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Circuit Training 113: Desiree Burch's Top 12 Months, and The Dirty Thirty

Desiree Burch

Almost exactly an annum ago, Circuit Training met up with the then new-to-many Desiree Burch, who rapidly became a familiar face, on the box and treading the boards.

The LA-born comic has popped up on a lot of our biggest TV shows, but is still pushing more boundaries than whoever it is works out the election zones. This week Burch and a bunch of other theatrical types are staging a run of The Dirty Thirty at London's Vault festival, an elaborate, interactive theatrical event that she'll explain below.

Then she'll be at the glorious Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday, performing at the big Teenage Cancer Trust gig alongside this impressive, tricky-to-pick-a-headliner bill: Russell Howard, Greg Davies, Dara O Briain, Sara Pascoe, Paul Chowdhry and Mo Gilligan. Crikey.

So, as if she isn't busy enough, we dropped her a line for an in-depth chat about The Dirty Thirty, which she's currently in the middle of. But first, the year just gone.

That ]last chat was on March 19th, 2017. How have the last 12 months been?

Oy! It's been a blinder.

I created and performed my second stand-up hour, Unf*ckable, for the Fringe and Soho Theatre, and have been doing quite a bit of panellist and presenting work across TV and radio, things like Live At The Apollo, Comedy Central's Roast Battle, QI, HIGNFY, The Mash Report, The News Quiz, The Now Show. And a lot of stellar live gigs I wouldn't have dreamed of doing a year ago.

Live At The Apollo. Desiree Burch. Copyright: Open Mike Productions

It's been cool. I am WICKED TIRED though. Although, I guess, when it rains, it pours, and you wanna catch every last drop. But yeah, I'm in the place where people in the UK either still have no idea who I am, or are sick of seeing me... well, I have some more new lovely fans, which is lovely and humbling.

You'll be stepping out at one of our greatest venues for this big Teenage Cancer Trust show - was that a quick 'yes!' when they asked?

I mean, obviously my heart leapt at the prospect of performing at Royal Albert Hall. I had to cancel other plans, but, like, what comic doesn't want to cancel other plans to perform at a venue like that.

Since being here in the UK I've had the chance to perform at some historic, iconic venues. I don't know if it's fully sunk in yet that I hadn't even dreamed of something like that happening and now it's about to.

It's kind of massively wonderful, but the kind of thing that's hard to appreciate before or even as it's happening. You just want to be able to be worthy of it when you are there. And then later, you get to be like, 'heh. Yeah. That happened... sweet.'

Tell us about this Vault run - how does The Dirty Thirty work?

The Dirty Thirty is an ever-changing attempt to perform 30 original and honest plays in one original and honest hour. The audience are given a menu of plays we are serving that night when they walk into the space: it's up to them to order number 1-30 and for us to perform it for them. So basically, you've got 30 roughly two-minutes plays that are being done in random order every night.

What do those scripts involve?

The plays that we write are created within a non-illusory aesthetic, meaning that we aren't actors playing characters in narrative dramatic arcs. We are people, performing real tasks in real time on stage that are arranged in a way to tell stories, or engage certain topics or issues that are current to all of our lives.

A lot of people read it as improv or sketch, and it does have a somewhat similar feel. But we do write all of these plays, even if what we write are instructions for things to happen in the moment onstage, it's still creating structures for certain things to happen. The result is a wild night of theatre, because we go into the audience, invite audience onto stage, and need them to be involved in order to execute some of the shows.

It's not the same as the sort of 'audience participation' that people cringe at when they go to see shows, because there isn't this superimposed dynamic of the performer playing a character and knowing what is supposed to happen and the audience member being in a position of less power. We're all people with similar status in a space, and so there is more of a sense of us all playing together.

The Dirty Thirty

How did the idea come about originally? Were you actively trying to create something artistically challenging?

Well, this is a performance aesthetic that has been around for 30 or so years in the States; nothing I've originated. But I was one of the founding members of a company called the New York Neo-Futurists, who have done this kind of non-illusory, devised theatre since 2004.

Doing 30 short plays in an hour is a structure that various shows and companies have done, but when myself and Kate Jones - another NYNF company member - were living here in the UK, we sort of decided that this sort of medium could work really well here.

