Bryony Kimmings is a performance artist, making work that provokes and excites, sometimes autobiographical, often controversial. Early works include Sex Idiot and 7 Day Drunk, while more recently Bryony has enjoyed success with shows like Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel; a collaboration with her 9 year old niece. The show protests against the world’s attempts to commodify and sexualise childhood, landing Bryony and her sidekick invites to parliament, praise from Yoko Ono and an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.
Her most recent work ‘Fake it til you make it’ stars Bryony and her boyfriend Tim, examining the incredibly important and sensitive issue of men suffering from clinical depression and what it means to be ‘manly’. The show has just been declared Winner Best Theatre at Adelaide Fringe and Winner Best Theatre Fringe World, Perth, as well as being awarded 5 stars by The Guardian, Australia.
We spoke to Bryony about what it takes to make it as a performance artist.
OM: Can you describe an average day at work?
BK: Gosh, it really is very, very varied. It totally depends on what time of year it is. A performance artist’s years are split into making, touring, teaching and resting. Usually if I am not on tour I would head into my office at Hackney Empire and touch base with my ladies who run the show, Jo and Amy. They will have loads of project updates to talk through and I drink herbal tea and try to take it all in. We have projects on the table up until 2018 and they all need attention all the bloody time. If I am writing I will then go somewhere really quiet and blitz it. I am often meeting with designers, or potential new people to write stuff for or make work with. So it is a whirlwind a lot of the time. I have to be very strict with my diary.
2014 I burnt out because I did a lot for everything other than the art and I felt constantly like actually sitting down and writing was the last thing on my list. This year my diary is full of quiet weeks where I go back to the countryside and sit in my shed and write alone. I have been working on my company since 2011 full time. I got a board this year and staff and it feels like all those hats I used to have to wear are slowly being taken off me and it’s like paradise.
I try to exercise everyday. I ain’t getting any younger.
OM: Have you always wanted to be an performance artist?
BK: No. I don’t think I was from a place or a family where being a performance artist was a job in any way shape or form. I know my mum says I was always showing off and making shows as a kid so I think it’s just in my genes to be on a stage BUT I went to uni because I just had to get out of my town and it was the only way I could see to escape. No one in my family had been to uni before. I wanted to do Law or Drama. I think now I realize it was the same thing in both I loved… the creative brain and logical brain mixing. I didn’t want to be an actress, I just wanted to buy my mums flat for her. Lucky for me this drama course at Brunel was not acting, or plays or even theatre writing… it was performance art and I instantly fell in love with it. I am a conceptual artist in my heart.
OM: What was the hardest part about becoming an Performance Artist?
BK: Making money in something so niche and so undesirable to the common man (obviously I am working on this) is always going to be tough. But actually I think harder than getting grants, or venues to support you or anyone to trust your taste is actually the craft. There aren’t many performance artists and then on top of that there aren’t many who are actually good. This is because it takes time to find your artistic voice.
It took me the best part of a decade, floundering around in clubs making what other people mostly thought was wanky crap to find what I DID like and what I did wanted to communicate with an audience. I think the craft or knowing what you want to say and HOW best to say it is the hardest thing about becoming a good performance artist.
And many others from that world will disagree that I am good anyway. I hold on to the term, instead of theatre maker or comedian because that is my sensibility. I am an artist, I aim to challenge and to provoke. But I think the key to being good is realizing you are there to unite with your audience, not isolate yourself from them.
OM: And what’s the best part of the job?
BK: The making is grueling. I think when I am not amidst writing or being in the studio with a piece I would say “oh the joy is in the creation” but actually when you are elbow deep in it it’s like being in a room with a tiger you are trying to coax into acting like a pussy cat. It’s so elusive, the work, at this stage. You have to trust your instincts and make decisions that you know might be fucking it all up in an instant. So I think performing is the best part. Performing for a full crowd of like minded people who are getting it. But I love touring less and less. I am a home body. I don’t like to be away.
