Emma Clark and PJ Stanley - AKA emma + pj - make beautiful, bewildering theatre.
Their show Ghosts Of The Near Future was a hit at this year's Edinburgh Fringe. PLUS: Don't miss Tangle Theatre's Richard II at Clapham's Omnibus Theatre.
Hello, and welcome to another issue of The Crush Bar, a weekly newsletter about theatre written by me, Fergus Morgan.
This issue features a chat with Emma Clark and PJ Stanley - AKA the experimental performance duo emma + pj. Their show Ghosts Of The Near Future turned heads at the Edinburgh Fringe in August - and they are currently booking a tour for it in 2023!
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That’s all for now. A bit more from me at the bottom but first, a quick promo paragraph, and then: emma + pj!
Since 2009, Tangle Theatre has been touring shows that champion African and Caribbean artistic excellence. This Autumn, in association with Southampton’s MAST Mayflower Studios, the company has been taking its South African Township-style production of Richard The Second on an extensive tour of the South-West.
Now, the show finally arrives in London. Staged by Tangle’s artistic director Anna Coombs, with original music from acclaimed Zimbabwean composer John Pfumojena, and featuring LAMDA graduate Daniel Rock making his debut as Richard, it runs at Clapham’s Omnibus Theatre from Wednesday 9th until November 27th. Check it out!
“A cowboy-noir fever dream about extinction.” “A hallucinatory road-trip through a vanishing landscape.” “A haunting collage of miracles and misdirection.”
Those descriptions are from the blurb for Ghosts Of The Near Future, the second show from emerging experimental duo Emma Clark and PJ Stanley, AKA emma + pj, which ran at Summerhall during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. And, though gnomic, they are entirely appropriate: the show was all that and more. It was theatrically inventive and conceptually bold. It was, I wrote in my review, a “beautiful and bewildering attempt to figure out our feelings about extinction.”
“We try to resist giving too much away, and giving easy routes into our work,” Stanley says. “We don’t want people to feel alienated, but we do want them to have to deal with it. It is rewarding when something is a bit of a puzzle box. We also wanted the show to reflect how we were feeling when we made it. It was a strange and difficult time, so the show is quite knotty and complex.”
“Audiences seemed to respond to it on different levels,” he continues. “Some people understood it on an intuitive, emotional level. Some people understood it intellectually and enjoyed picking it apart symbolically in the bar afterwards. But there is no right or wrong way to experience the show. It is a statement of where we were and where the world was, and we are quite proud of it.”
It was also a show stuffed with innovative theatrical devices: Elton John’s Rocket Man played over footage of nuclear devastation, Clark and Stanley drawing luminous squiqqles on the stage in salt, a micro-camera prowling over a map of the USA. In one brilliant bit, the duo film themselves dropping coloured dye into a water tank and flip the footage: projected, it is a luminous mushroom cloud.
“Often, when we are making a show, we gather a bunch of things – textures, objects, items – into a room and play around with them, setting ourselves challenges and seeing what we can find,” Clark explains. “We talk a lot about ideas being shiny. Not good or bad, just shiny. It means they are interesting. It means they are exciting or yummy or fizzy. We like to lead from that place of instinct.”
“We were thrilled by how Ghosts went in Edinburgh,” she adds. “We produced it and did everything as well as performing, which was very physically and emotionally tiring. We were prepared for it to be a real slog. We were prepared to only have five people in the audience. But it was actually the opposite of that. And that was really meaningful to us.”
“We talk a lot about ideas being shiny. Not good or bad, just shiny…”
Clark and Stanley grew up on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. She is from California and studied at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He is from Portsmouth and studied at St Andrews in Scotland. They met in London, when they were both doing an MA in Advanced Theatre Practice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. They did not start collaborating until after they graduated, though.
“We ended up living near each other after we graduated,” Clark remembers. “We became friends, realised we had a lot of interests in common, and decided to try working together.” At some point, they started dating, too: the duo are a couple in their private lives, as well as their professional lives, and live together in Walthamstow. “Although we try to keep those worlds separate,” says Stanley.
