Since the early 1990s, Dave Woods and John Hough (along with the occasional guest star and collaborator) have been touring the world with Ridiculusmus, a theatre company which could be described as unique were it not such a cliché. Their latest show, a recreation of corporate hell called Ideas Men is currently running at the Barbican Pit. Tom Bowtell spoke to Dave Woods about life, the universe and ARSEFLOP.
“There was one time when I ripped a girl’s top off before the play has even started.” Dave Woods, one half of theatrical innovators Ridicusmus, who despite evidence to the contrary, aren’t peddlers of soft-porn stage shows, is taking me through some of the joys of audience participation: “It happened during a tour of our show The Exhibitionists – [hmmm] – which is all about security guards, and at the start we give people a frisk search and there was this one time, in Australia, when a group of school girls came on a scorching hot day and they didn’t have many clothes for us to frisk, so I was measuring the amount of belly that this girl had on display and I gave a slight tug on the bottom of her boob tube and her breasts popped out in front of 200 people. It was horrible.” But also, one senses, quite striking theatre, especially as the girl decided not to press charges.
Such goings on are par for the course for Ridiculusmus, who regularly push audiences to, and just that little bit beyond, their normal limits. Another episode Dave tells me about happened at the Edinburgh Festival when Dave “accidentally punched a bloke in the audience in the face with a microphone.” The damaged gent had to leave the show (“because he was just too angry and was going to hit me if he didn’t leave.”) Even when they are not on stage, Woods and his partner – (sometimes quite literally) – in crime John Hough engage in practices that few would call normal, taking research to unheard of levels as they immerse themselves in the lives of the characters they write about.
“We’ve just been in a Practice As Research conference which was a good environment for the metatheatrical nature of the show.” The duo’s unconventional rehearsal techniques for the piece also saw them appearing on Radio Four’s Front Row in character to review the Jennifer Aniston vehicle Office Space and it seems that the creation of a Ridiculusmus show requires them to be saturated with their subject matter: “when we started the project, we were thinking it, living it, almost 24 hours a day, but it does become less a full time job as the project goes on and we just take the gifts when they come to us – we’ve been to amazing team-building and creativity conferences at companies like Unilever.” All this research is in aid of Ideas Men, a show which takes the audience (who, when I saw the show, remained refreshingly unharmed) into a fraught and confusing world of two 'Creatives' or 'Ideas Men' and their frantic efforts to come up with viable ideas for the shadowy corporate firm they work for. What starts as a simple roleplay between the two loafing thirty-somethings soon snowballs into something far more threatening as their desperation for ideas drives them through melodrama and ever nearer the edge. The duo embody all the characters in the office (and accordingly the play) including sexy secretary Sue and John the imposing boss.
Like most of Ridiculusmus’ work (which includes recent hits Yes Yes Yes and Say Nothing), Ideas Men is mind-bogglingly meta-theatrical and Dave admits that the idea from the show came from a real life search for inspiration: “There was a specific moment with a Dutch placement student we were collaborating with on a new play. He was touring with us as a technician and wanted to be an actor. We had a possibility for him to join us on a work-in-progress thing of a new idea and I asked him on a train journey if he had any ideas and he said ‘no, he had no ideas’ and then broke down in tears – it was quite a traumatic experience. Then a friend told me about ideas men, and corporate ideas men, and that’s where it began for me. The initial Dutch breakdown was back in 2001 so this idea has been around for a while – but we only really started working on it last year, and have had to juggle developing the show with trying to make a living by touring our existing shows.”
"I think the days of didacticism are over, you have to be more wily and crafty…"
Since their inception in 1992, Ridiculusmus have done a frankly undefinable range of shows from Yes Yes Yes (a dizzying exploration of eastern mysticism and mental illness) to Say Nothing (an alternative look at the Northern Irish Peace Process), but while they regularly touch upon philosophical and political issues they never set out to make a specific point: “I think the days of didacticism are over and you have to be more wily and crafty with the way you present things. You can use the current Labour Government as an example of this….” Say Nothing is perhaps the most politically aware piece the company has produced, but Woods points out that this evolved in a typically Ridiculusmusian way: “Say Nothing was based upon our own experiences as a company in Ireland and we were there, open to what was going on and it gradually became a play about the peace process. Hopefully people will learn from the play, but it was more a form of provocation – an attempt to poke people out of the rut that they were in.”
