Interview with Matthew Prest

Sara Legg: Were there any formative experiences in your past (maybe your childhood) that led you to pursue theatre and performance?

Matthew Prest: I think going way back my first interest came from going to church when I was a kid. Before I knew about Jesus or God, like age 4 or something, I was being taken to mass and I would apparently go up near the altar and mimic the priest and be very solemn and holy. Then I would perform mass at home, for my parents or grandparents and have Jatz crackers for the bread and apple juice for the wine. This was my first performance.

It wasn’t til I left high school and was introduced to an experimental theatre for young people that I was exposed to different ideas of what performance could be, and the idea of performance and theatre as art and not just entertainment.

SL: I found your work Whelping Box (2012), in collaboration with Branch Nebula and Clare Britton, fascinating and highly thought-provoking. I have noticed the obvious symmetry, a reverse palindrome, DOG = GOD. What or how is a dog? How do you understand your relation to dogs, dogs’ relation to you?

MP: My relation to dogs’ is an uncomfortable one. I don’t really like the idea of pets myself, but see the value and need for some people to have them. I see a dog as being an almost perverse intermediary between notions of human civility/socialization and the wild/natural world. There is something human about a dog, which humans have put there. The ‘dogness’ in Whelping Box really is a way to engage with something animal and base.

The dogs come from a story we came across about a man in prison for armed robbery who became very powerful from within prison and managed to orchestrate the purchase of some very expensive Presa Canario fighting dogs. We also watched a documentary about fighting dogs and the ways in which they are trained. This was very depressing and brutal in terms of the way the animals are treated, but led us to make a sequence of ‘training’ in the show.

SL: What is happening in this ( = ) space in your performance – the place between Dog and God?

MP: The whole show is sort of in this space, as we’re never trying to ‘act’ like dogs or gods. We are two men doing a series of tasks that take us to different psychological and physical states and some of these tasks are inspired by something animal and doglike and some are inspired by the sublime and spiritual. Throughout the whole performance we are attempting to transcend ourselves as people and to transcend the moment we share with the audience. In this place between Dog and God perhaps is where we are children. And a lot of what we do in the show, reminds me of how children play, particularly how boys play.

SL: How would you describe your feelings, moods, motivations, and sensory experience while performing Whelping Box?

MP: It’s a very physical work. The most physical work I have performed. For me this is really liberating as a performer — to have such concrete tasks and actions and to be doing them for myself and in relation to Lee (the other performer). To perform this sort of material in this sort of setup is empowering and liberating which allows me the space as a performer to experience a process or a ritual every time we do the show. The dog motif is a way to explore states of aggression, hunger, wildness, danger, control and social conditioning. With the more God-like material that state is one of existing on a higher plane, of ecstasy and the sublime.

SL: In the past you made a point about your performed mythologizing not referring to or gesturing toward another thing but what you want to enact happens in the present inside the performance space. I am intrigued by the notion that performance is thought-in-action or efficacious in itself. Could you speak to the personal and/or collective meaning of performing?

MP: This notion of performance as thought-in action or more DESIRE in action is so key to what I am doing and what I want in performance. I am less interested in storytelling (whether that be theatre style narratives or performance art style theory) because it is still so rooted in language and words. By calling it something, or saying what is happening we often kill the thing that it was. The ‘storytelling’ and ‘mythmaking’ side of performance arts practices can often override the need for the performance to be engaging or dynamic as a live experience. The space is a key factor in this and I must acknowledge with Whelping Box the amazing work of my ongoing collaborator Clare Britton and Branch Nebula’s Mirabelle Wouters who designed the giant ‘whelping box/catwalk’ set, and also lighting, costumes and dramaturgy.

SL: Does your desire ever get stuck or move too fast? Do you find that your performances and the spaces they take place in are containers of sorts for your desire – or do they erupt out of them?

MP: More and more I see my performances and the process of making them as a way to follow desire and intuition. I was talking about Whelping Box when I mentioned desire, and we were more interested in building a series of tasks that would take us to different states, and this made me think a lot about freedom and desire, and allowing yourself to be different things. I like using performance to subvert the notion of identity, the notion or requirement that I be any one thing.

The work I am presenting at Rapid Pulse, ‘BOUNCE’, is one such act singled out as a repetitive, durational performance art piece. The act is an expression of the desire to do this thing I imagined in my head. There is nothing improvisational about this piece when it is performed, in that I know exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to run at this wall of sticky tape and throw my body at it. So the spontaneity happened when I made the decision to do it.

SL: I’ve noticed a recurring theme of initiation or the process of passage in your work. Over the last several years, as you’ve been performing and your work has changed or evolved, has your relationship to these questions also changed?

MP: ‘Rite of Passage’ is interesting for me. From when I left high school to becoming a father at the age of 25, I always struggled with what it meant to ‘grow up’ and resisted society’s ideas of childhood and adulthood. I worked in childcare for 3 years while I was an art student, and became very interested in what happens to children as they grow up, and what school does to people and how that related to where I was at as a young twenty-something. I made work from this question of childhood vs adulthood. What is the value of ‘growing up’? What do we lose that could be useful to us as adults? I realised when I had a kid that the only thing that separates a child from an adult is responsibility.

In more recent years, these questions have changed to be more focussed on freedom and expression, presence and being the person that you are, finding ways to let yourself be free of the habits and behaviours that we’re taught as children as a means to survive in the world, but that block our intuition and our nature.

SL: I am wondering if training in Bouffon and Clown and your interest in danger and laughter are constellating around a common behaviour or mood, perhaps play or playing. I am thinking of play as an activity outside a strict structure that allows for creativity — what are your thoughts on this? Do your rehearsals resemble play and if so in what way would you say they do?

MP: Over the last two years, play has become the central part of my practice. This has come from a desire to make work that comes from play and from what happens between performers in a room, instead of starting with a big concept or script and production elements that the performers have to fit into. I would also say that allowing for this space of play in rehearsal gives the performers a chance to develop their connection and relationship, which they carry with them from the rehearsal room to the performance. This is often overlooked in a lot of theatre and performance and for me its what makes something feel alive in front of an audience.

SL: In your performances do you allow for play or deviation from the score? Is there room for improvisation? How about the potential for failure?

MP: Whelping Box is the first work I’ve made that has come largely from this ‘play’ in rehearsal. It started with Lee suggesting we do something together and involved talking and writing but a lot of physical play from the earliest stages.

When it came to the show, we had a very set structure or score, which we wrote and devised together as a group, but within that score there was room for some level of improvisation. The work I’m making at the moment is similar, but I would like to make work that shared the quality of the play in the rehearsal room more directly, without it being pure improvisation.

RP14 performance photo by Jacelyn Kee.
Sara Legg is a visual anthropologist and inter-disciplinary researcher currently living and working in Chicago, IL. Her primary research interests include experimental ethnography with an emphasis on film and performance as alternative research methods in the humanities. She completed her BA in anthropology and art history from the University of Maryland and MA in visual anthropology from Goldsmiths, University of London.