Interview with Performance Artist and Theatre Maker, Ursula Martínez of (le) PAIN Fame

16 05 2022


A conversation with performance artist and theatre maker Ursula Martínez, director of Jean Daniel Broussé’s first solo show (le) PAIN.

By Andrea Cabrera Luna

Andrea:         Hi Ursula. Very nice to see you.

Ursula:          Hi, Andrea. Nice to see you too.

Andrea:         Let's start from the beginning. Your dad is English. Your mum is Spanish.

Ursula:          I was born in the UK. My mum lives in the south of Spain but she's from España profunda, the middle of Spain. She’s from a small remote village in the middle of nowhere.

Andrea:         You were born in South London, correct?

Ursula:          I was born in London. Yeah.

Andrea:         You're bilingual right?

Ursula:          Not exactly. I don't have equal status with both languages. English is my first language and Spanish is my second language as opposed to equal status, but I'm very fluent. Sometimes it can appear as though I'm bilingual.

Andrea:         I think you’re being modest; I’ve heard you speaking perfect Spanish.

Ursula:          Yeah, I do a good disguise.

Andrea:         You are a director and a performer.

Ursula:          I'm primarily a performer and then recently, in the last 10 years, I got into directing. At the moment, directing is taking up most of my time. I see it as a very natural and organic trajectory from performer to director, a bit like a footballer becoming a coach or a manager. Unlike a footballer who tends not to go back to playing football, of course, I can dip in and out of performing whenever I want. I certainly haven't given up performing. At the moment, I'm just exploring directing a lot, getting a lot of work and really enjoying learning a lot. I guess all of that is informing my practice in general and will probably inform my work in the future too.

Andrea:         That's brilliant that you can dip in and out. I’d particularly like to hear about your collaboration with Jean Danielle Broussé, you directed his show (le) PAIN that was presented at Manipulate Festival this year. By the way, you have brilliant titles for shows you make, I'm really interested in knowing about how you choose these amazing titles. Tell me a little bit about your collaboration with Jean Daniel.

Ursula:          Yeah. He came to me and asked me to collaborate with him working on a solo show; his first solo show. I'd seen his work, I'd seen him perform in a different show called Knot that's a duo, a physical performance slash circus performance show with a lot of text. I had quite a sense of his broad skills. He asked me to direct his show and at one point it was going to be about mediaeval masculinity because he has a degree in Mediaeval Literature, and then we got talking and he was telling me about his dad and the family business and that he was fourth generation son of a baker and that he was disappointing his father not taking on the family business as the only son. So, the bakery stops with him. In the end, that's what we made the show about. It's about family and ancestry and identity and responsibility and fitting in or not fitting in; choosing your own path and choosing to disappoint people because what you mustn't do is disappoint yourself, primarily. So yeah, the show was about that and about queerness and about growing up queer in rural South of France. The title came up during one session with the two of us of pain, and pain in French is bread, which is spelled P A I N, which is pain in English. It felt beautiful.

Andrea:         Beautiful.

Ursula:          We play on this sort of wordplay during the show as well. The wordplay features in the show.

Andrea:         It's quite a tactile experience, I would say in terms of the bread and the reference to the body of JD and the body of Christ as well. There’s a liturgical quality to the show.

Ursula:          Bread is actually such a rich subject and holds a lot of importance in our culture. There's lots of references to draw on, not least, yes, the bread of Christ. I know that the word that JD talks about in the show, companionship is about sharing bread; com pain = with bread, the idea that even that the word companionship which means friendship, comes from the sharing of bread. Bread plays a big part in our culture, I think.

