Edinburgh Fringe Q&A: CREEKSHOW

Writer-performer Jenny Witzel discusses her new show, which tells the story of living on a boat in an “up-and-coming” neighbourhood in south-east London

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 8 minutes
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Photo by Ellie Welford
Published 27 Jul 2023

Tell us about your show and what audiences can expect? 

CREEKSHOW is a love letter to the people and history of Deptford Creek in south-east London. I used to live on a house-boat on the Creek until just over a year ago when I left due to yet another building development. This show is about the destructive reality of gentrification and what it has meant both for me, personally, as well as the wider community living in Deptford. 

Beyond that, CREEKSHOW is an immersive audio-visual journey using real mudlarked artefacts borrowed from a conservation centre in Deptford. During the show, I guide the audience through personal anecdotes of my time on the Creek while exploring the histories and narratives behind objects found inside it. 

Can you talk about some of the creative team involved?

I have such an incredible team collaborating to help bring my vision to life! Luke Lewin Davies, our director, brings a wealth of diverse directing experience from previous Fringe hits including The Chemsex Monologues and Fat Jewels. I also had the privilege of working with the multi award-winning Sammy Metcalfe from Sleepwalk Collective – who guided me through CREEKSHOW’s early development, providing invaluable feedback and dramaturgical advice. 

Sound designers Jasper Cook and Calum Perrin (winner of a 2023 Off West End Award for Ten Days in a Madhouse) have achieved a feat of seamlessly intertwining live interviews and field recordings with their own original acoustic creations. Lastly, Lily Woodford-Lewis, our tech designer, has taken the show to new heights with their extraordinary lighting and AV design, transporting the audience into the captivating world of the Creek.

Where do you draw inspiration from for your work, both in terms of creation and performance?

CREEKSHOW was initially inspired by the environment I was living in – my houseboat, the Creek and the wider Deptford community. It was also inspired by the many people I met when writing the show: community groups, local activists, mudlarks, historians, conservationists, sociologists and more… I was amazed by the amount of people who had dedicated their lives to uncovering the stories and histories of the Creek and to gaining a better understanding of the challenges faced by its surrounding communities. Without their insight and expertise this show would not have been possible.

Artistically, this show has probably been shaped by a whole lot of stuff I’ve consumed in the past couple of years. Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature was a book I read very early on in the process of writing CREEKSHOW and I think it really set an example of autobiographical writing that is really rooted to a sense of place, and gave me permission to bring myself into the narrative.

Looking at this production, how would you say it links to previous work personally and thematically?

My last play Embalming Ariana Grande, co-written with Mary Malone, was an exploration of women in media and the exploitation and dismissal of trans identities in cis narratives. So thematically, CREEKSHOW is quite different! 

This said, stylistically both shows do have a lot of overlap. I really enjoy blending digital and live elements and finding new ways of engaging audiences, so you’ll find that both shows feature live-feed projection, immersive soundscapes and bold lighting design.

What do you find special about this work and why do you think there’s an appetite for it?

I’m always looking to address current social and political themes that I, myself, am grappling with – in the hope that this resonates with audiences. My work is fuelled by the desire to start a conversation and my hope is that CREEKSHOW addresses a phenomenon – the rapid development of urban areas and the pricing out of local communities – that will carry weight for audiences from Edinburgh and beyond. 

Why is this an important story to tell?

Daily we see new building developments popping up over London, the UK and internationally – raising rent prices and marginalising existing communities. Every second conversation I have seems to be about people I know being forced to move further out of the city because they can’t afford the rent. And yet despite community outrage these developments keep happening. We have to talk about it. We have to keep asking questions and we have to keep being outraged. 

What would you like audiences to take away from seeing this production at the Fringe?

I would like audiences to be encouraged to ask questions about the places they live in and the people they live alongside. I would like them to be confronted with challenging questions about the cost of rapid change when we fail to ask ourselves who the change is really for.

Do you tend to take inspiration from events happening in the world around you in terms of your work? Do you think artists have a responsibility to respond to what's happening?

I definitely do. Art never exists in a vacuum – it is always in some way a response to the world even when it isn’t explicitly commenting on it. This said, I think that work created out of a sense of obligation rather than with a driving passion and connection will never be any good. I also believe that it isn’t the job of the artist to deliver pre-packaged hot-takes on a given issue, but to ask questions that challenge all of us.

How do you feel about the current arts landscape in your country and your part in it? Does it excite you and inspire you to keep pushing the boat out?

Despite it being increasingly difficult for emerging artists to break into the arts owing to decades of systematic defunding – made worse by the current cost of living crisis – I still feel hopeful. There are still so many brilliant shows, performers and artists out there making decent work, in spite of the obstacles. 

The recent appointment of David Byrne at the Royal Court is also a big reason to feel excited about the future of challenging and innovative theatre within the UK…

Why are arts festivals such as the Fringe so important for international exchange?

As someone who is half Brazilian and half German and who grew up outside of the UK, I think international exchange is really important. In truth, I often find that the UK theatre scene is bad at doing this – with a shortage of work in other languages and from other cultures within mainstream UK theatre culture. The Fringe is an exception to that rule and this to me is a big part of why it’s such a special cultural event.

The festival brings in shows that you wouldn’t get a chance to see anywhere else in the UK and is an opportunity to see what people are doing all over the world. Not many things can be more important for our development both as artists and as human beings.

What can the wider arts community do to get more people involved in their specific disciplines? 

Accessibility, accessibility, accessibility. We can provide accessible content including captioned, signed and relaxed performances, and we have technology now that can reach even wider audiences online or through different mediums like podcasts and video essays. I think we should always be asking ourselves, how can more people enjoy this?

Have you got your eye on any other shows that are part of the programme?

I can’t wait to see Ontroerend Goed’s new show Funeral at ZOO. I’ve followed them for a while, always loving how they challenge theatrical conventions while making work that feels people-centred and relevant.

Brazilian film and theatre-maker Christiane Jatahy has a show at the International Festival this year called Dusk which looks really interesting. I recently went home to Rio and found that theatre had a real sense of urgency in the context of the Bolsonaro government which I found really inspiring. Dusk seems to address the reality of contemporary Brazil while bringing in Christiane’s work as a filmmaker and I can’t wait to see it.

I’m also really keen to see Frankie Thompson and Liv Ello’s Body Show at the Pleasance. Our tech designer Lily has designed it and it looks absolutely insane! Other shows that are on my radar include Toasterlab’s Aionos at ZOO (an afro-futurist VR show) and Playing Latinx at Summerhall (a politically incorrect Latinx drag-king seminar).

What’s next for you and how are you feeling about the future in general?

I’m not 100% sure what’s next! We’re in discussion with some theatres and galleries outside of the UK about performing CREEKSHOW after Edinburgh but I’m also excited to embark on something new. I’ve been training as a theatre translator so I would love to translate something from Portuguese or German.

How can Edinburgh audiences keep up with you beyond the festival?

Follow me on Instagram and Twitter. My website will also be up to date with all my projects to come. Who knows, maybe I’ll release a newsletter there too!