OM: Do you feel you’re treated differently in your industry because you’re a woman?
BK: No. Not at all. I think if anyone in my industry dared to treat me differently directly they would leave the room with no head. With every partner, every venue, every funder I am treated as a fellow human being. A feisty, loud and communicative person who is allowed free reign to say and do what she knows is right. I work with trusted and excellent partners and people. I am lucky, but I think I also demand that when I walk into a room with a new person. I have turned down work because I felt the vibe was not right. BUT I do think that instituitional sexism does leak down to artists through venues. Theatre particularly (as that is one of the main worlds I move in) is very male centric. Just look at all the Artistsic Directors in the major London theatres bar two, they are run by Oxbridge men. This means that despite their best efforts a woman’s voice is never going to be the default in their brain. I also have to deal with the press a lot and usually that is all good but sometimes you just know you are being interviewed or treated differently because you are a women. In that case. I just put my game face on and prove how smart I am, knowing that one day women will take over the world.
OM: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given? And what other advice would you give to anyone looking to become a performance artist?
BK: I think I got a lot of bad advice to be honest.
All the early advice I received was all about registering as a company, setting up a bank account and getting funding when what I needed was to be told how to make great art. My mentor Stacy Makishi was so with me when I made my first show Sex Idiot. She kept urging me just to be myself, that that had value and I think that was excellent advice.
So I would pass that on to the next person. But I think what I have learnt that no-one bothered to tell me (and to me it seems a lot of other performance artists) is that YOU are not the most important person in the room, the AUDIENCE is.
OM: What qualifications and experience do you need?
None. I studied it, which gave me a good idea of the history of it, the types and the current scene… but sometimes I think that restricted me, cowering in the shadows of the greats. Scottee, another performance artist who I rate no end didn’t get a formal education, he began working the club circuit and is naturally an artist in his heart. So there are many many avenues. I think if you see an artist you like, doing something that you really dig, check them out further, ask them questions.
It’s a hard job, so if you see it and your heart explodes then and only then is it the job for you.
OM: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the workplace or in your career?
BK: I think making a second show when I wasn’t ready yet was quite a balls up. ‘7 Day Drunk’ was an OK piece of work. It had a great concept and a great conceptual plan – in order to prove to a friend who struggled with alcoholism that drinking had exactly no bearing on her creativity I went into a controlled experiment with a team of docs and scientists and drank for 7 days and created the material for the show whilst being assessed by a live audience. BUT the show itself I think lacked direction and heart. I think if I could do it all again now, 4 years later I would make that piece so fucking good. I needed to have time to think and read and I didn’t give myself that space. I am always one step ahead of myself and that is bad. Challenging Andrew Haydon to a boxing match in a Time Out interview after he wrote a scathing review of me was also a bit stupid. We are friends now.
OM: What does success mean to you?
BK: Two things.
1. Supporting myself with my work in a lifestyle that I want. That sounds tacky and basic but I truly believe art is a job like no other and that we should be paid fairly for our efforts.
2. Reaching more people with every day that passes. I am growing my output, my practice and my platforms. I don’t believe that a Performance Artist can’t be on the telly or write films. That is just what has happened before talking to us to keep execs and idiots safe in offices. Not reason. To me the performance artists’ brain is deeply engrained in experimentation… this makes for a brain so unique that it can be used to make pretty much anything creative… and well. But I would say that wouldn’t I?!
OM: What’s your feminist wish for the future?
BK: I think that feminism can solve climate change. If only all the feminists in the world (men and women and trans and those who choose to not identify) would realize that if they stood united that actually the world could be snatched from the patriarchy. So I think we need to become more demanding and fearsome.
Tweet Bryony here
Read about Bryony’s alter ego, a ‘credible, likeable, superstar rolemodel ‘ pop star (pictured above) she came up with along with her 9 year old niece. More on the dinosaur-loving singer Catherine Bennett here.
See her latest show at The Southbank Centre this summer.