JAMS on interchangeble roles, the politics of storytelling and reconstructed meat

They have recently been named one of two finalists for the prestigious Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award and, following a sharing of their work in November, will have the chance to win a £32,000 development grant, a year’s worth of development time and mentorship from the Barbican, as well as a full run there next year.

Meet JAMS, an international theatre collective featuring:

Jemima Yong, SG/MAL (performance maker and photographer),

Alan Fielden, KR/UK (writer, director and artist),

Malachy Orozco, IRE/USA (technical and performance guy friday)

Sophie Grodin, DEN (collaborative performance maker).

jams all 4
From left: Jemima, Alan, Sophie and Malachy

Jemima and Alan first met at The Central School of Speech and Drama. They started working with Malachy in 2014 on Alan’s play SUN (“the children of Forced Entertainment, Punchdrunk, Shunt and maybe even Samuel Beckett” Donald Hutera of The Times) and later on Jemima’s performance All About My Mother in 2016, Singapore. In 2012 Alan and Sophie created ROOM – an experimental piece featuring one audience member which has since toured internationally with the whole JAMS team (and Annabelle Stapleton-Crittenden), described by Vice Motherboard as “virtual reality without the headset … breathtaking and very original”.

Last week, Nico Pimparé talked to the JAM part of JAMS in their South London rehearsal space. (Sophie was in Denmark at the time of this interview, and so unable to join.)

What is the piece about?

A — There is the actual story of Marathon which is the story of a messenger who’s been given the task of returning to his king and saying “We have lost the war! The enemy are coming!” That is his journey, that is the story of Marathon. On his way to the king he meets the people of the country, he builds up a sense of who the king is, he starts to doubt his patriotism, or his faith in his mission – he considers running away, he could just as easily leave his mission.

But the telling of Marathon is where we’re really putting our attention and our creative research and development: it’s the form of telling it which is of interest to us. We’re hoping to create form that embodies some kind of confusion, hysteria, and disruptive storytelling that I think we all feel in the contemporary world. The form of it is to do with repetition and variation: that’s the form that we’re applying to storytelling, that’s the main form of the play.

So there’s two layers, the story of Marathon, which is fairly easy to understand. And then there’s the other layer which is ‘how do you structure the story and how do you relay it to the contemporary observer?’ and what you’re focussing on now is that layer?

A — Yeah, this week has been pretty predominantly about structures and patterns.

Cool, so can you give an example of how you work?

A — Sure, so whilst I was in Japan, Jemima and Mal had a rehearsal where they really brought down to absolute bare essence what the story of Marathon is. It was always the intention, with the story of Marathon, to repeat it. It’s a very simple, essential, repeatable story with easy motifs. And then Jem and Mal just stripped it right back to the story of a messenger, a king, and a witness and they managed to tell that story in a minute.

And for us the next point is: to start playing with ‘the messenger runs from point A to B’, to then pause and explore what ‘B’ is, like change the lighting state completely, bring in some fake trees or whatever. Messenger sits down at point B and it turns out that point B is the city of Chicago in 1920, they have a conversation with Al Capone, I don’t know, you know, and then we move on… But to kind of make these massive leaps between the micro and the macro.

I just watched you perform a part of it. Was that improvised or  written down?

J — Some things were set and some things were improvised. One thing we’re currently exploring is: what needs to remain fixed and what can be varied – how far and where the boundaries are.

So in relation to the isolated experiment that you just witnessed, what was set was the audio loop: “the messenger receives the message, the messenger runs from point A to point B to point C to point D.” There are two bodies at play and a basic choreographic score that the variations jump off.

So how do you experiment with that? Because you have quite a specific process, right? You have a way of working that involves you in the rehearsal room doing things physically, so…

J — I think we are still learning what our specific process looks like. There are things that we’ve noticed recurring whenever we work together which is maybe indicative of what it might look like.
We create music together… after a long period in a rehearsal room, something builds up in us and explodes in music. Someone starts playing the piano, someone starts playing the drums… We jam often, it helps in the dynamic of the process.

