Binge Culture are a performance-art group of five that originated in Wellington, New Zealand. They’re always thinking about how to get the audience involved in their work and playing with forms outside of traditional theatre. The group have three highly contrasting shows to this year’s Fringe – Whales, Break Up: We Need to Talk and Ancient Shrines and Half Truths. Sarah Virgo met two of the team, Fiona McNamara and Ralph Upton, to learn a bit more about the inspiration and thinking behind each of them.
The luxury of taking something and to both present it and figure it out over a month is a special thing you can do in Edinburgh
Binge Culture have brought three shows, all with varying levels of audience participation and different quirks, to this year’s festival. The oldest one is Whales, which goes back to 2011. Inspired by whale strandings, the group ask audience members to participate in the show: they act as the whales, and the general public help save them. It’s a highly interactive piece about bringing the community together to help do something special. Ralph explains it as, ‘making people believe, in a straight-forward kind of way.’
Talking about Whales, Fi and Ralph say that it has been weirder bringing the show overseas. In New Zealand, whale strandings are a common event, everyone knows what they are. However, at an international festival like Edinburgh, it’s been a bit more difficult to explain to people what they’re doing. I asked Fi what it’s like to direct and get people involved in these performances. ‘We’re wearing wetsuits and we lie on the ground and people [the audience] are sent to fill buckets of water and lay the wet sheets on the whales backs. People sing to the whales and talk to the whales and keep them calm and relaxed before we send them back to the sea.’
Break Up: We Need to Talk is another older performance that Binge Collective have brought to the festival this year. The format of the show has changed over the eight years they’ve been performing it, so it is one of their better known works in New Zealand. The show, now, is a completely improvised five-hour show that follows a conversation between two characters and the breakdown of their relationship. My most pressing question was ‘Why five hours?’ And what happens when one of the cast needs a break?
‘We wanted to give ourselves as many restrictions [as possible],’ Ralph explains. The concept behind Break Up is that the intensity and restrictive nature of the production creates and leads to better conversations. They do give each other breaks sometimes though, Fi tells me, ‘Once, in Auckland, I really needed to go to the bathroom and I could see there was at least one audience member who hadn’t left at all and I was like, If he doesn’t leave, I can’t leave!’
The show is‘a weird chaotic blender’ and ‘an exploration of character and relationships and what makes a relationship.’ The format allows all of the cast to feel, at one point, like the victim. It’s an intense, emotional experience to watch – it feels intimate and a bit odd to watch such a personal conversation, the break-up talk. Fi points out that at some times you do just wonder why everyone keeps yelling at you, and then you remind yourself, you’re acting…
The Kiwi group’s interactive, app-based, Ancient Shrines and Half Truths is a debut this Fringe. The team give the audience devices and headphones with a pre-made application and they take you on an ‘alternative’ tour of Edinburgh – which is full of lies. Ralph tells me they were inspired by the AirBnB slogan ‘belong anywhere’. The AirBnB market has changed how we visit countries, we now expect the ‘local’ experience, to see things no other tourist has seen, and Ancient Shrines takes the mick out of that. Binge Collective take the ridiculous part about visiting overseas, all of the expectation and assumptions that you will get the ‘authentic’ experience – and turn it into something absurd. ‘It’s a satirical guide that is disguised as a tourist experience.’
The team were excited to debut the show in Edinburgh, because they believe the festival gives them a unique opportunity to really roadtest an idea and performance. ‘If it works here it’s going to work anywhere. The luxury of taking something and to both present it and figure it out over a month is a special thing you can do in Edinburgh,’ Ralph said.
I didn’t need to ask the guys if they’re coming back for another Fringe: I know they are excited to come back here in the future. Both Fi and Ralph say they’re excited to come back with new or reworked shows in the future. Compared to Wellington, Edinburgh gives them the opportunity to do these shows multiple times and get different experiences and reactions each time, particularly for audience-dependent shows like Whales and Shrines.
They were heading off to fly home just after we met, exhausted by the festival and, Fi told me, with a suitcase full of wetsuits.