What would FRINGE WORLD be without a little bit of slap and tickle? This year, The Blue Room Summer Nights and The Kabuki Drop bring the incomparable iOTA back to the Studio Underground to give festival-goers just that: Slap and Tickle, a punk-cabaret meets variety show, which stars iOTA as Slap and Russell Leonard as his gimp, Tickle. Directed by Mel Cantwell, iOTA will perform his original songs with the help of musical director Mace Francis and the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra (WAYJO). iOTA took some time out of rehearsal to speak with CICELY BINFORD about the show, which opens this Saturday, January 27 and runs until Saturday, February 3 at the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre of WA.
How did your collaboration with WAYJO come about and what are your rehearsals like?
I met Simon Keen, the general manager of WAYJO, when he was with Sydney Festival working on Smoke & Mirrors, a show I was also working on. Last FRINGE WORLD, when I was here doing Average Joe, he found out I was here and that I was originally from Perth, so he set up a meeting to see if I’d like to work with WAYJO. I was very interested, but I didn’t know what or when; when The Blue Room asked if I would be doing another show, I said let’s see if WAYJO are interested in doing a collaboration.
We’re here at WAYJO in Maylands, and musical director Mace Francis is sitting there with his guitar, playing along with us, and also arranging the songs. He’s doing that constantly and sending us stuff at night, with all the arrangements he’s come up with. Then we get together to sit and talk about them the next day. It’s all a process and a collaboration. They have a great big rehearsal space, and we’ve got props everywhere. I was just singing this song and we were kind of messing around with my head in a basket and I had one of those moments when I just went, “I love my job. This is just great. I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.”
So it’s really a work in progress up until the last minute. Is that scary?
It’s terrifying. Every time you do a show, you think, “Why do I do this to myself? I can’t sleep, I’m scared, I’m horrified all the time, I think it’s going to be the worst thing I’ve ever done and everyone’s going to hate it,” and then you do the first show and it’s like “WE WERE AMAZING!”
How far back does the concept for the show go?
Because we did Average Joe last year, the people from The Blue Room asked if we wanted to do another one. That was about six months ago. Me and Mel [Cantwell] said, yeah absolutely, so I started writing stuff – I write a lot of 5-minute bits, like songs with theatrical moments or punchlines. I’ve got lots of those floating around in my head, so I jotted a few of them down and tried to turn it into some kind of a show. It’s a theatrical piece wrapped up in the facade of a variety show. The characters, Slap and Tickle, have a journey from the top of the show to the end of the show. There are also other characters that are played by me, and my sidekick Tickle is my helper, stage manager and punching bag.
How do you know when an idea is good enough for you to run with it, and how do you know when a show is finished?
I see an idea visually in my mind. If I can see it I can feel it as well. I’ll get covered in goosebumps if I’ve written something that I think will work. Which doesn’t mean that I won’t change a little bit of it, but I guess the essence of it is powerful. It just has to end when it opens, and you have to trust the director and the other people around you to say, “yes, good, it’s ok. iOTA go on. You’ll be fine, kid.”
This is the second show you’ve worked on with Mel Cantwell as director. How did you and she begin collaborating?
I did a show called Young, Hard and Solo at Sydney Opera House, and Mel was friends with the lighting designer [Matthew Marshall] (he’s working on the show as well). We met somewhere and said we should work together someday. I think maybe it wasn’t until 2016, 2017 I got an urge to work here in Perth. Being from here, well not Perth, but Mandurah/Pinjarra, I just never had really done that much work here, certainly not theatrical work. I just thought that knowing Mel was a great opportunity to do some work over here, to take the risk, and hopefully we’d get along and it would work out. And it has. It’s been great.
You share similar artistic motives?
I guess so, whatever it is, it’s working. I think we both share a love of the abstract, but also we like to tell stories and we like being silly. She’s got another perspective that I don’t have. I think that as an artist, you need somebody who can look at your work from a different angle.
You have managed to build an enviable musical theatre career without any formal training from someplace like WAAPA, like so many Australian performers have had. How did you do it?
I’m just as surprised as everybody else! I’m lucky and something speaks to me about performing; I get it. I’m a pretty musical person, and have just always been attracted to music and theatre, and theatrical music – I’m a big KISS fan, Rocky Horror fan, Mad Max fan, so it’s all percolating away, all that stuff I discovered when I was 11 or 12. I’ve also been thrown into it; back when I did Hedwig, that was my first experience and it was really scary, but I had good people around to help mould me and teach me how to be better at what I do naturally.
Average Joe was a big hit at last year’s Fringe. What can audiences expect from Slap and Tickle?
It’s got that iOTA flavour to it, but I deliberately want to go somewhere else every time, so it’s a different beast from Average Joe. There’s lots of fun and entertainment, ridiculousness and heart and sadness and love – it’s got everything.