Being a fishy weirdo and sweating together.

OYSTER BOY is back from April 15-17 after selling out the Darwin Festival in 2020. We spoke with the show’s co-creator and solo performer, Kyle Walmsley, about art, self flagellation, the truth, and how many one-man shows you should make in 5 years.

Picture: JAMES WILTSHIRE

Kyle, you just got back from touring Oyster Boy down the guts, to Katherine and Alice Springs – where I wouldn’t usually recommend ordering the oysters. Was this your first time performing in remote NT since your days as a Captain Starlight? Are kids harder critics than adults, and what excites you about performing for NT audiences?

Kyle: I like kids because they are clowns, and are so weird and curious and rude and don’t know their own limits. All goals I strive for. Through my [previous] work as a performer in hospitals and remote communities, you are constantly, as an absolute necessity, monitoring, adjusting, testing, responding, and being willing to retreat if an audience (usually sick kids) are not taking up an invitation for connection. I still aim to try and live by this with work for adults. To have the feeling that, if we’re not all on board from the start, we should all just stop now. So in this show, I’m trying to make sure we all understand we’re in this together.

Kids are much more imaginative than adults, and worry less about meaning and ‘problem-solving’ the art that they see. Kids are great at sitting with something, maybe scrunching up their face for a moment in disbelief, and then enthusiastically accepting. Adult audiences are much more likely to want to know “what was this about?” or “what does this mean” which I’m not very much interested in talking about. I’m much more interested in what things feel like, and whether things feel truthful.

“To have the feeling that, if we’re not all on board from the start, we should all just stop now.”

NT audiences bring enthusiasm and excitement to a theatre, because we’re not in the habit of regularly attending theatre – there’s not enough in order to form a regular habit. So it’s an actual delight to be able to meet together in a dark space, that doesn’t have the crust and dust of an afternoon matinee at the theatre in a major city. As the performer, it feels a bit uncertain and risky and unsure which is brilliant.

This isn’t you first solo show. In 2015 you taught us Everything You Learned at NIDA, a hilarious, participatory F-Bomb to the National Institute of Dramatic Arts. That show infringed on at least one professor’s privacy laws. There’s a lot of sad overheard conversations in Oyster Boy too…

To me, watching theatre is like watching weddings, or porn, or a friend’s childbirth – private moments where you might get to observe from the outside something intimate or shocking or sacred but not do it yourself. We are just asked to observe. For maybe an hour or so. And then we can talk about it. I like that about theatre, that it sits as a respite from the HYPER-reactive, unfact-checked land of social media and online dialogue. I think it’s an empathy reminder. I like the idea of uncomfortable or risky content. To me, that’s sharing some of the things in my head, that I don’t say out loud but are always in there. This is definitely a repeated little motif or theme in all my work – the use of inner monologue, the force of an external ‘greater than’ presence, and being caught uncertain, in the moment, in the middle – having to make choices in front of a live audience.

“Theatre is like watching weddings… or a friend’s childbirth – private moments where you might get to observe from the outside something intimate or sacred but not to do it yourself.”

In fact, in my work, and in my life, there’s always something that kind of feels unfinished that will make it through to the next work. So for instance, in the ‘Everything I Learned at NIDA’ show, an arrogant acting teacher has re-emerged in Oyster Boy. In the How To Make a Fringe Show show there’s a feral teenage boy that emerges again in In His Image. I’m my own Marvel universe of connected fragments, which is like the scrapbook of unresolved people and problems from my own life, collected over the years.

On comedy and sadness – they’re always existing on a knife’s edge for me. Because they both require truth. And that’s all I hope for in theatre, regardless of it being funny or sad. There is nothing truthful about eternal sunshine, I find it dishonest and not very brave, but my comedy idols such as Anne Edmonds, The Kransky Sisters, Sarah Silverman, all jostle with the itch of life, and the struggles of trying to fit in.

“On comedy and sadness – they’re always existing on a knife’s edge for me. Because they both require truth. And that’s all I hope for in theatre, regardless of it being funny or sad.”

