James Stenhouse in A Western. Photo by Gemma Paintin
Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse, otherwise known as Action Hero, make a stop in Texas to perform A Western, a site-responsive theater piece, as part of the Fuse Box Festival on April 24th at The Historic Victory Grill. The Bristol-based Brits take their myths seriously, and fully intend to have a show down in the Lone Star state. Action Hero considers the audience as collaborators and conspirators, so expect to be free to cheat on cards, love the hero, and, if you must, shoot him down. You can read my Culturemap Art in a Bar rant here. Paintin interviews Stenhouse on their process here. She brings us into the saloon below.
Dancehunter: I am really intrigued by your idea for A Western because a guy walked into a bar in Texas not the UK. The bar thing is our myth. So here we have you two Brits doing a walking into a bar piece in a bar in Texas. What gives?
Gemma Paintin: Well it’s kind of our myth too, because that iconography seems so familiar to us, even though we don’t come from that place. It’s partly about being so influenced by a culture that’s not our own. Those stories of cowboys and Westerns are part of our collective memory even though as a British person, I have no real connection to it. Yet, it feels so much a part of my experience of growing up. I think lots of non-Americans feel that way. It belongs to us by proxy through cinema and TV.
DH: What’s fun about bringing this piece to the wild west itself, which is Austin?
GP: The first word in the piece is ‘Texas,’ so it’s going to be incredible to perform it actually in Texas. That’s pretty exciting for us as all of the places we have performed it have been emphatically not Texas, and that’s what the piece is about in some ways. This isn’t the wild west, we are not cowboys, this is not the saloon, but we try to recreate this place that feels so much a part of our experience of America and cinematic heroes, and the audience shares that ambition with us and help us make it. So what happens when we will really be in Texas, where those things really are? I guess it will become more about James and I as outsiders, retelling our versions of the Western to you. But I think the audience will still join in the game of remaking our imaginary Western, to shoot the hero and shout “yee hah.” Maybe the yee-hah’s in Texas will be more authentic than the ones back home! We’ll see.
DH: True, we wrote “Yee Hah” book. Do bar folks know what to do, or does it depend on the bar?
GP: The bar staff always know we’re going to perform, we don’t just turn up unannounced. And most of the audience usually knows too. Sometimes, we get a few unsuspecting people who just came for a quiet drink, and now there’s some kind of stand-off happening beside them, but they often get the most involved by the end.
DH: Do you get there and access what that bar is all about and adapt the piece accordingly? Is there anything you do ahead of time?
GP: All bars have a different feel, and we re-work the show for every new space. We do a bit of work before we arrive with pictures of the bar, but generally you have to go there to get a feel for it. How can this place stand in for a desert, where would the mountains, the long road, the saloon doors be? We try to re-imagine the space as the landscape we describe, and that the audience knows so well from A Fistful of Dollars, or Wyatt Earp or whatever, or maybe they don’t remember consciously watching a Western, but the landscape is always there for them, somehow. It’s been on a drip-drip their whole lives, always seeing those places and characters via Hollywood.
DH: Does anything ever get out of hand, or is that just the risk you take when you perform in a bar?
GP: Well, it depends, as I say the bar always know we are going to perform and people come along specifically to see the show, so it’s not random, but usually people want to collaborate with us to create this epic. We invite them to play a game, and mostly they accept the invitation. People do like to go a bit crazy at the end though; they shoot our hero down. Everyone wants to do that, don’t they?