Uther Dean has a double bill of shows coming up at Basement next week. He gave Jonty a taste of his writerly skill in this blog interview. Get along to his shows, the world is depending on you.
Two solo shows in a week, bit of a treat at the Basement, can you give us some background on them?
‘Everything is Surrounded by Water’ I made with my friend Hannah Banks at the end of 2013. We were interested in story-telling on stage so decided to have a crack at making a show in that mode ourselves. So we wrote this crinkly little fairy tale about how I sold my soul and what I had to do to get it back. We expanded it from a short piece we made for a fundraising show for Christchurch in 2012. We had no idea what we were doing and more importantly we had no idea if it was any good so we put it on in the Fringe for koha.
We didn’t even want the pressure of a venue so people would book me to come to their house where I’d sit in their lounge and tell them the story. We did this so that if it turned out to be terrible then no one would know and we’d be out very little money.
But people seemed to like it and word-of-mouth spread like peanut butter.
By the end of our two weeks season I was performing it five or six times a day. We even won Best Solo at the Fringe Awards so we started to suspect that it was actually quite good. Since then we’ve toured it all over the country and people have kept up liking it so we’ve never really stopped doing it.
‘A Public Airing of Grievances’ is also a story show but that’s kinda where the comparison ends. Where ‘Water’ is a complex creation, sad parable about childhood (which is actually secretly a joyous journey towards self-acceptance), ‘Grievances’ is a pretty cut and dry stand-up comedy set. I’d been doing comedy for about a year and a half when I decided that I wanted to make another story show. I had new things to say and a new way to say them so why not combine the two?
So I premiered ‘Grievances’ in the 2016 Comedy Festival, again for koha to see if it would fly. The people who saw it loved it but not that many people saw it (turns out the comedy fest is a hard market – who knew?!) so I decided to give it a second life in this return season. Fingers crossed more people come.
I say it’s a cut-and-dry stand up show, but that doesn’t mean it doesn't also have a story.
The thing that interested me the most was how to take these comic anecdotes about how much I love yoghurt, the summer I worked at a Christian summer camp and how I’m the worst superhero in the world and connect them into a whole narrative that will satisfy the audience.
It’s a funny show, don’t get me wrong, but there’s feeling there too.
How much real life experience is captured in them?
They’re all 100% true and real in my eyes. It just really depends on the angle you look at the words true and real from. Did everything I saw happen? Well, no. But since when has something actually happening mattered when it comes to how true or real things feel? Like, while I was writing these answers, I had a nap, and had a horrifying stress nightmare about how I was doing this doublebill at my primary school and the only person who’d shown up was me aged five, that was, emotionally, the realest thing that’s happened to me all week. Which is to say that while most of both stories did actually happen, the stuff in them that didn’t still comes from a place of truth. It’s what David Sedaris calls “True enough for you.”
You've performed Everything Is Surrounded By Water over a number of years, has it changed much? Or your perspective on it?
On a technical level, we’ve nipped and tucked it here and there as time has gone by, but it hasn’t been massively over-hauled. On a personal level, I keep expecting my feelings about it to change. It is, in part, a time capsule of how my life felt four years ago. But every time I revisit it, I relate to it more, if I’m honest, because I’m not in that moment anymore. I used to pity myself as I am in the show, now I have sympathy and empathy for myself. I don’t know whether that’s change for the better or the worse tbh.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Everywhere. The greatest practice I developed when I was doing my MA in scriptwriting at the International Institute of Modern Letters was understanding that literally everything is or has a story and you just have to work out what it is, how it wants to be told and how it can be combined with other ideas or stories.
The inspiration for ‘Water’ came from me and Hannah’s lives but it also came from the work of John Green (fun fact: ‘Everything is Surrounded by Water’ was the working title of ‘The Fault in Our Stars’) and the feeling you have when you look at someone, immediately get a crush on them and then live an entire relationship with them in a single instant.
Every story is a pile of stuff. Writing is just knowing what shape the pile wants to be.
With ‘Grievances’ I knew the pile needed to be shaped like stand-up comedy and sound like it was about how much time we spend breaking other people’s hearts but I didn’t know what the pile was made of until I started rubbing stuff together. Now it’s a pile of ‘The Walking Dead’ video game by Telltale, the song ‘Frisky’ by Tinie Tempah, my relationship with my body, Steven Moffat’s ‘Doctor Who,’ a good tweet I once did, every time anyone has ever kissed me and a bunch of other stuff.
What reaction are you hoping the shows gets?
Making people laugh makes me feel like a God so hopefully that? Ultimately, I want to entertain people so that’s always a paramount concern for me.
Both of these shows have led to people talking with me about their experiences of mental illness (my experience of it being the elephant in both shows’ rooms). That people feel seen and understood by the work is incredibly rewarding. If this season starts just one more conversation between people about how hard it is to live with or without mental illness, then it will have fulfilled one of its goals.
But also, the world is a garbage fire of hate and hurt and that needs to change.
We have spent so much of the past few years trying logical ways to fight back against the horrific rising tide of prejudice and fascism, and we have not succeeded. So the time has come to try illogical things. So, as much as there is certainly no God and we are just dust in waiting, performing these two shows together is a magic ritual to save the world.
Both of these stories are ultimately about empathy and how to be good people (which is the hardest thing any of us will ever do). When I tell an audience a story or a joke, we are in communion, connected stronger than we ever would be in the real world, in a state of heightened empathy. The Basement is already one of the most psychically layered and complex complexes in the country so when we flood it with empathy, understanding and laughter for one week, it will not be able to contain it and waves of understanding will flood the city and, if we’re lucky, the whole world.
Please come to my shows, the world depends on it.