Unique, creative, and just a little bit wild, Mitch Jones’ experimental work, AutoCannibal, opens at Theatre Works next month. Drawing together elements of circus, performance art, BDSM culture, and clowning, Jones tackles some significant themes in a meaningful fashion, striving, at times, to shock us out of the more than comfortable stupor some of us seem determined to languish in.
The work is set in a dystopian near future after a complete environmental collapse – one character has survived but there are no natural resources left. No food, no water, no other living creatures. Slowly he goes mad and decides to eat himself. Jones is interested in exploring the impact of human society on our planetary ecosystem through the metaphors of hunger and self-harm, and warns that the work is unexpected, often disturbing and, while it can be quite funny, it is very dark and might make for some uncomfortable moments.
For Jones, the genesis of the work came from the sense of frustration, that he thinks many of us feel, at how pathetic our attempts to address climate change have been.
“I feel compelled to create work that is visceral and at times difficult to watch because there is this angst and sense of futility about our political discourse, where major parties and mainstream media are so obviously protecting the interests of the wealthy, instead of ensuring a future for our planet.,” he says. “I think my work is deeply rooted in satire, and I’m trying to hold a mirror up to society to show us just how ugly we are, in the hope that we might recognize ourselves and be motivated to action.”
As expected, some of the themes running through the work are : futility, self sabotage, stupidity, and selfishness.
Jones believes it is important for us to address the kind of cynical apathy that we are burdened with here. “So many of us simply say “fuck it” to making better choices, when it becomes convenient for us – whether it is having another smoke, or walking past the hungry homeless person on the corner, or getting in the car instead of riding a bike, or buying another plastic bag when we’ve forgotten our reusable one. We say “fuck it – what does it really matter?” because that’s what we’re being indoctrinated into – that the only available method for change is through consumerism, which on a deeper level feels futile anyway, and reinforces our cynicism,” he says.
So, in this work, he’s taken these themes and tried to play them out to their absurdly illogical conclusions.
Jones acknowledges that the work definitely contains some disturbing images, but, he adds, that these are tempered by the satirical sense of cartoonish absurdity in which they are presented. Interestingly though, Jones confesses that even he sometimes finds it hard to watch himself performing these scenes. “I find myself thinking “What are you doing, you idiot!”‘
The element of circus seems to be used as a kind of leveler where the Autocannibal is capable of these extraordinary physical feats, but, the sense of spectacle has been removed so they become these ‘weird and pointless behaviors.’
“In terms of its visceral content, there is a heavy influence from kink and fetish in the way that the physical body is seen as this zone of emotional exploration through punishment and pain,” says Jones about the influence on one’s senses. ” One of the key feelings I keep returning to is this idea of flesh, overwhelming, tied up in knots, like the kind that you see in Francis Bacon’s paintings. This fleshy smear of humanity, hanging in the void. “
The idea of using self harm as a metaphor for environmental destruction is not one used often and could have the potential of being seen as divisive or perhaps insensitive but, for Jones, the genesis of the idea came form a very personal experience.
“The idea occurred to me while I was dealing with my own issues of alcoholism and substance addiction, while also seeing people in my community struggle and succumb to these patterns,” he says. “I started thinking about how humans are unique as a species in being able to consciously choose to destroy themselves and the question arose “why do we do things that we know are bad for us?” This really was the seed for the show because I wanted to explore how this pattern occurs on many levels – individual, social and indeed with climate change, globally. ”
“There is this terrible grief that comes from mourning preventable loss – whether it is an individual life or the extinction of a species. And for me, I need to express this grief by performing it – by performing madness and loss and self harm and stupidity and being a conduit for the audience to experience that through. “
For Jones, this work is a tragic comedy and his hope is that it can provoke a kind of cathartic experience for the audience through the contemplation of how absurd our situation really is.
“I hope that people feel both pity and disgust for the Autocannibal, while also recognizing something of themselves in him, and that this recognition spurs them to action in some way – whether it is to get more informed about politics or simply to stop using plastic bags,” he says.
Jones’ career as a circus performer started early when he started circus classes on weekends at 15 with his biggest inspiration being Circus Oz.
“I loved the way that they seemed to exist outside of the ordinary but were also deeply committed to social justice and I was just starting to get into punk music at the same time so I was totally drawn to the idea of being different and politically active,” he says of the company born in Melbourne in 1978. “A lot of the circus work I made in my 20s was about doing really crazy stunts and creating these wild daredevil characters, so that once you had the attention of the audience, you could use it to say or do something important. Similarly I used to make performances for protests and I loved seeing the performance art form exist outside the stage – we once held up an entire line of police horses at an anti-coal protest in Newcastle by forming a bloc of Zombies and refusing to march at anything more than shuffling pace.”
“My passion for performing has actually grown steadily over the years and now I am concerned with creating powerful experiences that leave room for personal interpretations. There’s nothing quite like watching a performer create and hold an emotional space that draws every single person in to it.”
“I think my biggest and earliest inspiration in this sense was the late Derek Ives because he was able to create such sublime beauty with these plaintive moments and hold the audience carefully in them like you would hold a tiny, fragile flower.”
Not surprisingly, Jones is interested in creating his own style of original physical theatre. ” I want to try and create this show from scratch, and make it feel like a separate world,” he says.
“I think that the enormous demand for entertainment right now has created an environment where so many productions reuse ideas, familiar styles, old texts and pop culture references, and they simply recycle, remake, restage, update and churn out these lukewarm shows in homage to the great ideas of the past. Hollywood is the prime offender here – constantly remaking old films!”
Jones feels that this kind of repetition of ideas has disconnected us from the power of the imagination to create new scenarios, new mythology, and new stories that provide us with startling insight into our contemporary experience.
AutoCannibal is a new work of solo physical theatre in which Jones and company are trying to create something that is unusual and different from other circus and physical theatre shows out there. “I hope that it will be impactful, uncomfortable and leave audiences puzzled at their own reactions. Ultimately we want to create a powerful live experience, whether audiences love it or hate it,” he says.
Read more about AutoCannibal here: https://www.theatreworks.org.au/program/autocannibal/
This interview was originally published in BE MELBOURNE by K.E. WEBER.