PuSh Play Episode 6: “LORENZO” Transcript

Listen to the episode here.

Gabrielle [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to PuSh Play, a PuSh Festival podcast featuring conversations with artists who are pushing boundaries and playing with form. I’m Gabrielle Martin, PuSh’s Director of programming. And today’s episode highlights the theatrical treatment of loss. I’m speaking with Ben Target, writer and performer of Lorenzo, which will be presented at PuSh Festival January 18th to 20th, 2024. Lorenzo is a life affirming story about death with shadow puppetry and live carpentry. Ben is a multi-award-winning comedian, performance artist, writer, actor and director. He was born in Singapore and has lived a peripatetic life in London, Voorschoten, Houston, Jakarta and Paris. I’m honoured to share our discussion that looks at the intersection of comedy and tragedy in Lorenzo and more. Here’s my conversation with Ben. 

Gabrielle [00:00:54] Hello, I’m Gabrielle, the director of programming at the PuSh Festival, and I’m really thrilled to be speaking with Ben Target about Lorenzo and your wider practice. Thank you so much for being part of this conversation today. 

Ben [00:01:06] Thank you so much. It’s it’s a delight to be here. I’m sitting in London and this is where my practice is based, but I’m so excited to be touring. I can’t wait. 

Gabrielle [00:01:19] Yeah, you’ll be you’ll be joining us myself and PuSh here on the Unceded stolen and ancestral territories of the Coast Salish peoples, the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), and I and PuSh we see it as our duty to establish right relations with the people on whose stolen territories we live and work and with the land itself. And that gives a bit of context for where we are. And I want to just jump right into getting to know a bit more about you, the show and your practice. So over a decade ago, you received a best Fringe Newcomer nomination at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And in this summer of 2023, you brought Lorenzo, which won the Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s Fringe First Award. And how have you grown as an artist in this time between those two works? You know, bringing those two works to the Fringe. And how have your interests, process and relationship with your own work changed? 

Ben [00:02:18] That’s a big old question to start with. Yeah. 

Gabrielle [00:02:20] It is. 

Ben [00:02:22] But thanks for the shoutout for the accolades. So the first one, the Edinburgh Comedy Award, Best Newcomer, was for my debut show, which was a comedy show. I think I was quite different to many of my peers at the time in that I embraced comedy because it was seen as gauche and tacky, and I thought that was an added layer of fun cheekiness. And the Fringe First award was for new writing and theatre, and that’s for the later show that I’m bringing to you guys. And so, yes, my my practice, even though it began in stand up comedy, is now also in theatre and I straddle the two. Still. I think that was a choice I made because the story of Lorenzo is is an uplifting one, a hopeful one, but it’s also sad. There’s an undercurrent of melancholia. And even though I began writing it for for the stand up circuit here in London, I noticed that I didn’t really get permission from the audience to say things that were not exclusively funny. And it was quite scary for me to step into the theatre world, not having trained in it, not really feeling I had permission to be there. And also, I think feeling I didn’t necessarily have the skills to write one long hour narrative, but I’ve loved it. I just feel I have so much permission to be everything I can be on stage and everything that this story needs me to be. And I found a real difference between theatre audiences and comedy audiences. Both I love playing to, but I felt theatre audiences were willing to sit and listen and be part of the project. Whereas comedy audiences, I feel, are waiting for me to impress them. And there’s an excitement to that. There’s a sort of a tension that naturally builds in the room. But I’m really interested to keep going in this kind of comedy theatre hybrid world. In terms of my relationship with my practice. I think I’ve I’ve matured as a person, thank God, because the person I was a decade ago was quite an arrogant, impulsive, impetuous, exuberant young person. And I had I had quite a big struggle with my mental health as I entered my 30s. And that sobered me and humbled me and I think made me a lot kinder and tender and open and honest. And I think my works got better for that. I think I approach things now so much more from what is it that I can do that serves the audience rather than acquisitional? What can I get out of this by being the funniest person in the room? So I feel a lot more peace in myself. And I think my artistic practice is, is is is a reflection of that. It’s a lot healthier, it’s a lot more collaborative, it’s a lot more about what is the best story we can put in front of the audience rather than what is the story we can tell to make money? 

