Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Desiree Burch: Tar Baby

By | Published on Thursday 4 February 2016


American comedian and actress Desiree Burch has been wowing audiences with her show ‘Tar Baby’, a piece that we came across up in Edinburgh last summer. It’s a heartfelt, funny, yet heartbreaking piece, which deals with race, racial identity, and the impact of racism.
When I discovered that Desiree would be bringing the piece to London’s Vault Festival, I was keen to catch up with her, to find out more about her, as well as about this important and necessary play.

CM: Tell us about ‘Tar Baby’ – what kind of performance is this? I know it’s theatre, a monologue, but there is a lot of audience interaction, isn’t there?
DB: ‘Tar Baby’ is a really high-octane devised performance that is about 80% comedy – mainly because there is distance from the events that inspired the stories – and about 20% heartbreak.

The show centres around the topic of race, and how it informs an identity. While stepping back from that particular identity, I incorporate stories from my life, both as a black woman who grew up in white, middle-class suburban America, and as a product of a culture that influenced a great amount of shame and feelings of inadequacy. There is a hell of a lot of audience participation, that I hope I introduce into a relatively safe (while being rather provocative) space of a theatre. I would say it definitely falls in the category of performance art, in that it is an ever evolving journey that I go through with audiences night after night, superimposing a narrative that we somewhat familiar with, but which often feels invisible – as though its part of the air that we all breathe. In many ways, it is.

CM: You are a comedian as well as an actor – does this show utilise both those skills? How different do you find acting from doing stand up?
DB: I would say that the show makes much more of my comedic skills than it does my acting. In much of my solo work, I try not to play parts, but rather just play with the audience as myself. That said, there are various guises that I put on during the piece like costume pieces, walking into various tropes in order to highlight the contours of them. The hope is that audiences see how thin many of these roles or attitudes we take on can actually be.

Acting is at once, very different to, and totally at home with, standup. Both forms seek to reveal truth at their highest levels. Comedy often comes out and says it, or visibly betrays it in order to give an audience perspective. It is an intellectual form of truth-telling in many regards. Acting declares the truth more viscerally, leading audiences to feel things about imagined realities. There are many places where the two cross over, but I think they essentially take different routes.

My acting experience has definitely informed my presence on a stage, whether doing comedy, solo performance or more traditional theatre. The best of my standup incorporates some home truths that come from my experiences in the theatre. But I think the reverse is also true, when realness, aliveness and humour come into my acting.

CM: What themes does the show explore? Do you seek to influence people and/or inform them with it?
DB: The show essentially looks at the role of race and capitalism in forging (and often fracturing) identity. I want those who see the show to really just be more aware of not only that, but also the gaze that it imposes on our view of others. I do want to influence people who see the show to take the experiences of others personally, as they would do their own. All these experiences form the fabric of our societies, and are part of how we define ourselves (both in position with, and in opposition to). All of these experiences are part of who we can be, as well.

I guess I just wanted people to feel a sense of access and engagement with issues that they may not consider their own, as well as a sense of communion with and representation in issues that are totally theirs. I think that many people who experience some aspect of difference to the norm relate deeply to the show. And actually, all put together, that seems to be the majority of us.

CM: Does the show have a linear narrative of any kind, or is this more of a presentation of ideas?
DB: There is definitely a linear narrative and emotional arch underpinning ‘Tar Baby’, although it is also essentially an essay on the places that a story can take you. Eventually I hope that it brings audiences back to a fundamental truth about all aspects of life: “Remember.. it all is just a story.”

CM: How did you get into stand up and performance?
DB: I think I realised I was funny at about the age of 5. I was a fat kid (I mean, I still am, but I was too) and humour is a mode of survival, both in the entertainment it provides to others and the distance it provides to the self. I remember watching stand-up comedy on television in my early teenage years and going, “Oh, this is what I am. I love this. I can do this.”

I also found an emotional and cultural home in theatre when I was about 16 or so, doing plays at school. I continued to study theatre at university, and a confluence of being exposed to performance monologues and learning from a solo performance mentor, Deb Margolin, at school really got me creating my own work. I didn’t do stand-up until right before I graduated, and didn’t necessarily pursue it seriously for a while after that; however, being part of the independent performance art scene in New York, doing stand-up, storytelling, devised work and solo pieces was just in the wheelhouse of what everyone did. We were all sort of making our own work where it wasn’t being created for us.

It’s incredibly empowering when you know what to do with your body, your voice, your presence, when others don’t. But if I think about it, I realise that I always knew I was going to have to stand up for myself, represent myself and express myself, as, until recently, stories like mine just weren’t being explored or told.

CM: What made you want to forge this kind of career? Did you always want to be a performer?
DB: Being a performer is something you need to do. It’s something you want to do often, but not always. But it’s always something you need to do if you are someone who persists in doing it.

CM: Do you think you will always want to perform? Are there other artistic and cultural avenues you would like to explore?
DB: I don’t know if I’ll always be plagued by the “Need-Attention Gene” that I have which calls me toward performance. It is a modality of work that I love. It is, at its heart, very honest work, and giving work, and I love that about it. It has informed my work as an educator as well (which I have done in various forms), and I always want teaching to be a part of my artistic work. I want to explore more of my work on the page exclusively as well… adapting shows and other narratives into books and plays for other people.

In my other life/parallel universe, I was a dancer. It’s logistically a bit late for my modern dance career, but I love the stories bodies tell, and I would love to invest in more of that kind of education and experience, finding ways to learn and incorporate the language of the body more.

CM: Is ‘Tar Baby’ a show you will keep coming back to and reviving, do you think?
DB: I don’t know. In some ways, I would hope that I wouldn’t have to, and that it becomes part of a fabric of stories more people are familiar with. I would hope that we also could get to more cultural parity with things like race. But to some, I realise how much that reveals my dreamer nature. The show has only continued to grow in impact and demand, but I am sure that there will come a time when that wave crests.

Also, it’s damned exhausting, and emotionally and physically draining, while being a joy to share. I want to be in one of those shows where I can just sit and be pretty and toss my head back and laugh while everyone goes, “How AMAZING!” But I don’t think that is going to happen any time soon (read: ever). Also, as an artist, there comes a time when you just don’t feel like playing “Freebird” one more time again, ever, ever again. I’d hate to get to the point when I feel like that about this show, so I am hoping to be able to leave the table when I am up, and move on to other projects.

CM: What’s coming up next for you?
DB: Well, I am taking ‘Tar Baby’ to the Auckland Arts Festival next month, and trying to coordinate some UK and European tours of it. I eventually want to take it back to the US, where I feel like it has the potential to do exceptional good. While working on other expressions of this piece, I am also starting to write another solo performance piece that is little more than a fertilised seed at the moment.

Also plotting to venture into more online media this year with a podcast/video series, but that is very much in the planning stage at present. I will continue to tour with the live shows of ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ when the opportunity and window present themselves, as the people involved are some of the most talented and giving people I’ve ever had the chance to work with. I am also taking on more writing workshops this year and my first big directing project with the work of another talented solo Artist. That, and developing a script and a book. Wow. It’s a really busy year for me. I’d better get to work!

‘Tar Baby’ is on at Vault Festival from 10-14 Feb. See this link here for all the info and dates.

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