Andrea:         What surprised me about this show was that I read the warning: “This show contains nudity”. I inadvertently expected to be shocked; it might be my Catholic upbringing. The nudity was actually so relevant to the story and very delicate. It was never shocking, it was nuanced. In a brief conversation we had before today you told me that you didn't know what the show was going to be about. So it was through conversations that the topic and the story and the thread of the story came up. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Ursula:          The bread story and the father and the patriarchal lineage was one of the many ideas that JD brought into the room that he wanted to explore in this show. I think one of my strengths in making theatre both as a performer who makes my own shows and as a director/collaborator/advisor, I think is clarity, clarity of focus and theme and narrative or journey. JD came with lots of ideas. I guess my idea and maybe that's slightly the role of the dramaturge as well in this context is: “Okay, well, we're not going to make a show about all those things, but which of these things shall we make a show about?” Maybe because that's the easiest one for me, because I don't have a degree in Mediaeval History, the one I latched on to was the story of the patriarchal lineage of the breadmaking. So that's the one that we focused on. Just within that subject alone there was absolutely enough to make a show. Without it also being about Mediaeval History or Christianity or whatever. Although Christianity also features in the show, because that is also part of JD’s Catholic upbringing in rural South of France. So yeah, I guess it's just about talking then see which ideas seem to jump out for whatever reason, maybe because it's the stronger clearer idea, combined with personal taste or subjectivity or what interests you the most. It's difficult to tell why something jumps out, why this is the journey that you go down rather than that one. I guess it's an organic thing.

Andrea:         Well, without giving away so much about the show, the idea of the breadmaking in situ, did that come up organically?

Ursula:          Yeah, one of the things that was so clear to me was that skills on stage are a great thing. JD has lots of skills, he plays musical instruments, he can do backflips and moves like a graceful dancer and gymnast and speaks several languages and has all those skills- then one day in rehearsal he showed me how he made bread and as he's chatting away and mixing and kneading you see this skill and you see this person who’s like a potter making a clay bowl on a turntable. To see a beautiful skill happening before your eyes is a lovely thing. I could see that he could make bread and chat and it was like second nature and it was a beautiful thing to behold. In a way it's just another skill to add to the skills that JD brings on stage. That was a no brainer. “How long does it take to make a baguette in the oven?” “Oh, 20 minutes?” “Well, that's going in the show.” We can make some bread in an hour long show you know. Yeah, and then it's really satisfying. He comes out at the end and shares the bread that he's made with the audience.

Andrea:         It's really satisfying! In your own shows there's the same sense of tactility. You do stuff. I was looking at some of your shows and there’s one called Free Admission where you build a wall for example. Literally build it.

Ursula:          I don't always engage in visceral activity or bodily activity. Visceral? I don't know if that's the word. We'll look it up afterwards.Yes, there is a show where I physically make a brick wall whilst delivering a monologue to the audience. I build a brick wall between me and the audience and it gets higher and higher until eventually I can't speak to them anymore because I'm behind a wall. I did go on a Bricklaying course to make that. I can say that I can make the brick wall seamlessly and easily, a bit like how JD makes bread when he's chatting. It's kind of like second nature.

Andrea:         Were there lots of artists interested in the course?

Ursula:          No, I was really pathetic. I went on the course, and it was me and 15 blokes. On the first day we had to go around and introduce ourselves and say our name and, and why we were learning bricklaying. “Yeah, my name is Dave and I want to build a barbecue in my back garden.” “My name is Steve, and my wife is having a go at me because the brick wall between me and the neighbours is coming down and she wants me to rebuild it.” I'm really brave on stage, people say I'm really brave on stage and do really brave things, and I did not have the bravery when it came around to my turn to say: “I'm a performance artist, and I'm making a theatre show where I build a literal fourth wall between me in the middle between me and the audience”. I guess I already felt so much like an outsider being the only woman in the group and I felt vulnerable. I didn't want to stand out, I wanted to blend in. I just said “Hi. My name is Ursula, I am doing some DIY in my flat”. I just made up some bullshit. It's silly, really, because I understand where it was coming from, just feeling vulnerable and exposed, but maybe my teacher Derek, this old bloke who was in his 60s, maybe would have been totally chuffed to hear that they had a performance artist in his group who was going to build a brick wall in a theatre show. Maybe I could have invited all the people in my class to the show. Maybe I could have invited Derek and he would have loved it, you know? I never gave anybody that opportunity.

Andrea:         You never know what they would have thought. Well, that was your choice in the moment.

Ursula:          I will never know. It seems a little bit sad, it seems like a missed opportunity. Albeit I completely understand why that happened.

