Paula Varjack is a multi-disciplinary artist, most recently you may have caught wind of (or even have seen) her piece, Show Me The Money, which has performed at Camden People’s Theatre and Battersea Arts Centre. Next week she will be a part of the Polari Literary Salon WOW Fest line up, and will be talking about her new book, Letters I Never Sent to You.
This week, LGBTQ Arts’ Amie Taylor caught up with her about her recent projects.
AT: Hi Paula, you’re headlining Polari this March at the WOW festival, and are bringing your new book ‘Letters I Never Sent To You’. What inspired you to write this?
PV: There was never really a point where I said “I want to write a book” the way someone sets out to write a novel. My compulsion to write was never about getting published. I have always been interested in telling stories, but when I was younger this meant writing plays, and then in my twenties short films. As I got older I lost interest in fiction altogether, as I became fascinated by biography, autobiography and documentary, feeling that true stories held more pull for me than constructed ones. Now I feel differently, I think there is something inherently naive in the idea that any truth is not a construct, even if it just means that two people who live through the same experience hold different fragments of the same memory.
All that aside I did remember recently two moments that are something like a desire to put these specific stories out in a collection. The first precedes me being a performer. About 12 or 13 years ago (God this will make me sound sooo old) I had a blog on friendster (cue millenials and younger scratching their heads, its like facebook before Facebook, kids) and I really enjoyed writing these stories about brief encounters I had with people I met in the various cities I had connections with. I might have been somewhat influenced by Dorothy Parker, and also Candace Bushnel, whose collection I always found so much sharper and funnier than the tv series (Sex & the City) the book inspired. and in writing this blog, at a time when bloggers having their collected blogs being published was starting to be a thing, I definitely daydreamed about that same time, but never thought it would happen. I guess I just wasn’t that ambitious.
And then there was another moment, many years later, maybe six years ago, by which point I had become a performer through the poetry slam scene in Berlin and in London, and I was performing these stories. I was starting to feel a little restrained by the poetry slam format. I had done a full length solo show before, but this was more the “a bunch of poems loosely connected by theme” kind of show. I was touring a lot at the time and had the idea of
writing a show that was a series of stories told from diffrent places, as letters to someone, the relationship to that someone building through intensity of the tone of the letters. But then when I finished a first draft of what I had written, and shared it with two people, a close friend and my boyfriend at the time, both of them felt that while a lot of the stories were interesting the whole thing wasn’t dramatic enough. It read too much like prose. It wasn’t a play. I never told either of them, but when they both told me that, I totally saw what they meant and agreed but i also felt crushed. I gave up on the idea of writing anything long form for years; I mostly forgot about it.
Then a year and half ago. I was performing at the BBC slam at Edinburgh Fringe. Clive Birnie of Burning Eye Books happened to be on the jury. It’s a really difficult slam because unlike normal slams where the jury is picked at random from the audience, the jury are all people working in literature in some way, and they have to give each artist separate scores in writing, performance and audience engagement. The competiton is really fierce too, as you have some of the best spoken word artists from across the U.K. competing and you can’t repeat any poems. In order to win you have to have six pieces that are equally strong in writing and performance. I made it into the final and came third, in the brilliant company of Scott Tyrell, Toby Campion and Dan Simpson. Afterwards Clive joked that it was embarrassing for the press that there wasn’t a Paula Varjack book, considering I was the only one in the final that they hadn’t published. He was just being friendly of course and I laughed, but the next morning I woke up and thought, ‘there’s an opportunity here!’ So I contacted him and said, yeah, there really should be a Paula Varjack book you know. We
talked about what would make sense for me and for the press. The issue then was I didn’t want to do a poetry collection, partly because I think most of my poems are not meant for the page and are not as strong there, they are written to be performed, but also because I wanted to do something that had more of a concept and more of a narrative.
Then I remembered this play I had written that was “too much like prose” So I told Clive about this and he liked the idea; it has more of the drive of a memoir than a poetry collection. I really like that.
AT: Tell us one thing we must know about this book…
PV: It contains 9 years of my life, the loss of two very close friends, 10 cities (technically 8 cities and two towns), 2 break ups, 3 relationships, 5 affairs, and several drug and sex references.
AT: What do you hope people will take away from reading?
PV: I hope it will make people reflect on the relationships they have with different cities, places they have been to, wanted to go to, lived in, thought about visiting, seen so many times in films they think
they have been there. For those who have been to the cities I write about I hope it will make them think about their own time in those places. I also hope it will make people feel a little like they have gotten to know me and see into my life, in a way that feels different from seeing me perform. The intimacy of receiving a letter, I hope somehow there is something of that.
AT: As well as writing you also write and perform poetry, theatre and make films. What was your journey like in to becoming this kind of a maker? How did you come to work across so many disciplines?
PV: My journey as an artist is one that now feels like a coherent arc to bring me to this point, but getting here as felt a lot like a path directing me rather than having a clear idea of a path, but then in some ways I also see the journey I have been on as a circular route to coming back to making theatre. When I was in high school I loved theatre, but didn’t see myself as a performer. I wanted to direct, but directing seemed like any artistic career, one in which I could never survive. I thought I would be clever and train to be a stage manager, a job there would be more of a demand for, a vocational job I could train for and get paid for. So I came to London to go to RADA and trained in stage management & technical theatre production.
