Q&A: Freak – a work in progress by Nathan Penlington
This week at VFD from Sunday, Fringe First award winner Nathan Penlington’s new piece ‘FREAK – A Work in Progress’ will start a 3 night run. We caught up with the author and performer to discuss his latest work.
Q: Hi Nathan, you describe yourself on your website as writer, performer and obsessive. what are your current obsessions?
A: Obsessiveness is a state which you become powerless to avoid. It is a way of being, not always in a positive sense, but I’ve learnt to generally syphon those traits into creating. Being obsessive also means I have an exhaustive approach to the gestation period. I’m a gatherer of things, ideas, and material – this new work is still in that stage of full immersion – so at the moment it is sideshow, circus, and carnival.
Q: Your previous show, Choose Your Own Documentary, was the recipient of a Fringe First in 2013. How did that feel, to be recognised by the world’s biggest arts festival? Does that kind of accolade make it easier to pursue subsequent work, in terms of funding etc?
A: It was a surprise, that’s for sure! Choose Your Own Documentary was hugely emotionally involving and, due to the interactive nature, technically complex. It was also largely a labour of love at the production stage for myself and the filmmakers. I think if you make anything with the intention of trying to win prizes, or gain funding, you are going about things the wrong way. But it always felt like a story that had to be told.
The stories behind Freak also feel to me like they have to be told, particularly in the current political climate. They’ve been gnawing at me for years while I’ve been trying to connect the dots, find a forgotten link here, or an obscure reference there. I wouldn’t say this new project so far has been easy, but I’ve been very lucky to receive awards from both Arts Council England and the Society of Authors to assist with research – which have been invaluable.
Q: ‘Freak’ explores a true story of sideshow performers, reaching from depression era America, through the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the second world war, the phenomenon of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and the burgeoning Civil rights movements of the ’50s and ’60s. It is an exploration of difference, tolerance, and the lives of tattooed ladies, rubber-skinned men, fat women*, conjoined twins, and the ‘world’s strangest married couple’. Lives that turn the assumptions of exploitation and disability upside down. Where did the inspiration for this piece come from?
A: The odd and unusual are things that have always driven and delighted me, but the inspiration for this piece really came from my personal life. I’ve suffered from serious bouts of prolonged ill-health throughout my life, but it wasn’t until I turned 30 that I was finally diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos – a condition that effects the elasticity of the body: its organs, ligaments, and skin. Researching the condition uncovered that for over 150 years certain performers with the same disorder had been exploiting it by performing as rubber skinned men and elastic women, and had successful careers as professional ‘Freaks’.
Talking about freak shows is always going to attract a certain level of controversy – it is an area still largely steeped in taboo – but further obsessive digging in old newspapers and obscure journals has unearthed personal lives of freak show performers that aren’t what we would assume. It is wanting to question those preconceived ideas, and explore how the concept of tolerance applies to wider society, that makes it feel like a worthwhile subject to pursue – particularly in a world that is becoming more and more divided.
Q: The 3-night run at VFD is billed as a ‘work in progress’. What can the audience expect?
A: The piece for VFD will be a combination of film, live documentary storytelling, and – as it is only right I prove myself – some odd abilities of my own. The piece will have some loose ends, and might be a bit woolly, or scruffy in places, but what it lacks in finesse I hope it makes up for in oddness and surprising tenderness.
Q: Has the process of researching this piece changed any of your own attitudes?
A: Completely. It is difficult to shelve preconceived assumptions, expectations, and prejudices. I know this research isn’t finished, and even when it is, I expect putting the material in front of audiences will raise further questions that will need confronting. That tug between viewpoints is what I want this piece to ultimately engage with.
Q; In 5 words, why should people come and see FREAK?
A: Real people alive on stage
FREAK – A work in progress
Sun 7, Mon 8 & Tues 9 August