This One Goes to Eleven: Britt Small

vaudeville (n) [vawd-vil]: a theatrical piece of light or amusing character, interspersed with songs and dances.

Atomic Vaudeville: Vaudeville reconceived for the present age attempting to reach out to an audience that is ready for a live, entertaining and relevant theatrical art form. (From the company web site.)

In 2004 Victoria-based actor/director Britt Small, together with playwright Jacob Richmond, formed Atomic Vaudeville and started putting up shows once a month, each one a “short-form mélange of theatre, music, song, dance, puppetry and sketch”. They soon found themselves with a rabid, addicted audience, and the AV shows quickly gained attention and notoriety for their razor-sharp observational humour and decidedly un-PC approach.

Britt has also made a name for herself as a director, both here in Vancouver and on the Island. She is nominated more than once in this year’s Jessie race, in the running for directing Aaron Bushkowsky‘s acclaimed My Chernobyl.

That’s right; funny, talented and driven. Deal with it.

1.) In one word, describe your present condition.


2.) In the amount of words of your own choosing, describe the present condition of our West Coast theatre scene.

Crawling, spontaneously brassy, pocketed, seething with desire for greatness

3.) Does theatre have an inherent responsibility to be provocative?

If by provocative you mean arousing and stimulating, then yes. Like a Hungarian massage.

4.) What are the top, say, 3 things that you hope an audience takes away from a night of your cabaret, and why?

A physical sensation that makes them feel like they were the one performing.

A sense of not being alone in their passion, discomfort, confusion and care.

That they would like to give us more money so we can keep doing it.

5.) What’s the dream scenario for the future of the company?

Yeesh…ok, boring stuff like operating funding and structural stability, but sometimes I also dream that Tony Soprano is our manager and we get to take over all the rad theatre spaces and do wild and dangerous experiments with society. We once did a show where we gave the audience tomatoes with no instruction on what to do with them. Obviously they figured it out pretty quick, it was a bit scary having tomatoes winged at your head, but also exhilarating. I like that theatre is messy both philosophically and practically. So I am sometimes torn between a desire for structure and stability, and a passion and respect for honest disarray and confusion. So I guess the dream scenario is to find a balance where we can create a structure that can support the unpredictability of our creativity and expression.

6.) Are there any striking differences between the Van and Vic audiences?

Hard to say, not knowing the Vancouver audience as well, but I think there exists a classic small city/big city difference in that the Victoria community is smaller, and with our cabaret shows, the audience kind of embraces it as their own show, like they invented it, they take ownership as an audience because we’re kind of the only ones doing something like that. So our audience is mostly with us, they want us to succeed, because in their mind, we are them in a way, we are representing them. We are their artists and so they are curious about what we will do next. Not that they aren’t critical, but they are hungry for expression and explosiveness. The audience loyalty comes from them wanting to be at the show, not out of a love of theatre in general or a sense of responsibility. The young Victoria audience wants to be entertained and involved with the art. The small city isn’t as fame obsessed, they want a good night out. They’re like, so what, entertain me, and it’s a dynamic relationship. It’s a local audience, and there’s a lot of trust there, it keeps you honest. At its best, there is a dialogue happening, and we’re fighting a kind of complacency. There is a ‘cool’ factor that is perhaps more vicious in a larger city, everyone is looking for a kind of authentic experience. On the other hand, bigger cities have that crackling energy that feeds my brain.

7.) Have you found that the cult following of AV to be a kind of ‘gateway drug’, channeling a younger, uninitiated audience into seeing more theatre?

Not really. Perhaps there will be a slow movement this way but until theatre itself changes, that’s not going to happen. The cabaret might make people feel safer about live performance in general, but it really depends on the writing and presentation. People our age want a reason to come out of their super information highway home entertainment cave, and usually that reason is a social one. People feel weird about theatre, like there is a behavioural code of conduct that is somehow silencing. What I’ve found is that our audience really wants basic community interaction, and Norm Foster or the latest Pulitzer winning play isn’t doing that.

8.) What do you see as the biggest speed bump on the road to a popular theatre in Western Canada?

The courage to do work that a younger audience will pay to see. We don’t have to throw out the past, but seriously, when the majority of theatre audiences are over 60, what do we have? And I do think that this older audience will embrace a changed theatre, they’re not stupid. Why don’t we assume that these older people would actually like to be included in the change as opposed to a constant pandering to a kind of nostalgia? We need unusual and creative thought in order to deal with all the challenges of our growing technology. We need to be smart and thoughtful and filled with imagination. Theatre could be and sometimes is an amazing culture for this kind of imagination, so I guess the speed bump is a kind of recognition of the playfulness and potential of the form.

9.) What do you know about yourself as a theatre artist that you didn’t before starting AV?

Ha ha, that’s a loaded question. I suppose it’s that I don’t have to do this work if I don’t want to. It doesn’t define me as a person. There are many ways to express yourself, and right now this is a time-devouring endeavour. The work makes sense to me right now as a useful thing to do. Me quoting Jacob quoting someone else: “it’s not a question of what is art but of when is art.” The work right now has taught me humility and practicality. I wish that we thought about art as natural and simple as gardening, and as a thoughtful contribution to growth and not as an escape and a frivolity.

10.) What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Peter Brook, An Empty Space (cliche, but still worth it)

Anne Bogart, A Director Prepares (made me feel like it was okay to be baffled)

Peter Carey, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (a novel that for me pinpoints the problem of art as entertainment)

11.) What’s next?

More cabaret shows, we’re totally dying to do the shows in Vancouver, but we’re trying to find a friendly venue. A space where the audience feels at home and comfortable to engage in the work we’re doing. Also Jacob is writing a musical called “Ride the Cyclone” about a bunch of teenagers who die on a rollercoaster and the play is a presentation by the teens to the audience after their death. It’s part 2 of a trilogy Jacob is writing with “Legoland” being part 1. It will premiere in Victoria in Feb 2009. We’re also turning a regular Vaudeville bit we do called “Samuel the Christian Ninja” into animated shorts. Personally I will be recording an album with my band Slut Revolver and hoping to do some rad new work with Colleen Wheeler in your fair city of glass and dreams.

Photos by Barbara Pedrick

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