Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Greg Wohead: Comeback Special

By | Published on Friday 11 March 2016


I was intrigued by the sound of acclaimed theatre-maker Greg Wohead’s latest show as soon as I heard about it – his own take on an iconic TV special by Elvis Presley – so was interested to find out more about the show and what motivated him to perform this kind of piece.
So, as you might expect, I put some questions to Greg, ahead of his upcoming run at Shoreditch Town Hall.

CM: Tell us about ‘Comeback Special’ – what exactly is the premise of the show?
GW: ‘Comeback Special’ is a re-enactment of Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special. The original ’68 Comeback Special took place at a time when Elvis was no longer the young and exciting version himself from the 50s and had dipped a little in popularity, or at least ‘edginess’ after starring in several bland Hollywood films in the 60s. New music and bands like the Beatles were becoming the new exciting thing.

This TV special is credited as his big comeback. I’ve set up the theatre like the original TV special was set up – it was filmed in a studio with an audience in the round. We’re going to try to capture some essence of the original.

CM: What questions does the play ask? Are there any particular points, political, social or otherwise, to be made?
GW: I was interested in the in-between space of re-enactment; the fact that when you ‘wear’ an event from the past, it becomes neither fully the past nor the present, but lives in a murky area in between. I’m interested in that area. The performance came out of my own experience of an identity in flux, which is something I think we all experience. We are many different people throughout our lives and in different contexts, and making this piece was partly about finding ways of thinking about how to hold conflicting identities at once and be able to live in the in-betweenness of that.

More specifically, for me this piece is a very personal engagement with those ideas of slippage around my own relationship with masculinity, images of men in dominant culture that have influenced me positively or negatively, and images of men I think are missing in dominant culture. I don’t necessarily think I’m trying to make a specific and handily-packaged point, though. More a space for questions.

CM: What made you want to make a show about this? How did ‘Comeback Special’ become your jumping off point?
GW: First of all, the ’68 Comeback Special is fantastic. It’s impossible to re-enact, and that was part of the appeal. I love the idea of what that moment was in the ‘story’ of Elvis. This single event that was this iconic moment of balance between his previous image from the 50s and his later image from the 70s, which obviously no one could know about at the time, but which influences the way we look back on it. It was also hailed at the time as a new and innovative format because Elvis was just sitting on stage jamming with his band in front of an audience, which hadn’t really been done before. It was seen as authentic and real, and ideas around authenticity and realness are fun to engage with when you’re talking about something innately fake like a re-enactment.

CM: How did you come across the original show? Are you an Elvis fan?
GW: I’m not really en Elvis fan, but I have become a fan of the ’68 Comeback Special and think he is amazing in it. I took part in a weekend workshop with the fantastic artists Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari where we went to an Elvis tribute artist festival in Porthcawl, Wales in order to observe and learn from tribute artists and their artform. At the festival, different tribute artists specialised in different versions of Elvis; 50s Elvis, Army Elvis, Gospel Elvis. One whole ‘category’ of Elvis was the ’68 Comeback Special Elvis. The event is so iconic that it requires its own entire version of Elvis. After that I tracked down the TV special and found it electrifying.

CM: Both this, and your last play both have a focus on a well-known US name. Do you have a specific interest in this type of iconic figure?
GW I didn’t really set out to make shows about American iconic figures, but since I’m American I suppose there has been something that has pulled me towards them. I think there’s something about both Ted Bundy (who was a focus of my last show) and Elvis, that means they are both strong, iconic personalities and images, so there is a lot to engage with. They also were and are both huge American celebrities, and for me there is something about celebrities and how we engage with them that says much more about us than it does about them. Both of these shows claim to be about an iconic figure, but they’re both really about us.

CM: As you say, are American yourself, yet working in London. What made you decide to settle here?
GW: I originally moved to London in 2005 to go to drama school at East 15 Acting School. At that point I was more interested in the ‘traditional’ route of acting; getting an agent, going on auditions, etc. Once I started making my own work and engaging with and feeling a part of a community of artists making their own work, that was when I really started to feel at home and I thought London was a place I could make the work I wanted to make.

CM: What are your hopes for ‘Comeback Special’ – will it tour after the London dates?
GW: Yes, there are a few dates in May: 10th May at South Street Arts Centre in Reading, 12th and 13th May at Bristol Old Vic as part of Mayfest and 15th May at Brighton Dome Corn Exchange as part of Brighton Festival. Hopefully there will be more tour dates later on, but we’ll see.

CM: What’s next for you? Do you have anything else coming up?
GW: I have a show – a collaboration with another fantastic artist, Rachel Mars – called ‘Story #1’. It’s a piece exploring the radical possibilities of narrative, and it has a few dates coming up, including in April at Fusebox Festival in Austin, Texas. I’ve also been spending a lot of time in Los Angeles recently, and I’m working on a new project with Los Angeles Performance Practice called ‘Call it a Day’, which is a looping improvised story that takes place in an Amish community and is told by four performers.

‘Comeback Special’ is on at Shoreditch Town Hall from 22-26 March. See the venue website here for more info and to book.

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Photo: Richard Eaton