Sara Hirsch & Ben Fagan – Made to Measure [Fringe Diary Part Two]

Full Disclosure: Saw Hirsch’s show at last year’s Fringe, which I really enjoyed. She also performed at this month’s Poets Against Humanity, which is a show I helped to write (and is way funnier/less awful than the card game). Fogan is a new poet to me.

Review: Made to Measure begins with Hirsch jogging in place, headphones in and beaming aggressively. ‘Do you write every day?’ ‘Are you discovering coffee shops?’ ‘When was the last time you swam?’, like a jobseeker’s interview funnelled through aspirational Guardian supplements. The show is partly coming-of-age story (trying to wear clothes that don’t fit, literally or figuratively), partly a missive against a culture increasingly hostile to people under 30; maybe it’s more about how difficult it is to come anything resembling ‘of age’ while retaining the kind of beliefs and principles that made you want to write poetry shows.

I saw the show with Andrew Blair (ex-Godfather of the Edinburgh Poetry Scene), who described it as ‘Spaced but with poets’, which I would absolutely watch the heck out of, and is decently accurate. Hirsch and Fagan are both excellent at their chosen profession, even if ‘profession’ doesn’t mean ‘living’, and if watching two capable and curious minds hammer against a system that undervalues them and their skills feels less tragic it’s only because it’s so familiar.

Narratively, Made to Measure follows Fagan growing up in rural New Zealand and moving to London, where he and Hirsch rent a flat. The question of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ haunts the show, and underlying the snappy comedy and near-flawless chemistry between the performers is the uneasy feeling that the stakes are extremely real. Like Paula Varjack’s Show me the Money, the disappearing possibilities of secure and fulfilling work, stable housing and material comfort are weighed against the increasing difficulty of continuing to make art. The distance between ‘what you want to be’ and ‘growing up’ are at times painfully distant.

All that said, it’s also a remarkably uplifting piece of theatre; the fact that childhood dreams are given equal space to the realities of bill-paying and keeping up with your peers is weirdly heartening. A recurring motif is Hirsch’s little brother’s dream (played by Fagan with wide-eyed brio) of being a train-driver, which he sort of got to do when he was three – it becomes a kind of emotional anchor, a way of re-centring yourself in a culture that wants to stamp out any dream not in its own image.

The performance I saw on Friday 12 was extremely smooth and beautifully realised. Made to Measure’s conclusion, involving a (very neatly done) turn to camera, did feel a little abrupt, perhaps puncturing a bit of the show’s momentum. At the same time, the fact that it allowed a very direct address of its central concerns gives some indication of how urgent those concerns are, and was maybe worth the slight veer in tone.

Tl;dr: Made to Measure is the best two-hander poetry show I’ve ever seen, an excellent chunk of theatre that feels timely, curious and generous. Go see.

Made to Measure is on at 3.05pm every day from today (17) – 27 August, Silk Upper, 28A Kings Stables Road.

Further Reading: Sara Hirsch’s website

Ben Fagan’s website

Advertisements

Paula Varjack – Show Me The Money [Fringe Diary Part One]

Full Disclosure: Varjack was one of the first performers I saw when I moved to Edinburgh, but I don’t know her personally.

Review: A couple of nights ago I went to see Paula Varjack’s Show Me The Money, a show about how artists in the UK survive, either by their art or not. I’ve seen a few versions of the show now, and it’s immediately apparent that Varjack has thrown everything at it. There’s an urgency to the operation that’s struck me on each viewing, that what’s at stake is at once stark and utterly mundane; this person may or may not continue making art.

So the show begins by asking what an artist is, whether it’s even a real job – Varjack interviews Dan Simpson’s father, a cab driver, about how he would respond if his clients approached the matter of payment the way commissioning organisations did, with predictable exasperation. Maybe that’s the biggest thing to take away from Varjack’s reams of interviews – no one seems surprised that things are the way they are, that art in this country is microvalued and deteriorating, that artists often have two, three, more other jobs and still live hand to mouth. The fact that wanting to make art not only requires poverty, precarity, in many cases sacrificing a stable home life, seems a given. Varjack mentions early on that the younger artists she interviewed tended not to have a plan for the future, there was a sense that writing or creating was something one could only do for so long. One artist talked about how around the age of 35, one by one his friends stopped making art; the question of how long someone can physical or emotionally sustain that kind of lifestyle seemed to have a very concrete threshold.

Show Me The Money approaches the fraught domain of arts council funding tongue-in-cheekly, lampooning the language of application forms (‘this piece will include the excluded, whilst simultaneously being engaging for all’) and imagining council offices as a cross between heaven and the mailroom scene from The Hudsucker Proxy. Behind that, of course, is a serious point – if arts councils don’t have active connections in living, breathing scenes, their main point of contact is through a series of essay questions and budget plans that don’t necessarily align with traditional artistic skillsets.

The show is bleak viewing, and Varjack’s ability to draw desert-dry humour out of the situation is admirable. Happily, she knows the power of optimism, hope, and (more importantly) getting organised; the Manifesto for Artists in a Crumbling Arts Economy near the hour’s end focuses on the need to support your fellow artists, for honesty, bravery, compassion, empathy and a bunch of other things that reminded me of precisely why I spend my free time on this stuff.

Further reading: The Show Me The Money tumblr is an excellent resource (Varjack: “Yesterday I realised that it’s not a show I want to make, what I want is to start a movement”), and although her interviewees are not introduced by name during the show, Varjack’s full video archive is available on Varjack’s Vimeo page.

Show Me the Money ran from 9-10 August, Varjack and Simpson Presents ran from 6-13 in Banshee Labyrinth. A list of her upcoming shows is here.