Monday, 21 August 2017

The Coolidge Dramaturgy: Wonder Fools @ The Traverse

Wonder Fools' latest production, The Coolidge Effect, at the Traverse, 21st September, 8pm or at the Tron, 27th September, 8pm.

In 2017, pornography is all around us and the amount we watch it is growing at an exponential rate: in the UK alone, 10 million porn videos are watched every day. 

As society’s access to pornography increases, so too does our unwillingness to talk about it. The Coolidge Effect seeks to break this taboo.

Using an interactive blend of storytelling, poetry and science, The Coolidge Effect examines how pornography affects our mental health, relationships and sexual experiences.

 It was recently awarded a Special Commendation as part of The Suitcase Prize, PULSE Festival 2017 at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, as well as completely successful performances at Camden People's Theatre, London.

What was the inspiration for this performance?

As young adults, Robbie and I have grown up with the advent of the internet and at the beginnings of the mass consumption of pornography that this new media has allowed. In the UK alone, 10 million porn videos are consumed every day and the average age a young boy starts to watch porn now is 12 years old.

After watching a TED talk on youtube – Gary Wilson’s ‘The Great Porn Experiment’ – where we learned about the theory of the Coolidge Effect, we knew we had to combine our own experiences with this science and bring attention to this important topic on stage. Pornography and sex in general are massive taboos in this country, and with this performance we really wanted to challenge that in a fun and, hopefully, enlightening way. 

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?

Wonder Fools aims to create performance that has a social impact and leaves a lasting imprint our audiences. If we didn’t think the work we create could in some way create a space for discussion, or critical thought, I don’t think we would make the type of work we do. What theatre and performance is perfect for is to provide a platform for a shared experience and to present ideas, theories and provocations on stage that might not work as well through other art forms.

We end the performance with a moment where we say ‘if you want to talk, we’ll be in the bar – come chat’, and this felt important because what The Coolidge Effect aims to do is start a conversation about pornography, not be a closed book where what we present on stage can’t be discussed or challenged, even. Whether it’s in the bar afterwards, online a month later or even randomly in a coffee shop somewhere, it’s vital the conversations continue to happen.

How did you become interested in making performance?

We formed Wonder Fools whilst we were still two students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on the Contemporary Performance Practice course. We realised quite quickly on CPP that we were interested in combining the training we were receiving in performance and live art with a more theatrical final form and this is the reason Robbie and I started making work together.

We had similar thoughts about the work we wanted to create and how we were going to make it. Specifically, Wonder Fools was born out of a desire to use true stories as a foundation for the work we create and to take theatre to both traditional and non-traditional audiences. A cornerstone of our work as Wonder Fools is using the real stories of real people as a foundation of all the work we make and this fundamentally informs what theatre we create, how we make it and, most importantly to us, why.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

The show was originally our final degree show at RCS. This was incredibly useful as it gave us the space and time to develop the performance over a period of three months. As part of our research process, we conducted interviews with porn advocates, addicts, mental health experts and scientists and, with the help of Skype, these conversations spanned the globe: Quebec, California, Sweden, New York, Indonesia, Pittsburgh, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and London. We spoke to our friends about pornography and porn addiction, and we even had an advert on Reddit where we invited people to email us with their experiences of porn, both good and bad. From all these different sources, we collected a wide range of experiences and view points, and it is these stories that form the basis of the show.

Then it was just about what Robbie and I wanted to say with the piece, but we were very careful to maintain a sense of the breadth and depth from the pool of people we had spoken to and to include this in the final show.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

To date we have staged three full productions: ‘McNeill of Tranent: Fastest Man in the World’, a one-man show performed by retired Scottish athlete George McNeill, who in 1972 was the fastest man in the world despite never being allowed to compete in the Olympic or Commonwealth Games; ‘549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War’, a verbatim account of the journeys of four miners from East Lothian who travelled among 549 Scots to fight against fascism in Spain; and ‘The Coolidge Effect’. Thematically, these shows are all very different, but what links them is the fact they are all based on real life stories and experiences.

This emphasis on using true stories as a basis for our work is evident as much in our creative process as the final performances. For example, for ‘549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War’ the company embarked on an 18-month research process visiting family members, archivists and historians throughout Scotland to gather the personal accounts of the four miners who are at the heart of our story. 

This process culminated in January 2017 with a rehearsed reading of the play in Prestonpans Labour Club, East Lothian in front of an audience of 100 people which included relatives of the 549, local councillors and politicians, and people from the local community with an interest in the story. This was a special moment for us as a company – it was exactly what we wanted to achieve when we started out. In 2018 we are taking ‘549’ to a wider audience, and we are currently planning a site-specific performance in Prestonpans Town Hall before transferring to the Citizens Theatre to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the conflict in February 2018.

Our next show will be the most markedly different – the Citizens Theatre are staging the Scottish premiere of Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa in association with Wonder Fools. This will be the first time as a company we will work with an existing text and we are incredibly excited. The play is broadly about the refugee crisis but centres around two very personal, very human stories and for that reason it really fits into our previous work. We can’t wait. 

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

I hope that the audience will come away with a greater understanding about pornography and addiction than they had before they entered. We talk within the show about mental health and if the show shines a light on that issue and raises awareness then that is only a good thing. There are a lot of different theatrical forms within the show but at its core is a conventional, very human narrative that I hope the audience can really hook on to as a way of engaging with the topic. 

We also love a good soundtrack and there’s a broad range of stuff – everything from Caribou to Foreigner, Jon Hopkins to Radiohead! At the end of the day we are very clear that this performance should spark a conversation and if the audience leaves thinking ‘that was fun, let’s grab a beer and chat about this’ with their friends then we have done our job.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

We are really aware that we are dealing with a complex subject matter and we’ve tried to be as rigorous as we can when thinking about how we stage this show. We’ve had a bit of a laugh about the fact we say it’s an ‘interactive’ show about pornography! But we thought that the danger with this topic is that it firstly becomes presentational or didactic and secondly that it can become too dark or boring. Yes, we don’t shy away from the darker sides to what we are dealing with but we have tried hard to create a show that is fun and engaging too. Importantly, because of the complexities of the topic, we have also done our utmost to create a safe environment as well. Hopefully, there’s something for everyone.

Wonder Fools are an emerging Glasgow-based theatre company, creating contemporary new work based on a diverse range of current and historical real-life stories, and is one of six Graduate Emerging Companies selected from across Britain on attachment with the New Diorama Theatre London for 2017-18.

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