Interview: Theatre Counterpoint, Am I Pretty?

Theatre Counterpoint produced their first show, Don’t Turn the Lights On, in 2015. The following year, with the arrival of two new members, work began on Am I Pretty? – an original devised performance which examines current issues around the self, body image, and cosmetic surgery. After months of development, the company will be presenting Am I Pretty? at Camden People’s Theatre from 6th-8th April, and are also seeking touring opportunities to share the work with more people.

The London-based company’s made up of director Dadiow Lin, producer Johanna Coulson, Mira Yonder, Valentin Stoev, Tori Zdovc and Jay Walker, who’ve worked closely together on the show. So where did the idea come from? “It started as a joke, or what we thought was a joke really. We were in a cafe, thinking about what our next project’s going to be, and Dadiow said, ‘I always wanted to have a chin’. And we looked at her and said ‘Well, you do Dadiow, you have a chin!’ We kept talking about appearance, what it means to us, and to what extent it’s linked to who we are. Having these thoughts in mind made us curious about all the people who’ve had cosmetic surgeries and what it feels like for them before and afterwards. Do they change their perception of themselves? What psychological journey might a person go through when applying this operation to their bodies and faces?

Photo credit: Jost Franko

“Cosmetic surgery is so many things, has so many dimensions. Most people dismiss it as an unnecessary vanity but it is a scientific marvel, a form of self-expression like tattoos and piercings, a complete life changer, in both good and bad ways. Some of our members’ perception of cosmetic surgery was completely changed from even just the first workshop we did. Am I Pretty? aims to start a conversation about this growing, evolving phenomenon, and to provide an opportunity to think about cosmetic surgery in all its complexity.”

The show’s been in development for about nine months. “The creative team was formed in June 2016, and that’s when we started developing the work. As we’re using jazz composition to shape the work, we firstly created a small piece, presented at Rich Mix in August 2016, to test out how we may establish a sense of jazz in a theatre performance. It was an important experience as we not only performed something jazzy but also gathered the comments and feedback about how this piece was perceived. After the trial of the jazz structure, we then delved into research on cosmetic surgery in order to form a ‘theme’ of this show.

“Our initial research into cosmetic surgery involved speaking to people who’ve experienced it as well as reading articles and journals about the whole process, both from the perspective of the patient and the medical people involved in the procedures. We broke down this research and data to see how it made us feel and understand the different viewpoints of those involved in the procedure. This led to us presenting a work-in-progress examining the journey of getting a nose job done at Goldsmiths, University of London in October 2016.

“Improvisation is the most important part in jazz music; therefore, after the presentation in October, we worked a whole week at The Old Vic Lab in November to seek our improvisational tools in a theatrical realm. From November until now, we’ve been generating material based on our ‘theme’ and refining our improvisational approaches, and now the performance is evolved into a three-act show with six scenes in each act. It’s huge and exciting!”

The team are clear that they’re not looking to preach about the pros or cons of cosmetic surgery: “We’d like people to leave with a more in-depth understanding of cosmetic surgery and the motivation behind people’s choice to undergo what can be a very painful, expensive and dangerous operation. However, we’re not giving a position to our audience, as it’s a very complex issue and there’s no black and white answer to it. Instead, we would like to intrigue you with more questions, challenge the superficial perspectives about cosmetic surgery, and reveal the intricate stories of the journey of becoming ‘prettier’.”

Importantly, Am I Pretty? has something to say to everyone, whether or not we’ve ever thought about cosmetic surgery. “It’s a work about how we are perceived and how we perceive ourselves. Cosmetic surgery is a complex issue that we use as a lens to talk about who we are and how we might change in society. It should be interesting to anyone, as we all have some opinion on cosmetic surgery but our knowledge is often ‘skin deep’ – we know ours was until we started researching for this show. It involves a lot of issues and these go to the core of who we are as individuals, even if we have never considered having surgery.”

Photo credit: Jost Franko

And for anyone who is thinking about surgery, what would be the team’s advice? “We think it’s essential to figure out why you’d like to have cosmetic surgery – for instance, trying to discover if you will actually be ‘happier’ afterwards. If you have made up your mind, please consult the surgeon in detail, be aware of all the risks and complications, and prepare for the recovery thoroughly. We might ignore the ‘recovery period’ when seeing the effective before and after images, however, the recovery period could be very dreadful, and painful for both mental and physical status.”

What’s unique about Theatre Counterpoint, the team explain, is that they use analysis of music structures for the composition of their devised performances. “As we’ve been hosting workshops for theatre students who are also interested in devised theatre, we will keep sharing this method and developing it by expanding the scale of workshops and inviting more and more theatre practitioners to them.

“The jazz structure we take for Am I Pretty? is from ‘All the Things You Are’ by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. We made the basic sections in the music into different acts of the work, and the chord progressions into the scenes in each act. However, we’d like to keep some secrets about how we create these scenes, and how we interpret and deliver the sense of ‘jazz’ when making Am I Pretty? This jazz interpretation is not literal, the show does not involve music or singing. We’d love to have people come, see the show, find out, and question us about the shaping of the performance!”

Catch Am I Pretty? at Camden People’s Theatre from 6th-8th April.

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