Gabrielle [00:05:49] Yeah, that I mean, it makes a lot of sense. Having seen Lorenzo, having experienced it, your generosity is incredible and that’s why it’s so evocative. And I think that’s why the audience goes is so willing to go on this journey. 

Ben [00:06:06] Thank you so much for saying that. I think the show was the show is on the surface about care, specifically palliative care. About a year and a bit that I spent looking after an old man who looked after me as a child. So there’s a sort of reciprocal the reciprocal nature of care is explored within the show, intergenerational care. And I think I try to approach the show by dipping the audience gently in the experience of being cared for having to care about a subject and possibly projecting onto that subject their own experiences of care or thoughts about being carers in the future, which I think is is certainly in British society highly likely for most people in my generation that we’re going to be in a caring relationship as our elders get to that stage because there’s less support from the government, less support through the National Health Service. I think it’s a reality that a lot of people are frightened of, but in my experience as one that is is, is can be tough but is worth firmly embracing. It’s it’s it’s enriching. It’s rewarding. Just one of the most important, amazing experiences I had. And yeah, it just feels like a real privilege. Such a weighted word but privilege to share it with the with with any audience, to be honest. 

Gabrielle [00:07:44] Yeah. It really is a work that touches on really profound experiences that will and do affect all of us and that we often don’t address together. So it does what theatre can be so wonderful at doing. It’s that space where we can kind of collectively address some of these human experiences that we might not otherwise address socially in a collective manner. So Lorenzo was really your first kind of theatre theatre show, the debut theatre show, and you’ve spoken about the different relationship with the audience working between that form and a more classic kind of stand up comedy form. Is this the first time that you’ve had a work that really benefits from that treatment, or is it just the first time that you had the support and were and were able to kind of embrace that form? I’m just curious about I guess I’m trying to get at understanding, you know, what that form does for the themes and stories that you want to convey. 

Ben [00:08:55] That’s a great question. I think in terms of my evolution, my shows, my solo shows, whether comedy or now theatre, have always been theatrical. They’ve always been aesthetically pleasing, visually stunning. Sounds incredibly arrogant to say. But I do think of things first and foremost, visually and experientially. And this this show that I’ve just made is the first time that a theatre has come to me and said, ‘we like your work, we like how you make work and we like this story that you have’ and embraced it and supported it. And I felt really like I flourished. I’ve blossomed with that with that kudos from them early doors. And I think it’s it’s a testament really to what can happen when an artist is, I suppose, experienced enough to commit entirely to a project, but also get the backing, especially the financial backing to, to grow a show into the fullest of of their kind of imagining. But in terms of inhabiting the theatre space, it has been on my mind for several years. And that’s because I sort of got known within the comedy scene, specifically at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as an innovative boundary pushing comedian. A lot of my shows were high concepts. A lot of them used music and scent and sound interestingly, and I was always trying to find the laughs with those tools. But increasingly towards this project, my my shows began to be something other than comedy. I just wasn’t brave enough as an artist to let go of my identity as a comedian because I’d lived in it for a decade and I was afraid of the solitude that can come with taking a new step into the unknown. And I think what helped was in 2019, I was commissioned by the Yard Theatre, which is a great space in East London that puts on a lot of radical work. And they were really interested in my relationship with audiences and how I work with audiences, often collaboratively to build shows in the moment. And I wrote them a narrative that they were really interested in developing with me. And then, of course, we all know what happened. The pandemic bulldozed it, but it didn’t leave my brain. I was really sort of like, okay, if I made something again, maybe it would it would need to go away from comedy. And I think it was sort of serendipitous that all these ingredients were met or sort of arrived at a time that my recently departed director by departed, I mean, unfortunately, he died in April. He just he just saw my work and knew I was ready, ready for this chance. I’m incredibly grateful he gave it to me. 