‘Method in madness’ would have been an ideal slogan for the Ridiculusmus way of working, had Shakespeare not selfishly nabbed it on Hamlet’s behalf four hundred years ago. For while Ridiculusmus may occasionally strip an Antipodean audience member or assault a Scotch sceptic, they always push their productions beyond farce and, as illustrated in Say Nothing, end up saying something genuine and apposite about the world. Woods acknowledges the contrariness at the heart of the company: “we call it the aesthetic of chaos which sounds narcissistic but it’s not – it’s meant to be inspirational. Because we've got this rejectionist aesthetic and we’re not following these slick trends that are around at the moment we make people angry and we’re not always fashionable; but generally we always have this embracing of chaos which doesn’t say ‘look the world is pointless’ but says ‘let’s not pretend the world is organised, let’s not pretend the world is easy but let’s have a dig into its madness and see what we find.’” So despite evidence to the contrary (both characters in Ideas Men are clearly manically depressed), does Woods feel that Ridiculusmus is optimistic? “I think it is, yeah. But you’ve got to remember that you’re talking to half of a double act! I represent the positive side, John would probably say ‘no, there’s no point’ and therein you have the tension of our act.”
The process Ridulusmus use to come up with their shows also reflects a strange dichotomy: while they formulate their work using devising techniques and real world experiments, they work from a script at every stage of development. “It’s always 100% learned with every um and ah remembered – we do allow ourselves the right to digress, which is how the script grows. Sometimes things happen on the spur of the moment and they are only applicable to that moment and never again, but what we often find is that they’ll become a bag of options which we can pull out at any moment. So if the feeling is going in a particular way then Option C might come into play but on another night it might be Option A or it might be none of them. We know which one to do instinctively: we can almost breathe for each other at this point” (they have, after all, been collaborating together for over 11 years).
"We can almost breathe for each other at this point"
With their constantly shifting blend of comedy and philosophy, politics and pathos, Ridiculusmus are notoriously unpigeonholeable, so how do Dave Woods and John Hough view themselves? Are they “off the wall” (The Times), “deft, deadpan clowns” (The Independent On Sunday) or something quite else? “We’re not really comedians: with a comedian the only point is to make people laugh and we’re trying to do a lot more than that – although we really like it when people laugh!” Although I’m not sure if I believe him Woods claims that Ridiculusmus never deliberately court laughter: “everything in life is unusual and we just embrace that. We don’t simplify or alter things, we just show it and then when you see it, you see that it’s actually quite funny – and hopefully that will relieve some of the stress people suffer in living life.”
This seems as good a point as any to introduce ARSEFLOP into the conversation. ARSEFLOP is, essentially a manifesto, or formula for the Ridiculusmus approach to theatre, and neatly illustrates their penchant for blending the serious with the very, very, silly. ARSEFLOP is an acronym, which breaks down in the following way:
Open (your heart)
“ARSEFLOP came about because we wanted to get and agent and were sick of doing our own admin! We saw that a good agent was organising a gathering of theatre companies called Real Action and we took part of that in order to endear ourselves to her, and part of that involved us trying to describe out approach. ARSEFLOP was thought up the night before the conference, as a bit of a joke, but it does sort of show what we’re trying to do, even if the mnemonic is slightly repetitive. The ones which stand out for us are 'Edge' and 'Open Your Heart'. 'Edge' is ‘pushing the envelope to the max’ – seeing how far you can push an issue before people get offended or hurt or distressed or whatever. Then we don’t step back from the edge, but tip-toe along it. I think that 'Open Your Heart' is also significant as it shows that we aren’t nearly as cynical as people think we are! We genuinely believe that things will get better and that we’ll get there by pouring ourselves out. Which is what we do in all our shows. They are made up like jigsaws of bits of us and bits of life.”
Yes Yes Yes is the play with Woods admits drew most on his and Hough’s real life experiences: they have both had harrowing personal experiences with mental illness. Jon Hough spent over a year sectioned in a psychiatric unit in his early twenties while Wood’s own family has a history of delusional and psychotic episodes. Typically, Hough and Wood’s research into the play involved them spending a good deal of time in an Indian psychiatric hospital. “That play really did involve us digging around in our past to inform it, the topic came up in the work we were doing and we enriched it with our own stories and experiences of it. Some of our songs are lifted directly from psychiatric patient exchanges. Or family. Or self.” (One of the songs in Yes Yes Yes takes its refrain from Wood’s brother who, during a delusional breakdown some years ago would chant “I’m a failure” over and over again.)
One of the vagaries of the company working ‘at the edge’ is that they are entirely reliant upon the response of their audience as a guide to what works and is acceptable and what is too much (they never work with a director): “The minute we’re in front of an audience and doing something, we are sensitive to their reaction, and the shows are modified on that basis. It’s always interesting to see what people laugh at and what makes them go quiet, but what’s frustrating is people not listening or just coughing and you can’t judge what they think – you have to read it as a blanket rejection, and just one individual who has rejected it can cough quite aggressively to destroy it, which just screws it all up for everybody else.” Woods mentions nothing specific but I sense that he is speaking from bitter memory about one such persistent cough heckler. Woods admits that the probing, incendiary nature of Ridiculusmus’ work itself makes the auditorium a fertile place for such extreme responses: “You’ll never know where the edge is unless you go beyond it, but It’s hard, because we are aiming to make people angry with our stuff, and then they do things because they are angry which they wouldn’t usually dream of doing!”
