Friday, 10 July 2015

Vanity, Thy Name is Dramaturgy: Helen Duff @ Edfringe 2015

Fringe First nominated Helen Duff returns to the Edinburgh Festival
Fringe 2015 with the critically acclaimed VANITY BITES BACK and her fearless new show, SMASHER

Helen Duff returns to Edinburgh this year with two taboo-busting comic creations; VANITY BITES BACK (Fringe First nominated 2014, VAULT Festival Awards winner 2015) at Gilded Balloon Study, located inside the Pleasance Dome (Venue 23) 16th – 30th August, 12:15pm and her audaciously honest new show SMASHER at The Free Sisters (Venue 272) 6th – 30thAugust, 3:15pm.

VANITY BITES BACK is a bold, subversive and funny clown-cookery show about searching for self-worth in a cheesecake, which delves into the complexities of mental illness and bites back at the silence and stigma surrounding anorexia. Join aspiring TV cookery host Jill – described as a cross between Alan Partridge and Margaret Thatcher – for her most exposing episode to date.

So sexy it’s stupid, SMASHER fearlessly thrusts into the lip biting, belly tightening, “what if I queef?!” qualms that hold us back from intimate connection. Inspired by Helen’s experiences of lying like a lady and self-identifying as a sperm, SMASHER squirms its way through the world of Facebook, #FOMO and filters and questions what it takes to come, as you are. 

ShowWhat inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a
script or an object?
Helen Duff: I'd known that wanted to make a show about anorexia for about 4 years but it took me a while to build up the confidence and recognise the value of using clowning as my form. My recovery was long and progressive and I didn't have sustained therapy until 2013, having first become ill when I was studying for my A Levels in 2004. 

It was during therapy that I started to believe in my ability to work with what I'd been through and after studying at L'Ecole Philippe Gaulier and working with the brilliant drama therapist and facilitator Holly Stoppit that I gained an ability to play with my experiences. Ultimately the project was driven by the hope that if more people are able to talk openly about anorexia and see it as something that can be played with and even joked about then it might increase the possibility of recovery and prevention. 

This really came from a personal desire to break the silence surrounding my own experiences - quite selfish honestly. I had a very logical, practical understanding of the ways in which anorexia restricted and endangered my life. But when it came to living in the real world and never sharing the destructive thoughts that cycled around my head on repeat, holding onto the logic was hard. I knew that I wanted to make a space for those thoughts to be exposed and explored.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
A real mixture of emotions. It's very funny - but does require the audience to be on board with the interactive elements of the piece. It's my job to win them over and make them feel safe. It's such a complex game because I want them to feel free to respond as they wish, to recognise that it's a mix of comedy and story telling that they can laugh and cry at, without having to be completely explicit. 

Most of the time people get the absurdity of butter and biscuits having a conversation about the butter's eating disorder! But if not, no problem. That's a testament to the way in which people tip toe around a mental health issue and lose any sense of play.

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
I worked with a facilitator because the material was so close to my personal life. I needed an outside eye and Holly Stoppit's training as a drama therapist was perfect. Together we built a tight structure for the show which kept me secure enough to play around and improvise, always knowing I had a frame to return to. 

The cookery show format was ideal for that and I'm struggling to find something with the same easy recognition for my new show. But I think it's time to step away from TV pilot shows, especially as Smasher doesn't use the main character of VBB, Jill.

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
Clowning as a genre was always where I wanted my work to sit because it's what I've had most fun playing with. It allows you to be really free - improvising, sliding in written material that seems fresh because of your playful relationship with the audience. I enjoy the work of my friends from Gaulier - Penny Greenhalgh who's Australian and coming over to Edinburgh for the first time, Dr Brown because of his audacity and what he's done to raise the profile of clowning, Intuitive creatures. 

I'm also a fan of Sam Simmons and John Kearns who bring absurdity and mess into their shows. But I still connect to straight plays that have a clear message and are completely naturalistic, pulling you into their world - I saw an incredible show called Beyond Caring at the National Theatre Shed recently about zero hours contracts. I suppose I'm most attracted to work that says hello you, welcome to my world.

 Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
I'm only on my second show but generally there will be issues that I want to talk about and then an incident that seems to draw them together narratively. For Vanity that was a major crash between my bike and a van from which I escaped physically unscathed, while Smasher was sparked by another awkward one night stand followed by a female ejaculation workshop that I attended by accident.

I've only collaborated with Holly Stoppit for 3 days of research and development, right at the beginning of my rehearsal process, which was brilliant, but the rest has to be worked out on stage in previews and as the show develops in Edinburgh as Holly and I's schedules don't match this year.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
It's essential as my work acknowledges the audience continuously. There's no fourth wall.

Are there any questions that you feel I have missed out that would help me to understand how dramaturgy works for you?
Yes - I had never really though about dramaturgy as a part of my process but now I see it's essential. Is there a network of dramaturgs in the same way as you might find a network of actors or directors? It would be great to get more information and for it to be promoted more widely by arts council etc.

Award-winning Duff makes work that is “fresh, quick witted and supremely empowered”. Offering explosive insights into areas of women’s experience that many others daren’t mention, Duff employs “laughter to create something far deeper” (The Scotsman ★★★★).

Helen studied at LAMDA, L’Ecole Philippe Gaulier and the University of Cambridge. VANITY BITES BACK, her solo debut, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival 2014 to great critical acclaim, earning her a Fringe First nomination. The show was subsequently invited to open VAULT Festival 2015 (winning the ‘Judges Pick’ award) and programmed for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Adelaide Fringe. Due to popular demand, the show returns to Edinburgh this August as part of Gilded Balloon’s 30th Anniversary Celebrations, amid a UK tour and following a year that has also seen Duff win a place in the Foster’s ‘So You Think You’re Funny?’ Edinburgh semi-finals and the Squawker Award final at the Brighton Comedy Festival.

PERFORMANCE DATES & TIMES: 16 – 30 Aug 2015, 12:15pm
Gilded Balloon Study - located inside the Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)
BOX OFFICE: 0131 622 6552 /
TICKET PRICE: £12.00 (£10.00), £10.00 (£8.00)

Written & Performed by Helen Duff
Drama Facilitation by Holly Stoppit
Produced by Rosalyn Newbery
Lighting Design by Douglas Green
Sound Design by Edward Lewis & Hugh Wooldridge


PERFORMANCE DATES & TIMES: 6 - 30th Aug 2015, 15.15pm (not 17th)
Yurt Locker, Laughing Horse @ Free Sisters, Venue 272

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