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Ross Sutherland: ‘I’ve had no theatrical training whatsoever’

Ross Sutherland in Stand By for Tape Back-Up. Photo: Paul Blakemore

“It felt like I was writing from the subconscious,” Ross Sutherland explains over black coffee in the Electric Elephant cafe in south London. Our conversation has spun between dream logic, synchronicity and the work of the Russian Constructivists in the space of 20 minutes. Sutherland is taking his latest show, Standby for Tape Back-Up, out on tour this spring. His most personal production to date, exploring his relationship with his late grandfather, his thoughts on memory and mortality, Standby takes the form of a series of circling poems set to looped VHS clips from the early 1980s: Ghostbusters, The Crystal Maze, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 17.33.03As Sutherland speaks, his words start to sync with the video and new patterns emerge with each repetition. “By the time you watch those clips for the seventh time, you’re seeing them purely in terms of metaphor, as this kind of canvas of symbols.”

Hopefully, he says, the audience will begin to anticipate this process and “they’ll start to see things that you didn’t put in”, adding: “I think David Icke calls it being ‘highly symbol literate’, when you start seeing the illuminati in a daytime TV show.”

An early version of the show was staged as part of the 2013 Forest Fringe season and Sutherland took a more developed version back to Edinburgh last year, performing at Summerhall in one of the former veterinary college’s atmospheric chambers. Revisiting the show for the forthcoming tour, it’s important to Sutherland to keep things fresh, particularly given the personal nature of the material; he’s worried that it might come to feel too performed. In an attempt to address this, Sutherland and his director Rob Watt, created a part in the middle of the show which, he says, “I can’t physically do.” Sutherland, who has asthma, appears to almost bring on an attack. “I completely destroy myself in the middle of it, which disrupts me and helps the more personal stuff from just sounding rote.”

“I don’t have any theatrical training whatsoever,” Sutherland says. He studied English Literature at the University of East Anglia where he founded Aisle 16 along with poet Luke Wright in 2000. It started out as a poetry club but soon became something bigger, a collective, the other members of which also include Tim Clare, John Osborne and Joe Dunthorne. “Our numbers have grown over the years and it’s flexible in terms of people coming and going. It’s just me and Luke who have been with it through all its incarnations.”

From a quite early stage in its development, Aisle 16 began exploring the overlap between poetry and performance, with shows like Powerpoint in 2004. Performed in character, it took the form of a motivational business seminar. “Each poem was like a rung on the ladder to increasing your achievement potential.” This was followed by a number of shows along these lines, including their most successful show Poetry Boyband, the name for which was taken from one of their bad reviews.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 17.32.51Aisle 16 still exists, albeit in a looser form, now the members have more established solo careers. They host Homework, a literary cabaret at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club several times a year, a place where they can “come together and keep producing new material”.

Sutherland has published four collections of poetry with Penned in the Margins and in 2010 he created his first solo show, The Three Stigmata of Pacman, a mixture of poetry, comedy and animation. His 2012 show Comedian Dies in the Middle of a Joke, was bolder, a kind of living iterative poem in which the audience took part.

“It’s the kind of thing,” he admits, “which some people run a mile from.” But it was a show that rewarded those who embraced the game of it. “The awkward laughter circled around and became quite warm. I’m really proud of that show. I would love to do it again but it’s an exhausting thing to run and set up.”

Like a lot of his poetic and performed work, Standby has its own set of Oulipian constraints. The Oulipo Compendium, with its emphasis on rules and patterns that are designed to constrain what a poet can write, has been an ongoing source of inspiration. “It gave me a lot of confidence. It turns your writing inwards. By giving myself these impossible writing constraints I was having to go inside myself to find the answers.”

He thinks it’s important for the audience to be aware of the rules that the work is following. “Sometimes with poetry you’re seeing this very polished end product but you don’t know how the poet got there, because you haven’t seen them trying and failing. But poetry is always written in a half-cocked way. You don’t know what you’re doing; you’re just throwing accidents at it and hoping some of those accidents stick. If you can see the poet sweating a bit it helps.”

Standby for Tape Back-Up is on a nationwide tour until April 10, then at Shoreditch Town Hall, London, from April 28-May 2

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