The original idea behind the show is about embracing the liveness of theatre. The only thing that theatre and live performance hold over more modern and convenient media - that you can consume in your pants in bed - is that live performance is inherently irreproducible. People come to see something live because life never happens the exact same way ever again, it's an experience, rather than solely entertainment.

It does sound more cliff-edge than scripted drama, for everyone involved.

There's no 'fourth wall' or 'suspension of disbelief' utilised in the show, and because we are actively trying to do things onstage - racing to perform the thirty plays we have created within the hour - there is an element of sport involved in the performance.

Everyone in the space is working together to make the performance happen. Unlike the theatre where you sit back in a passive space and are forced to receive, this theatre acknowledges your presence and power as an audience member, and consequently feels more invigorating and event-like than most theatre.

What's the most memorable edition of The Dirty Thirty you can remember? Does it get pretty tight, squeezing that last play in?

I mean, to be honest, we don't always finish the show. Some nights lines are lost or tasks to be done onstage fail, there are massive clean-ups, or lines forgotten. We write and set up plays the way we want them to go, and then hope we have structured them well enough that they go that way; but also, life happens, and things can change. So it is always a tight squeeze. That is the challenge of it, and why it's exhilarating to do and watch.

Always memorable is the amount of mess that we create in doing the show. There are a lot of plays that involve food, liquid, bubbles, confetti, booze, etc. I wrote a play about being lactose intolerant and non-dairy products that resulted in almond milk and cookies being spewed all over my face and the stage in an embrace.

Another play involves trying to artificially manufacture a sneeze, and it meant that I accidentally inhaled a heap of pepper and was tearing and blinded for the subsequent five plays in the show. I remember an American audience member outing one of her friends as a Trump voter in the middle of one of our plays, and it was a whole moment for everyone in the audience. The great thing about the show is that organic moments occur that are magic.

So give us a flavour of those plays: some of them are actually dirty?

There is one in now about sexualised crisp adverts that makes a bit of a mess. Normally we have to mop up fluids by the end of the show. We've tried to keep this week's menu a bit lower on clean-up needs just because we are in a festival and have a quick turnover. But generally, the show makes the space a downright mess by the end.

As far as some of the flavour, we have got plays in now about gender transition, aging and death, the social cost of pornography, weather and the environment, not reading enough, and of course, Brexit. There are a few plays that are spoofs of cultural touchstones as well.

Stand Up Central. Desiree Burch. Copyright: Avalon Television

Has this type of event helped inform your solo comedy work?

Oh, it definitely has. I think that it largely helps me to be more present as a live performer, or at least to always attempt to do that. The Dirty Thirty is an attempt to perform 30 plays in an hour and an attempt to be as truthful and present on stage as we can. That means that everything we write and do onstage is a challenge.

I think that I hold that as a value in the work that I make as a comedian, so I am always trying to do more things that feel risky to me, because an audience can see and sense that element in your work, and it is always riveting to watch someone try to do something that they may fail or succeed at. It's part of the reason we like sport so much, and I think that same sense of risk and daring always has a place in comedy and other kinds of performance.

So who else is in it, and will you all be a frazzled mess by the end of this Vault run?

The rest of the active company is also in the show this week at the VAULT Festival, so it's nice to have the whole gang together. My other ensemble members are Laura Killeen, Gabrielle MacPherson, Sergio Maggiolo, Graham Self and Jay Wakely.
All of them are actors, writers, directors, physical theatre performers in their own rights. So it's great to have a multiplicity of talent coming together from different backgrounds to make the work that we do.

And yes, I am going to be completely unwound by the end of the run, but a lot of that is from the past few months of work in my life in general. Doing this show is always physically exhausting, but it's invigorating because of the fact that we each give our all in doing it. Every time. Plus there is the anxiety of always writing and performing new plays every time we do it, and the sheer panic the day that you are performing something onstage you only wrote a few days before.

What else are you up to this year? Edinburgh? Any more interesting projects?

Yeah, it looks like I will be going back to Edinburgh with a new hour. I am working on doing more with Unf*ckable, my last stand-up hour as well, in terms of developing it for TV and other forms, but that work is still in the early stages. Basically, I am trying to shift back into a writing and creative mode to make some projects that have a longer run/reach. Also, Degenerate Fox Theatre, who make The Dirty Thirty, are expanding, and there is a lot of development happening for the company that is exciting.

And any special plans for that big Royal Albert Hall show?

Um... Not to suck?

Published: Friday 16th March 2018

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