Q&A: Nicola Gunn’s Timing is Everything at On the Boards

Posted on February 14, 2019, 8:00 am
9 mins


Performer and director Nicola Gunn brings two shows on consecutive weekends to On the Boards this month. The first, Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster, opens tonight. In regards to the weather, her trip to Seattle may be ill-timed. However, the works themselves seem to be just right for our time and place.

(Any time is a good time for storytelling and stagecraft, but a self-aware approach like Gunn’s feels particularly poignant when our saturated political theatre—more tethered to personality and presentation than policy and representation—regularly surpasses parody of itself, and yet never seems to be aware of the fact.)

One can’t review a show in advance, but based on the buzz I have heard from antipodean art-lovers whom I trust (and, to a lesser extent, the foreign press), Gunn’s work has been on my must-see list for the OtB 2018-19 season since it was announced. I’ve read rave reviews and watched clips and heard anecdotes by word-of-mouth, but I don’t know what to expect, nor do I want to.

What is certain is that Gunn will be owning the stage, and keeping everyone on their toes throughout. In Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster, she’s reflecting on an incident abroad involving a duck, a man who aggressively didn’t like this duck, and herself (aggressively displeased with his aggression toward the duck). In Spite of Myself has her speaking in the third-person, as a curator creating an imaginary retrospective of Gunn’s work. No one is safe from Gunn’s wit…especially herself.

We reached out to Gunn via email to get some spoiler-free insight into her process, the point of it all, and the fourth wall.

Vanguard Seattle: There’s such complexity in both the writing and the staging, which in some cases is more choreography than just blocking. When crafting such pieces, what parts of the process feel most natural, most enjoyable to you? Are you a writer first and then concerned with the visuals, or does it typically all start with the image of the stage?

Nicola Gunn: It’s absolutely choreography—even if I’m standing still, I consider that choreography. I collaborate with a choreographer, Jo Lloyd, and think of my work as a kind of choreographed essay. We worked together on both pieces and the movement adds a critical layer of dramaturgy.

With In Spite of Myself, which is the earlier work, the text definitely came first, but with Ghetto Blaster, it was a lot more fluid, with a lot of overlap, and so the words and movement tended to evolve together, one informing the other. The mode of text was the hardest to get in Ghetto Blaster because I couldn’t figure out my relationship to the audience… how was I talking to them? Was there another ‘situation’ other than the one I describe in the piece? (For example, I toyed with the idea of being a conflict resolution expert for a while, mediating between the man and the duck.) What is the MODE?!!?

Anyway, I went round in circles with this question because I couldn’t believe the work could be as simple as me describing the incident, and then attempting to understand it. Trying to work out the mode of delivery (and subsequently my relationship to the audience), and the rhythm of the language I’m looking for, is the hardest part of writing for me

Nicola Gunn in “Piece for Person and Ghettoblaster.” Photo © Gregory Lorenzutti

VS: If we take for granted that art serves such-and-such purpose and it is done such-and-such way, things get dogmatic and stale. As a performer, you seem ready to ensure that none of us takes these things for granted. As you ask pointedly in In Spite of Myself: “What the fuck are we doing here?” In regards to your own craft as a performer, what are you doing, in your own words?

NG: I am doing all the such-and-such stuff, and I genuinely believe art does such-and-such, but really, I want to make sure it’s pleasurable as well. For me and the audience. In terms of craft, I think I am entertaining myself.

VS: And what is the audience doing? What are the expectations placed on them in your work and in contemporary theatre in general?

NG: I just hope they can be open. And consider that all artistic choices made are most likely made for a reason.

VS: As a monologuist (or even performing as a lecturer in In Spite of Myself), when you break the fourth wall, no narrative device is really strained. In fact, it can seem quite natural. Still, there are always challenges when interacting with the audience. What are the biggest risks and rewards for you in doing so?

NG: I honestly hate audience participation. I really do think it’s strained and uncomfortable most of the time. I don’t think I’ve quite managed to crack it yet, and yet I continue doing it. I think it’s because I find solo performance pretty ridiculous, the seemingly authoritative voice in a room full of people, so I tend to want to remind people that I know they’re there and that I am probably not the authoritative voice. I like the terror of it (the terror I feel of making myself go into the audience) and the uncertainty and the fleshy liveness of it.

The way I see the world as material, I am also material to be poked fun at.

VS: In these works, you aren’t just asking questions of art itself, but also ethical questions. We don’t have to get into the age-old question of where and to what extent ethics intersect with aesthetics, but could you speak to whatever ethical concerns, questions, or qualities informing your work?

NG: At the end of the day, I’m probably just interested in scrutinizing my own actions as an artist, often finding my ethical dubiousness at the same time amusing and worrying. I am using myself as an exemplar of the worst kind of artist/human being, my own mercenary hypocrisy, my own failed attempts at socially engaged practice, for example. The way I see the world as material, I am also material to be poked fun at.

VS: Does the humor in these works arise naturally as you create them, or is the humor something you feel you have to work at? Perhaps put another way, in order to get the sort of balance of absurdity and earnestness that you want to achieve, how are you editing yourself to make sure the jokes land and no one loses the thread?

NG: Timing is everything. I think the balance of absurdity and earnestness comes naturally to me because I am inherently neurotic. And I work hard to know the difference between what is performance text and what is a programme note.

Featured image of Nicola Gunn for Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster © Sarah Walker. See below for more images of Gunn in her two shows coming to On the Boards.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.