Also, we film most of our performance experiments and watch them back immediately after, take notes and reflect.
And when we approach task-based exercises, a big part of the process is the trust and fluidity of stepping ‘in’ and ‘out’, interchanging roles.

JAMS jenga

What are the advantages of this process as opposed to the traditional way of working, i.e. from a script?

M — When you use a word like ‘advantage’ I feel like that implies that there is a ‘best practice’ kind of thing. I think a lot of individual writers famously struggle by themselves, and with alcoholism. At a desk, by themselves, torturing themselves to come up with these pages. None of us are alcoholics that I’m aware of, so that’s one advantage I guess.


M — It started out that way, there was gonna be a script, and there still may be elements that are scripted. But I think the nature of it seems to be kind of ‘teasing’. You do this with wool or hair. You’re like pulling apart the idea of ‘story’. And to script it perhaps is not how you do that. You need to invent new ways in order to interrogate stories and the old ways.

I think the question of story and narrative has come up a lot, especially in corporate culture and political culture. There’s this thing of, you know: if you’re gonna sell, if you’re gonna transmit your message, if that message is going to be tasty and palatable to your audience, your public, your customer, it has to be a ‘story’. And, I don’t know, for me storytelling has always been this very sacred thing. That people talk about ‘corporate narratives’ and ‘product narratives’ is really like, just, I don’t know, it hurts me a little bit. So for me… we need to look at what ‘stories’ are and perhaps what they aren’t.

We’ve talked about politics as well: trying to get people to question the way information is presented and to be ready to probe it. Like ‘what is this story after?’ ‘what does it want from me?’ ‘How does it want me to react?’. And maybe we can even bolster our own personal defences against what feels like a very hostile place – the sort of story-scape that’s out there in the world.

What are your influences?

M — A radio producer called Joe Frank, who writes like really surreal stories. Spalding Gray, who made like quasi-autobiographical work. There’s a Latin American writer Julio Cortázar, writes really far out stories. Meredith Monk, who’s a singer and choreographer auteur. Bruce Nauman, multimedia artist. Sam Shepard. Brecht. Goat Island.

J — One of the influences that I think we have to mention is Rick and Morty.

M — That’s true, yeah.

J — In this project especially we reference Rick and Morty like a party that we all went to but were all very drunk at. So we’re constantly re-enacting bits and pieces from it.

M — Definitely. The way they deal with tropes. Cos this language has emerged, this like cultural language of Simpsons and television and they’re so prevalent and part of the joke is knowing the kind of joke that’s being subverted.

A — Influences – ummm… Shūji Terayama, Japanese filmmaker. John Cage. Then there’s a guy who’s not really an influence but has been influential on this project called John Moran: he’s someone who will repeat the same scene whilst varying the context and the information around the scene. Tim Crouch…

So John Cage, that’s interesting. He deconstructed music, and you seem to be interested in deconstructing theatre…

A — There’s loads of deconstruction of theatre! This was brought out as a point at the interview at the Barbican. This kind of thing has been done. But there is a particular contemporary sense of being right now that I feel like a lot of people talk about, or a lot of people demonstrate, which is somewhere in between a kind of depression, anxiety, feeling of not being able to do anything – because of how overpowering the information and data and confusion of living in the modern world is… that leads to some kind of hysteria, and can lead into strange avenues of outlet.

So you’re not deconstructing something, you’re taking something that’s deconstructed and reconstructing it…?

A — It’s like a reconstructed meat.

M — I think, as Jem said earlier, we’re still working out what we do and how we do it.

J — I don’t think we are deconstructing theatre. We’re deconstructing story and the way information is currency; the way it changes hands.

A — Just one last point is, like, a word we haven’t come back to in a while is ‘enchantment’. ‘Enchantment’ is something you might associate with children’s films, but ‘story’… the news can be ‘enchanting’, a good advert can be ‘enchanting’ and we’re deconstructing with the aim of ‘disenchanting’ as opposed to just kind of an exercise of deconstruction.

M — It’s like an Ikea approach to information. We’ll just give you all the bits and you put it together.

A very good point to end on. Thank you very much.


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