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20 June 2011
Duckie theatre boss Simon Casson: We mix performance with the hokey cokey

Andrew Williams: Metro

Simon Casson the producer of the Duckie theatre collective, tells Metro about how its latest production Lullaby will put audiences to sleep.

In Simon Casson's latest co-production Lullaby, audience members will be sung to sleep

‘We mix performance with shopping, eating, dancing clubbing and doing the hokey cokey,’ says Simon Casson, producer of avant-garde theatre collective Duckie. ‘And that’s why we’re not in the Royal Court.’

We’ve met up at the Barbican, where Duckie’s new show, Lullaby, is about to open. It’s a change of pace for the self-proclaimed ‘purveyors of working-class entertainment’. A much more subdued affair than its usual extravaganzas, Lullaby is a sort of arty bed and breakfast in which 50 audience members will be sung and read to, spend the night snoozing in the Barbican’s Pit venue and be woken up with boiled egg and soldiers. ‘It’s about quietness, peacefulness and comfort,’ says Casson. ‘Most shows set out to confront and challenge the audience – there’s none of that with Lullaby.’

Duckie was first established as a weekly gay club night in London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 1995. ‘I was on the dole and knew a fat girl called Amy Lamé and asked if she wanted to open a club with me,’ says Casson. ‘She said yes and it was a hit from day one.’

The nights were unique in that the music was turned off for an interval which featured, and still does, two performances. Early contributors included performance artists Chris Green, Ursula Martinez and Marisa Carnesky.

‘We were very into being transgressive,’ says Casson. ‘Men dressed as women dressed as dogs dressed as cats. Asking questions about gender and identity but also pulling things out of various orifices – of course, it’s Saturday night entertainment.’

After a riotous first birthday party, which earned them the front page in a local newspaper with the headline: ‘Gays go mad in church – Vicar gets hot under the dog collar’, the Duckie ensemble started doing site-specific performance work with walking tours of Vauxhall, Soho and Spitalfields.

Early in his career, Casson, who has a degree in community theatre arts, spent six months touring the nation’s prisons, confronting the inmates’ offending behaviour through theatre. It’s left him with an interest in ‘putting on cultural events that appeal to people away from the traditional theatre. It’s about doing performances for groups that don’t normally have it, in places where it doesn’t normally happen.’

Duckie’s shows are generally quite unconventional. Its 2003 burlesque-themed Christmas show, C’est Barbican – in which punters spent ‘Duckie dollars’ on performances to take place at their tables, with performances going on in the theatre simultaneously – won an Olivier award.

Subsequent Barbican shows included the festive Class Club, where the audience paid for a working-, middle- or upper-class Christmas dinner and accompanying class-related entertainment.

While it sounds like camp fun, there are serious themes behind much of it. Its 2009 Gay Shame Goes Girly event, held on the same day as Gay Pride, examined gender and was attended by 3,500 people. The market stall set-up featured performance artists running booths, one of which offered ‘boob jobs’, where punters emerged with fried eggs or a bag of Jellytots taped over their nipples.

Frequent Duckie collaborator David Hoyle had a different ‘issue’ to discuss each week in his 2006/07 Magazine show at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The prostitution ‘issue’ featured a male sex worker apparently pulling a bicycle chain out of his bum, much to the consternation of people sitting in the front row.

Duckie celebrates its 16th birthday this year and shows no sign of losing its relevancy. The weekly club is still going strong, the current crop of Duckie collaborators are in their early twenties and events such as Gay Shame have brought performance art to audiences who may not have otherwise chosen to go to see it.

Casson also sees Duckie’s influence on the current generation of London performance artists. ‘Clubby, queer performance artists such as Ryan Styles or Jonny Woo – I think we paved the way for a lot of that.’

Fans of Duckie’s usual shows will be happy to know a new market-themed production, Copyright Christmas, is on the way in December. There are also plans for more unusual projects, including one in which Duckie will work with street drinkers.

For now, Casson is enjoying the challenge of Lullaby. ‘It’s easy to get people drunk, shock them a bit and then jump up and down to punk rock,’ he says. ‘It’s more difficult to sing them to sleep.’

Lullaby begins at the Barbican on Friday.

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