Arts festivals anywhere in the world are competitive beasts. It can be tough to get a gig and even tougher to get an audience, let alone rave reviews. To achieve a sold-out season and a chorus of rave reviews at the big daddy of all festivals – The Edinburgh Fringe – you have to be doing something right. One person who has just done all of the above is UK actor, writer and performer Juliette Burton with her latest show Look At Me. Other capitals like Sydney and Melbourne are missing out big time, but heads up Adelaide – Juliette is returning for another appearance at The Adelaide Fringe. If you like world class comedy with a big heart, read on.
So, Juliette, how has life been treating you lately?
Life has been treating me like a pet; sometimes it gives me juicy bones, takes me for walks and my little tail is wagging, and other times life leaves me at home scratching on the door howling and making a mess of the cushions. Ups and downs but mainly juicy bones of ups!
How happy were you with how the show was received at the Edinburgh Fringe?
Ecstatic! That's an underused word isn't it: "ecstatic"? Great word. Anyway, Look At Me premiered at Edinburgh Fringe 2014, getting 5 star reviews in national press, having sold out shows and at Edinburgh 2015 it had a total sold out run – every ticket that could be sold was. It was incredible. A big juicy bone two years in a row.
What's it like performing at that particular festival compared to others you've appeared at?
Performing at different festivals is like gathering a collection of friends all from the same family; you have Edinburgh Fringe which is the biggest arts festival in the world and why I even began in this career. It's the BOSS of all festivals, so boss I actually moved to the city because I loved it so much. Edinburgh's my best mate, in a way; that mate who challenges you and helps you realise the best of yourself. Brighton Fringe is like Edinburgh's kid sister; fun, arty, lovely but much smaller. Melbourne International Comedy Festival was like the cool hipster cousin who I loved being around and fancied a little bit. And then there's Adelaide who's the second largest arts festival in the world – the festival who's chilled, laid back and SO much fun! Adelaide just wants to have a good time and I'm ready to be a part of that again!
Have the audiences at the different festivals been noticeably different in any ways?
People the world over can be amazing. I think it's one of my favourite things, realising that an audience in one part of the world can be just as fun, vocal and up for it as an audience in a totally different part of the world – similar characters pop up in different corners of a country or the globe. I’ve made good friends in Edinburgh who are so similar to those in York. I’ve made good friends in Adelaide who were so similar to those in London. And friends in Melbourne who remind me of those in Cambridge. We’re all connected, we’re all the same really, if you focus on the similarities and not the differences.
Tell us a little about Look At Me. What's it all about? How did it come about?
I first had the idea back in 2007 – what would happen if I swapped my body for other bodies, having been the same girl in so many different bodies naturally. I’ve been a size 4 (US size 0) due to anorexia, a size 20 (US size 16) due to compulsive overeating disorder, I’ve been a “healthy” size but ill with bulimia and I’ve been a “normal” size and struggled with hidden illnesses like depression and anxiety. It got me thinking – is what we appear to be who we really are? I started chatting with friends about the idea and everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, I spoke to had a story about how they relate to their bodies and the outside world. And judgement too. So when the Arts Council in the UK gave me some money to change my looks in lots of dramatic ways I leapt at the chance to become, for a day, a 90 year old lady, a man, I wore the hijab, dressed “provocatively” and revisited my obese self – to find out how much appearances affect who we are on the inside.
What were those experiences like? Any surprises there?
A LOT of surprises! I don’t want to give away any spoilers but being a man unleashed some hidden sides of myself! Let’s just say perhaps confidence verged into arrogance… Revisiting my obese body surprised quite a few of my friends in fact…one of my friends didn’t even recognise me and other friends who have seen the show fancied me MORE in that disguise… And I wanted to reclaim my experience of that body on that day. And being a 90 year old lady revealed some truths; I felt rather liberated in some ways! To see just how liberated you will need to join me at the show!
The subject matter is, when you get down to it, pretty serious stuff. How difficult was it to work it into comedy?
Not terribly difficult. Some of the experiences I went through were so bizarre that the only way to communicate them to audiences is with honesty and laughter. Looks will change all the time and youth will fade, it’s life’s great joke that we assign any real “value” in our appearances and yet we do and we’re encouraged to do so. Reflecting that judgement call through the show reveals the comedy in ourselves and also in the absurdity of my own experiences. We all have a day when someone judges us on appearance and the best we can do is laugh about it.
