Chris Parker once described Barbarian Productions’ Artistic Director Jo Randerson as “the master of meaning”. Establishing the company in 2001, Randerson was joined by her now husband Thomas LaHood in 2006, and over the years the two have developed nation-wide reputations in the New Zealand performing arts industry as radical progressives. Their dramaturgical expertise, alongside their penchant for clowning, would inevitably make for the merging of two solo shows on which each were working. While LaHood was exploring men’s relationship with emotional labour, Randerson was investigating how women have to hold themselves to accommodate others. Each was acting as unofficial dramaturg for the other, and it became clear early on that not only was the thematic territory complementary, but they were using a similar performance language to create the work. Working with costume and clown, and a visual, tableaux-building physical style rather than text heavy monologuing, the result, Soft n Hard, makes its third appearance in Auckland next week at Q Loft.
Following two sell-out seasons in Wellington, the show is an exciting opportunity for Auckland audiences to once again engage with the anarchic fun for which Barbarian is known. But how much has the content of the show been informed by their own relationships?
Jo Randerson: This show is not auto-biographical, but tries to reflect relationship dynamics we have observed, read about, seen presented in popular culture, and also lived through. But the work we make is always hugely informed by our own experience. That's the way clown works, it has to come from you. The making process includes research, investigation, talking with others, testing ideas on trial audiences, but there always has to be a connection to ourselves and our own lived experience.
Thomas LaHood: I would say observation both of ourselves and our own journeys, and those of people around us (peers, family, colleagues) has been at the heart of the process - at least speaking for myself. I don't feel that the show has 'been informed by our relationship', rather that many small observations about the stances that we take, the impulses we suppress and the conflicts we find ourselves repeatedly enacting have certainly been used and woven to create a larger, more universal and abstract experience.
The abstract universality has certainly resonated with audiences, with LaHood adding that “A huge number of people have said they felt like we had recorded their conversations and they were watching their own lives being played back to them.”
So after 10 years of marriage, how has the relationship dynamic informed the collaborative process?
TL: Massively! The rehearsal room could get pretty terse at times, even though everyone in the team was really good at keeping things fun and funny. I can only say personally that I know I brought a huge number of blocks and insecurities to the process that are very much visible in the finished work. There's a lot of creative use of conflict in our collaboration, but I also think we both trust each other creatively and probably our material evolves to a richer, more complex place by having two creators having to negotiate constantly.
JR: These two dynamics are different – business partners and parents, and they are different again when we co-perform, although I think in all situations I tend to be the 'driver' whereas Thomas is a very good implementer. In all situations it's helpful to have someone else beyond the two of us, either our kids, the rest of our team at Barbarian, and in our show, our awesome director, Isobel McKinnon to help us get perspective.
Learning that one of her favourite writers, Doris Lessing, had left her children at a young age to focus on her writing, was also helpful for Randerson as a young parent.
JR: Not that this was something I wanted to do, but it widened the scope of possibility. I’ve found there to be such pressure to be a superlative mother, to take to the role 'naturally', but I know many women who do not find this role an easy shift. It’s important to remember there is a spectrum of experiences in parenting, and that regardless of your gender you may sit anywhere along that spectrum as a parent. One of my favourite pieces of graffiti is Fight Back: MAGIC (Men Are Good Infant Caregivers). We need to liberate ourselves from conventional stereotypes for everybody's sake.
This rejection of the pressure of conventional gender roles is also reflected in the couple’s work.
TL: I think Jo's leadership of Barbarian means that she takes on a lot of the 'provider' responsibilities that are conventionally considered a male domain, while I’ve had a more hands on role in domestic parenting than many, particularly with the children in their infancy. Jo still has to manage almost all of the emotional labour, and it's always surprising to me how much I still take on the mantle of 'grumpy dad' keeping behaviour boundaries firmly policed. We don't always work from the same page and I think we probably are both more intuitive parents than strategic or systematic ones, so we can forgive each other quite readily. Parenting is a really complex and confusing experience.
The show has been astutely described by the couple’s 11-year-old son, Geronimo, as “two monsters who turn into people and then have lots of fights”. The observation made them realise how visible the struggle with their own inner monsters can be, so how do they address these often creative yet potentially destructive forces in the home?
JR: We played a lot of loud music when our kids were small, we all danced and sung and crashed around the room. This was a much needed release when the pressure mounted in hard times.
TL: We both use comedy a lot. It's the best way to address monsters head-on, but you need some emotional/spiritual energy in reserve to be resilient enough to have a sense of humour in the first place! I've learned a lot through working in the arts with Jo about the value of being able to lean into or sit still within uncomfortable or challenging experiences, and that really is the challenge.
JR: I also get outside, into the air, next to the trees and the earth. Our whole whanau chill out as soon as we leave the house. I address the inner monster by be-friending it, getting to know it and finding out what it needs. Art is one of the best ways to work with your inner monster.
TL: If you can create a space for your monsters, and treat them with a kind or even loving sense of humour, then they have the opportunity to grow into something quite beautiful.