Full disclosure: Jon Bennett is one of my favourite performers. He’s instantly charming with his big green eyes and dark hair as he recounts some horribly embarrassing moments and opens up his heart. He is just as disarming, authentic, and funny in person as he is on stage. The slight Australian who is best known for his show detailing his photographs of cock-tical illusions (travel photo meets phallic monument or object plus some depth perception trickery), has several other hour-long shows about his family. We sat down to talk about the his two shows appearing in this year’s Zoofest: Fire in the Meth Lab and My Dad’s Deaths.
Rachel Levine (RL) So, both shows are about your family. Can you tell me more about them?
Jon Bennett (JB): All of my shows seem to be about relationships with different people. Fire in the Meth Lab (FML) is about my brother and how for people, how in family relationships, there’s a black sheep. I follow that by analyzing my childhood with my brother. It’s about nature vs. nurture. I had the same religious upbringing. How does a family that is strict and religious and has high moral values, how does that create different people. I’ve done some of what he’s done and not followed the same path.
My Dad’s Deaths (MDD) is again about my relationship with my dad, focusing more on me and him and him being this religious, strict man who sort of doesn’t like what I do. We’re different people. How did I grow up to be different, in some ways so opposite to him, but similar in other ways? The show focuses on our relationship. I follow my childhood with him. He’s a melodramatic serious man, but comically so accident prone. He tries to do everything. He’s so proud, does everything around the farm. He has six different jobs and does it all himself. He’s a proud man who has very funny things happen to him. He might not see the humour in them.
RL: Did he oppose you becoming a performer?
JB: No, not at all. My parents made us do theatre stuff. We were in the local theatre productions and in the chorus. They encouraged us. He encouraged me to be a writer and a poet. I was always writing these short things. It’s just that I’m not the type of writer he expected me to be. He didn’t like my comedy. Initially, there was like a lot of “Why do you really have to swear?”
RL: What’s the business with his deaths? The show is called “My Dad’s Deaths…”
JB: I grew up thinking he was dying all the time. He’s fallen off ladders and ropes and had millions of sicknesses and went through weird stuff. He got a disease leptospirosis. It’s a disease you get from getting pig urine in your mouth. A pig pissed on him.
RL:I remember from one of your shows that you said you grew up on a farm. He’s a pig farmer?
JB: Pigs and cows. A proper farmer. My dad was a farmer and a teacher. He was also the school teacher. I had him for Grade 1. Also my subject teacher, for Religion. I had him for an hour every day. He was my [Australian rules] football coach, tennis coach, basketball coach. He dominated my life. And he didn’t give me any special treatment. I had to call him Mr. Bennett. If I played football, he would not award me, even if I did well. He didn’t want to give any favoritism. He was also the school bus driver. I saw him from morning to late at night. He’s a minister at the church — a lay minister. He fills in for all the ministers around town.
RL: So you had a really different life from other people…
JB: I don’t think it was that different, except that dad was such a prominent figure, but in the community, not just my life. He runs everything. Even adults call him Mr. Benneett, not by his first name.
RL:Growing up with such an unusual background, how did you end up so well-adjusted and adventurous?
JB: I decided quite early on. I worked a lot as a kid. I was feeding pigs every morning before school for an hour from the age of 6. I did that until age of 16. For 10 years, feeding pigs and working on farm. Waking up and seeing a list that stuff I had to do. I drove tractors and did farming. This was my Saturday and Sunday. I’d have to come home from school and everything was work, work, work. There was a point when I must have been 17 and my dad made me drive him somewhere to pick up plumbing parts. He asked me to do some job and he was a bit rough with me and about me working. I slammed on the brakes of the car and I yelled, “Fuck this,” and I got out and walked home. I said to my dad “I’m never working this way again. I don’t like doing farm work and I want to be a teacher.” I wanted to be a PE teacher, because I liked sports. I ended up studying film and television and moved to a different state. I finished university and started moving around. That was the point where I wanted to see and do and take opportunities. My parents have never left their town. They live on the same farm that I grew up on. It wasn’t necessarily a rebellion thing. I knew that I wanted to do other things.
