play in a seminar/ceremony of a cult and treat the audience as devotees who have gathered to watch Saskia’s conception ceremony (a narcissistic subversion of conception, you conceive a “better” version of yourself, as opposed to a baby). There is also a charismatic cult leader who embodies varying qualities of capitalist modern messiahs.
We hope the audience can see that we’re weary of this form of narcissism but that we also buy into it ourselves, equally enamoured of and disgusted with it. We hope he audience can see the complexity of the issue and perhaps examine and question their own relationship with the themes we are present.
How would you explain the relevance – or otherwise – of dramaturgy within your work?
We have always understood dramaturgy as the coherence of ideas within a created piece or world. Whether this is ‘coherence’ that embraces paradoxes or an area of contention, to us it doesn’t really matter. However, we have tried to use dramaturgy to help us create a recognisable, yet abstracted microcosm of the 21st-century in crisis and then to see what happens within it. We have worked with outside eyes and dramaturges in the past and would like to do so more often, as it always allows for a different layer of the show to be created.
What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work – have any particular artists or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
Artists that use writing at their core, such as Tim Etchells and Forced Entertainment, have elements we have always been greatly interested in. As a company, we admire other artists that play with theatrical elements and live art, which feels like an extremely exciting context at the moment. Vincent Dance Theatre has also been an inspiration due to their phenomenal use of symbolism, intellect and movement.
Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe – where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
We always make work concerned with “the now”, therefore the beginning of our process is usually informed by an element of contemporary culture that at least one of us has encountered and wants to discuss. Many of these conversations tend to regard the role of women in popular culture, something that is often a major element within our work.
We pretty much always start with a process of sharing (articles/videos etc.) and discussion, with one of the defining characteristics being a celebration of confusion. We often have contradictory feeling about the subject of our discussion – strongly repulsed yet completely captivated by what we watch or read. We find this grey area interesting and encourage the lack of a definitive answer or opinion as this is usually the most interesting point of departure from discussion to devising.
We also are drawn to often drawn to the seemingly superficial icons of pop culture, believing that if you scratch below the surface, it can reveal a lot about society and the world we live in.
It is always personal.
What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
Be Better embraces and critiques the sharing of information, so the audience is key to something happening, something changing during the piece. Their awareness of us on stage and of themselves as the audience is important for the balance of discomfort and entertainment that we aim for. There are moments of interaction which of course could not happen without somebody there watching.
Are there any questions that you feel I have missed out that would help me to understand how dramaturgy works for you?
I don’t think so, but maybe we could add this: We like thinking about context and the way our work functions in a specific context. Perhaps we will figure out how dramaturgy fits in to our process in a way where we recognise the impact straight away. There is something latent about dramaturgy in our process at the moment.