BOYBLUE MEETS WRITER, PERFORMER, AND LIVE ARTIST
IF JEAN baudrillard AND DOUGLAS COUPLAND PENNED A FULL-PAGE SUNDAY FUNNIES STRIP, YOU WOULD HAVE POLYMATH, GREG WOHEAD. THE TEXAN HAS PERFORMED WORLDWIDE, FROM BRISTOL TO SAN DIEGO. ahead of his upcoming show in LONDON, WE SAT DOWN AND GOT THE LOW-DOWN ON HIS PROJECT, CELEBRATION FLORIDA, AT THE SOHO THEATRE.
A lot of modern artists clog their art with so many academic buzzwords that you could make a rather boring round of Jeopardy! out of them. The kind of artists whose work is so arched in dust, you can feel yourself ossifying when you look at it. Yet, Wohead's work - conscious or otherwise - battles against the ashen thoughts of these artists. Delivering quietly aberrant and refreshing performances that encourage his audiences to reconsider how (and why) they occupy the world in the way they do.
Wohead reenacts Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special and Come Dine With Me fan fictions, he unreels moss-ridden confession tapes of serial killers and plays them back in reverse. His work, with the realpolitik directness about social pressures found only in HBO cable shows, challenges given-narratives of what performance art "should be" and promises to rupture them.
His latest project, Celebration, Florida (named after the Walt Disney Company-built town of the same name) is a one-man show with a difference; all of his character's lines are delivered by two unrehearsed performers using pre-recorded audio and headphones. The likes of queer artist Vijay Patel and musician, Elizabeth Chan are set to perform in this "one-man" show. And, to quote Goddess Oprah Winfrey, "Let's celebrate that."
Your latest work, Celebration, Florida, among other themes, is an examination on the Realness/Simulation, Other/Self, and the murkiness we find in the night of our imagination. Why did you decide to focus on such concepts in Celebration, Florida?
For me, Celebration, Florida is largely about human connection—whether it’s familial, friendship, intimate or sexual—and exploring when we reach for those connections; when they are made and missed. In a way, the show is about me spending a period of time alone in a hotel room, and so any connection within that mode of the show is imagined. When we imagine connections and imagine other people and what we might do or say if they were in front of us, we can start to play with reality—what is real or what is imagined.
So to me it felt like if I wanted to explore this experience of spending a period of time alone in a hotel room while missing someone, I had to explore the reality of that connection, recognise that I was in a way simulating that connecting by trying to satisfy my emotional need for that connection with other things or people. In some ways, in the anonymous space of a hotel room I wonder if you are confronted with yourself—both in what you do with your time alone and within your imagination with all that free time.
What do you hope Celebration, Florida will achieve that your past work has not?
Celebration, Florida is quite different to a lot of my past work—in the past I have mostly created solo shows that I have written and performed like The Ted Bundy Project, which explored the idea of morbid curiosity using a serial killer’s confession tapes, or Comeback Special, which was a kind of reenactment of Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback TV Special.
Celebration, Florida uses two new guest performers for each show. They have never met before, and they don’t know anything about the show before it starts. They are guided through the entire show—where to go, what to do, what to say—by my voice via headphones. The idea is that they are standing in for me, and that I am speaking to the audience and doing things using the voices and bodies of the performers. So already that’s a completely different set up than any of my past work.
And beyond that, this performance has a little more space in it than my previous work—hopefully for the audience to bring their own experiences and get different things out of it. I would also say there is an effort with Celebration, Florida to make it a little easier and more fun for the audience than some of my past work, and hopefully that means there is a more personal connection that audience members can make with it.
Why did you decide to set Celebration, Florida in the titular town? What inspired you to do so?
The idea of titling the show after the town of Celebration is more thematic than literal, I would say. The town Celebration, Florida was created by the Walt Disney Company and constructed as the perfect American town, evoking the small town feeling of nostalgia that appeals to some. In many ways that nostalgia is constructed and fake—it’s a nostalgia for something that never really existed.
For my show I wanted to explore the idea of nostalgia for a human connection that may or may not have existed, at least in the way I imagined it. So drawing a comparison with this town and that feeling felt interesting to me. I also like the idea of putting together and deliberately confusing the idea of a place and a person—describing a place as if it has a personality or describing a person as if they have a geography—so Celebration, Florida came together as an idea.
Celebration, Florida has been performed in Edinburgh, California, and now London (again). With the show set in the real Disney-built town - a poisonous valentine to Hollywood - do you find the idea of nostalgia a universal feeing?
I think nostalgia is a human feeling, but I suspect it might have different flavours and different uses culturally when it comes to more of a national or political nostalgia. I suppose what I mean is that I think it’s natural to long for something that is gone, to remember the good things about it and maybe to compare it to anything or anyone that’s in front of you.
Culturally, nostalgia can almost be used as a weapon or a tool of suppression or as a driver for capitalism (even though nostalgia can feel nice). As an American (and America is not the only place where this exists), I’ve seen nostalgia and this feeling of ‘the good old days’ get used to stop progress and even take things backwards, so yes I think nostalgia is widely experienced and comes in all kinds of varieties.
A marketing campaign for the town that Disney built read: "Celebration…You’ve got to see this place!” But tell us why we’ve got to see your play?
Firstly, I would say it’s not a play—and what I mean by that is that no one is ‘acting’ or playing a character in they way I think of a normal play. As an audience member you get to watch two people just being themselves responding spontaneously to instructions they are given for the first time in the moment. That can be a super-exciting thing to watch, and something that makes it different to most other live performances, again speaking to this idea of playing with reality and simulation, when someone is being their ’true’ self or putting on a persona.
We have some really fantastic guest performers lined up for Soho Theatre—Ursula Martinez, Lucy McCormick, George Heyworth from Bourgeois & Maurice, Charlotte Cooper and more—who I am very lucky have agreed to trust me and perform the show without knowing anything about it!
Secondly, I would say the show explores ideas that everyone can relate to—missing a person or a place—and the longing, weirdness and sometimes unexpected fun that can happen when we try and deal with that.