Gabrielle [00:12:19] And I want to talk about that. Yeah. The support you received to develop, to develop Lorenzo and to develop it as, as a as a work of theatre. You worked with multiple dramaturgs and outside eyes through the process. I’m curious, what was the best piece of advice or recommendation you received in the process? 

Ben [00:12:38] Outside of my work as a performer, I’m I’m I earn most of my money as a as an outside eye/ dramaturg/director. And many of the shows that I’ve made with comedians, especially over the last few years, have done really well. And that raised my status within the community. I think when I got this opportunity I was really keen to to invite people into my process because so many artists had been that generous with me inviting them into this. And I was really lucky that I got to work with just some of my favourite people that I’ve met in the last ten years, and all of them had excellent advice from Joz Norris, who I’ve made multiple shows with, who suggested that the language of love within my family, which is a fracturous unit, is mischief. And that helped me hone in on things within the show that kept it light and ticking along when the subject matter got heavy. My my close creative collaborator, Letty Butler, who’s an incredible writer, far, far more gifted than I am, she she was particularly useful giving me permission to put into the show things that I felt deeply but was was scared an audience wouldn’t embrace. She really gifted me the courage to go for it. And I think part of that was because we have an amazing art project, an open journal. We don’t live in the same city, but every day we sit down and we write a kind of no holds barred, what our day was like and how we were feeling and sharing that with somebody. Knowing someone’s going to read that means there’s no space to hide, which is quite freeing. Um, Adam, my, my dead director was really useful specifically at taking my writing style, which was quiet, flowery, superfluous, plenty of juicy turns of phrase which I loved in stand up because they can elicit a certain excitement from an audience. And he made me tone my writing down and keep it super simple. In fact, he used to sit next to me as I was writing, and any time he saw a sentence he didn’t like, he would say, “All right, Hemingway, who the fuck do you think you are?” And that would make me so… 

Gabrielle [00:15:17] That’s amazing. Very direct. 

Ben [00:15:22] He was direct. I mean, I could speak about these collaborators endlessly. Lee Griffiths, who was the director who came on board after he also lost his friend Adam. Lee, was just extraordinary at going round for round with me. When I make work, I commit to it fully all of my life: the money that I have, the time, and it can be quite overwhelming and not a lot of people want to come on that journey with you because it’s it’s intense and the risk is that it’s not going to be fruitful. But he was there all the time. And something he did, which was great, was before every show or preview or work in progress offering or even script read, he would come up to me and he’d say, “okay, Ben, what is your one intention for this show?” And I would tell him, and sort of having that simple monorail to skate along, it meant the edits were so much easier in the moment because I could just let go of information that wasn’t serving that singular purpose. And I think, yeah, there are so many people who gave me such wonderful advice. I think the big learning from it is to let people into your heart, people you trust. And as long as you’re all committed to not serving a singular ego but trying to serve the project as a whole, it will likely come out for the best. 

Gabrielle [00:16:52] Very eloquent. Thank you. And I’m curious because, you know, there’s shadow puppetry in this work. There’s fire breathing. Are there things that were supposed to be part of the project that you ended up cutting that you were? You know, I feel like fire breathing is one of those things where it’s a great idea and then you realise, oh, okay, maybe, maybe not. But it stayed. So what about are there other things that, you know, in one version of Lorenzo you were going to have a completely different have some other pyrotechnics or something ambitious like that? 

