The world-leading circus company is returning to Tāmaki Makaurau with new show Dirty Laundry. Director Fez Faanana tells Sam Brooks about the magic that makes their shows sparkle.
The poster of Briefs: Dirty Laundry does a good job on selling you on what a Briefs Factory show is. Barely clothed performers across the spectrum of gender and sexuality pose amidst flowery pink lettering, photoshopped bubbles and floral arrangements. A damn great time is what it’s selling.
It also promises some of the best circus, drag and burlesque you’ll see on New Zealand shores. This is the first time the Australian company has performed here since 2017, making a welcome return just in time for the Christmas party season.
For founder and director Fez Faanana, Briefs Factory isn’t just about performing world-class circus and burlesque. It’s also about reflecting what’s happening in the wider world, whether that means acknowledging contested histories, exploring political movements or incorporating the news of the day. It’s likely one of the few companies of its nature with a fiercely political manifesto on its website.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given that it’s debuting in 2023, the inspiration for Dirty Laundry was the Covid-19 pandemic. “I made the joke that there’s going to be a hectic amount of Covid and lockdown inspired theatre work,” Faanana says. “But then I stopped and wondered what that was actually going to look like.”
As Covid experiences go, Queensland, where Briefs Factory is based, had it lucky, with no lockdowns that extended past the six week mark. Faanana says they didn’t want to focus on their own good fortune, but to instead acknowledge that, regardless of location, everyone’s experience of the pandemic was vastly different. “Artists use their artform as an outlet, as therapy, so I wanted to make a work that was in response to the pandemic and what was going on, in particular in Australia.”
Circus shows can sometimes feel haphazardly put together, a collage of physically impressive acts painted with the same visual brush to give the illusion of a cohesive theme, yet never quite forming a whole. With Briefs Factory, curation is part of the magic. Faanana loves it when the audience notices the links between the acts. “There’s a really precise potion for putting the show together,” he says. “We work with a core group of artists and the show very much belongs to all of them.”
As for his own specific role, “I’m the dysfunctional stage mum of the collective, so I antagonise, manifest and drum up scenarios for them to be creative.”
Each act is inspired by one of the artists’ experience of the pandemic, from the traumatic to the transcendent. Some acts are in response to the loss of family members, while others, in classic Briefs fashion, are simply manic expressions of the “inconsistent nonsensical experiences” of a world in lockdown. “One of the boys has just made an act with every party trick he could possibly fit into his routine – it was representative of how much we were chasing our tails and getting nowhere.”
That’s the other thing that sets Briefs apart, and frankly, what puts them above much of the overseas circus that makes its way to New Zealand: it’s about something, and it uses all three artforms to push forward. “Circus, drag and burlesque are definitely forms the audience can just hang onto and find a way inside the work with,” Faanana says. “It’s important that we’ve got drag that is fierce as fuck, and in a theatre nightclub setting so we can all be astonished by someone’s skill set, but it’s really important for us to show another side of queer culture too. We’ve got shit to say.”
Faanana isn’t just the director, but also the emcee of the show. He says the secret to good hosting is being able to subtly tailor a performance to a specific audience without undermining either them or the work. That’s a very tricky balancing act.
The cultural and political aspects of the show can add more complications, he says. “Lots of times I get nervous about being a big queer immigrant drag host who is doing a land acknowledgment in a very small country town in Australia, but that’s my own personal thing.” While Briefs Factory performs all over the world, the lingering effects of the pandemic have meant the company is touring regional Australia more often than before. As host, Faanana has found himself dealing with audiences who don’t understand why a land acknowledgment would open any live performance, let alone something as ostensibly non-political as a circus show.
“I have to look past that and understand that I’m part of the process of shifting those ideas,” he says. The company just did its first gig in Gladstone, a small city in coastal Queensland with high rates of crime and race-driven violence. “I thought it was really important that we went there … And then when we got there I was shitting myself.”
Faanana went into pep talk mode: “This is what you do. You just need to give these people what you have given to every capital city and country town. You just give them the experience, you give them the magic, the energy that comes from all our girls.”
And the response? It was rapturous – no different to how Briefs is received from Auckland to Sydney to the Edinburgh Fringe. Still smarting from the “fucking hideous No” in the recent Voice to Parliament referendum, Faanana says the Gladstone experience showed him that, contrary to stereotype, much of the regional Australian population is open to art that is racially diverse, unashamedly political and joyously queer.
While Dirty Laundry can be dissected on an artistic level, it’s a show that first and foremost is about having fun and spreading joy. “If you delve further, there’s definitely context, and definitely a narrative,” Faanana says. “But I think all of our work, from the beginning, has been about celebrating individuals and celebrating identity. You can never be wrong about celebrating your own identity.”
Luckily for the audience, that celebration comes with a hefty helping of circus excellence, burlesque brilliance and drag ferocity. We couldn’t ask for better.
Dirty Laundry runs at Auckland’s Q Theatre until December 9.