Isaac Ngugi (IN): Hi. My name is Isaac Ngugi. I’m a physical theatre artist and director and I’ve been involved with Spare Tyre since 2004 uhh in a variety of different roles.
Arti Prashar (AP): When did you first become aware of Spare Tyre?
IN: Right, so Spare Tyre were based at Interchange Studios at the time when it was in Kentish Town and erm I was involved with in Interchange Studios through Weekend Arts College at the time, or now it’s called WAC arts, and my own company Unclassified Arts we had an office there and err I believe it was you that turned round to me at one point at a particular do where you said ‘ooh, you should umm pop round to the office, let’s have a chat’ and I think it was myself and Robert my colleague at- and uhh and I think R-Robert started working with the inc.Theatre uhh and then soon after that I started working with inc.Theatre as well.
AP: So it’s nice to be umm in a hub.
AP: Umm where you can have kinda like shared practice or talk about your practice
AP: as well, so do you want to describe your practice a little bit?
IN: Well the thing that I find really interesting when I talk about my practice is umm there’s a very strong err connection to the the morals and ethos of of Spare Tyre err as well. So when umm when I think of the straplines of Spare Tyre umm uhh ‘voices for voiceless communities’. Uhh one of the things that I’ve grown up with uhh was uhh taking theatre, uhh community theatre and physical theatre as a practice, a- and taking it into non theatrical venues where they may not- where people may not necessarily have access. Not just to the performance but to the training.
AP: Is it important for us to have role models and and different kind of role models?
IN: Oh I think I think having role models is absolutely crucial and really really fundamental uhh and within role models umm I’m talking about say within the community arts practitioner field umm when we’ve done those master classes and we’ve been working with masters students umm there’s very much a role modelling that we’re doing when we’re working with those group of students and uhh talking about the the the community theatre arts world. What the reality of that is and what the the, and and what are the things to look out for because as practitioners having worked within it for decades ther- we we have knowledge that we should impart to them.
AP: That- What I’m intrigued by, or interested in, that I would like to see more people of colour you know and different kind of cultures coming through on the participatory arts side. And there aren’t enough coming through.
AP: I mean Is there anything that we can do, do you think?
IN: I think be out there. I think there was umm there’s been a lot of stuff that Spare Tyre have been trying to do. I think was it Connected Culture? That was a particular umm I think that was a particular project that was uhh that was actually really quite bold and brave because it was the the attempt to really network all the different types of participatory companies that was doing the work out there. Bringing us all together and sharing a forum and talking about ‘how can we get this work not just celebrated but promoted umm and critiqued?’
AP: So umm talking about, you mentioned earlier on umm inc.Theatre. So for those that don’t know inc.Theatre was umm a project a long standing project of Spare Tyre’s
AP: Do you want to describe it a little?
IN: Wow! Inc.Theatre umm I believe that was the first project that I started working on in Spare Tyre. It was based in Redbridge. Umm I was working with adults with disabilities over three days. My art form that I was teaching at that point was was physical theatre umm an accredited course at that time in two th-
AP: For adults with learning disabilities.
IN: Absolutely yeah. In 2004 I mean that was quite ground breaking really. Umm I had not worked on an accredited course like that and what was interesting for me erm working with err the group was that there was a lot of those group members had been part of Spare Tyre uhh for a long time. This was for them something that was nurturing them as artists and as the course progressed uhh the uhh the way that they would refer to themselves would be more and more ‘I’m an artist, this is who I am’ and saying ‘well really if you’re calling yourself artists then you know you need to be taking this away and actually this is not just about what you do within these four walls, this is something that you need to think about umm outside and in your own time’. And they started to do that and that was fascinating that was that was really really fascinating because umm there was a level of openness and there was a level of working creatively in that way that was umm that I I think was quite ground breaking umm and and for me as an artist as well err learning how to hold a space.
AP: So you yourself are an artist. I mean you’re a physical theatre artist you’ve said
AP: you know that, that includes mime but also your work with umm adults with learning disabilities took you down the road of umm creating umm short films.
IN: One of my roles as err a mentor umm I remember working with err Lucy and I think that was one of first films that I started working on and umm she was very much wanting to uhh work uhh with this character and she was she was a character she developed whose name escapes me but uhh the the whole aspect of this character was her living in this council flat and taking cocaine. And so we filmed the monologue of her doing that and sped it up. So it was this monologue that was three minutes that actually lasted a minute and and and twenty minutes, a minute and twenty seconds sorry. Umm so that was-
AP: I remember it was called ‘Betty Rose’ [Batty Rose]
IN: Betty Rose thank you! (laughs)
AP: Betty Rose was somebody who was high on cocaine if I’m right, is that right?
IN: Yes, that’s right. Yeah, yeah.
AP: And that was the premise of this character in a way.
IN: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah and I’m not sure where that story came from, whether it was an autobiographical story or somebody that she knew or whether it was literally something that just came out of her head and which she thought ‘do you know what? I’m going to give this a go. This is a story that I just want to I want to tell as well’. And I think that meant- it wouldn’t have worked as well if we didn’t have the the progression of the looking at the different aspects of the different aspects of physical theatre. Uhh looking at umm at the like we did the bouffon a lot uhh and uhh bouffon which is the dark clown.
IN: And so with the bouffon the dark clown that started to become a a part of the work I used to use with the ensemble which we did with the HotPots and-
AP: This is the older peoples’ group?