It meant I learned about theatre from backstage and I am so grateful for that. It’s something I think all makers should learn about in their training. In the last term of the course we did a module on television production and those classes were so much more exciting for me than any of the plays we had worked on. But again I thought there is no way I will get work as a TV or film director
so when I went to film school I specialised in producing, but also took interest in editing and art direction.
In my final year when it was time for us to think about making our graduation films, digital video equipment started to become more affordable and high quality. The dogma directors were the darlings of film students everywhere. I loved the immediacy of their rules, so I did something no one had done on my course until then, I made my graduation film on dv. This introduced an understanding of videography, which served me well in my first art related job, as a video tech assistant for a now defunct department at The Place (a dance school and theatre in Euston) which looked after choreography for the screen.
Alongside all of this I continued to make short films off my own back, saw theatre and cabaret and dance, and bartended in club called the Ghetto which would become the playground for many artists who would later achieve cult status like Scottee and Stav B. I was always doing loads of projects for myself and others, and the unpaid research work on one of them led to an offer to work
as a production assistant for an animation company. I finally was able to give up my bartending job, and over time became a production coordinator, managing all of the audio production for a number of series for Cbeebies and CITV.
But after years I was very frustrated there because my job responsibilities never changed, and a long term relationship ended. So I rented out my flat and
moved to Berlin for a “break”. The 4 month break became 4 years where I finally felt free to take risks and experiment as a maker and artist, and even perform. It took off really quick: within a year I was touring internationally and performing at really high profile gigs. I had my own radio show. I then moved back to London to train again, this time in performance, and did a masters in performance making at Goldsmiths it was really interdisciplinary and international and having that year to unpick why I made and how I made work was invaluable. It was also brilliant because hardly anyone in my course
had an understanding of what spoken word was, or an interest in narrative and text based work, so I was forced to go away from my defaults, which was super challenging, but so great for me as an artist.
When I think of all these experiences, all of them carry equal weight for me in how they influenced me. In the same way I am equally passionate for high and low art, the life experiences I have had are as important to me as my training. So for example while I don’t have a BA (I was able to get an MA because I was a mature student) for me my BA in peformance was the four years
I lived in Berlin. And I would say I learned as much watching peformance from the other side of the bar at the Ghetto, as I have watching at lot of highly respected theatre work. I am an artist who works in different forms, precisely because it is all these different forms that have led me to create.
AT: As a performance maker and artist (and across all of your disciplines), what do you hope to achieve with your work? What messages to you hope to send and what do you hope audiences will gain from engaging with your work?
PV: Each project starts with a different motivation, but above all else I want to connect and engage with audiences in a way that feels playful, thoughtful and intimate. I want to make people feel while also making them think, and I want to start points of conversation, that begin as soon as a show finishes and hopefully reverbarate with others after who weren’t there. Like many artists each work I make is led by the focus on a question I am fixated on, and I want to share that fixation with the audience in a way that makes them fixate on it too. So that’s the tone of the frame I set around what I make and how I perform it.
I am also really interested in opening up themes that people find uncomfortable to talk about. I think a lot about how etiquette or our ideas about etiquette prevent us from being honest and direct about how we feel
Letters I Never Sent to You has a lot of stories that focus on the unsaid, the things I wished I had said to someone but didn’t, or was left feeling after I no longer spoke to them.
In Show me the Money [Paula’s other show] I am looking at the public versus private narrative of how successful or precarious one’s artistic practice is, and the unease we have in this country in talking about money.
I wanted to challenge both my own and the audiences discomfort around money, financial priviledge and financial struggle and put it out in the open in a way that is both playful and provocative. It’s also worth saying that as a bi female performer of colour, I am interested in issues of representation and underepresentation
but rather than making work about them explicitly, I know that just by me being all those things, they are in the room with me as well and are important to me to have out there.
AT: What’s your next project?
PV: I am in the very early stages of developing a new performance that explores our relationship with brands and in particular luxury brands. It’s the next project in my ongoing collaboration with swedish playwrite and dramaturg Martin Bengtsson who is so great in the way he constantly challenges and focuses my questions and obsessions as they develop into a performance. I have been thinking a lot about my fascination with high fashion and about the desire to buy into it, maybe especially because it is a world I cannot afford to access. I am interested in how in these precarious economic times the luxury industry is thriving, and as each designer high street collaboration, and limited edition trainer collection shows, there will always be people who will quue for hours and even days for a chance of exclusivity that they can buy, or sell. I am interested in how even those I know who are purport to be anti-consumerist and anti-brand all have the same watches, trainers, laptops and phones.
I am interested in the psychology behind this, of our desire to buy and the strategy brands used to create that desire. Its another largely unspoken thing, that I am becoming more and more curious of.
Thank you so much Paula for this interview. Polari is at The Southbank Centre on Wednesday 8th March as part of The WOW Festival.
Follow Paula on Twitter: @PaulaVarjack