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“There’s an honesty to their stupidity”

INTERVIEW. UK physical comedy group Spymonkey was born when they ran away from the circus to form their own group. Reviving early classic Cooped, they perform for the first time in Germany, premiering on Fri, Jan 3 at Tipi am Kanzleramt.

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Photo by Sean Dennie

Toby Park, Spymonkey joint artistic director and performer, discusses dusting off their classic production Cooped for the Tipi in Berlin.

The physical comedy group Spymonkey was born of a runaway group of circus performers striking out on their own. Their first work Stiff brought them international success and the support of the British council – for an irreverent piece about a funeral and undertakers. Over the past decade they’ve expanded their repertoire, including tackling serious literature with Moby Dick, adapting ancient Greek drama with Oedipussy and a stint at Cirque du Soleil as part of the Zumanity show in Las Vegas. Now they’re reviving early classic Cooped for their first performances in Germany, starting at Tipi am Kanzleramt on January 3 and running through January 26.

What was the original inspiration for Cooped?

Our director, Cal McCrystal, used to watch a lot of Dark Shadows when he was a kid and then he was really into sort of sub-pulp Gothic fiction and Cooped takes all of its plot lines from a boiled down version of those kind of schlocky books – the sort of thing that my mother-in-law reads.

How did you go about developing it?

Our early shows took quite a long time before they felt that they were cooked. Now we’ve gotten better at working faster, but in our earlier days we’d do a few performances and then go back to the rehearsal room. We’d say that bit works really well, or there would be accidents, and problems with costume changes. All of that stuff really informed what Cooped became in a way that we wouldn’t be able to do now. In the early days, there weren’t these expectations from us. So actually we had the luxury of honing the work and buffing it to a lovely shine.

Are there elements that are improvised still today?

The first time anybody sees it, it looks like 95 percent of the accidents, all the horrible disasters, are happening right there and then. Some people when they come back to see it the second time they say, “That’s a little cheeky… all of those things that went wrong the first time, you did them wrong exactly the same way.” It takes a long time to work out stuff like that. Exactly the right problem, exactly the right thing falling over. But there are a few bits in the show that are improvised, there’s a few interactions where we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, which is nice because it keeps it real.

Is there anything that you changed when you re-staged it?

We put in a couple of tricks. There’s a couple of lovely miracles that the bishop does now to prove that he’s a bishop.

Have you noticed different reactions from different cultures?

When we play in Australia and Canada, they like the word play and punning. But everybody knows Monty Python now. Everywhere that we go they’re familiar with that style and kind of energy. When I first went to Germany I was so amazed when people would quote Dinner for One to me “Same procedure as last year…” and expect me to know what they were saying. They’re very sophisticated in their love for that kind of very broad stroke physical comedy, so it’ll be exciting to see how our show goes down.

You teach workshops about clowning, how do you approach teaching people how to be clowns?

We like to work with people on what is stupid about them, what is the thing that everyone laughs about behind their backs. There’s an honestly to your stupidity. Refining that and boiling that down so that people are very generous with that stupidity is the work of the clown.

Your more recent shows Moby Dick and Oedipussy are inspired by a bit heavier fare than what’s usually considered comedy…

There’s something very good for us, as clowns, about trying to do things that are dramatic, that have gravitas, because it means that emotionally the performers have a big investment in making it work. I think that’s very important for our comedy, particularly for me as the straight man trying to keep everything on track. It’s important to have a grand artistic aim, that’s become a bit of our trademark. We are attempting to do something serious but the people who are doing it are woefully unable to remain serious.

Do you ever get jealous of the clowns?

No I don’t, and the more I’ve done it the better I’ve gotten at not always just being the straight man. It took me quite a long time to understand that I was really good at it, and that the work needs somebody keeping it rooted in some way. And that what makes the shows really funny is that someone is taking them seriously. I love playing with these three idiots. It’s such a joy. 

How would you classify your shows between art and commercial entertainment?

We feel that our art, because it’s clown and it’s about a very direct relationship with the audience, that it should be something that’s successful. You have to keep people on board, you have to take an audience with you. But you also have to keep evolving as an artist, to keep it real and keep it interesting. And you can only do that by challenging yourselves and challenging the audience to come with you on that journey.

Cooped, Jan 3-26, 20:00 | Tipi am Kanzleramt, Große Querallee, Mitte, U-Bhf Bundestag

5-day clown masterclass with Aitor Basauri, Spymonkey’s other joint-artistic director, Jan 13-17. more information at http://www.spymonkey. co.uk/workshops/index.htm