In preparation for their upcoming show ‘ Once Upon A Time In A Western’ at the Exeter Phoenix, I managed to grab a quick chat with Al Dunn from Le Navet Bete on behalf of The Exeter Daily to discover more about the art of clowning and what audiences can expect from their upcoming performances.
For those readers who may not be familiar with Le Navet Bete and your latest production ‘Once Upon A Time In A Western’, could you tell us a little bit about yourselves and your latest production?
The company formed in 2007 after we all graduated with a Theatre and Performance degree from the University of Plymouth. In 2008 we took our first show to the Edinburgh festival where we received 4 and 5 star reviews and a Total Theatre award nomination. After this we then travelled the world a bit to as far as Mexico and also Europe and then after doing some touring we came back to Devon and tried to become a South West based company. We then secured ourselves a residency at the Exeter Phoenix of which we have been working from for about four years now, and is where we have been producing all of our shows before touring them.
In regards to the show itself (‘Once Upon A Time In A Western’), the idea is that it is a parody of the Western cinematic genre. Our work itself is based around the clown and the show is our take on the Western, based around silliness and comedy. There is going to be lots of live music in the show as well as lots of physical work and audience interaction. There will also be very high production value due to the fact that we managed to secure Arts Council funding. It’s also funded by Exeter City Council and Exeter University and we have also received support from companies such as Kaleider.
The show begins on the 24th September in Exeter for 3 nights and then it tours the South West covering areas such as Cornwall, Bath and Bristol. After this we hope to take the tour to other parts of the UK such as London.
The production is directed by John Nicholson, one of the founding members of the award-winning theatre company Peepolykus, how did this collaboration come about?
Although Peepolykus currently aren’t touring due to other projects, John and the rest of the company were one of the top British touring physical comedy companies in the UK and they have done stuff all over the world as well. We, as a company decided that we wanted a director to come in and give shape to our show as well as improving our own clowning skills, and John was an obvious choice. So, we got a conversation going by telling him the ideas we had for the show and he came and viewed some of our work and saw our show Napoleon in Bristol and he really enjoyed it.
After we secured funding for the show, John then sat down with us and for the past three to four weeks has been working with us and is also working with us this week too. It has been great to have John on board and we are thankful for the amazing opportunity of getting to work with him.
How do you go about devising and developing your shows?
The shows generally start with a simple idea such as creating a cowboy show and then from there we start to play around with the idea by thinking about the individual characters we could have. After this we begin to play with these concepts a bit further before moving on to finer details such as the narrative. Once we are happy with that we then script the show and once the first draft is done, we read through it and then re-edit about three or four times until we are happy with it. At this point we then start to add in the physical comedy and then finally we add the music we want for the show.
As a Devon based theatre company, what do you enjoy the most about performing in Devon?
We like performing in Devon because the audiences here are very welcoming. Also they are not audiences who are constantly going to the theatre, so that can be really good for us as this means we can engage with people who aren’t expecting something specific and it means we can get people involved who may not always be aware of cultural happenings in the area, so it allows us to go out there and find our audience and get them involved with what we are doing. Also as we are all Devon based lads its nice to be home and be able to perform in our local neighbourhood.
Where is your favourite place in Devon to perform?
That’s a tough question!…We have a good contingent of people who see our shows in Plymouth, as we have done two runs of a Christmas show there and we have people who come back and see our shows again and again, and this is what we hope to achieve here, as we are really pushing our run of shows in the Exeter Phoenix as it’s a great place to perform at. Also there is always a good reception at the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter; there is also a focus on research and development of theatre there which is good. When we performed there, our performances were sold out and from this success we want to continue to push audience numbers and our production quality further by being able to perform at larger capacity venues in the area.
For those who may be interested in starting their own theatre company or wish to begin a career in clowning, what would be the one piece of advice that you would offer them?
If you think your work is good then someone else will, you have to make sure that when you’re creating a piece of work you are happy with it and you are not creating it with a focus on making audiences happy. You have to have own belief in your own work first and then other people will as well; and it also important that you are passionate about what you do.
What has been the funniest moment so far that has happened either off or on stage during your time together as Le Navet Bete?
Off- stage it has to be when we were driving through Spain and we were heading to Andorra, which is a really small country just beside Spain. When we were driving in our van, which has all our props and stuff we need at the back, we came across a border and at the border there were armed policemen and I was asleep at the back of the van along with another one of the lads and all of a sudden I woke up as there is all this shouting going on. Suddenly, there is a policeman in the back of a van with a machine gun who is pointing the gun right at me! One of the guys, Mattie, tried to explain to the policemen that we were in a theatre company by prancing around and shouting: ‘Teatro’ ‘Teatro’ which immediately made us look even more dodgy and make them wonder what the hell we were doing! But we eventually got out of the situation!
On-stage, there have been lots of funny moments but one is whilst at the Edinburgh festival performing our first show. The show was in a small venue and I did a cartwheel and I caught the strip light in the roof which then fell down and smashed to pieces on the floor in the middle of our show, so we all had to run off and find whatever we could get hold of to clear it up. Eventually we got some dust pans and brushes to sweep up all of the glass that was on the stage and then we carried on with the rest of our performance!
You are currently involved in the Unexpected festival taking place in Exeter, where performances are taking place amongst the streets of the city, as previous outdoor performers do you prefer to work out in the open rather than in a traditional theatre setting?
There are both very different experiences and involve different ways of working, with outdoor shows things are obviously a lot more unpredictable and you have to work harder to keep and attract an audience and it can be very precarious as we have had drunk tramps walk onto our stage and in Mexico we have had motorcycles go back and forth our stage as well, so you have to be aware of your surroundings and go with it but it can be a very enjoyable experience.
On the other hand indoors, you can really put the audience in a very specific place with a small amount of movement and it is much more focused art form. In regards to which one I prefer, I have no preference as they are both unique ways of working.
As a group, are there any people who you admire and gain inspiration from when creating performances?
There is a company called Spymonkey whose work we admire, they are a four person clown act like us except they have one female performer and three males whereas we are an all male company. They’re absolutely amazing, they have done work with Cirque Du Soleil and perform at much bigger venues then we do. Other practitioners we admire also are Jacques Lecoq who has a Clown school in Paris. Also Philippe Gaulier who is a professional clown who trained the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen, who is extremely good at playing the role of the fool and making his chosen subject look even more foolish! He is also a good role model not just for physical comedy but also as a good business model due to the successes he has had.
Do you ever feel not in the mood to be funny onstage? If so, how do you overcome this?
You can’t ever get yourself in that frame of mind whilst on stage as it is our job and in a job you have to deliver. People have paid to see us, so I can’t decide not to be funny or not put in the energy whilst on stage. It’s a privilege to have a job in the arts and to be performing on stage with people paying to come and see us. No matter what, it is important that you give 110% whilst performing on stage.
What makes you laugh?
Just general silliness, and also we quite like slapstick 60s and 70s variety style and comedy which is slightly on the edge and pushing the boundaries.
The four piece company will be performing ‘Once Upon A Time In A Western’ for three nights at the Exeter Phoenix from the 24th September and will then tour with the show around the South West region. For more information about their shows and where they will be performing next you can visit their website or follow them on Twitter.