Bristol based artists Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse are taking over Arts House as company in residence with their company Action Hero and three works that are set to provoke, entertain and unhinge. I spoke to Stenhouse, co-artistic director, ahead of the residency, how they built their relationship with Arts House, their three new works and their time touring the world.
Performer, writer, co-creator and more, Stenhouse has been lucky to perform Action Hero’s work with Paintin in some incredible places over the last decade.
“ Rio De Janeiro, Shanghai, Bangkok, Texas, all over Europe. It’s not something we expected when we set out on our journey together. To be able to see the world while we’ve been doing what we love as a job has felt like an immense privilege. We pinch ourselves a lot” he said.
He and Paintin co-create, write and perform their shows, and every time they make a new piece of theatre, they kind of reinvent their process.
“It’s never the same process so we always feel a bit like we’re learning everything as we go along. This makes it really exciting but also quite stressful because we never feel totally safe with any part of what we’re doing” he said.
“It also means that we’re always doing different jobs on each new work. Sometimes I feel like I’m a designer, or a visual artist, sometimes I feel more like a technician on a particular project and sometimes I feel like a performer or a director”.
They’ve known about Arts House for a while now.
“It’s been on our radar both because we’ve met some of the team on our travels elsewhere in the world but also because our good friend Nic Green presented her work ‘Trilogy’ at Arts House recently. She was very effusive about the experience of working with Arts House so we’ve been keen to bring our work here and get to know the venue and the team and the audiences in Melbourne. We’re really excited its happening” he said.
Their new shows, Hoke’s Bluff, Slap Talk and Wrecking Ball are said to be punchy, unsettling and utterly original, and each performance is quite different.
“All our work is kind of in conversation. We tend to be exploring similar territory – masculinity, power, violence – but each time we approach it a different way. We find different forms to explore the questions we’re asking about the world. Hoke’s Bluff is bombastic and high energy and feels like a sports event, Wrecking Ball is like an intimate conversation and Slap Talk is 6 hours long, so we’re always playing with how we interrogate themes” said Stenhouse.
“Hoke’s Bluff is an attempt to take sentimentality seriously. It takes the most corny, trashy material and tries to find the poetry and the real hope contained within it. It’s also really, really silly, we don’t mind making idiots of ourselves in our work”.
“Slap Talk is about violence and all the ways it manifests and creeps into our lives. Its 6 hours long which means each idea it picks up it can stretch and pull it until it either becomes deeply profound or totally meaningless” he said.
“Wrecking Ball is us attempting to do more of a straightforward play and using that form to explore power and consent. The audience becomes complicit as voyeurs, participants and witnesses. With Wrecking Ball we’re trying to kind of break theatre a bit so we can see the dark underbelly that lies underneath”.
They’ve worked across 20 countries in 10 years, but they came from a very DIY background, with traces of that still evident in their work.
“Our first few shows were just Gemma and I and the audience really. That relationship with the audience has grown to be a central part of what we do because in the beginning it was all we had to work with. Without any budget you’re forced to be quite inventive with how you propel the work forwards”.
After their Melbourne residency, Paintin is directing a show in Manchester at Contact Theatre whilst Stenhouse work on a new project in Bristol and then they’re showing Slap Talk at the Edinburgh festival as part of the British Council Showcase.
Action Hero present three shows across their residency at Arts House in North Melbourne: Hoke’s Bluff plays 24-27 May, Slap Talk runs from 11am to 5pm on Sunday 28 May, and Wrecking Ball takes the stage 31 May – 3 June. More info: https://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/arts-and-culture/arts-house/whats-on-arts-house/Pages/whats-on-arts-house.aspx