RL: The rest of your family, are your brothers and sisters still there or did they have a similar experience?
JB: I have 3 older brothers and a foster sister. My second oldest brother was a musician in a jazz, funk band. My oldest brother is a plumber. They’re all still back there. One works with dad. You have a man who wants to do everything while my brother is running a professional company. My dad will bottle water for him and my brother will be like “You need to put on gloves for that” and its wasted. The man is used to fixing things and he’s still weirdly himself.
RL: What’s it like to talk about your family to strangers on stage?
JB: I don’t know. Lots of people talk about their family stuff. It’s just the way I am. I’m very open and honest as a person, just talking normally. It’s weird, but I do sometimes feel bad about it and ask myself “What am I doing?” Well, it’s only been recently with the FML show. I ask myself if I am exploiting my brother.
RL: Johanna Nutter just had a show [My Playwright Sister] about this at Fringe, done with her own brother.
JB: I was very moved by [My Playwright Sister]. I asked myself if I am doing the same thing. All my family have seen the shows about them, and they say they don’t mind it. I’ve always asked them to be involved as well. My dad helped me with my show. Both my mom and my dad, I talked about things that happened to him. I had a lot of help from my family.
RL:All of your work has been, I assume, autobiographical. Is it close to the truth? An interpretation of the truth? Is it you on stage?
JB: I think because I studied film and stuff like this, I say I’m not a good actor. I can’t play anyone but myself. I’ve had interesting things happen to me.
RL: I also want to ask about the craft of storytelling. I think because you talk about yourself, it might seem like its incredibly easy, but it is a show. It feels cohesive and not rambling — far harder than it seems. How do you decide what goes into a show? How do you refine the works?
JB: It’s a weird thing. All of my shows have started as pieces of shit. This year, Story Whore, at my first show I got a quarter way through the show, and time was up. People were so disappointed. So, you keep performing them and working out what works. For [Pretending Things are a ] Cock, I used a slide show. Slides add an element to it. I took that into the next show, after. The shows change too. I did [Cock] in San Diego two weeks ago, and it’s completely different from what I did in Montreal last year. It’s far more cohesive and it has a little film in it. My Dad’s Deaths started when I was helping run storytelling nights in Melbourne. When I first did them, they booked me to do a 40 minute spot. I did a spot called My Dad’s Deaths, how many times I thought he was dying. So that’s how that started.
All my shows, I see them as a film. I ask myself, “How would I make this?” So I’ve got this little film playing in my head. It’s also a bit like, when you used to make mixed CDs. I would always have a CD where if there was as slow song, I’d follow with a heavy or fast song. I still have that way of thinking. If something gets heavy, I’ll put something stupid afterwards. I finish the show and then think about what worked and what didn’t.
Having a slide show is good. It helps you work out your plot points. You can constantly shift title cards around. I try and bookend things. There’s always something that happens at start that gets brought back at the end.
But, they all develop over time. I feel like even while I’ve been here [in Montreal], I’ve over-edited the FML show. It keeps getting longer. It’s hard to break it down into an hour because I have all these little tiny bits. It’s a different show from last year. There were three fires last year. This year there is only one at the end. I took out the book end. I started with the fire of the present day, and then went backwards. Now I start in childhood and just work my way through. I liked the book end, but it ran 75 minutes. I had to cut it.
RL: Do you have any advice for people starting out on the storytelling path?
JB:I think the whole thing is not be scared. Everyone’s got a story. Whenever you talk to your friends, someone will respond. People relate to my shows because everyone’s got a brother who picked on them as a kid or a dad who they don’t see eye to eye with. Anything like that. People have travel stories or a friend who is annoying. It all comes together and it’s all practice. Each time you do it, it gets better and better.
My Dad’s Deaths runs at Cafe Cleopatra (1230 St Laurent) from July 18-27 at 9 p.m. $20.