“Every time I buy jelly beans I think I’m expressing the essence of who I am” | Joz Norris on distilling identity in You Build The Thing You Think You Are at Vault Festival

Tell us about the show you’re bringing to the Vault Festival, You Build The Thing You Think You Are.

My last show was a sort of conceptual absurdist thing where I performed the entire show in disguise and didn’t actually really appear until the very end. It sort of deliberately kept the truth at arm’s length. This show starts in disguise again, and it’s another conceptual, theatrical nonsense show, but I come back into it as myself quite early on and then it becomes a storytelling show, really.

I think the success of last year’s show made me feel more confident to go back to being myself onstage and telling true stories about my life, so this one is me kind of reclaiming those parts of myself, but exploring them through the same kind of techniques and ideas as I used in that show.

This show is about constructing an identity over the course of years. How personal does it get?

The centre of the show is about moving house, really. I’d lived in the same flat for my entire adult life with a group of people who felt like my family, and then we got evicted and I had to deal with what it meant to lose that place, and potentially to lose those people, and to work out what I was left with if those things were gone.

It won’t go too personal, because I’m a firm believer that an audience wants to see a show that remains vague enough that they can make it about themselves rather than burdening the audience with every little bit of biographical detail. But there will be a story about why that place meant so much to me, for sure.

Did you learn much about the concept of identity, or about yourself, while writing this show?

The starting point for the show was a thing Milan Kundera wrote about how people construct their identity either by adding things, and identifying each thing they add as being a core part of their identity; or by taking things away, and really trying to strip back fripperies until you arrive with a very distilled understanding of who you are. The risk with the former is that you dilute your actual self between all these adornments, and the risk with the latter is that you arrive at the centre and realise there’s nothing there.

I realised I’m very much an adder – every time I buy jelly beans I think I’m doing something that really expresses the essence of who I am, which is dumb, really. But I fear that much less than I fear the idea of getting to the bottom of it all and just finding nothing, like when they dig up the treasure in Treasure Island and it’s already gone.

Is the self-discovery process you’ve gone on with this show one that you’d recommend to other people?

I don’t know if I’ve necessarily embarked on a self-discovery process in order to make this show, I just think this show is the natural product of how my life has gone over the last couple of years. 

In 2018 I had a very bad year where a lot of things fell apart. In 2019 I made a show that tried to make sense of that and put the pieces back together and rebuild my confidence. And this show is sort of me going “Right, things are better now and I have a better understanding of myself, and now I have to keep going.” I don’t know if that’s necessarily a process I’d recommend any more than it’s a process I’d not recommend; it’s just that your life goes in waves. For me, each show is just how I make sense of each wave.

What inspires your surreal comedic style?

Mostly the Muppets, but also Laurel & Hardy and Kurt Vonnegut and a performance artist called Geoff Sobelle. My favourite things are things that feel very profound and very human, even though the actual content is just an alien turkey thing tap-dancing in oatmeal, or two guys dropping a piano, or a parrot flying from a cage to a window and back to a cage, or a guy tap-dancing on vegetables in ice skates. Anything that manages to connect a stupid action to a big feeling.

This is a work-in-progress show. How much do you expect it to change between the Vault Festival performance and the finished product?

I’m sure it’ll change a fair bit. Most of the content is there already, but between VAULT Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe is the time where I’m hoping to sit down with a director and other collaborators and really interrogate the material a bit and work out what it’s saying, and how I want it to feel, and what happens where, and how the whole thing’s going to look and so on. So I’d say that 90% of the writing has been done, but maybe only 25% of the work.

What do you hope people take away from your show?

Like I mentioned before, I’d like people to feel like it was for them. That’s honestly the most incredible feeling, when you watch something and after a particular bit you think “That was for me.” And it might be a performer you’ve literally never met or heard of before, but you can still go away thinking “That show was for me,” and then you carry it with you. If I can create a show that does that for one or two people, I’d feel pretty delighted.

Are there any other shows you’re looking forward to at the Vault Festival?

Oh, way too many. Helen Duff, Lucy Hopkins, Mark Watson, Laura Lexx, Lulu Popplewell, Harriet Kemsley, Jonny Donahoe, Gabby Best, Lou Sanders, Jon Brittain, Holly Burn, Matt Telford, Matthew Highton, Sophie Duker, Sam Nicoresti, Sian Docksey, Beth Vyse. I could go on and on and on.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to break into comedy?

Breaking in is illegal. I advise knocking politely, and asking if you can enter. Only try to break into comedy if you have been knocking for some time and comedy is refusing to let you in. Then maybe climb over a fence into the back garden and chuck your shoe through the window of the downstairs loo, then climb through that. You’ll probably cut yourself on shards of broken glass, and end up with your foot down the toilet, but hey, this is how I did it and it worked for me.

Joz is performing You Build The Thing You Think You Are on 15th and 16th February.

Book your ticket here.

Find out more about the Vault Festival here.

You can keep up with other things Joz has going on by visiting his website or following him on Facebook and Twitter.

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