IN: The older people, the older people’s group as well as the LD [learning disabled] and the company of artists umm as well. The ethos of Spare Tyre working with marginalised communities and giving them a voice and the the premise of bouffon uhh comes together and literally just sort of like they shake hands with each other. They- in fact they embrace, they embrace each other. And so we would (laughs) pretend to line people up and we would throw stones at them. We would just like [makes whooshing sound] just throw stones and people who would be attacked they would do a [makes pained sounds] so that’s how so that’s how they would then start to move. The physicality of bouffons. But then we’ve got the three archetypes. One of them was the innocent bouffon. Now the way that you would distinguish the bouffons would be through three things: the eyes, the breath and the rhythm. And so the innocent bouffon their eyes would be dead, just like their brain was just taken out and put to the side. The breath [breathes loudly and slowly] just like a baby. Just like there’s there’s no air or graces they just [breathes loudly and slowly] just breathing. And they you’ve got the rhythm and the rhythm [breaths loudly and slowly and stamps feet] just steady. So that’s the innocent bouffon. Then you’ve got the mischievous bouffon. The eyes darting. The breath [breaths loudly and quickly] almost hysterical and the rhythm [breathes loudly and quickly] always moving it’s like electricity going right through their body. And then you’ve got the sensual devil. The eyes piercing like they’re looking into your soul. You’ve got the breath [breathes slowly and calmly] it’s like you’re tasting the air, you’re tasting that person’s presence in front of you. And then you’ve got the rhythm, and also the sensual devi-devil is obsessed with touch and their rhythm is like quicksilver and they’re just looking at the audience. So you can imagine you’ve got the innocent, the mischievous and the sensual devil in and amongst a troupe of twelve walking towards the audience. And then, then performing a piece it could be about love it could be about war it could be uhh a grandiose subject but essentially it’s criticising the audience. It’s pointing a finger at the audience because remember the ethos of the bouffons; they’ve been chucked out by society, they’re not wanted and so they’re holding the mirror up to the audience and saying ‘actually this is you. You’re looking at us as monsters but actually we’re actually depicting you as well’. And that’s I think what was umm quite extraordinary really because it gave them a licence. It gave them a licence to work creatively and artistically. It gave them a form where they could take any subject umm and take it as far as they wanted to, particularly if it was a taboo subject. Sex for example now uhh for people with LD and for people of age well they took their voice and said their story and were able to articulate and perform just what that subject means for them umm at any level. Umm and what was great about that was umm it was it was teaching the audience as well. It was actually teaching the audience that ‘you do realise that they do think about this and they experience this?’ and they’re artists so they have a right to articulate that. ‘Feeble Minds’ was was a great example of umm how to challenge an audience.
IN: Umm how to challenge a performing arts company as well because it was you know we were we ‘Timon of Athens’ at a time when there was this uhh crash and boom financially umm and you’ve got this character who is blowing all of his money on his friends and ends up being broke umm and we had I I remember when we were in rehearsal having these dense scripts and people going ‘what’s Arti making us do?’ (laughs) do you know what I mean? It was sort of like and it was a journey for them as well.
IN: I remember uhh working with Ellie and uhh Ellie’s on the floor.
IN: Umm and she’s getting her arm out and she’s taking her arm out and this was a scene where she was dancing provocatively on a trolley
IN: with uhh members of the Company of Artists, I think it was Linda and Vicky
IN: throwing money at her.
IN: And I remember the audience going ‘wh-wh-wh wait what?’ (laughs) do you know what I mean? It was just sort of wow. I remember ‘The Scratch’ [Scratches] where she worked with Danny and she was off her chair as well umm and in fact it was an extraordinary piece because Danny was on her chair at one point and Ellie her thing was, there were two aspects: she wanted to explore sexuality and she wanted to get out of her chair. And that-
AP: And it, isn’t it interesting that actually as live uhh live performers uhh I guess we generally don’t have that as an acceptable form or a or a way to go through to negotiate one’s life. But actually if you’re a visual artist you have your early period, your mid-life period and then your later stages and in a way I guess what you just described has Ellie has just done that actually
AP: With one consistent theme all the way through
AP: You know it’s been about freedom and sexuality
AP: So it’s been great talking with you Isaac
IN: Thank you
AP: But I have one final question for you.
AP: And that is umm why is it important for Spare Tyre to be collecting its history now?
IN: There are two, there are two main things. I think umm for the organisation and when I mean the organisation I mean uhh the people who have worked in the organisation uhh the artists the associates all the participants. I think it’s it’s really important that there is uhh a logging of the work that has that has transpired over the last 40 years and and going into the future as well. Umm if we’re if we’re saying that participatory arts needs to be self reflective and needs to umm look at how it can improve umm then it’s a fantastic tool umm for us uhh to use in looking back. We’ve been talking about what’s been what 13 years of that 40 umm which so much has happened just in in that 13 years since my involvement so that means there is so much more as well and so it’s it’s really important to uhh to to keep and log all this stuff so that we can use that as a tool for reflection. And I think that’s really really important because umm this information needs to be held for the people who are coming out of training now or are going into training uhh that are thinking about going into the participatory arts as well. They need to know about what their heritage is in terms of what participatory arts is. Having access to our work as spare tyre and being able to look back on that umm is is crucial in helping shape their own destinies as well and their and their own view of themselves as as creative practitioners.
AP: Thank you. Thank you so much.
IN: Thank you
Isaac has worked in the field of participatory arts for over 20 years. He is the co-founder of ‘Unclassified Arts’, a physical theatre company with a community arts focus. Since 2017 Isaac has been Spare Tyre’s Associate Director.
Isaac spoke to us about the power of participatory arts and the impact it can have on individuals; both as performers and audience members.