Close-Up: An Interview With Bryony Davies

Actor Bryony Davies joins us to discuss her background, co-founding the Barrel Organ Theatre, appearing in Channel 4’s recent Jeremy Kyle documentary, and much more.

Hi Bryony, welcome to Close-Up Culture! First off, can you tell us about your background and what led you down the acting path?

Hello! I grew up in Wigan and when I was really young, probably around six, my brother came across an advert in the newspaper for a youth theatre called Willpower. Wigan didn’t have much going on, I mean, I was six so I probably wasn’t thinking that but I came to realise that years later. I wasn’t sporty and I didn’t play instruments, I didn’t really even read, and this was just a random thing we saw in the paper. I think it was £2 for a class.

When I started Willpower I just loved it. It quickly became the thing that I did every week. I then got obsessed. It was amazing because we played games, had fun and had a place to be, but then I realised that we had been learning the skills of improv and acting. It always felt like an escape, I think I needed that place growing up, and it felt like family. I would recommend Willpower to any young person in Wigan.

You studied theatre at the University of Warwick and got work experience on Hollyoaks. How was your experience learning the ropes and breaking into the industry?

My relationship with the industry fluctuates and I find myself belonging and then suddenly feeling like an alien. If I’m honest, I think it’s been more graft, than craft. The experience has and still is a mixed bag, lots of work and mostly rejection. My sister (Ashley) was on Hollyoaks for years and years and she got me a few days to mooch about on set when I was fifteen, which was a massive privilege as that opportunity wouldn’t have happened without that connection. I loved it and got the biggest buzz being on set, but it was so quick!

Years later I went to Warwick, I hadn’t got into drama school and I didn’t want to be in Wigan any longer. I found it quite intimidating, people were immensely well read and intelligent, and I met some of the biggest brains. But the ambition people had was such a driving force. There was a massive urge to create, probably because we were stuck on a big boring campus. I met some of the best people that wanted to change the world bit by bit, by making theatre. We kind of all came together and presented our work to people, with opportunities like National Student Drama Festival and Edinburgh Fringe we met other people and the community grew.

I then started finding opportunities, and then also would inevitably have quiet periods. I have worked lots of other jobs (London Dungeons, ushering, event assisting, flyering) and I continue to. There are some people that go straight into acting and don’t work in anything else and others that have a more unconventional route. I value the varied experiences I’ve had. I guess I always wanted to act, so I just keep at it.

You are a founding member of the Barrel Organ Theatre. Can you tell us about the company and what your mission is?

We set up the company during our time at Warwick after our first show ‘Nothing’ (yep that was its name). We really loved the idea of ‘liveness’ in the theatre. Basically we were bored of making or watching things that felt stale and ancient, and we wanted to really focus on being present. We would be talking about current, huge political subjects but through a relatable human lens. And we just want to challenge what theatre can be. The company is focussed on a collaborative process and we’re currently working with so many amazing people doing brilliant community work across the country.

What subjects and types of projects really interest you as a creative?

I think I’m pretty open. I do like things that feel real and current, that seek to tell stories from under-represented voices in different ways. Things that connect us and come from honesty. And I like projects that focus on a healthy process just as much, if not more. I also like to be funny too (at least try to be). I absolutely love mockumentary style comedy (This Country, People Just Do Nothing) and would love to make something similar one day.

You gave a magnificent performance in Channel 4’s recent doc about the Jeremy Kyle Show. How did this opportunity come about for you and what were your feelings heading into it?

Thank you so much. I think that Rosina (the series producer) had actually seen me many moons ago in a Barrel Organ show and she remembered me? She invited me to tape for it, and as soon as I saw that it was a new documentary about Jeremy Kyle I was like “what is this?!” – I was really intrigued. I used to watch Jeremy Kyle, not comfortably, but I did used to watch it. It was just on TV all the time wasn’t it.

When I read more of the interview, it became apparent how devastating the effects had been on so many people and how much more had been covered up. I am passionate about mental health and when I discovered the huge negligence from the production, specifically with screening people’s health it felt like such an important thing. I felt driven to work on it and wanted to help tell her story.

I thought yourself and the other actors were such a brilliant and vital part of the doc. How did you find the challenge of this unique role and presenting someone’s experience working on the show?

I felt a lot of responsibility – these are real people who are putting their stories out there and I would hate to unfairly represent that. If you are playing someone like Lady Macbeth and you do a rubbish job it doesn’t really matter because you’re not *really* going to upset anyone. The consequences aren’t the same. It sounds very basic but I think empathy is key. I found the researcher that I played relatable and I just focused on telling her story as honestly as possible.

The doc has obviously sparked a lot of important conversations surrounding mental health, reality TV and other topics. What were your biggest takeaways from working on the doc and then watching it?

I don’t understand how The Jeremy Kyle show was on TV only just a few years ago. But then I do feel like we often, as a society, are complicit in toxic things we only realise are bad when there is some sort of explosion. We shouldn’t really have to wait for these exposes, we should be checking in as we go.

I hope we listen to the conversations about mental health. We have been encouraged to ‘get talking’ for years, and yet it’s clear a lot of people still work in environments (on and off TV) that are adversely affecting them. Everybody has mental health, so it’s something that affects us all, it’s not as separate as we sometimes think. Each action and decision we make affects others, and we should reflect and be honest with each other and ourselves. I think that too often we only address negative working practices when it’s too late, and then still, those in positions of power avoid any accountability.

There is also nuance, not all of those with mental health issues have access to talking therapies, often there is little to no choice. I think we need to recognise this differing experience for people who grow up in poverty and more needs to be done. Putting them on television to be judged, shouted at, just even persuading someone with severe mental health issues to be thrown into the judgement of the public eye at all, is immoral. If you have the power to do so, you should always be putting people before product. *And breathe*.

I also think that these film-makers are amazing and were truly doing a lot of research and work to tell these stories. All of the contributors are courageous in doing so and we should value that.

On a lighter note, I see you are a big cat fan! What are some of your passions away from the stage?

That’s it, CATS! CATS CATS CATS. I love a good rave as well.

What are your hopes and ambitions for the future?

It’s hard to think about the future when things change so quickly all of the time. I would say making more varied work, that feels like it makes a difference, and seeing my friends do the same. Rebuilding a theatre industry to feel more like a community. Not having to always work loads of other jobs to get by.

I love the possibility of theatre but I hope to work on more TV and film. And if I can be in something that gets shown on Gogglebox that would be a personal highlight.

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