So Bomb Collar is a 45-minute one-man theatre show built around 8 songs. It’s set in a future world where humankind has colonized the deep ocean but has also begun to recede on a genetic level. The ability to sing and keep rhythm are just two of the traits that have almost disappeared completely. War has become a fashion/nostalgia movement in which revolutionary armies supplant each other with the frequency of clothing or music trends.
In one of the dingier corners of the Deep Sea, a man who bills himself as the last singer alive gives a concert/pep rally for one such revolutionary army. He wields a folk songbook that descends from the pop music of today, and plays what may be the last musical instrument in existence. He has a bomb strapped to his neck, a legacy of his violent past that could go off any minute. But within that already-complex set-up, there’s something else going on.
About 18 months ago I came across this:
There’s a longer version online but I haven’t watched it, I don’t want any more context. Just that character, defeated and funny and bitter. For a long time I’d wanted a mechanism to write a set of incredibly sad, big singing ballads, and I thought this character could be it.
I also wanted a project that forced me to step up my acting and audience-connection chops in a major way (I have a very crude approach to getting better at things- I write a project that requires new skills and then just try to have them by the time it’s time to perform. As a strategy I’d say it’s usually about 75% successful).
I also wanted just one show I could do without having to organize anyone else.
I didn’t want to do a ‘period’ show of vintage-style songs, so the obvious other way to go was to set it in the future (meaning in it’s own way it is very much a period show). The initial idea was a sort of King Kong riff, the last singer alive held prisoner and forced to perform as a human curiosity, singing his grief and loss to a callous audience. The final show has changed a lot , in a way that’s opened it up to be about quite a lot of things- perhaps too many things, but that’s for an audience to judge and I’ll refrain from further spoilers in the hopes that you’ll come see it.So I don’t know how it works for most one-man shows, but this one took a pretty big team to put together. I started by shooting the shit about it with my friend Dave Finnigan, who asked me a dozen astute questions about the story world and told me that I’d have to write a lot of stuff before I got this right (Dave, I promise that I kind-of mostly followed that advice). I then took it to professional dramaturg and renowned e-mail poet (that’s an in-joke) Peter Matheson, who as always cared about one thing, who was the character and why should we care. Pete was rightly dubious about me leaping from done-a-bit-of-acting into holding down a whole show by myself, but he gallantly assisted me in beating out the basic structure.
I pitched it to Crack Theatre festival, a festival of new and experimental work, without having written a word or a note. I figured it was a long shot to be accepted, but I didn’t account for the fact that it was a pop-up festival producers dream- a show specifically designed to be done in a dingy bare space in which all the tech is provided by the artist.
Oh yeah, that’s the other thing. Somewhere along the way I decided that all the music, sound and lighting affects would be generated by an aggressively lo-fi device incorporated into my costume. It fit in with my idea of a super-portable show, it fits metaphorically with the predicament of both the character and the story world, and it felt like an approach which mirrored the lack of resources I was bringing to the table as a performer (can sing pretty well, limited as an actor, think I can dance better then I can).
The ‘last instrument on earth’ was created by sound artist Paul Heslin, and is a little clip control triggering sound files from a Rasberry Pi computer strapped to my chest. Getting Paul to make something like this was the equivalent of making him work with one hand behind his back, he could have made something much more involved and ‘playable’ but I was determined to have the most idiot-proof (read: Nick-proof) system possible, at least for these first shows.
ACT Hackerspace supremo Adam Thomas (who also took these lovely photos of the sneaky preview run-through I did at Gorman House) designed and made the collar and the lights, and he and Paul ended up working closely together so that the whole thing ran off of the Pi as a single rig. They made something that just worked 100% of the time and that a techno-imbecile lie myself could operate easily, the show couldn’t have worked otherwise.
I asked a couple of people who they thought I should approach about directing and they both suggested Emma MacManus. If you don’t know Emma through her work with Applespiel then that is a loop you should be in. Emma was unbelievably patient with me, she’s used to working with proper actors as well as being one herself. On a 6-week turnaround, she helped me get the script and songs in shape, then with just one week of face-to-face rehearsals took me from a twitching bundle of nerves pacing around the rehearsal space to a mostly-coherent 45 minutes of show. The fact that any of my intended themes and story points got across to the audience at all is down to Emma’s hard work, and I’ve learned tons from her about tone, pacing and clarity. She also got me to make some small practical concessions to my ‘no external tech’ rule (a spotlight and a microphone. The mic ended up being completely essential when I got sick the week of the shows and had to battle some voice stuff)
The final member of Team Bomb Collar is my go-to music producer Sam King. I made him build the tracks with me in the most annoying way possible- first as vocals over basic beats with some notes picked out on a bass to indicate the changes, then we built up the ‘middle’ of the tracks while attempting to stick to a rule of no more than three sounds per track (not including the vocal). There was a common thread in this project of me forcing super-talented artists to do stuff in a dumb-down, long-way-round fashion. We mostly used electronic noises, with a few deliberately weird exceptions.
Once I was servicing the needs of the story the idea of all the songs being sad ballads went out the window. The eight songs I range a fair bit in style and tone, and I feel like every one of them has a solid narrative purpose in the show (if you’ve seen it and you disagree let me know!) Melodically and musically they aren’t a big departure from my normal peacock-pop style but as far as the lyric and production I’d say that they are, if not the weirdest, then certainly the most weirdly specific tracks I’ve ever made.
Crack was the perfect place to debut the show and I was well looked after by the production team. They put me in store-room full of empty boxes, with actual pigeon feathers on the ground. The audience had to cram in and sit on the floor. It was exactly what I had wanted, and of course I’d left myself no place to hide, I had to try and keep people engaged for the full run time.
I knew the weakest part would be my performance. Over the three shows (counting the preview show in Canberra) I improved significantly, but there’s still a lot of improvement to be made in terms of inhabiting the character, making the tonal shifts, getting story points across in a way that properly lands and keeping my legs from shaking nervously all the time. There were odd bits that I did quite well, which was nice, and the Crack audience was savvy and generous, they did a lot of the heavy lifting for me and gave me the space to have a lot of fun with it.
I made some tiny tweaks to the script across the performance but on the whole I’d say that part was working pretty well. The tech worked like a charm and I’d like to let Paul and Adam off the leash to add a couple more ideas to it for next time.
I feel like I’ve made something purpose built for fringe-y pop-up festivals so I’m gonna look around for the next place to stage it.
Thanks also to all of the friends who came to see it and provided absolutely vital feedback, you have made the world better for future audiences!