Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Paula Varjack: The Cult Of K*nzo

By | Published on Friday 1 February 2019

The brilliant Paula Varjack heads to Camden People’s Theatre this week with her latest show, a solo performance which takes a look at brand loyalty and the allure of high end fashion via the medium of her own personal experience.

When I read about the show, I was fascinated by the sound of it, so arranged a chat with Paula to find out more.

CM: Right, can you start by telling us what the show is about? And are you telling a story, or exploring a theme? Or both?
PV: A couple winters ago, in the first week of November, ten minutes after 9am, I walked out of H&M in Westfield, carrying the largest shopping bag I had ever carried, having spent the most money I had ever spent on clothes. I was leaving a shopping centre that I had waited in since half four in the morning. Now I love clothes, I love clothes more than most people, maybe even more than more than most people, but this even for me was out of character. Until that Thursday that November I would have thought it insane to queue for clothes.

I am someone who normally buys second-hand, from ebay or charity shops, or when I am really spoiling myself on the actual real high street, Zara or Monki or very occasionally Topshop. I tend to think £70 is a lot for a dress. It wasn’t until just as I was about to get on the tube that I saw the massive shopping bag in my hand and suddenly realised what I had done.

I had had the strangest shopping experience of my life, and I had been totally swept away by it.

So what happened? How did Kenzo do it? What was it about Kenzo? I then wanted to make a show to explore what is it that makes some of us want things we consider exclusive, and how a brand and advertising and PR for it can drive us to want things we normally can’t have. But then in exploring that, I also became interested in what spaces seem accessible and not, and how to play with taking up space in places we are intimidated by.

I often think about how much those working in theatre take for granted how intimidating theatre buildings can be to a lot of people. In my case the buildings I feel most intimidated by are high end designer boutiques so I also wanted to explore and challenge that.

And then finally, in my research, I learned about the story of Kenzo Takada becoming a designer, who also initially was very much a fashion outsider in Paris and I was inspired by how he used that to his advantage, and made it part of his brand.

So the show explores all these themes while telling several stories that connect them.

CM: How would you categorise it as a performance? Does it fit into any one genre?
PV: It’s devised solo theatre. Because there is heavy use of video, projection and sound design I guess you could call it multi-media but I find that label strange these days as most contemporary theatre uses video or projection in some way. But in its form it plays with many art-forms and modes: dance, puppetry, storytelling, voice-over. It’s not a comedy but it’s a very fun and funny show.

CM: What’s the aim of this piece? Are you trying to convey a particular message?
PV: I don’t think there is a particular message per se, but I think I am interested in making people think about what drives us to buy things, what we want when we want exclusivity, and to enjoy and appreciate the world of fashion in all its beauty and insanity.

CM: Who is it aimed at? Will I get it even though I have absolutely no understanding of the fashion world?
PV: The thing I am most proud of with the show is that it manages to effectively engage both audiences that love fashion and those with no interest or understanding of fashion. Because the storytelling is so strong, the show is so deliciously visual and as I said before it’s also a lot of fun. Maybe the other thing is I really really enjoy performing it and audiences pick up on that too.

CM: And following on from that… um, why Kenzo, specifically?
PV: Initially my interest in the brand was as simple as I liked the clothes, and they seemed accessible because as an image I was first exposed to it as street wear: it’s not like a Chanel dress which I know as soon as I see an ad I know can never afford or wear. the first thing I remember seeing was fashion bloggers wearing their embroidered tiger sweatshirts. They looked really cool, but not knowing the brand at first, I had no idea they were a luxury item.

So maybe there was something jarring in seeing something initially I thought I might buy for myself before discovering it was actually expensive and high end. And since then I found myself interested and excited about the brand, because not only did I like their clothes, but their fashion shows were created like these conceptual performances, they played with projection and architecture and with dance, their ads were beautiful, and the casting of their models was culturally diverse a very long time before the rest of the fashion world woke up and caught up. And then they began to invite artists to direct short films that were not only nice to look at but wonderfully weird.

