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Bryony Kimmings Makes Theatre About Chlamydia

I spoke to the performance artist about the time a drunk girl bit off a chunk of her leg.
August 7, 2014, 10:00am

Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model. Photo by Richard Davenport.

When I first met Bryony Kimmings – who I should mention is an adult – her ankle was broken, because she had fallen over “whilst karate kicking somebody”. What I later extracted from this is that Bryony is always pissing around but has been clever enough to forge a career out of it, creating honest and relatable performance art on topics like sexual health and alcoholism.

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Her theatre consists of everything from stand-up comedy to dance routines, improv and spoken word poetry. It’s physical and funny. She used to perform songs on an old keyboard, but doesn’t get it out much anymore because “everyone has a twee instrument and there’s a fucking ukulele overload.”

Bryony is anything but twee though: her sense of humour is too dark. In her most recent show, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, she pretends to gouge her ten-year old niece’s eyes out with a spoon on stage. Instead of being shocked, the audience laughed uncontrollably.

Bryony is currently preparing for a re-run of her first show, Sex Idiot, at the Southbank Centre, which is arguably her most “mainstream” gig yet, despite the fact that – during the show – she asks members of the audience to cut off some of their pubes and place them in a bowl. I talked to Bryony about all that and about being a show-off.

**Hi Bryony. How did *Sex Idiot* show come about?**
Bryony Kimmings: I had to sleep my way around the world for ten years without ever having a sexual health test, and then be like "Shit, I’m 30 and I’ve got chlamydia and I don’t even know if I got it when I was, like, 14". Actually that’s a total lie; I didn’t lose my virginity at 14, I lost it at 18­.

Anyway, I genuinely worried about how long I’d had it and whether it had made me infertile. So when small venue in Cambridge said “Would you like to make a solo show?” I was like, “Chlamydia! Chlamydia!” And then when they said I couldn’t make a show about that, I thought, "Seeing as you’ve said I can’t, I definitely am."

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So then what did you do?
I contacted everyone that I’d ever slept with. I had a list that goes back to the time I was about 20, but there are a few people I struggle to remember. I sent a blanket email to everybody just saying, “I’m doing this show, I’ve got chlamydia, I apologise if I’ve given it to you; I hope you haven’t got it and would you mind me interviewing you. Not just to talk about whether you’ve got chlamydia or not, but also about what I was like and what happened between us.”

Sex Idiot. Photo by Liquid Photo.

What were the responses?
There were a few people who thought it was weird and didn't want to be involved. And then there were some really surprising re-connections with people who I just thought would never want to talk to me again.

The weirdest was this taekwondo dude from uni who had made his own Wu Tang sign and put it up in his bedroom. He is now a taxi driver, and about twice the weight that he was before. When we broke up, he wrote me a really horrible email, so I dug it up and made him read it whilst I recorded him.

It’s like, “I’m going to fucking kill you, I hate you, I think you’re a dirty whore,” – only the 36-year-old him is going “Oh god, oh god!” as he reads it out. Watching this taxi driver I don’t know saying all this stuff to me, it just felt so irrelevant but brilliant. It makes for quite a lovely piece of audio.

Why are you putting Sex Idiot on again now?
I put it on the shelf after I finished because it went really well and I didn’t want to be the woman that just made that one show. But now someone’s written a TV programme on Channel 4 called Scrotal Recall about a man getting a STI and interviewing everyone he’s ever slept with. It's my idea. So I decided to do the show again quite loudly this time, just to say, “I did it first and don’t forget that the more interesting perspective is that of a woman.”

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Your next show was called Seven Day Drunk. Tell me about that.
Again, that came from a real-life scenario. I was living with an alcoholic at the time, who felt that alcohol was directly related to her ability to write. But her writing was absolute shit and she knew it.

So I said, “I’ll prove to you that alcohol has no direct relation to your creativity.” I got together with six scientists and we did a controlled drinking experiment over the course of seven days, for which I got increasingly drunk and made art. Then a test audience came in and told me how good I was. I was only allowed to use the material generated when drunk that week to make the show. But I did add some audience participation because I really love that if it’s done well. So a girl is invited on stage at the beginning and she’s put into a state of intoxication…

What, someone from the audience?
Yeah. So an audience member volunteers and we breathalyse them, check their age and check they’ve got someone to take them home. Then they come on stage and they drink eight shots of vodka in five minutes, which is what I had to drink on day four. And then that put them into a state of intoxication, which is basically silly, giggly and a little bit reckless. It’s not turning into a depressive state, which is around 11 shots – you know, crying. We watch her and observe her and she becomes a key part of the show.

Seven Day Drunk. Photo by Liquid Photo.

Were there any days when no one would volunteer?
Never. It was free booze! Juliette Lewis once joined in at a Soho show! She came on the stage at the end and raved with us. But a couple of terrible things happened – once, a girl got so drunk that she bit my leg and took a chunk out, and then spat the chunk on the stage.

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That was horrendous. I grabbed her face and said, “That was fucking uncalled for!” I would have punched her but you can’t punch someone who you’ve just made to be drunk. And then in Ireland they have double measures so what I thought was seven shots, was actually 14 shots. This one girl fell off her chair almost instantly and face planted. And I was like “Ohhh shit! What?! Why?” She was alright though, just pretty sleepy.

How did you get into performing?
I think there’s nothing else that I really am good at. I’m good at talking. And I like doing speeches. And I like messing around and having fun. And I like having an audience. So it naturally feels like the job I was destined to do.

I suppose performance and experimentation in a kind of autobiographical form is a trend. It charts back to the 1960s – people talking about their lives, people using their body to explain things, people reclaiming their bodies as a site for art.

Also I guess it’s a bit Dave Gorman, you know? It’s a bit documentary. It just felt natural to use my own life as material. And I like to talk about things I give a shit about and especially subjects that I think people see as taboo, or not politically correct or whatever. I find that I get very angry a lot and if I didn’t have a format to allow myself to rant, I’d probably get very angry at home.

Talking of ranting, you’re one of few people who actually speak up about how hard it is to make money as a working artist. In what way is the industry shit and how could it be better?
Well, I guess I operate in a different funding system than say a comedienne or maybe a mainstream theatre artist would. I work on small commissions, touring, money from the Arts Council and various other funding bodies and those things don’t always add up.

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I think half the problem is that artists are perhaps a bit apologetic about the fact they’re making art so they don’t ask for very much. Like, “Sorry I’m an artist, sorry that’s so first world, and sorry that I even dare to ask for that money.” But you know, weeks of the year I get to make something and then the rest of the time I have to peddle it around. I’m like a fucking furniture salesman, essentially. Lets not pretend it’s this jolly where I sit around going, “You know what would be a really good idea? A flower hat.” (I know that’s not a good idea by the way, it was just an example.) This is my job.

The other thing is that people don’t give a fuck about paying you properly. It’s the same with writers. It’s the same with any type of self-employed business. It’s not a purposeful thing by venues or anyone really. It’s just that no one’s bothered to go, “Hang on a minute, artists can’t actually pay their rents.” In the spirit of being the person that says stuff, I have openly said it doesn’t add up and I think it’s shit and I think that art has a holistic value in society that we don’t celebrate enough.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a show with my partner who works in marketing. He has a history of mental health problems and severe clinical depression, so we wanted to make a show together about how men are not brought up or conditioned to talk about their feelings. Which is really problematic when they find themselves crying at work at their computer. It’s a comedy though.

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Thanks Bryony

Bryony will be performing Sex Idiot at the Southbank Centre for one week this August. 

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