Caro Meets Spoken Word Interview Theatre Interview

Martin Figura: Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine

By | Published on Sunday 2 December 2018

Award-winning-and-nominated poet (and photographer) Martin Figura stops by Bloomsbury Theatre next week with his latest show, another autobiographical performance to follow previous success ‘Whistle’.

I arranged a quick chat, to find out a bit more about the show, and a bit about Martin in general.

CM: Let’s start with the content of the show. What’s ‘Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine’ all about? Does it have a narrative?
MF: The show looks at parenthood and falling in and out of love and back into love again. It begins with my divorce and a road trip to California with my teenage son. It goes on to my relationship with my daughter Amy, who has Down’s Syndrome, and her life journey. Then I fall in love again and the story reflects on love and parenthood. The narrative arc of my life, which is not too untypical.

CM: What themes do you explore through the show? How does maths come into it?
MF: A mathematical catastrophe being a point in a model of an input-output system, where a vanishingly small change in the input can produce a large change in the output. The catastrophe machine is a device invented by the mathematician Christopher Zeeman, to explain René Thom’s theory in an understandable way to his students in the 1970s. It consists of 2 elastic bands, and a wheel nailed to plywood.

Mathematics doesn’t have too much to do with it, other than I use some of the language of mathematics, but you wouldn’t really know it (unless you really already know it). It provides a (very) loose metaphor to look at how we move forward from life and love’s catastrophes, big and small – how we reshape memory into a story we can tell ourselves. That life is essentially a series of three act plays: it goes on, an event occurs that changes things. We learn to live and accept that and it settles into a new state, until the next event or catastrophe. Of course my life, and most peoples’ lives, have their complications.

CM: Would you call it poetry, or storytelling, or is it both?
MF: It slips between the two, with the the dividing line blurred. The emphasis is on the story – even the poetry is telling a story.

CM: I know it’s autobiographical but is it completely autobiographical?
MF: It is, but very relatable to most people.

CM: Can you explain how you use other media – sounds, images, etc – in the show?
MF: The words are the core of the show, but we use family photographs and other images to support the words. A picture can speak a thousand words – saving a lot of mansplaining! The script does draw on the language of photography and relationship to memory. Music and sound too gives a sense of place and time. The Catastrophe Machine itself helps punctuate and dramatise certain scenes.

CM: Can we talk a bit about you, now? You do/have done lots of things other than being a poet, haven’t you? What did you do before performing poetry, and how did you find your way to it?
MF: I left school at 15 with no qualifications from a care background. The Army was an easy route to self-sufficiency and a useful thing to kick against. When I joined I was already a self-directed and voracious reader, getting through all of Steinbeck and plenty of Orwell and Lawrence. I also went to art house films and theatre and I’m afraid wrote truly terrible poetry. I was an odd squaddie.

I settled in though and eventually did very well, retiring as a Major (and qualified accountant!) to become a photographer. I’d photographed the Army and the pictures had been published in colour supplements and a book. When I left the the Army I began to write again and this developed to the point where I felt I could write my story. I did an MA in Writing The Visual at Norwich Arts Council. I’d moved to Norwich after my divorce and fell in to the company of writers, and my artistic focus shifted from photography to writing. I kept a little accountancy (as little as possible) going on the side, until 3 years ago – a man needs to eat.

CM: What do you feel has been the best moment in your career thus far?
MF: As a photographer, definitely ‘This Man’s Army’, my book on the Army at a time of social change. I’m proud of my recent poetry books (‘Whistle’ onwards) and stand by them, but I think the the two spoken words shows ‘Dr Zeeman’ and its predecessor ‘Whistle’ are what I’d like to be measured by. Relatively speaking they are the best of my creative output.

CM: What dreams or ambitions do you have for the future?
MF: I’m already working on the next show, which is not autobiographical, with a theatre company in London. It will push my practice even further into theatre. I’m interested in how far I can take spoken word in that direction. There’s still a narrow view of spoken word, but that is changing and I very much want to part of how it develops.

The ambition, is of course, for my writing to get better.

Bigger audiences would be lovely, of course, but not a factor in the writing.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
MF: I’ll be working on that new show and my next poetry collection. I have three months dedicated to writing in the New Year before Dr Zeeman goes on the road again.


‘Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine’ is on at Bloomsbury Theatre on 11 Dec. See the venue website here for more.

LINKS: | |

Photo: Dave Gutteridge