Jenna Watt, the confrontational theatremaker once banned from the Arches

Jenna Watt is taking a literal approach to exploring the explosive moments in people's lives in her latest work, writes Mark Fisher

Jenna Watt's How You Gonna Live Your Dash. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
Jenna Watt's How You Gonna Live Your Dash. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

Jenna Watt doesn’t come across as a troublemaker. Slightly built, fine featured and thoughtful, she is nobody’s idea of a rebel. But in her quiet, unexpected way, the Fringe First-winning theatremaker is a bit of a provocateur.

Take the time she got a six-month ban from Glasgow’s Arches. It was 2010 and she’d been performing a scratch version of It’s OK, It’s Only Temporary, a show about a childhood act of violence. For her climax she fired apples into the audience with a baseball bat.

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Most of them smashed into pieces as soon as she hit them and nobody got hurt – on the contrary, the audience seemed delighted – but throwing solid objects in a theatre wouldn’t have looked good on the health-and-safety report. She was accused of “reckless endangerment”.

Playwright Jenna Watt

The incident became known as Applegate and the theatre made a stand. “I was pretty naive at the time,” says Watt. “Nobody had asked me what I was doing, so I didn’t feel obliged to tell anybody. I quickly discovered that was the wrong thing to do.”

The ban came out of the blue. “As a young artist, it was terrifying. There was no discussion, I was just told what the outcome was. I didn’t know what was going to happen. And it was a defining moment because I had this choice either to apologise for my work or to stand behind it and say I would do it again and again, and challenge the norm. I went from feeling terrified to feeling empowered. That’s the position I’m in now. If I’m going to take on these projects, I’ve got to go with them 100 per cent.”

The incident fuelled her desire to upturn expectations. “You wouldn’t expect a petite woman to come out with a baseball bat and then assault you with apples,” says the graduate of Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University. “And perhaps you wouldn’t expect a woman to talk to you about violence and the bystander effect as I did in Flâneurs or to do a show that’s really tech-heavy with pyrotechnics.”

She’s thinking about How You Gonna Live Your Dash, a two-hander created with actor Ashley Smith that’s about to tour the country, fireworks and all. She wanted to see if she could create a theatrical equivalent of the photographs of colourful smoke bombs taken by artist Filippo Minelli. The results will be literarily explosive.

Jenna Watt's How You Gonna Live Your Dash. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

“It’s a show about moments when you choose to change your life,” she says. “But we explore that idea through pyrotechnics. I thought it would be interesting to create a theatrical language that wasn’t just about the good fairy appearing on stage, the bad witch being killed or the genie appearing; what else could that be? That was really exciting to me.”

Whether it is equally exciting for the production departments on the forthcoming tour remains to be seen. “I like to make theatre that is challenging – for myself but also for venues,” she laughs. “I like to find the edge and the boundaries. How far can we go before we’re asked to compromise on something? It’s revealing how the context in which you make work informs the artistic choices you make.”

She continues: “This is the one time we’ll get to use pyrotechnics, so why don’t we use this opportunity to push it as far as we can? We’ve got to just do this and not feel under pressure to fit into what people’s expectations might be.”

The title of the show, How You Gonna Live Your Dash, comes from the observation that the two dates on a grave stone, signifying birth and death, are separated by a dash. That dash is your life.

Playwright Jenna Watt

Feeding into the show are a series of interviews with people who have reached a turning point in their lives and gone on to do something different. Like the man with the dream career who became ill from stress and faced the option of giving up everything he’d striven for. And the man who left Scotland and everything he knew to pursue his fantasy of living off-grid. It sounds bold and romantic, but it also leaves us with the question of what happens next.

This may sound like a leap from the mesmerising solo piece Watt presented last spring in the Buzzcut festival, but there’s a connection. In that show, she went through a silent ritual in which, with painstaking concentration, she laid fuse wire around the perimeter of her playing area. Next she set it alight.

The audience, sitting tightly packed on four sides, watched spellbound as the tiny flame sparked and fizzed along its course before reaching its destination and setting off a firework. Without a word being spoken, it was silently compelling.

More spectacular still was Watt’s finale in which she lay down on the floor, put a funnel in her mouth,
filled it with paint powder and blew plumes of coloured dust into the air.
It was both beautiful and alarming. She was coughing up paint powder for days. “A lot of blue snot!” she laughs.

Jenna Watt's How You Gonna Live Your Dash. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

That piece was a prototype for the pyrotechnic side of How You Gonna Live Your Dash as well as an experiment in creating purely visual theatre. “It was a way to put the aesthetic, the stillness and the reflective nature of it out there and see how people would read it,” says Watt, who is now making things easier on herself by using non-toxic Holi paint powder. “It reminded me that text isn’t everything. You don’t have to tell the story, you can show it.”

So has doing a show about change changed her attitude to change? “In some ways, yes,” she says. “I’ve always seen hedonism as negative, something I’ve seen abused to excess. I maybe need to embrace hedonism more and appreciate those moments where you do something hedonistic and that’s OK. It’s been a tough process and a little more hedonism would make it easier. ‘How you gonna live your dash?’ doesn’t have to be a heavy question; why can’t we have lighter moments?”

• How You Gonna Live Your Dash, Platform, Glasgow, 28 and 29 January and touring until 13 February,