small & cute oh no is a strange and compelling new dark comedy set to hit The Blue Room Theatre from Tuesday, July 20 until Saturday, August 7 (get more info and tickets here). Devised by the independent theatre outfit Squid Vicious (Poorly Drawn Shark) and Vidya Rajan (The Lizard Is Present), the original production is set to blend pop culture explosions with Annie Baker-esque, near-Chekhovian naturalistic detail and smallness. BRAYDEN EDWARDS spoke to co-creators Andrew Sutherland (above left) and Vidya Rajan (above right) to find out how they drew from eclectic inspirations to delve into themes of class, identity, and the reductions of contemporary capitalism in search of the tragedies beneath fact and fiction.
Congrats on small & cute oh no kicking off at the Blue Room this month. Do you recall when you first had the idea for this show and how has it changed into what it is today?
AS: Back in December 2018, Vidya and I were developing Poorly Drawn Shark in Melbourne and she showed me a short text she had written involving, among other things, a woman working as Santa Claus and various descriptions of the Pikachu Detective movie. I thought it was a really fun, interesting provocation towards a full-length work. I love the tone and voice of Vidya’s writing; the way that she observes and articulates her moments.
Towards the end of 2019, we decided to develop and stage the work; which was supposed to take place in 2020, before being rescheduled due to covid into 2021. So that gave us time to follow a more convoluted pathway of longform improvised processes with actors at different points through the latter half of 2020, most of which eventually formed the basis of what the play now is. I think even in the last couple of months of rehearsal, the show has become more of a narrative, character-driven work than I had anticipated early on; and the comedy, too, has skewed to something a little darker and more detailed in its observation of these people.
VR: Like Andrew I’ve spent some time working retail during Christmas in the deep suburbs. This is probably imprinted on my psyche in a permanent way. I’d also been watching Detective Pikachu on repeat. I was in a writing workshop and wrote a couple of scenes I showed Andrew. I would say that it’s changed a lot in that we went into an actor led process, so though I’m listed as a writer, really I feel I’ve more just shaped their improvisations and have been guided by the teams’ decisions and questions about the work – it’s an interesting new way to work. It was interesting too how everyone had met characters like the ones in the show.
It seems like some of the themes and ideas of the show were influenced by real life experiences. Is there something of yourself in the characters you have created?
AS: I think that my own understanding and experience of human behaviour is deeply interwoven into my understanding of the characters and their actions. I think that’s the only way as a director that I’m able to fall in love with the text and the characters and to offer something to the process of making the show. They are their own fictive beasts but the way that they react, the way that they are, it’s exciting to be able to be a part of shaping that. So, yes. Also, I have my own troubled and tumultuous past performing in branded Christmas musicals in big malls, so I feel there’s a deep, cursed kinship toward fantasy-meets-banality of the play’s setting.
And more broadly who or what else inspired the show? What writers or performers do you feel have shaped the style of comedy?
AS: Very early on, we started by thinking about Brecht’s Mother Courage, and both the style and effect of that text. We then put that in the very back of our minds as we developed the show and at a certain point, Vidya and I realised that maybe we had developed a text a little more Chekhovian than it was similar to Brecht. I say Chekhovian in the sense of the observation of their lives, the way the politics are embedded in their relationships to one another and the way the comedy is structured by a sense of smallness, of stagnation.
But Mother Courage has looped back into the structure in certain ways. Otherwise I would say that the style has really been shaped in the collaboration; by what these particular actors bring to the dynamics between them. Also, I have watched an absolutely devastating video of a dancing Pikachu mascot getting tackled off-stage about 1000 times in the last month. Like, yes it’s very funny, but it’s also horrifying to watch and deeply revealing of the power structures around it.
VR: This feels like Annie Baker meets grindr/Pokemon aesthetics. She’s this playwright who writes deceptively mundane stuff that forces you to find the humanity in really minor incidents and lives. I feel like in Perth we often have this vibe of cringe about how country town it can be, or we have to mythologise it as this place of gothic drama. We wondered how it would be to represent the minutiae faithfully, and how actually underneath that, there is huge pain and strange lives – this feels true of the many hours I’ve spent working at the mall. We’re working with quite naturalistic actors so the process was guided by that, which is maybe different some of the work we’ve done before.
The theme of identity seems quite central to the story, what did you learn about your own identity in the process of writing and creating it?
AS: I think that within “identity” is the tension between what we choose to rehearse, perform and replicate about ourselves, and the semiotics by which other people read and enforce our bodies. So our performance of identity is both liberating and disciplining at the same time. And this can go from the macro to the micro. For example, “I understand myself via the performance of the group that I belong to” to “here is an event, a story about my life, that explains and justifies my behaviour.” Under capitalistic and colonial structures, within the structures of labour, sometimes the only survivable option is to actively limit and package and then peddle our performance of identity into something manageable and marketable.
So, for me, for instance, the fact that I am Queer and HIV+ is inextricable from how I relate to the world around me, but at the same time it’s an organising principle for how others are able to read the creative work that I make, and thus, a way that I am able to arrange and sell the work that I make. It’s a many-edged sword. In small & cute oh no, there are characters like Bob, whose understanding of the world aligns perfectly to the world that they are in. The world bends to their identity, whereas characters like Peter and Jen must strategise, or fail to strategise, the performance of their identity in order to survive the structures around them.
VR: We talked a lot about how some people seem repulsive because their trauma oozes out of them. It’s not acceptable in middle class spaces. It was really interesting to unpack our own comfort zones that way. We also talked about how, especially with migrant stories, we always need these characters to have some specific huge trauma they can point to at the climax of the story, which just isn’t authentic to a lot of us, as if the whole feeling of not belonging and alienation due to the structure of everything isn’t enough for us to value a person of character.
I guess from there this work is really about the kind of narratives we demand of people – of uncomfortable people – a beginning, middle, end with a neat, juicy trauma to unpack. But people aren’t like this and it’s kind of voyeuristic to demand this of other’s stories. As we went on, we shaped the narrative of the show in such a way that it would resist those arcs too. It’s an interesting experiment!
Beneath the humour there is still plenty to unpack from this show. What message do you hope people will take away after watching it?
AS: I think the complexity of the play is embedded in and revealed by the relationships between the characters, so I hope the show allows the audience to actively engage with the characters’ behaviours and the way the narrative and the performance of story unfolds. I hope people engage with the style and images of the play, to grapple with how the structures surrounding the characters can be so banal and surreal, so repulsive and so desirable, at the same time. I suppose this is always the case, but I hope the play sits with people for a little while, to see where their judgments of Jen and Peter and Bob land.
VR: I don’t think of work in terms of messages, if some images or some curiosity about these people sticks with you, or you question how pain is narrativised in any way that’s enough for me. Or if you just go away wanting to watch some Pikachu clips.