And the name, emma + pj? “That was both pleasingly derpy, and it speaks to the simple fact that we are just two people, with two different ways of seeing the world, coming together and exploring that friction to make interesting work,” Stanley says. “Also we didn’t want to use one of those stupid, straight-out-of-drama-school company names, like Splashzone, or Theatrekidz, or something.”
emma + pj’s first show – developed as part of Upstart Theatre’s DARE Festival in 2018, then with ACE funding in late 2019 – was called Atlantic. It was “an apocalyptic clown romance”, “a vintage ocean fantasia”, “a love story at the bottom of the sea” according to the blurb. “It was a clown romance set across a tectonic plate,” Stanley explains. “It was an attempt to articulate what was happening politically at the time, and also what it meant to be two people from either sides of an ocean.”
Atlantic ran for three nights at VAULT Festival 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic cancelled everything. “It was quite devastating,” Clark says. “Of course, none of the creative development, none of the collaborations, none of the experience was lost. But the project was lost.” “Ghosts was a bit like a second debut in that sense,” Stanley adds. “It was the first show of ours most people saw.”
During the pandemic, emma + pj did a variety of digital projects, and developed Ghosts Of The Near Future with the support of NDT Broadgate, the Barbican’s Open Lab scheme, and some more ACE funding. This Autumn, they are working with The Spring, an arts centre in Havant, Hampshire, on a series of “playful interventions” for young audiences. “We did an installation that turned the café into a forest,” Stanley says. “We are making an immersive escape room over half term, too.”
Clark and Stanley still do other jobs, both theatrical and not, around their activity as a company – in 2019, Stanley directed Phil Young’s Crystal Clear at the Old Red Lion, and Clark performed in YESYESNONO’s the accident did not take place – but the duo’s dream is to be able to focus on their work as emma + pj full time.
“We’ve done solo artistic projects, freelance directing and performing, and regular shift jobs just to pay the rent,” Stanley says. “That’s the frustrating thing about being an emerging artist. Unless you are very fortunate, you spend so much of your time trying to build a support structure that occasionally makes it possible for you to do some art. We have so many ideas, so many creative things we want to be making. The real bottleneck is in generating the resources to do them.”
“What we definitely are not going to do is start getting strategic and changing the work that we make to fit into other people’s boxes, though,” Stanley adds. “We don’t want to become more sellable, or become an easier buy for programmers and venues. We want to keep making the work that we want to make, because it’s cool. And we want people to take a chance on that.”
What do you want to do?
In the immediate future, we definitely want to tour Ghosts Of The Near Future. We are looking at Autumn 2023 for that. It would be great to revive Atlantic at some point, too.
As for long-term, we are really hungry to keep making work, and to keep building robust partnerships with venues and other organisations. Ultimately, one day, we’d love to become a kind of studio, working across different media. We really admire a German company called Rimini Protokoll that work like that.
What support do you need to get there?
It’s tough. What does the ladder to becoming a sustainable, practicing performance art duo look like? We don’t know. A lot of the routes that once existed do not exist anymore; a lot of the doors that were once open are now closed. We are having to navigate our own path, step by step.
In the immediate future, though, it would be great if people could help us book a tour for Ghosts Of The Near Future. We would love to tour it internationally as well as nationally. We would love it if someone were to take a risk and support us and our work, too. Even if you were just an audience member and you liked it, let us know, and tell people about it. That means so much to us.
How can people find out more about you?
That’s it for this week. Next week’s interviewee is going to be Sam Ward of YESYESNONO, whose show we were promised honey! opens at the Soho Theatre soon. If you want to suggest someone to feature in future issues, then please do get in touch! I’m all ears.
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That’s all. Thanks for reading. If you want to get in touch for any reason, just reply to this email or contact me via Twitter - I’m @FergusMorgan. See you next time!