And this probably speaks to my love of clowning, of absurd comedy, or dark humour – which is that it all feels very much like life. Life to me does not feel like The Big Bang Theory or a Dave Hughes stand up comedy set. It feels like a series of weird misheard questions, unexpected anticlimaxes interspersed with sweating and eating. That’s the stuff I want to see and do.

How long does it take you to cook up the energy and ideas for a show? Because you presented How to Make a Fringe Show in Three Months, a clowning work about how hard it is to make theatre and how interesting procrastination can be, which won the best performance award at Darwin Fringe Festival. You’d recently attended the Gaulier school, which boasts big name alums like Sacha Baron Cohen and Emma Thompson, two people nearly as famous as you – what drew you to clowning as a vehicle to tell stories?

Making a show doesn’t ever take long enough. Personally, it’s only because the pain and frustration of an unfulfilled idea, even a scrap of one, outweighs the pain of a furious and manic timeline.

“It feels like a series of weird misheard questions, unexpected anticlimaxes interspersed with sweating and eating. That’s the stuff I want to see and do.”

This is hopefully my last solo work ever, because I find the process lonely and much less fun than playing with other performers. It’s too much pressure for me to make work, have to sell it, perform in it, and then stand comfortably by it in a foyer afterwards. Funnily enough, I had made this promise not to do another solo work, after my show In His Image, which is why I was excited to work with co-creator and director, Elizabeth Millington, on this work, and then LOL global pando happened, and once again I was in a room by myself. Liz and I worked hard to work over Skype and sharing videos between Melbourne and Darwin, but it wasn’t until this year when we were actually in a room together for a week. Luckily this show has now had seasons and runs right across the Territory, so if you’re going to see one of my solo works, this is probably the one to attend, as it has grown and changed since Darwin Festival.

‘In His Image’, a comedy about godliness and family trauma, with loads of fake blood and a banana costume, showed in your then home of Albury-Wodonga, before having to be completely reimagined in five days for a shotgun Newcastle Fringe season. Scattered throughout have been many facebook livestreams of you frantically performing shows, that had multiple characters, by yourself in your hotel rooms.

I suppose clowning is very immediate in performance. It requires a performer to be responsive and truthful to the moment in the room on that given night. Maybe I’m leaning into that a little too much in my process. But I find, locked away by myself in a room, I am almost catatonic rather than productive. I need feedback, connection, pushback, praise, admonishment, judgement – anything! So any of the live features on social media are a great way to shortcut this somewhat.

One thing I love about watching your work is the raw immediacy of your story telling. You’ve always been generous, too generous, with yourself on stage. Oyster Boy feels just as authentic and vulnerable as your earlier works, but he lives as his own tiny human-oyster, separate from you, Kyle. Can you tell us about him and about making this show?

Because of the parable-like nature of it, Oyster Boy is a bit easier to develop and create with a heightened fantasy world to fill out, rather than just solely my body in space. The story is of Oyster Boy’s shucking, scheduled for today. What’s on the other side could be a pearl, a new beginning, nothing, or worse… so Oyster Boy entertains his guests for as long as possible, regaling them with tales from his memoir, doing as much as he can to avoid the act – till he can delay no more.

“I am very interested in truth on stage, even at the expense of all else.”

I am very interested in truth on stage, even at the expense of all else. For example, I don’t believe in character. As in, I don’t think we ever TRULY suspend our disbelief enough to say “OH WHO IS THIS YOUNG MAN FROM DENMARK!? HOW AWFUL HIS FATHER HAS DIED!” I think we are very aware we are watching an actor PRETEND to be Hamlet, and that if a fire alarm goes off in the building we will all leave, not sit there and think “WHAT STRANGE BELL DOTH RINGETH FROM THE HEAVENS”. Which is what I like – knowing we’re all playing pretend together. The space then that is left for truth, is watching real humans channel their real lives through a writer’s words. And so I’m interested in finding out how much truth we ever get to see on stage. I like Oyster Boy because there’s a whole lot of me. It is me. But also I’m not an Oyster so it’s got nothing to do with me.

Oyster Boy plays Brown’s Mart Theatre April 15-17, supported by the Brown’s Mart ENGAGE program

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