A New Zealander living in Prague, Trygve Wakenshaw is no ordinary entertainer. At this year’s London International Mime Festival, he is taking on the challenge of making a show with only one light. Nick Awde finds out more
The intriguingly entitled Only Bones v1.4 sees Trygve Wakenshaw facing the challenge to “make a show with no story, no language, no set, no props, and only one light”.
Its world premiere at the Soho Theatre – part of the London International Mime Festival – will give audiences the chance to join the rubbery New Zealander as he boldly takes his trademark brand of mime/clown comedy into uncharted territory.
One question the title begs is: what happened to the other versions? “Only Bones 1.0 was a show by Thom Monckton at LIMF in 2017,” Wakenshaw says. “His intention was to make a piece that went beyond the show itself, a challenge to other performers to make a show within these quite minimalist rules. Certainly when I saw it, I was like: ‘Oh man, I’d love to have a go at trying to do that.’”
What was Monckton doing that was so irresistible? “It was how Thom found comedy in such a small, toned-down way. It was amazing to watch comedy come from different body parts – his hands were funny, his feet were funny – in a minimalist style, using only one light.
“Sometimes you watch a show in a similar genre and you have this critical eye that goes: ‘Oh, okay… I see what they’re doing there,’ but for this show everything was like: ‘Wow, how did he think of that? That’s amazing, I wouldn’t have thought of that,’” he says. “So I guess this was the challenge to myself: what would I have thought of if I had to make that show? And that’s exactly what I’m intending on finding out now.”
As fellow Kiwis working internationally in experimental mime and clowning, Wakenshaw and Monckton cross paths regularly, so it’s strange that they haven’t collaborated on the same stage.
“But we do get to work together later this year in Prague,” says Wakenshaw. “It’s a piece that Thom’s directing and I’m in it with four others, and it’ll premiere in Prague at the Jatka 78 theatre. So that’ll be our first time working properly together.”
Both are regulars at LIMF and this is now Wakenshaw’s fourth outing at the festival – he debuted with Kraken in 2015 and the next year brought Nautilus, both already hits at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
In 2018 he returned with Different Party, created with Barnie Duncan and still touring under the new title of Mad Office.
Duncan is another fellow New Zealander – the pair spent a decade co-running the company Theatre Beating before Wakenshaw went solo to do “this kind of mime comedy, kind of contemporary theatre thing”.
Along with the likes of Duncan, Monckton and Sam Wills (aka The Boy With Tape on his Face), physical theatre clearly makes a good New Zealand export. “Yeah, we all travel the world with our shows. There’s definitely a beautiful advantage to being non-verbal – it sort of opens up all of Europe and Asia as well.”
1. Peeping Tom: Child (Kind), Barbican, January 22-25.
2. Kiss and Cry Collective: Cold Blood, Barbican, January 29-February 1.
3. Ockham’s Razor: This Time, Shoreditch Town Hall, January 8-19.
4. Thick and Tight: Romancing the Apocalypse, Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, January 9-11.
5. Told by an Idiot: The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, Wilton’s Music Hall, January 14-18.
Wakenshaw is now based in Prague, a move he describes as a lifestyle choice. “I’d spent such a long time trying desperately to live in London and then I just realised how frustrating it is to be paying huge rent and not really being able to catch up with anyone. London just became a little bit inaccessible but having the EU – my wife is Swedish and I have a UK passport – we had the world to choose from.”
Prague is just a two-hour flight from the UK, handy for popping over for day trips for auditions or meetings, and Wakenshaw reports that he is slowly integrating himself into the local scene, finding connections with theatres and holding a monthly night of experimental comedy.
Building new audiences comes easy to Wakenshaw. “Coming from New Zealand, you just had to make new work all the time because there’s no audience to see these shows,” he laughs. “So you work hard. You make a new show, you present it for two weeks, and by the end of that two weeks everyone that’s going to go out to the theatre has seen it. But then you come to Europe and in each city there’s so many different theatres, each with a huge audience. People here are willing to go out to the theatre.”
He finds these national variations a fascinating insight into how theatre works. “Audiences in Australia, for example, have come from the emergence of the big festivals. But it tends to favour circus and comedy: ‘Boom-boom, here’s your good, fun night out.’”
It’s no surprise then that he finds the Czech Republic more serious and artistic – “a bit more ‘theatre’ theatre” – while the proliferation of shows in countries such as the Netherlands has become a double-edged sword.
“There are big theatres in every Dutch city, which are so well funded. There’s so much theatre on tap every night, the whole year, that it’s almost like the theatregoing population is a little bit ‘full’. In contrast, I remember when the Perth Fringe Festival started up. It felt like everyone in the city was so hungry for theatre that they just wanted to go and see anything.”
We all travel the world with our shows. There’s definitely a beautiful advantage to being non-verbal – it sort of opens up all of Europe and Asia as well
When asked about influences, Wakenshaw says a few “always pop to mind”. He continues: “I can see how I was formed through TV shows like The Muppet Show and Looney Tunes cartoons, the sketch comedy of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, and John Cleese in Monty Python and Fawlty Towers. That kind of world, especially the physical stuff they were doing – you know, anyone with a big elastic face.
“And there are a few clowny theatre shows – the French clown Julien Cottereau is a huge influence on me and Slava’s Snowshow blew my mind when I saw it when it came to New Zealand. I’d never really seen a clown show before, so it was incredible to see a theatrical clown show rather than just a red nose and floppy shoes.”
He agrees that he’s channelling the small screen on the stage but points out that he was unlikely to see any of the greats live in New Zealand due to the combination of its isolated location and small population.
Very little of the theatre taken for granted in Europe makes its way over there, and the shows that he did see were few and far between.
“I didn’t really have an upbringing of great theatre. There was certainly none of that. The theatre shows that I remember most from New Zealand were all ones that involved puppetry, kids’ show versions of Three Little Pigs, and there was Auckland theatre company Red Leap – it does a lot of puppetry and movement stuff.”
It’s a background that has allowed Wakenshaw an enviable adaptability, summed up in Only Bones v1.4. “I guess it’s a lot to do with mime itself. You’re creating this world that is invisible and so you have to tap into those little cultural triggers and references for the image to pop into someone’s mind.
“But I’m down to me and one light now. Any less and I’d just be making drone music on radio.”
Founder/director: Joseph Seelig
Co-director: Helen Lannaghan
Number of acts (2020): 20
Number of venues (2020): 9
Key contact: Anna Arthur – email@example.com
Only Bones v1.4 runs at London’s Soho Theatre, as part of London International Mime Festival, from January 9-25. Details: mimelondon.com