Some of the people you interview are dealing with some serious issues... how did they react when they found out your show was a comedy?
For the show I didn’t want it to be just my voice, so I interviewed a lot of people, which I do for all my shows, to make sure the questions I’m asking are universal as well as personal. For Look At Me I interviewed 80 year old men and women, physically disabled friends, thalidomide men, facially disfigured dudes, professional models, fellow weirdo performers, transgender people about how they relate to their bodies and how others relate to them.
When I told these people I was interviewing my show was a comedy, I told them well before I interviewed them, and they all unanimously loved the idea! I think we’ve all thought how ridiculous it is to judge on appearances; and as one of my interviewees said “Other people’s ignorance is not and never will be my problem. And if other people think that because of the way I look I can’t do certain things, well, watch me!”
Watch us! We are so much more than others and even we ourselves might think we are.
We know how the critics and audiences have responded to the show; what have been the responses of the interviewees?
The interviewees have their own mailing list who I email first to let them know of future shows. I believe almost every interviewee featured in the show has now seen the show…bar one. And that one lives in Australia. So I hope they can come along!
All the interviewees who have seen it have loved it; it’s their show as well as mine in many ways. It’s everyone’s show who sees it and takes something from it. An audience affects a show far more than we realise.
What are a couple of highlights for you in the interviews?
Other than the incredible Adam Pearson, who I met thanks to the interviews for this show and I now count as one of my best friends… we once got so drunk that he ate a whole sharing sundae by himself. And we’ve shared some pretty dirty Cards Against Humanity games… other than him, there’s Geoff Adams-Spink who I met during my time working at the BBC, a wise, funny, irreverent man affected by the thalidomide drug. And there's Simon Minty who runs Abnormally Funny People. He says his condition (he’s 3 ft 11) is one thing but his disability is how people react to him. There’s also John Lyons, an 80-something year old poet, artist and author who says he thinks about life, not age – with ALL my interviewees I watch their interviews with the audience in the show and every single time I’m struck by the collective wisdom of my friends! It’s a treat to watch these pearls of wisdom back to remind me to listen to them and adopt their experience myself!
Don't tell anyone this, but when I saw your wonderful show When I Grow Up at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2014, I almost cried. It was heart-breaking to see what you had gone through, but ultimately one of the most uplifting (and funny) shows I had ever seen. How do your shows affect you during the performances?
Wow. Thank you. That’s a wonderful thing to share and say aloud. Well, not aloud. This is written text. But you know, I heard it in my head so we’re totally connected like that. Anyway, what was the question? How do the shows affect me during the performance. Honestly, every single performance I get emotionally vulnerable and raw. But I count that as a victory because if I get to a point where I can be so honest and vulnerable with an audience then we must be really connecting, not as performer to audience but as human to human. I’m often asked how I perform if I’m struggling with my mental health problems and I always say because I know that as awful as I might feel before the show, I will feel amazing on the other side, because I’ve connected with a whole room of people who are with me on that journey… we’re in it together.
How do you feel about humanity generally? Are we getting any better at being human or are we still a bit shit?
What a question! I don’t pretend to know the answer to that. I have to, for sanity’s sake, believe in the good in humanity. For every awful act that happens or hits us personally or hits the headlines there are so many people out there who will choose the path of kindness. There have been some shitty things happen in the world in the past couple of years since I last came to Australia and each time I have an increasingly greyer view of the world… and then a greater, stronger, brighter revision of that – when I see the power of loveliness rush through in the wake of shittiness.
A news story I was involved in in May 2015 is one of those weird news stories, It affected many and affected me personally. I relapsed badly because of it. But then the rush of humanity overwhelmed me. And it was immense. I talk about it in the show; we’re never really alone. It just takes bravery to be honest about how we’re really doing. Once I got on stage and started making jokes about the situation, hearing people laugh about what I’d been through I immediately knew it was going to be ok.
You are coming all the way to Australia but not taking the show to Melbourne or Sydney. This is a bummer for Melbourne and Sydney – any chance this could change?
I would LOVE to return to Melbourne one day and visit Sydney for the first time… Let’s all keep our fingers crossed, and perhaps if this Adelaide fringe goes well I can venture a bit further in the future!
Juliette Burton will perform Look At Me as part of the Adelaide Fringe Festival, 1 – 14 March 2016. Further details»