We spoke to Matt Wells, co-artistic director of Rhum and Clay and performer in Project Dictator, about using clowning to highlight serious issues, how art is a vital part of activism, and the show about totalitarianism that you never knew you needed.
Tell me a bit about yourself and what you do.
Originally from Aus, I travelled to Paris to study at the prestigious Jacques Lecoq School for mime and movement. It was here I met my longtime partner in crime, Julian Spooner, joined Rhum and Clay Theatre Company and moved to the UK in 2011.
I have performed in all but one of the 12 shows, often co-directed them and travelled the length and breadth of the UK, taking new work to new audiences. I’m also 41 and dress like a retired skateboarder.
How do you create your work?
We devise original work collaboratively. Each process is different, but in essence, you are crowdsourcing everyone’s creative energy, empowering everyone in the room to debate and tussle with the central themes of the piece.
The process does have order and certainly evolves the closer you get to the opening night – but in the end, it is completely unique to the cast and crew who devised it together.
How can clowning be used to talk about more serious issues?
First, let’s push the definition of Clowning beyond the clichés of big red shoes and flowers that squirt water (clichés we subvert in Project Dictator).
When we say clown, we imagine someone who is completely singular, someone who breaks the rules, lives wholly in the moment with the audience, is vulnerable and consequently very funny. It is for these reasons a form of clowning is perfectly placed to respond to our growing apathy towards politics and the future more generally.
Why have you chosen this medium to tell a story about dictatorship?
Clowning felt like the perfect medium (and metaphor) to talk about the rise of dictators – nothing dictators like less than being laughed at.
What do you think the importance of art in activism is?
While touring a previous show in Brazil, we met a street theatre company in Campinas – just outside Sao Paulo. They had created a clown piece that drew attention to police violence and murder of civilians in the many favelas of Brazil. For this, they were banned from performing with the threat of 12 years in prison hanging over their head should they define that order – we watched them perform regardless. I most definitely would not have been so brave.
In this context, art and activism became indistinguishable. This piece was dangerous, relevant, funny, singular and cut to an uncomfortable truth the authorities felt so threatened by it they would imprison anyone who performed it.
I had read about police killings before. I had been told the statistics. None of that connected as much as the bravery of these performers, willing to ruin their lives (and in many cases, some did) to raise awareness of these injustices.
Describe Project Dictator in three words
Clown, sweaty and surprising.
What would you say to someone who has never seen anything like this?
Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride!
Project Dictator is at Norwich Theatre Playhouse between 11 -12 Oct. For more information or to book, visit norwichtheatre.org or call the Box Office on 01603 630 000.