"You never know where the edge is unless you go beyond it"
Wood’s passion for Ridiculusmus is such that he is entirely unable to hide his hurt at people’s negative responses: “walk outs are another expression of obvious dislike. You can deal with maybe one, two or three walk outs, but after than it becomes a bit soul destroying”. Hough and Woods devised an ingenious safeguard against this problem for the particularly harrowing Yes Yes Yes: “we actively invited walk outs because we always knew that there would be people who just wouldn’t be able to handle it.” It is clear that Woods has little time for the entirely passive theatregoer: his frustration isn’t with those who dislike the work, but those who refuse to engage with it: “I see the audience as like a forum. When I go to the theatre I constantly want to be provoked into something. I don’t want to be stuck in my same old ways and have my ego massaged about how expensive my seat is. I want it to be a meeting of minds, I want the piece to stimulate my mind as well as being sensually pleasurable. But I want to be engaged, and to be left rethinking what I used to think: and that’s the kind of work we try to produce.”
By this stage, Woods has really got his tail up, and eyes blazing, he turns his attention to the general state of theatre: “ours is a risky game – because it seems that everyone is playing safer and safer these days because they’re so scared because it [the theatre world] is such a fragile environment, so they think that if they don’t please everyone then they’re going to die. You’ve got this horrible trend which started in Gaulier’s teaching of looking at the audience like they’re your Mum and Dad and you just want to please them and stay up late. This leads to a rather ugly attempt to endear yourself to the audience, and that’s enough – or otherwise to do something that’s rather beautiful and has nice lighting and good moves but says and gives you nothing. That kind of theatre really makes me angry nowadays, as the critics seem to think that that’s fashion, and praise it, and it does well and people think that that is what theatre is, and their minds aren’t open anymore”.
But it’s not all negative! Ridiculusmus have found London to be a positive place for developing alternative theatre: “in terms of the number of places where you can do stuff it’s good, but finding the audience is the hard one. You do build up a kind of club feeling, but then you just feel you’re talking to the converted. You’ve got to go away from London if you want to expose it to people who aren’t just going to love you. So we pilot stuff in all sorts of places. We piloted Ideas Men in a village hall in Scotland, for example." Did the locals enjoy the show? Woods chuckles ruefully: “No. Not really, no. They couldn’t really relate to the urban values and the world of the piece. It was a tough gig. It was a good experience for us, to fail like that. To travel such a long way and endear ourselves to this small community, who got all excited [he slips into a splendid Mrs Doubtfire accent] ‘ooo we’re going to see the shooow!’, before we completely flopped. It was tough to deal with.” Woods is laughing while telling this anecdote, but it’s clear that he was slightly exasperated by his situation.
"We piloted the show at a village hall in the Scottish Highlands… it completely flopped."
Having been playing the fringe circuit, from Northern Scotland to central Australia, for over a decade, Woods admits that the constant battle to keep Ridiculusmus financially viable is “exhausting – sometimes you have to sleep in the van because you’ve got no accommodation”, but he says that he and Hough have no desire to perform on London’s biggest stages in front of lucrative West End audiences: “My ideal venue is to play the show in the Barbican Pit – which we are doing, which is nice – and for people who work in the corporate world to come and see it, it would be fascinating to see how they’d react. I’d like to see Government strategists there – particularly the author for the Government Green Paper on culture and creativity, I’d like to see admen from Soho there, I’d like the bods from Saatchi and Saatchi to come, I’d like motivational speakers who were in the Gulf War to come and I’d also like all my family to come”.
It is hard to think of many other theatre companies that have existed as long as Ridiculusmus without breaking into the mainstream consciousness (in a Right Size The-Play-What-I-Wrote kind of way) but despite their lack of security and relative lack of fame, Woods and Hough have by no means lost their self belief “we have a kind of Maoist approach to theatre – we believe that we’re the only people who are any good at it!” Indeed, it seems that along with their passionate belief that theatre (and life) can and will get better, the essence of the company seems to be tied up with maintaining this sense of fragility and frustration. This, after all, is a duo who strive to provoke angry and passionate responses from their audiences, yet are profoundly affected by rejection and walk outs, and who deliberately take their work away from those who they know will appreciate them in order to try stuff out on unimpressed rural audiences. Woods and Hough will no doubt be very pleased with the paradoxical nature of Ridiculusmus, a company which is constantly cutting itself because it lives on a very sharp edge, but which would shrivel and die were it ever to move to the middle.