Art - An Interview with Tim Key

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We speak to stand-up poet Tim Key about his upcoming appearance in Art at The Old Vic, poetry and the creative process.

Tim Key is one of comedy's true originals. Combining stand-up comedy with poetry, he gives his eccentric musings a hilarious lyrical form that has seen him appear on Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe and host his own poetry show on BBC Radio 4. This month he will star in Art at The Old Vic, a play which follows three friends as they encounter a white canvas that makes them question their friendship and the nature of art itself. We spoke to Tim about his character Yvan, his 'trojan horse of crumbly little poems' and documenting the little moments in life in his work.

London Calling: You’re starring in Art at the Old Vic. Can you tell us a bit about the play and what drew you to the role of Yvan?

Tim Key: It's a play about three friends whose life is turned upside down when one of them splashes out on a painting. It's a white painting, with potentially some off-white lines. But it's pricy and acts as a lightning rod to bring to the surface some pretty spicy conflicts lurking amongst the group. Yvan's caught in the middle. He tries to reconcile but gets sucked into the whirlwind. He's a dream and a challenge to play. Vulnerable, flailing, doing his best but coming up short. I take ages to make any decision but I said yes to this job immediately and I also said thank you.

LC: Often you’re writing and creating your own shows. What is it like to work from somebody else’s script?

TK: It's all a balance. I like to have my own stuff on the go, I love creating my own shows but that IS scary and DOES make you lose sleep because it's all on you. With this there's a different type of fear (not wanting to wreck Yasmina's text, not wanting to look like a plum compared to the other two actors etc) but I've enjoyed rehearsing this. It's interesting. There's some wise people working on it. I'm learning a lot.

LC: Do you think you’re anything like Yvan?

TK: I don't know that it's necessarily a great thing but there's plenty of me in Yvan. Anyway, I can't help but bring myself to any role really as I don't have the tools per se to create something totally detached from myself. It's always my speech patterns, my voice, my stance etc. But Yvan does say some stuff that rings true with me - CLANG.

LC: You wrote a series of topical poetry for Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe and Newswipe. As 2016 has been a pretty eventful year, do you feel like you have quite a lot of new material to work with?

TK: Ha - no. I only ever wrote topical stuff for those shows and it was an interesting challenge. But once that was done I went back to non-topical, inconsequential stuff. That's more interesting for me, just little moments in life, either fantastical or recognisable or neither. The idea of writing a poem about Donald Trump without being told to by Charlie Brooker doesn't really compute.

LC: Why do you think poetry lends itself so well to stand-up comedy?

TK: Mm. I don't know. Seems to for me. Really I was just flailing, unable to do stand-up, boring myself to death with my efforts. I lucked out that my poetry suddenly opened it all up for me. But I think it's arbitrary that it's poetry I hang everything off. I imagine if I could play an instrument I might have hung it off that. But I feel lucky that my act suddenly came together and I have this Trojan horse of crumby little poems to convey me onto stages.

LC: Your books often make references to your work being unfinished, such as ‘Incomplete Tim Key’ or ‘Attempted Book by Tim Key’. What is the creative process like for you and do you struggle to finish/perfect your work?

TK: I love writing those for that exact reason, similarly with my stage shows. I honestly do spend time trying to make them feel like a thing that makes SOME KIND OF SENSE but I like it when it's seemingly all over the place. There IS a logic there somewhere but I have no idea what it is. I sometimes look at a moment and think "yeah that weirdly seems to work" but I try not to overthink why it does and then I hope that it happens again. Writing anything narrative with a beginning, middle and an end does my head in. I prefer whacking it all together and crossing my fingers.

LC: Can you name a poem that you wish you’d written?

TK: Not really. I can name books and films I wish I'd written. I watched Victoria recently, amazing. Just transfixed occasionally mouthing "how have they done this?" There's a book called Waterline by Ross Raisin. Just amazing, really ambitious and beautifully realised. Again, just shaking my head.

LC: You’re an actor, writer and a performance poet. Is there anything else you want to try?

TK: No not really. There are people I'd like to work with but I think it will be in those fields. I have nothing additional to offer outside of those realms.

Art runs from 10 December - 18 February 2017 at The Old Vic. Tickets are between £12 and £65, find out more here.