But really the reason for exploring the brand was this bizarre shopping experience, so while it became a starting point for the show, the show is much more about my relationship with fashion in general.

CM: What made you decide to create a piece of work on this theme?
PV: I think there was something in that moment looking at this big shopping bag after buying from the H&M Kenzo collaboration that I was really struck by wanting to understand and unpack the journey and forces that brought me and the hundred or so others to queue in the cold that morning. I wanted to see if I could use it as a way to explore my relationship with fashion and consumerism and exclusivity, in a way that might open up others to consider their own relationship with these things

CM: How did you go about it? What’s your creative process?
PV: Everything I make starts with either a compulsion to follow something or a realisation of a preoccupation with a subject. And then I have a research based practice, so by the time I have decided on a theme I do a lot of reading on whatever I find relevant, theory or psychology, and articles online. I normally set up a tumblr where I post images, articles, gifs and blogs of everything that helps me understand the theme and of what I want the show to look like. The one I set up for ‘The Cult of K*NZO’ is here.

I create playlists of music I might want to use or somehow fits the theme. And I see art exhibitions and films for reference too. I try to consume as much art as I can that I think is relevant with the exception of theatre. I always try to avoid seeing performance attacking the same themes as me when I am in early stages, I prefer to respond to other art forms.

From this point I set up residencies to start devising, In an ideal space I have lots of room to move, a projector, a microphone. I bring as many props and costume pieces I can carry that seem to fit what I want to play with and then I set a camera up in the corner and do my best to forget about it and play.

As the work develops after a few weeks I will invite collaborators. In the case of this show this included a director/dramaturg, movement director, graphic designer, lighting designer, and animator.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your career as an artist – what does it entail and is this where you intended to go? Did you always want to do this kind of thing?
PV: The funny thing about the ten year challenge that popped up of late on all the socials, is that reflecting on ten years for me is essentially reflecting on the time I have been making and performing performance. Up until now I have made art just because of being compelled, but now as I think about what I make next I think about forming a narrative through all of it. So then I ask myself “how does this fit into the rest of my work?” “what am I making work about?” “Is there anything at all that connects it all?”

And then if I think of all that, I think there are definitely some commonalities that emerge, like I am very very drawn to in between spaces, to margins, to the unspoken and the unheard. If there is a story being told, I am curious of the story underneath it, if there is a voice not being heard, or only being heard rarely or quietly, I want to bring it forward and make it loud, and if there is something that makes people nervous, not outright anxiety necessarily but lets just say, something that people would rather not talk about, I like to get it out in the open, but this is the important thing, to always find away to find lightness in it and room to play.

To show others (and myself) that we can sit in these uncomfortable spaces and not die, and better still, have fun. And I am thinking about identity a lot, who we are and how we form community with others.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
PV: I feel very fortunate that in terms of the kind of work I am doing I feel like I am already on the right track and want to keep doing it. But saying that, I would definitely say I would like to create work with a sense of scale. I would like to develop commissioning relationships with more venues across the country and internationally. In general I would like to work more internationally. I would also love to develop my participation practice and am very interested in working more intergenerationally. Finally I teach writing and performance at a BA level and very much enjoy it, but in future I would love to be a guest lecturer on an MA course in performance as well.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
PV: I have a really exciting year ahead! In parallel to the tour I will be lead artist on ‘all the lights are on‘, a collaboration with Clean Break and Cardboard Citizens, to create a site specific performance with 15 women who are made up of members from both organisations, exploring experiences of homelessness and the criminal justice system. And then in the summer I will be back developing my next show, #thebabyquestion in collaboration with Luca Rutherford, Catriona James and Maddy Costa.

#thebabyquestion is a devised research based performance by three female performers, investigating the power and inevitability of ‘the baby question’ on women, through personal stories, choreography, pop culture references, biological information and interview material. It seeks to amplify the narratives of childless/childfree women and the nuances that come within them. You can read more about that here.

‘The Cult Of K*nzo’ is on at Camden People’s Theatre from 5-9 Feb, see the venue website here for information and to book tickets.

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Photo: Nikolas Louka