ED2018 Chris Meets ED2018 Interviews ED2018 Review Edition ED2018 Theatre

Victoria Firth: How To Be Amazingly Happy

By | Published on Saturday 4 August 2018

Victoria Firth has been working in and around the theatre for more than two decades as a director and a performer, but this year she brings her first full length solo show to the Edinburgh Festival. The project was inspired by a workshop led by Fringe favourite Bryony Kimmings and sees Victoria explore a very interesting and very personal theme.

We were intrigued by both the show – ‘How To Be Amazingly Happy’ – and the journey Victoria has taken in creating it. Which meant we just had to ask some questions.

CC: Good to meet you. Let’s start at the start, tell us a little about your career to date as a theatre maker.
VF: I guess this is my third incarnation as a theatre maker. In my 20s I trained as a young director and directed some text-based work, mainly with young people and students, and for a theatre in health education company. Then in my 30s I made some short solo ‘live art’ pieces, which I also performed in. I was doing an MA in Ensemble Physical Theatre at the time, so these were all quite body-based with no text at all. Now in my 40s I’ve made ‘How To Be Amazingly Happy!’, which is my first full length production. It’s a solo work and it brings together all of my experiences, both personal and professional.

CC: So tell us more about ‘How To Be Amazingly Happy’. What themes does it cover? What form does it take?
VF: ‘How To Be Amazingly Happy!’ is about failure: what happens when you go after something and don’t get it. It’s about times when you don’t conform to what’s expected of you or what’s common for other people. And it’s about moments in your life when you’re not really sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

In this case it’s looking at not having children. Either because you can’t or don’t want to, or maybe they’ve been and gone, or you’re just not sure what to do or how to go about making a family. It’s also about how you reset your expectations and go about making your own happiness. I hope it takes the audience to a place where they are braver about doing what they want to, and are excited about taking risks and having more fun.

The form moves around including storytelling, physical comedy and audio recordings with nods to clowning and cabaret.

CC: Why did you decide to do a piece on these themes?
VF: I really wanted to make a full length show, but I didn’t really know how to or what to make it about. So I did a course and what became apparent was that a good starting point is things you know about and which matter to you.

I spent several years angst-ing about whether to have children and how that might happen, so it was a topic that just wouldn’t go away. At first I was very reluctant to do something auto-biographical, but the more people I talked to the more people said “yes”, that’s something they related to and would like to see a show about.

Part of my journey to being happier is to be more creative, and so it really it makes sense to tell this story through performance – it’s a live experiment.

CC: Did you do any research for the piece or is it primarily based on personal experience?
VF: It’s primarily based on my experience, but that includes all the parallel journeys that my friends were on and the insights I got from other people I connected with through these common interests.

In my peer group, I knew lots of people who shared some, or all, of these challenges. Which is surprising, because people don’t often talk about parenting concerns, fertility failures or their secret dreams.

Part of what the show doing is talking very honestly about what a lot of people are wrestling with privately.

CC: As you’ve already alluded to, it’s a theatre show but with plenty of storytelling and physical comedy. Did you find it difficult picking a genre to classify it under in the Fringe Programme?
VF: Yes totally. I have experimented with form deliberately. Firstly for the audience. I wanted everyone to find something that they could relate to, both in terms of theme and form. So there’s comedy, stories, physical action, strong images, a daft song, a lip sync number and so on. Secondly that exploration was for me, to see what I could do as a performer and to find out the best ways to communicate with an audience.

CC: As you’ve also mentioned, this is your first full length solo show. What has it been like preparing for a project like this?
VF: At first it felt very risky. I was inhibited about what people would think, about me as a performer trying my hand at it in middle age and also about the subject matter, which is very personal at times. This held the project back for a long time, but I really wanted to go for it, and I’m all about making your own destiny and happiness, so this year I decided to go for it.

Once I talked to other artists who had started later in life – or who, like me, had moved around in other roles in theatre – I got more confident and everyone has been very generous and supportive with their advice and encouragement. I realise with hindsight that a lot of my doubts were based on my own fears not reality, and as soon as I really got going it’s been nothing but exciting. It feels right – like “yes”, this is what I’m supposed to be doing right now. I’m swimming in the right direction.

CC: You mentioned the course, which I think was one led by Fringe favourite Bryony Kimmings, who you say has definitely inspired the show. Has anyone else inspired this show or your performance style in general?
VF: I’ve recently been doing some clowning training, first with a Brazilian clown, Angela de Castro, and then with Jamie Wood. I’ve learnt so many lessons from that – for performing and for life! To slow down, to connect with people, to be in the moment, to be without expectation and see what happens, to be playful and enjoy what you’re doing.

CC: You also work at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Yorkshire. Tell us a little more about that and your role there.
VF: I’m very privileged to have been the Director of the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield for over ten years now. My role is to oversee everything that happens at the theatre, but in particular to lead the artistic programme and decide which shows perform there. Working with artists and talking to audiences is the best part of my job. It’s a fantastic theatre and together we have been able to develop a really exciting programme. Now we are starting to look at how we can do more to support local artists and encourage new work being made in Yorkshire and the North.

CC: What draws you to the Edinburgh Fringe?
VF: When I did the Bryony Kimmings workshop, which was in spring 2017, she said if you leave this course and start making your show now, you can take it to the Fringe next year. I didn’t start mine for a long time after that, because of other commitments, but that still stayed in my head as a challenge and an ambition, and so as soon as I could I worked towards it.

As long as I’ve worked in theatre, Edinburgh has always been a high point of the year and a must do on the theatre calendar. I’ve come so many times it seems like a second home and I’m so delighted to be a part of it.

CC: Other than performing, what else are you planning to do while in the city?
VF: I’m staying in Leith and I’m keen to do more exploring there. My landlady said there’s 22 languages spoken in that area and there seems to be so many exciting independent bars and food places with cuisine and street food from all over the world. I’d quite like to eat my way up and down Leith Walk. I’m also hoping to get the bus out to the coast and take in the sea air.

CC: Looking beyond the Festival, what other projects do you have coming up?
VF: Well next I’m going to devise a new cabaret act for a queer theatre showcase called Mother’s Bloomers in October, possibly on a vampire theme. In terms of a next theatre show, I’ve an idea for a clowning piece about insomnia called ‘No Sleep Till Bedtime’. But a lot depends on what happens during the Festival – it’s a new adventure so I haven’t written it too far ahead yet!

‘How To Be Amazingly Happy’ was performed at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2018.

Photo: Cathy Pilkington