“It’s not easy convincing a theatre to put your work on when you are starting out,” says playwright Tim Cowbury, 25, from Hackney. Which is why he decided to eschew traditional channels and set up his own theatre company, Made in China, with Jessica Latowicki, 27, whom he met at Goldsmiths, University of London last year.
Over the course of their respective Master’s degrees – Tim studied Writing for Performance and Jess Performance Making – they produced Stationary Excess, a one-woman show that is now on its way to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival after an effusive reception at club-cum-art venue Shunt.
Made in China, which consists of Tim, Jess and Marianne (who sorts out the administrative side of the shows), was born out of a passion for collaboration and innovation that was nurtured at Goldsmiths.
“If I had done a playwriting MA anywhere else in the country – and there are lots of other ones – I would never have been able to collaborate with performers and musicians,” says Tim. “I would just be writing stuff. People might do readings of my play, but that is completely different.”
Jess, who grew up just outside New York, agrees: “From a very early stage at university I knew that I wanted to be making new work and be involved with creating the things I performed in. The stuff we do really depends on the audience as much as anything and a lot of theatre doesn’t depend on the audience as much as it could.”
This notion that audience is paramount is something Tim and Jess were keen to explore as artists, and in this they are on the same page, rejecting the more traditional forms of theatre for something more ‘visceral.’
“We always take the audience into consideration, always, when we make a piece,” says Jess. “It’s always about the audience’s reaction – doing something to them, not showing something to them.”
And Stationary Excess, their major work to date, is a great example of where story-telling meets performance art. Based on ‘the worst break up ever from a really not such great relationship,’ as Jess puts it, the play, centres around one female character (played by Jess), who tells her story while cycling vigorously on an exercise bike. The performance is so visceral that Jess has broken two bikes so far.
“I knew that I wanted to make a show about this (the break up) and about the fact that I was just feeling completely shit all the time, and, like, empty and lonely – but I didn’t want to make a show about something that I was living through because it would be too emotionally charged and it would just end up with me whinging on stage, which nobody really cares about. So I decided I wanted to broaden it out and make it a show about loneliness.”
When she first came up with the idea, she was unsure about how it would work on the stage and the form that the story would take. So she met Tim in a pub in Camden to thrash out ideas. Tim, who has experience writing scripts at very short notice – he was one of the new writers chosen to participate in the 24hr plays at the Old Vic – was the perfect partner in crime, and after a couple of bottles of wine they had come up with the skeleton of what later became Stationary Excess.
But Tim and Jess assure me that starting your own company isn’t all exercise bikes and vin rouge: it has its challenges. Lack of resources meant they had to raise the funds to take the show to Edinburgh by putting on a performances of Stationary Excess in the garden for paying relatives, and Jess is rapidly eating into her savings by staying in England working on this project.
But the duo have no plans to go their separate ways anytime soon. “We have something in the pipeline,” says Tim coyly. “It’s based on Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Twin Peaks – and we have been given some space from the National Theatre Studio to develop it.” There are venues in New York that have also expressed an interest in staging Stationary Excess. So all in all, ‘it is pretty awesome,’ says Jess with that quintessentially American optimism.