Festival interview: Chris Thorpe - ‘I don’t really like talking about myself’
Last year's Fringe First winner talks about the three productions he's bringing this year
This article is from 2015.
Anyone who saw Chris Thorpe’s Fringe First-winning show Confirmation last year won’t forget it in a hurry. In his rigorous examination of confirmation theory – which he interrogated through real-life conversations with a white supremacist, in order to challenge his own liberal beliefs – he prowls and sweats, confronting the audience and forcing them to examine their own biases.
Co-created with director Rachel Chavkin (from Fringe favourites The TEAM), it was one of the highlights of last year’s Festival season, and has since toured extensively around the UK against the backdrop of this year’s general election. But if you’ve missed it so far, there’s good news. Confirmation (given Thorpe’s emphasis on encouraging honest discussion, could just as easily be called Conversation) is returning to the Fringe for the last week as part of the British Council Showcase.
‘I think I'm lucky,’ Thorpe told me over Skype early in the summer while he was in Mannheim, south-west Germany, performing Confirmation. ‘The reactions have been fantastic to it. I'm really glad that people have engaged with it as they have done. It doesn't necessarily mean that the show isn't problematic for some people who see it, and that's actually great too because it means I have some really interesting conversations during and after – hopefully mostly after – about what is going on.’
Dialogues are at the heart of Thorpe’s work, and this year he’ll also be bringing two new works to Edinburgh. At the Traverse, he and his friend / collaborator Jon Spooner will present Am I Dead Yet?, a show that looks at how death and resuscitation technology is changing, and asks the audience to talk about death, too (‘not in a morbid way’, he adds). He’ll also be reunited with longtime collaborator Hannah Jane Walker (their previous Fringe hits include The Oh Fuck Moment and I Wish I Was Lonely) for Human Resources, as part of Northern Stage’s programme at Summerhall.
‘That one’s about me and Hannah arguing, which is what all our shows have been about,’ he says. ‘Hannah’s really into genealogy and I’m not. She presents herself in the world as someone who is made of these stories, incidents that have happened to her that tell her something about who she is. Incidents that have happened to people way back in her family, people who she never even knew, yet somehow prove some kind of fact of what kind of person she is. To me, the actions of my ancestors aren’t really as important as the biological facts that they manage to pass on.’
For the show, Thorpe and Walker got their genomes tested. And though he’s not giving anything away, the results were surprising. ‘Weirdly, even though everything we’ve ever said about ourselves in all the shows that we’ve made are true, this is the most personal show we’ve made. I find that really difficult at points because I don’t really like talking about myself,’ he laughs.
Am I Dead Yet? has a personal element too. ‘I think death is something you think about inevitably in a friendship when you’ve known someone for decades. Take any two people and there will probably be a moment in time when one of them is still on this planet and the other one is not. It’s a show about how to think about that, about each other, and about ourselves.’
It’s far from gloomy though: in the show, Thorpe and Spooner sing songs and invite the audience to talk to them about death. There’s a scientific element too, and experts on resuscitation have been consulted. ‘We can resuscitate a human being further into the process of death than we ever could before,’ explains Thorpe. ‘I think we have an idea of those resuscitation techniques as magic; we get that from films. You punch somebody’s chest, and of course that’s not real. But you may one day be in a position to resuscitate a person who is not ready to die yet. Those technologies are kind of irrelevant if we don’t also develop that individual awareness.’
And while his trio of shows for 2015 all touch on serious, existential topics, Thorpe insists, laughing, that they’re also lots of fun. What’s most important to him, however, is creating a safe space for audiences to have an honest conversation.
‘It’s possible to fall into the gap of thinking of theatre as a highly rehearsed, flashy TED talk or into the trap of what i call “wiki theatre”, where someone talks about the last five concepts they read about online,’ Thorpe says. ‘I think where theatre works best is when it exploits that in a positive way and with audiences that are open to new ideas. When it works best, it enfolds them in the process of engaging with those ideas and says: you are an active part. We have done the thinking, we have taken the responsibility of crafting an artistic experience for you, but you are a very necessary part of this happening. You’re the transmitter and the receiver. Because this isn’t the same every night. And it’s different tonight because you are here.’
Human Resources, Summerhall, 0131 560 1581, 10–30 Aug (not 12, 19, 26), 3.55pm, £12 (£10). Previews 8 & 9 Aug, £10
Am I Dead Yet?, Traverse Theatre, Cambridge Street, 0131 228 1404, 19–30 Aug (not 20, 24, 26), 11.15pm, 20, 26 Aug, 11.30pm, £18 (£8–£13). Preview 18 Aug, 11.15pm, £12 (£8);
Confirmation, Summerhall, 0131 560 1581, 22–29 Aug, 11.50am, £15 (£12).