Bryony Kimmings: She’s a Phoenix, Bitch by Ellen Burgin
Australian audience should be familiar enough with Bryony Kimmings, with her previous shows in Melbourne, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model and The Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer. But her latest show at Arts Centre Melbourne and QPAC, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch will skyrocket her to household name in the Australian performing arts scene for its immense power, raw emotion and sense of beauty and hope it in stills in audiences.
I spoke to Kimmings over the phone just before she flew out to Australia to see how she was feeling after a sell out run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (she had to put on extra shows to keep up with the demand), how she was preparing to come to Australia and what she hoped Australian audiences got out of the show).
One of the most candid artists in the industry, Kimmings lays out the worst year of her life, when after her son was born and was seriously ill with then undiagnosed infantile spasms, she succumbed to post-natal psychosis and felt like she drowned and lost her mind. In 2017, her life went to shit: her relationship was imploding, her mental health was increasingly deteriorating, her home was flooding, and she lays these emotions raw upon the stage in her most powerful piece of theatre yet.
“Um, I felt physically and mentally quite… fucked’, she laughed about how she felt after a sold out run at Edinburgh.
“I was obviously really pleased, but I’m in a bit of a bubble up there, so I just say to my agent and my producer, you do the worrying, I’ll just perform. But I’ve had a bit of a mental health wobble, which I always do when I finish touring. Nobody really gets it, but that post show come down is a real thing, it’s like when you come back from a really good holiday, and if everyone on holiday was saying you were fucking brilliant, it’s almost impossible to not get wrapped up in it”, said Kimmings.
“Even though I wish I could go, ‘I loved Edinburgh it was amazing’, actually, I’m nearly 40, it’s fucking hard and that show’s really hard to do”.
This time a year ago, she was preparing to take the first run of I’m A Phoenix, Bitch into the Battersea Arts Centre for the first time, and there’s a video where she said was hoping for a beautiful sense of hope and power to fill the audience, and that it will be the great show she’s ever made. I asked if she thinks she’s now achieved that a year later, and her answer was simple – yes.
During her Edinburgh run, The Scotsman critic (who she does read and appreciates his opinion), said that the show should really be put on in the Edinburgh International Festival, and that her trajectory is only going to go up.
“That’s my goal, but it doesn’t always have to be huge, the next thing I make might be a one to one, or it might be a radio show, it always depends on what the subject is but I wanted it to be different and a step up. But I wanted to keep that core of my work, of just being able to chatter to the audience still in there. It’s definitely the greatest show I’ve ever made, but for different reasons, and each one will be the greatest show I’ve ever made I think, because I’m really into that thing at the time.”, she said on her achievements in her work.
The show is extremely difficult for her to perform, but at the same time, the raw emotion that she portrays is arguably the strongest aspect of the show.
“I never thought I would be this sensitive but when I talked about it with my therapist she was like, ‘you’re not being sensitive that’s completely normal. To relive trauma once you’ve had post traumatic stress disorder, that’s kind of stupid really’” she said.
“My partner said to me that when you come back (from the show) you’ve opened up this huge wound and you haven’t been able to close it and then your mental health suffers. He asked, ‘is it always like this?’, and I was like no, it’s not, it’s the first time it’s really affected me. But each time it happens I put something extra in place. When I get back from Australia we’ve decided that, even though he works really hard, bless him, he’s going to do all the cooking. We do practical things to deal with the fact that I am going on talking about this horrible thing, but I don’t feel like yet it outweighs why I needed to make it or what it does in a positive way for my life, so it’s a bit of a weird one” Kimmings said on the impact the show puts on her wellbeing.
“The next show I’m going to make is about climate change, and I am looking forward to going on stage and talking about something that when I come off stage, not feeling fucking shit… Not shit but like, vulnerable”, said Kimmings.
The show involves a series of rewinds, where she revisits significant points in time leading up to the decline in her mental health and where post-natal psychosis set in. While the show is extremely emotion, it’s also very funny and heart warming. It’s also her first solo show in nearly a decade, but she importantly highlights that despite being the only one on stage, she is never alone in this process.
