“It’s the live element that we’re interested in” – James Stenhouse from Action Hero chats about their Arts House residency

4 years ago
Til Knowles
Action Hero are back! The British duo of Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse are taking over North Melbourne’s Arts House as the Company in Residence. Best described as live art rather than theatre, Action Hero are internationally renown for their engaging, unsettling works that explore the themes of popular culture, language and media. As part of their residency, Action Hero are presenting three works not yet performed in Australia: Hoke’s Bluff, Slap Talk and Wrecking Ball. Til Knowles spoke to James Stenhouse about these pieces, the position of theatre, and, of course, pop culture.

You’ve spoken before about your ongoing interest in pop culture, and it’s a frequent theme in your performances. Obviously, that’s one of our key obsessions here at popculture-y (we are named for it!). How, if at all, do you think pop culture, and the way audiences engage with it, has changed in the past ten years?

I think more and more its become part of the more general conversation. I think pop culture has upped its game quite a lot as well. I’m thinking of how much better television has got for example, or certain elements of pop music that are doing really awesome things. Pop culture is not immediately associated with trash in people’s minds anymore because there’s now a lot of very high quality stuff with real integrity. I also think that the sentimentality and nostalgia of lots of pop culture in very recent years has become very prominent in people’s minds because of the ways in which politicians are using those narratives.

Pop culture is often considered ‘lowbrow’, in comparison to theatre and live performance, which are usually labelled ‘highbrow’, or at the least ‘experimental’. How do these preconceptions intersect in your work?

We don’t really discriminate between any of those terms or forms. Anything that compels us, or excites us or intrigues us we take it equally seriously. We don’t see pop culture us something ‘outside’ of general cultural life, I mean why would it be? Its more present in our lives than any other form and its ubiquity makes it something that we feel it’s weird to ignore. I find it strange how a lot of theatre seems to want to exist in a vacuum outside of that popular/mainstream discourse. We might find a lot of popular culture crass, or politically problematic or whatever but that’s not really an excuse to ignore it. For us that’s a good reason to get to the bottom of it.

Paintin in Hoke’s Bluff

Do you think theatre is pop culture?

Hmmmm good question. I don’t think so no. A lot of the time we try and describe our work in terms that avoid the word theatre. Even though it is theatre, that word has a lot of baggage. We try and talk in terms of liveness. It’s the live element that we’re interested in. But I also think that the art or theatre context provides a very useful frame within which to examine, critique and try and understand popular culture rather than ‘be’ pop itself. We sometimes try and make our work using rulebooks borrowed from popular culture but the art/theatre context is what prevents us from just replicating. Otherwise the work doesn’t subvert or disrupt it just assimilates or appropriates.

What are the pieces of pop culture that had the biggest influence on you (for good or bad reasons)?

While we were making Hoke’s Bluff we got really into the TV show ‘Friday Night Lights’ which is just the best. We also watched a lot of really trashy straight to DVD high school movies which were dreadful but really useful and interesting for our process.

One of your productions, Wrecking Ball, explores concepts of the real, reality, and the unreal, and the power dynamics involved in convincing people of truth. This piece has some pretty clear real world referents. Do you think a return to ‘common truths’, to belief in ‘experts’ and the search for ‘objectivity’ is possible? Is it even a worthwhile goal? How and where does theatre and live performance sit in a landscape of obfuscated and opaque truths? How is that different to the role pop culture takes?

I think live performance is an excellent arena in which to investigate how we feel about the landscape of obfuscated and opaque truths. One of the things that drove the making of Wrecking Ball was how interesting it was to play games with what’s real and what’s not in a theatre. Especially since Gemma and I are often playing ourselves or versions of ourselves on stage it’s a really fruitful environment in which to try and uncover some of the mechanics of the world we live in now. I think we’re currently a very long way from a world of ‘common truths’. I think we left that behind a while ago, for good and bad.

Slap Talk addresses the mediation of violence and language, and the constant barrage of both in 2017. The performance is six hours long and uses cameras and autocues, performed to audience who are free to leave and return as they like, just like ‘real’ television. You’ve performed it across a couple of countries at several different festivals. How do you find the audience reactions? Do they differ much?

Well weirdly, it’s hard for us to know. Unlike our other work which has a really intimate relationship with its audience, in Slap Talk the set-up means we can’t really see them. Our bodies are mediated via the cameras and the monitors. the audience are very connected to us via our image on the screen which feels v. intimate, almost voyeuristic for them but for us, we can’t really gauge what’s going on. We’re quite disconnected. It’s a very strange piece to perform in that way.

Paintin and Stenhouse in Wrecking Ball

Your works all engage the audience, in either complicit and explicit ways (sometimes both). What’re some of the strangest audience responses you’ve had?

One of the reasons we made Wrecking Ball was because we’d realised over the years that despite being given open invites in our work audiences behaviour was often quite predictable! We found this a bit depressing so Wrecking Ball is partly an attempt to look at the power structures and hierarchies in culture that create that environment. That being said we’ve had some very strange things happen over the years. In Rio De Janeiro a woman lifted up a dress and pulled down her knickers in front of me. That was probably the most extreme. Or there was a show in Nottingham once where a guy stood on my back and wouldn’t let me get up while he improvised his own monologue for 5 minutes. I also had a glass bottle thrown at my head in a show in Glasgow once but to be honest, I deserved it.

One of the thoughts behind Slap Talk is that any spoken thing can seem violent – is there a word or phrase you haven’t been able to make violent?

Not really! There’s even a section in there about healing herbs that draws out the passive violence in the languages that attach themselves to that industry and the culture around ‘healing’ more generally pops up quite a lot in the show.


Hoke’s Bluff, a twist on the high school sports films and the American dream, runs from 24 to 27 May, at 7pm. Tickets range between $30 – $40.

Slap Talk, the six hour verbal sparring match, is on Sunday 28 May, is free. Audiences can come and go as they please.

Wrecking Ball is a play about power, control and fame. It’s on from 31 May to 3 June. Tickets range between $30 – $40.

Tickets and more information about all three shows can be found via the Arts House Facebook page.


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