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Added: Sunday 29th April, 2018

Paula Varjack: The Cult of K*NZO

Performance maker Paula Varjack talks to Dean Atta about her new show and role of devising in her work

What is The Cult of K*NZO? 

The Cult of K*NZO is a solo multimedia performance combining storytelling, videography, and choreography, to playfully explore the weird and wonderful world of high fashion.

My interest in the subject of high fashion and fashion branding began after particularly strange shopping experience a year ago. H&M regularly do collaborations with high end designers, and that year they had collaborated with a design label called KENZO.

The 'cult' referred to in the title, are the hardcore fans of the brand, who I got an insight into through the morning I bought from this collaboration. The show also looks at one woman's life long desire for high fashion, and one man's dream to be a fashion designer. Across these stories is the tension between inclusion and exclusion, and the mysterious allure of high end. Why do we want the things that we want? What's in a brand? 

If you were to create your own cult what would it be about? 

I couldn't bring myself to make anyone follow any one thing or desire. I am far too collective minded for that. 

Making a show usually that means committing a whole year or more to one topic, how can you be sure you won’t get bored of it? 

A year is short! I generally tell myself that if I commit to making a show I could be 3 or 4 years I am exploring and connected to a topic or theme. So I give this a lot of consideration. When deciding what subject to interrogate I remember some very good advice once given to me by my closest creative collaborator, Writer, director and dramaturge Martin Bengtsson, to 'pay attention to your preoccupations'. By this he means to notice what themes or subjects you seem focused on over a period of time, that continue to fascinate you. But even then I still think long and hard about how I would feel to still be looking at the same subject in a year's time. It's almost like sizing someone up as a life partner. Is this a subject you can look in the eye and want to be with, even when working on it feels rough? Is it important enough? To you? To deliver to others and expect to have them give their time? Is it exciting and complex enough to give you lots to play with? Or maybe it's just that you are compelled so strongly in a way you don't understand but must follow? I also give this a lot of consideration because I have a research based practice, so I know that there will have been a great deal of reading and watching and listening and thinking before I ever start thinking of the material as a show. When I commit to an idea, I know it's for the long term. To give you two examples, the Cult of K*NZO has been made quite quickly (by my terms). It's been developed over a year, with research for just under a year before that. With my last show, Show Me the Money, just the research stage was nearly two years. I now see that show as on the shelf as it were, as I am not pushing tour booking anymore. It's already had a fair ammount of exposure.  But I still feel so passionate about the themes in it, that the research part is now ongoing But I guess the other thing that keeps things vibrant is that performance is only one of many things that I am involved in.  

What is the place of writing in your practice? What other elements do you use? 

Over the last show I think I moved towards keeping 'writing' out of my practice as much as possible. I find that with live work, if I write text to perform, learning the text is never quite embodied in the way I want it to be. While as if I devise text by telling a story and recording it (video, audio, both, or sometimes in rehearsal to my director or even just to friends on the phone) it keeps a sense of feeling live, and of being conversational (which is my most frequently used mode).  

How important in versatility for a freelance artist or creative? Can you do just one thing these days? 

I guess it depends in which way you mean versatility. If you want to focus on writing but don't mind doing lots of different kinds of writing (for example plays, essays, articles, criticism, copywriting) that could be one survival tactic that for many writers I know works. Or if you mean working across art forms? I think I used to feel that it helped me that I worked across art forms because if I couldn't get performance work, I could get paid to video a gig or edit a promo. But now I feel that organisations often book me because they are interested in me partly as an artist who works across art forms, rather than different spaces booking me for different forms of work. Does that make sense?  I think if your goal is to make a living as a freelance creative you are by nature going to be a number of different roles: artist / promoter / administrator / accountant, and so on, and that's just for your own practice. I do so many things but am grateful that they are all creative or connected to the arts in some way. But this also gets exhausting.

I think there is also a lot to be said for having a creative practice that you don't live from, in that ironically it can free up more space to be creative without concerns of how to monetise or sell the work.  

You've published a book called Letters I Never Sent You, which Salena Godden describes as “a stunning collection of snapshots, memoir and poetry, deeply personal and vulnerable and frank”. How do you feel about the exception place upon certain artists, for example women, queer people, people of colour, to be vulnerable and write personal work? 

I have been thinking a lot lately about this idea that the white cis male straight able bodied voice is the 'universal' and everything else is othered. How it becomes vulnerable to share one's everyday experience just because your voice is less represented. I find that so strange, but I make the work that I need to make in the way I want to make it, and then once it is created,  I try my best to figure out why other's might connect with it, so I have an awareness of where the universal element lies. I am constantly surprised at how we can connect across stories from those that are different to us, but also how others who are different to us can see themselves in our work. This is one of the best reasons to make and consume art I think, to share those experiences and have connection and
empathy for them.   

What advice would you give to artists making vulnerable and personal work? 

To surround yourself with those that believe in you, that get what you are doing, an that will give you constructive feedback in the way you need to hear it, and when you are ready to take it. To
constantly check in with your boundaries and be sure you feel safe about the way you are sharing and what is being shared. To feel that the work itself says what you want to share about those
themes, and not to feel pressured to engage with strangers who want to engage with you on it further.

What advice would you give to artists that perhaps don’t want to make vulnerable or personal work?

I don't feel any artist has to. I think any artist should just be constantly in conversation with themselves about what the work is that they want to make, and why others might be interested.

What the work is giving. While understanding that it can be just as vital to make a political work as one that simply entertaining. What is important is that an artist is authentic with themselves about the work they want to make.  


Paula Varjack is a writer, filmmaker and performance maker. Her work explores identity, the unsaid, and making the invisible visible. Her debut prose & poetry publication Letters I Never Sent to You published by Burning Eye Books was shortlisted for the Diva Literary Prize for Poetry and the Polari first book prize. Her previous show “ Show Me The Money” – explored the reality of making a living as an artist in the U.K. based on interviews with artists across the country. She was recently shortlisted for the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust award. Trained in stage management, filmmaking and performance, she enjoys working across and combining disciplines; performance, theatre, documentary and spoken word. She has performed at numerous arts festivals and cultural spaces including: WOW Festival, Glastonbury Festival, Berlin International Literature Festival, The V&A, Richmix, Wilton’s Music Hall, Battersea Arts Centre, The Southbank Centre, Círculo de Bellas Artes, Musicbox Lisbon, Es Balluard Museum of Contemporary Art, and The Photographer’s Gallery.

Paula Varjack’s show The Cult of K*NZO is at The Marlborough Theatre on 19-20 May as part of this year's Brighton Fringe.