Ben [00:17:33] Yeah. I mean, there is a lot in this show. Some of it very much came from me. The fire breathing, for example. I was born in Singapore, so had some experience as a young, very young child with aspects of Cantonese culture. And I remember the sort of extraordinary Lunar New Year Festival with dancing dragons and poi and fire breathing as a child. So I sort of felt, even though Lorenzo‘s the main character’s heritage is well, he was Cantonese but grew up in Hong Kong. I felt like that would be a big, fun, dumb, beautiful way to kind of telegraph an aspect of of celebrations within his and within his heritage. There was the woodwork idea, I do some woodwork on stage, came because Adam commissioned me to build him a set for a really popular show a few years ago, and he just he loved the fact that I was a comedian, but also a carpenter during the day. And he was just like, ‘I’ve never seen wood work on stage. We should figure out how to do that.’ And then I sort of ordered all the equipment and then he died and I was like, ‘Now I have to figure out your idea.’ I felt like he sort of played a prank on me in terms of stuff that didn’t end up in the show. There was there was the idea of the blueprints of the separate houses that I talk about in which the the characters grow up in being projected onto the stage. So there’s a London as a character is present for the audience to see. There was also the idea that what I might build during the show is Lorenzo’s bed and that we sort of cut out on an empty bed in the middle of the stage. That was the idea that I would do the whole show on rollerblades with those kind of 1950s Americana, like fast food service trays, like serving the audience food throughout. But ultimately. 

Gabrielle [00:19:55] Damn. Where’s that Lorenzo? Just joking.

Ben [00:19:59] Yeah I think ultimately there was there came a point where there was just so much happening that I realised I was throwing ideas at the show because I was too scared to find that singular, juicy narrative that was exposed and raw but carefully kind of sewn into what was happening. And I just wanted whatever happened in the show to elevate the story. And so actually, Lee and I purposefully withheld the fire breathing, the set, which is beautiful, and this the shadow puppetry from the public until two about two days before the Fringe. So what we wanted was a bullet-proof story that could stand on its own as a piece of performance. And then when we got to the Fringe, we elevated everything with the added elements, and it just took off in a way that neither one of us expected at all. But it gives me heart that if you write, if you write a comprehensively good story, that’s enough, that everything else is just fun. In fact,. 

Gabrielle [00:21:10] You don’t need to roll away. 

Ben [00:21:14] Maybe that’s the next show. 

Gabrielle [00:21:15] Yeah. Still sounds pretty great. You have a mantra. Entertainment is the engine, boring an audience is a crime, and art must provide hope. How did you come to this mantra? How do you make a show that addresses dying and death entertaining and hopeful. And I’ll just add to that I’m curious because earlier you spoke about audience expectations and entertainment you know comedy clearly falls more in the kind of entertainment area in Canada. It’s really under very much underrecognized as an art form. And I think that there is sometimes an arts practice, a kind of a criticism of, of, of entertainment, right, in the contemporary arts world of ‘pandering to the audience’ or, yeah. So I’m curious, I just it was really it’s really interesting to see that  entertainment as a kind of fundamental piece of, of your practice. 

