Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Kay Michael of Empty Deck: Cosmic Fear Or The Day Brad Pitt Got Paranoia

By | Published on Thursday 8 September 2016


The topic of climate change is a pretty thorny one, and it’s a problem that we seem – as a global community – reluctant to face. Which is why my ears pricked up when I heard, up at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, about a play glorying in the rather eccentric name of ‘Cosmic Fear Or The Day Brad Pitt Got Paranoia’, which deals unflinchingly with this very issue.
Our reviewer loved the show, and the conversation it provokes us an important one, so when I heard Empty Deck would be bringing it to the New Diorama, I thought it might be a good idea to talk to someone from the creative team behind it. I spoke to director Kay Michael.

CM: Tell us about the show – what happens in it? What’s the story?
KM: It’s about three flatmates struggling to talk about or know what to do in the face of climate change. At a complete loss, they decide that the only way to galvanise global consciousness is to make a blockbuster movie starring Brad Pitt that can compel the world into action. Their struggles along the way highlight our own contradictory relationship to such an existential and complex dilemma.

CM: And, er, what exactly does Brad Pitt have to do with it…?
KM: Well, he’s their Man of Action, their hero. He’s not dissimilar in their minds to someone like Leonardo DiCaprio; the celebrity Everyman that can speak to the world.

CM: What made the company want to stage this particular play?
KM: It’s fun, and challenging, and unusual. It’s a text that can be staged in so many ways, so we were able to create our own performance structure for it. That in itself has been a creative challenge that we wanted to take on.

More importantly perhaps is the fact that it’s a play trying to talk about something that many simply aren’t talking about, or don’t know how to talk about. It’s almost like we’ve reached a comfortable stalemate since the climate change conference in Paris in December 2015, and for the ordinary person this topic is not so much of a concern; it’s even become boring and tired. Yet, it’s arguably the most important issue of our time. We need to face up to it, more than we currently are.

CM: How did you come across the piece? Can you tell us a bit about the playwright?
KM: I was given the play to read by a literary agency here in London (IPR) who look after a plethora of wonderful international playwrights, many of whose work is yet to be produced on the British stage.

The playwright of ‘Cosmic Fear’, Christian Lollike, is an award-winning Danish writer, and he is known as one of the most progressive playwrights and artists in Denmark. His artistic drive comes from wanting to understand events, social trends and changes in politics and society.

He’s also the Artistic Director of SORT/HVID, a theatre in Copenhagen who claim to “move beyond borders and what you already know”. They “challenge your opinions and feelings, and take you places where uncertainty is the reference point”. We love that.

CM: Do you think it’s a show that could make a difference to the way people think about climate change? Does it have that kind of an agenda?
KM: Its only agenda is to get people thinking and talking about the subject, perhaps in a more active way than they might have done before. The trouble with climate change – and this is what the play explores – is that the only ‘enemy’ or ‘villain’ in this cultural story is ourselves. We are responsible for the increasing carbon emissions that are wreaking unknowable damage to the planet.

What that necessarily demands is behaviour change on an unprecedented scale. But that requires giving things up, and – as climate scientist Chris Rapley has spoken of in our conversation with him – it requires fundamental re-structuring of how the world is powered, financed and run. The task is mammoth, and we’re running out of time.

An audience member described her experience of the play as being like waking up after your morning alarm has gone off, running late for the rest of the day, with the alarm still going off all around you! It’s an urgent topic. There’s so much more we need to do: personally and politically. But we can’t force people to change their behaviour in the face of global warming. All we can hope for is that our audiences are left reflecting on themselves and their own action or inaction. The rest is up to them.

CM: The play had a run in Edinburgh this summer – how did that go? Had you taken a show to the Fringe before?
KM: We’re still reflecting on it, but it was a success in the sense that it enabled us to gauge audience responses to a play like this, talking about a topic like this. Audience numbers were good, and people came away from the play having gone through quite an impactful experience. It was the first time Empty Deck have been at the Fringe, though several of the company members have performed there before, myself included!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Empty Deck – who is behind it, and what inspired you to set up your own company?
KM: Empty Deck was formed, about two years ago, by me and my two colleagues, movement director Sara Green and designer Denisa Dumtrescu. The three of us worked together on a Norwegian play by Arne Lyre that was selected for the Incoming Festival in 2015 and nominated for a Peter Brook Award and we have continued to work together since.

What’s special about our collaboration is that we all have a background in devising, so our approach to text and staging is incredibly collaborative and explorative, and that’s what keeps us going. We’re proudly international in our scope, with Denisa being from Romania, and our dramaturge, Lucy Coren, who we recently welcomed to the team, being from Canada. Cross-cultural collaboration is at the heart of what we do, with our first few projects inviting European playwrights to work with us in staging their plays in the UK for the first time.

CM: What aims do you have as a company? Where do you see yourself going in the future?
KM: Well, so far we have worked with writers from Norway and Denmark, and our aim is to continue working with a playwright from a different country each year, staging their UK premiere that can then go on tour. We’d love to take the work we do on those plays back to their country of origin, as that’s the interest for us: to explore the cultural differences and meeting points. We wish to develop a larger audience for international, and specifically European, theatre in the UK. As a company we also want to continue to develop our artistic practice, that takes inspiration from the international artists with whom we work.

CM: There’s only one chance to see ‘Cosmic Fear or The Day Brad Pitt Got Paranoia’ performed at the New Diorama this week – do you think there might be more opportunities in the future? Do you have any touring plans?
KM: Oh, you never can tell. But yes, we have plans, and are in the middle of various conversations with future partners.

CM: What other projects do you have coming up?
KM: Some research and development on various new ideas are brimming away… Watch this space.

‘Cosmic Fear Or The Day Brad Pitt Got Paranoia’ is on at New Diorama on 11 Sep. See this page here to get your tickets. Read Kay’s interview with climate scientist Chris Rapley here.

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