Jamie Rees talks to Big Loop theatre director Duncan Hallis about the pros and cons of fringe theatre in Wales… and putting the ‘dick’ in Dickens with new anti-panto XXXMAS Carol, starring Cardiff drag and cabaret icons like Polly Amorous and Foo Foo LaBelle.
Tell me more about Big Loop Theatre Company.
We want to encourage mischief and naughtiness – I would describe our work as organised chaos. We’ve been making work for years and we’ve changed the focus of our practices since lockdown, specialising in gig-style theatre and immersive performance. We want everything to feel like a big night out.
What are your inspirations as a company?
A lot is taken from music festivals, escape rooms, gigs and computer games. How we define ourselves is more of an energy or voice than being inspired by a particular genre. Our first show was a dance/physical theatre piece, then we did some puppetry and children’s theatre. We want to do everything, but be true to our voice and style, bringing chaos and mischief at the same time.
What is an anti-panto?
It’s something alternative to a panto. It’s not against panto. Panto is important: for many, it’s the only theatre experience they have. Where it becomes an anti-panto is that we work in realms that are darker and more adult and more explicit. Exploring alternative perspectives on panto, which have a very definite structure and a theme, and turning the traditional notion of a panto on its head.
XXXMAS Carol as a title sounds a bit filthy… are you just putting the dick in Dickens? Or is it more profound than that?
Hopefully a bit of both! We have some of the city’s most talented drag, burlesque and circus artists and we want people to gasp at what we’re presenting. It’s going to be sex-positive, body-positive and gender-affirming, with alternative stories to Christmas that the usual white and middle-class theatre audiences won’t get from traditional pantos. So, as well as the dick jokes and nudity there will also be shared life experiences with meaning that people may not have experienced before.
Cabaret has seen a resurgence and proven very popular post-lockdown. What makes great fringe theatre?
First and foremost, a healthy and sustainable production model. Cabaret and fringe theatre is normally done on a shoestring, to the detriment of theatre-makers; it needs to be supported properly by institutions, like here at Wales Millennium Centre. In terms of style and content, we want people to be surprised, to experience something new that hasn’t been seen before. Be challenged. We get a lot of arty theatre types in the auditorium for shows, but we need to get new audiences in and it needs to be fun. Fun, fun, fun!
See XXXMas Carol at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
How would you describe the theatre scene in Wales right now? What role does theatre have to play in a future Wales?
When I talk to friends who aren’t theatre makers, they say “I haven’t been to the theatre in ages, I should really go.” They look at it as something that is good for you: that phrase ‘should go’ comes up all the time – but they don’t do it. That’s not why we go to the pub, cinema or gig. There’s something about de-intellectualising theatre. It needs to be something you ‘want’ to do at the end of the day, not something that you ‘should’ do.
Why does it feel like such a huge effort to go to the theatre? I’m not sure, but theatres are definitely not welcoming or inclusive enough. I think Wales is playing catch-up here, and there’s a lot of work to be done to hire staff and individuals from more diverse backgrounds. We need to reflect diversity, from boards to frontline staff.
There needs to be less of a culture of fear and getting things wrong too. Communities feel unheard and unrepresented. Don’t just offer tokenistic work for fear of preserving existing white middle-class audiences. I would say, again, that it needs to be fun and something that people want to do.
XXXMAS Carol, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, every Wed, Thurs and Fri from Wed 8-Fri 31 Dec (excepting bank holidays) plus Sat 11 and Sat 18 Dec.
words JAMIE REES
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