Ben [00:22:18] Yeah. Thanks. I mean, thanks for reading the mantra out. I I’ll try and dissect it. It’s sad to hear that comedy, especially stand up, is not recognised in Canada necessarily as anything but something frivolous. I think it’s an art form. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I think the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life are most of the Canadian standups I know in the UK who I mean, I hope there’s some sort of big renaissance for Canadian stand up in general or just a recognition. I think it’s very clear when you’re standing on stage as a stand up, when the audience don’t like you because they’re not laughing. And I think spending a decade in that space where everything must lead to a laugh, well, it’s a fairly gnarly puzzle. And it’s it’s so satisfying when you crack it. And what I love about stand up in particular as an art form is in comparison to so many of the others that I know of, it’s far more accessible. And certainly in the U.K., I think the scene is relatively healthy in that you’ll get people from multiple different backgrounds, life experiences onstage, sharing their point of view. And how enriching is that for an audience? Say you go to a comedy club, you might see four great acts. You’re going to be laughing at different styles of delivery, but also different life experiences, and you walk away I think if you’re really listening and embracing the work of far more rounded human. And I think I’ve become a better person in stand-up, it’s been an incredibly educational experience. And I think I think if we look at like the history of theatre, it’s it’s there as well. I hate to bring up I hate to bring this guy up, but like, you know, Shakespeare is full of dick jokes. It’s full of shit, piss, bodily fluids, interesting fights, great dynamism. And I think theatres were built to hold people of all backgrounds. And the one way you can guarantee that they’re going to kind of collectively arrive at the same point together is by Is by great, honed entertainment. And I think it’s just a vital weapon for an artist. If you can make someone feel something, then you can probably slip in your poignant point afterwards. So it’s just quite basic really to me anyway. I’m not saying it’s easy to do. It’s really hard to do, I think, to entertain people. But it’s it’s first and foremost in my brain when I’m making something because I know it’s the quickest route to success, basically, if I can make something fun and poppy. Then I can be a bit moody, then I can be a little wise or cutting or whatever it is that I’m trying to do for myself in the work. It’s going to be the transaction is going to be best if it’s first and foremost fun for the audience. Um, in terms of boring an audience, I mean, that’s the tricky part with that is it’s subjective. Like I’ve learned from stand up that it’s so rare that you’ll write like a joke or a piece that everyone’s going to like. You’re going to write a lot of stuff that most of the people in the room are going to be like, but you’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. And yet there is such a thing as objectively entertaining work. So I suppose what I mean by ‘it’s a crime to bore an audience’ for me at least, is just remembering to check in in the moment with the audience when you’re on stage watching them very carefully and trying to pick up cues from them as to whether they’re in the story or slipping out of it. If they’re slipping out of it, do I need to pick up the pace. If they’re slipping out of it, do I need to bring in a change. If they’re slipping out of it, do I need to address it immediately? Do I need to be direct? And I think it’s a good reminder for me because I want everyone to come with me in the room, because togetherness ultimately is always my goal as an artist. I just think there’s so much there’s so much division in the world and how amazing is it that we can sit as a group of strangers in a strange space with someone on stage telling a story and by the end feel part of something? Some hope, you know, some sense that beyond political divisions, there’s there’s communal strands of togetherness working to keep this this this whole sort of ship righted somehow. And hope. I mean, it sounds kind of cheesy and maybe reductive, but I do think artists are their best agents of hope. And that comes in so many different forms from someone reflecting back at you how you are. The hopeful thing for me in that is if you don’t like it, at least you can address it and try and change it. If you do like it, there’s there’s, there’s glory in there and the feeling of self-possession and, you know, to being didactic teaching how one can do things better, to making you feel something. If it’s if it’s sadness, then there’s the catharsis of crying. And also you discover what really matters to you and what you want to hold on to. If it’s happiness and joy, well, that’s a glorious thing to feel. So, yeah, that’s quite a long winded answer, I feel. But that’s that’s where I sit with those three things. 

Gabrielle [00:28:26] Well, it’s beautiful and it’s very clear. It’s very clear in your work and it’s very clear that you that you’re a mature artist and you have a really thoughtful team behind you as well, because this is it, really. You know? Yeah. It wasn’t. It wasn’t by chance, but, you know, it was a sold out show at the Fringe, which is very hard to do, and won the Fringe First award. And we’re just really lucky to have it opening the PuSh festival this upcoming year. So thanks so much for sharing more about your perspective and your work. And now that the audience has heard some of the things that aren’t in Lorenzo, they need to come to see what is in Lorenzo

Ben [00:29:10] Well, thank you so much. Thanks for embracing the show. I can’t wait. I cannot wait to join you all. 

Ben Charland [00:29:19] That was Gabrielle Martin’s conversation with Ben Target, writer and performer of Lorenzo, which will be presented at the upcoming PuSh Festival. My name is Ben Charland and I’m one of the producers of this podcast, along with Tricia Knowles. PuSh Play is supported by our community outreach Coordinator, Julian Legere. Original music from Joseph Hirabayashi. New episodes are released every Monday and Thursday. For more information on PuSh International Performing Arts Festival visit pushfestival.ca and follow us on social media @PuShFestival. And if you’ve enjoyed this episode, please spread the word. On the next PuSh play:

Patrick Blenkarn [00:29:59] Every night when we get to watch the first scene of asses.masses, we learn a lot about how this particular random ragtag group of 100 people has decided to conduct themselves in space at least to start. 

Milton Lim [00:30:11] And they continuously surprise us.