Andrea:         Are you working on a solo show at the moment? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about stuff you want to make?

Ursula:          I do take time to gestate. I'm never in a hurry. I've never been the kind of person that is in a hurry. I am quite philosophical about it: “oh, when the time's right, it'll be right.” Yeah, I am gestating a new show. Right now I'm so busy with juggling different directing projects, I don't even know when I'm going to get the time to sit down and put in a funding application and do the work to find partners and interest and maybe any commission, but again, philosophically you know, when the time's right, it will be right. The idea that I have is not time sensitive or kind of sensitive to a particular topic that's current and contemporary. So, I don't have to worry about that. If it was sensitive to that then I would be more in a hurry and I got to get this done because otherwise I'm going miss the opportunity, but I don't have to worry about that.

Andrea:         Sounds like a very healthy attitude. Sometimes, I guess, artists get anxious about not doing. You have a lot of experience, so I imagine, you know the cycle of creation or your cycle.

Ursula:          Oh, I know my cycle, it's worked for me, or it's worked for me enough; I've never been strategic about my approach to anything or ambitious in a big picture about like a goal, like: “by the time I'm this old I want to have reached this level of status, I want to play at the National Theatre”. I've never had this kind of tangible strategic aims. I didn't have them in my 20s and my 30s, so it's even less likely that I'm going to have them now in my 50s. Whatever I've been doing has worked for me, I'm happy with where I am and where I'm going. I just keep making work with lovely people who I can have a nice time with and learn from, and make great work that sometimes is really great, sometimes it’s less great, and that's all part of the journey as well of learning and creativity.

Andrea:         I really envy your chilled attitude. I wonder if you keep a diary? Do you have a notebook where you keep notes? Because I recently moved house and I have all these notebooks I completely forgot about. If I never saw them again, I wouldn't remember they ever existed. How do you mine material? How do you gather material? How do you gestate as you call it?

Ursula:          Again, I don’t have any tangible kind of strategy that I can say, “oh, what I do is every morning I…”. No, there is no tangible strategy there. I don't keep a diary. I sometimes do Morning Pages.

Andrea:         Really?

Ursula:          Yeah, from Julia Cameron's book, The Artist’s Way. I dip in and out, when I feel in the mood or when I feel like I just want a little creative injection of some sort. That's also partly because I've certainly never ever really been able to timetable in creativity. I’ve never thought: “Oh, next week, I'm going to dedicate to writing”. I am much too kind of spontaneous and chaotic for that. The only kind of discipline that I've ever been able to kind of inhabit is Morning Pages.

Andrea:         I learned about Morning Pages a couple of years ago. You wake up in the morning and the first thing you do is write three A4-size-ish pages of whatever comes to mind. Kind of a stream of consciousness. It's a fascinating process, and it's such a good way to reconnect with intuition, I suppose? With all the stuff that is in there.

Ursula:          Well, I mean, going back to the show with the brick wall, that show was definitely born from Morning Pages. One of the days of Morning Pages, I started writing and as I was writing it was like, “wow, this is good, I'm onto something here”. Morning Pages got me onto something. Absolutely what created the show was born from Morning Pages. That's not a reliable thing, I can't say, “oh, I'm gonna make another show. I'll make sure I do Morning Pages within the next two weeks, and then it'll come.” It's not reliable. It just so happened that that's what happened one time, but it's not something you could rely on.

Andrea:         When you get into a studio or a space, is that where you sort of start doing stuff? Or do you improvise? Do you call someone to look at the work? Or do you read?

Ursula:          I've worked with the same director for 25 years on my solo work.

Andrea:         What's his name?

Ursula:          He's called Mark Whitelaw. He lives in the north of England and is a dad, and he doesn't do that much directing any more, but he's still my director.

Andrea:         Ah, brilliant.