“I’m never on my own. I have a great team, but I think the thing that struck me quite quickly was kind of like there’s no one to care about – when Taylor (her niece) was on stage and Tim (her ex partner, and Frank’s Dad) was on stage I’m thinking of them really. So when that wasn’t there I found it really difficult to turn that self-care on myself”, she said.
“And also, I really like it, so that’s why the top is so fun and funny, I just want to enjoy myself for as long as possible pretending you know that everything is fine, and then go back there. Half of me is like fucking hell I have to do that show again and there’s no where to hide, I cant be on 50%, and the other half is like ‘Look at me! Look and me and my wonderful moves!’ she laughed.
Her sister, brother and dad all live in Australia, so the show will be a little easier to perform each night with her family around.
“I’m itching to get there, I’m not stressed… I wouldn’t be stressed about doing gigs because I love Australia, but I’m excited emotionally to be there, I’ll have my sister be there cuddling me at the end. It’s a long flight! But I’m mentoring a couple of people while I’m out there, I’ll be kept really busy”, she said about the trip to Australia.
During our chat, her son Frank (an integral part of both I’m A Phoenix, Bitch and The Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, and catalyst to her life changing so dramatically) pops in and out of the chat, bringing her candy (or so she thinks it’s candy), and asking for sweets for breakfast, toast, his duvet and to watch Shrek on telly.
“He’s got some proper decent requests and language now. When I made the show, I didn’t even know if he could talk. It’s weird, people saw me in Edinburgh and they’re like, that’s Frank? He talks? I’m like, yes he does talk but when I made the show he didn’t. I’m actually talking to you as 2017 Bryony”, she explains.
It’s their last day together before she flies out, and while Frank came to Australia on her run of The Pacifiist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, she’ll be travelling solo on this trip. She’s running around, fulfilling his requests, calling him her little diva, all while trying to pack her washbag.
‘What’s it like to be a working mum in this industry?” I ask as she juggles Frank’s movie requests.
“Fucking annoying” she joked, and we had a good cackle at that.
On a more serious note, she talks about how much guilt she feels about trying to balance her career and her child, and how she’s looking at the future of her show and a potential long term run of it, and how that will affect Frank.
“I think being a single mum is hard, a single mum is much harder, a working mum with another person … my 28 year old self is like, go and do it! And my mother self is like, ‘I can’t leave my child for six months, I’m going to pull him out of nursery -, how do I align my guilt about that with the potential of what the work might bring in for me to make his life better,. I have to think of all of those things as well as just performing”, she reflects.
“I think it’s proved to me this last year that it’s exponentially harder for a women to make a career in this particular industry, in any industry, but for me, it’s a constant guilt battle with negotiation with finance and with emptions to even carry on working and sometime I think to myself, I’m just stopping… but I can’t do that, because my whole life is geared towards making art, every thought I have is about ‘ I wonder what that would look like’”, Kimmings said.
Her message for Australian audiences is that this is different, it’s unique and that it’s nothing like a middle class white man telling his life story on stage (she used a lot of other words here too which we won’t repeat!)
“You have to come see it, like I really can’t stress it enough. If you want to see something that you’ve never seen a woman do before on stage, see this, because it’s really different and you’ll realise how little you get to see this. But there are a lot of laughs though! It’s got the lols, that’s why I gave it the title I’m A Phoenix, BITCH – it’s meant to be liked”.
I’m A Phoenix, Bitch opens tonight at Arts Centre Melbourne and plays 11 – 15 September, and Brisbane Festival at QPAC on the 18th, 20th and 21st September.
Once you’ve seen the show, head to Ellen’s website where part two of her chat with Bryony will be live, talking about the artistic process of putting the show together (spoiler alert!), and what she’ll be working on next. www.theawkwardcorner.com.au
Are you planning on seeing this show and need a great place to stay? Please check out our preferred hotel partner, the Sofitel on Collins. Special rate apply for Theatre People Readers! CLICK HERE https://www.sofitel-melbourne.com.au/theatre-people/ for details.