Ursula:          So yeah, we've built up a relationship, coming up for nearly 30 years now. I've made other shows as well, collaborative shows, that he hasn't directed but in terms of all my solo work, he's been on board. I've never actually ever applied for R&D, that's partly because of the kind of gestation and because I tend to take time between shows. By the time the idea has gestated, I kind of know what it is. I go straight into project and making the show. But with this new idea, I'm going ot apply for R&D for the first time, because I have a seed of an idea and because I don't really know what the show is, but I have some burning desires. That will be my first ever R&D process. I suppose actually that's also born from a lot of the directing that I've been doing has started with and I say, directing, it's not really directing, you're kind of devising with the artists, really, it's not until the show's made, that's when you're actually directing. Like all those conversations with JD and stuff in those initial R&D stages, you're not really directing, you're collaborating and devising and writing together. Most of the projects, most of the artists that I've been working with, as a director, in inverted commas, have started from an R&D process.

Andrea:         I see.

Ursula:          I've realised how great the R&D process can be just as a kind of freeing up thing to explore. I think I've always sort of explored quietly in my head, and it would be really nice to explore much more freely in a room with collaborators. Have a slightly more blank canvas. Rather than going in with “I know what picture I'm going to paint”. I'm really interested in going into a room with this much more sort of blank canvas, because I've seen the fruits of that, working with the artists that I've been working with.

Andrea:         Oh, really? That kind of element of discovery?

Ursula:          Yeah, discovering from a slightly more unknown place. Yeah.

Andrea:         It's quite scary. I tend to prepare a lot and then when I get there, I tend to not do what I prepared for!

Ursula:          [Laughter]. Each do what helps us to get to where we finally want to get to. 

Andrea:         I met you recently in London during the rehearsals of Told by an Idiot’s new show Would You Bet Against Us? I was working as script coordinator of the show and I believe Paul Hunter, TBAI’s artistic director, contacted you because he wanted you to come in as an outside eye. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about your collaboration with Paul and TBAI.

Ursula:          I was very flattered by that, Paul works slightly more in kind of commercial, mainstream theatre, so yeah, that felt interesting. He said I am more edgy than he is. It’s been great actually, that’s been a great job, to come in as an outside eye with very little responsibility but just someone interested in what you have to say about what you’re seeing. It was great to see a different kind of process. It was great to see how the other half live.  This NPO [National Portfolio Organisation], with funding, infrastructure and a team and it’s interesting to see different ways of making theatre. It’s been great just to be in that room, and as I say, without responsibility but just being able to comment, you know, as and when. That’s been really enjoyable. I really look forward to seeing the show which opens on 19 May at Birmingham Rep. I’ll be there for the press night.

Andrea:         Me too!

Ursula:          Oh, on the 23rd May, are you going be there?

Andrea:         Yes.

Ursula:          I’ll see you there!

Andrea:         Great. You are also directing a Little Soldier production, right?

Ursula:          Yes, it was through Patricia [Ribot] and Mercé [Ribot], founders of Little Soldier, that Paul Hunter contacted me, because they both worked with Told by an Idiot. There’s a kind of connection there.

Andrea:         What’s the name of the show?

Ursula:          Nothing Happens (Twice) which is from a quote from the 50s about Waiting for Godot. A critic coined this phrase when describing Waiting for Godot. She said: “it’s a play where nothing happens twice”. Patricia and Mercé wanted to do Waiting for Godot so they wrote to the Beckett Estate. In the end they couldn’t do the play because they’re women and the Becket Estate doesn’t allow women to perform Waiting for Godot. So, this is the start of the show: Not being able to perform a show that they want to perform. It’s also about friendship and about failure and about being stuck in a rut but carrying on regardless. Which are some of the themes in Waiting for Godot anyway. It’s on tour at the moment, it’s going to Cardiff next week.

Andrea:         Is (le) PAIN going on tour?

Ursula:          (le) PAIN is going to the Edinburgh Festival, it’s going to be on at Assembly Roxy. That’s a good chance to see it. Tell your friends in Edinburgh.

Andrea:         Everyone should come and see it, it’s a great show! I’d love to see Nothing Happens (Twice) too, of course.

Ursula:          Thank you.

Andrea:         Thank you Ursula.

Ursula:          I’ll see you at Birmingham Rep on press night [of Would You Bet Against Us?].

Andrea:         I’ll see you there.


Andrea is a Mexican-born, Edinburgh-based theatre director and freelance writer. She is the artistic director of Anahat Theatre.