Juliette Burton’s new show Defined has just opened at the Edinburgh Fringe. So…
JOHN: What’s it about?
JULIETTE: How we define ourselves and the labels we use. I was labelled as ‘engaged’ last year and I have now moved to the label of ‘single’.
JOHN: But not ‘vacant’.
JULIETTE: (LAUGHS) No. Certainly not my mind. There’s too much to think about. I started using a dating app after I broke up with my fiancé and, when I was filling out the dating profile, I realised they tend to ask you to tick either/or boxes:
It got me thinking about the extremes we sometimes get pushed towards – optimism/pessimism – introvert/extrovert – whereas we are maybe somewhere in the middle or are both at various times.
In the past, I have been defined by a whole list of mental health conditions and sometimes, in previous shows, I may have defined myself through the mental conditions I have, like a ‘mental health comedy girl’. Whereas, in fact, there’s a lot more to it.
I have been writing this show for ages and the main thing I want it to be is… well, I did a national tour of the previous show Butterfly Effect and, in that, I started testing out material for this show.
I genuinely think the new show is the funniest I have ever done and the only thing I want to be defined as now is funny.
JOHN: Do the dating apps ask what you do for a living?
JULIETTE: Yes. And I always wonder: Am I Theatre or am I Comedy? I used to think I was Theatre, but now I think I’m Comedy.
JOHN: So what do you put on the dating apps as a job?
JULIETTE: ’Journalist’ usually. (LAUGHS) I’m a journalist at heart. My shows are truthful and I don’t like dishonesty generally. One of the problems in saying you are a ‘comedian’, of course, is that you get asked: “Tell us a joke, then!”
JOHN: How do you react?
JULIETTE: I usually tell them that’s like me asking them to act out their job.
JOHN: You also do voice-over work.
JULIETTE: Yes. I have done educational language tapes and sung songs for people learning English as a Foreign Language. I’ve done corporate training videos. I’ve done audio books for children and adults. Usually I do newly-published books.
JOHN: And for the blind…
JULIETTE: I used to do audio books for the RNIB. That’s how I got into voice-over work.
JOHN: Why did you start?
JULIETTE: Two reasons. One is I used to work as a newsreader for BBC Radio, which led into voice-over work. And I also got into audio books because my granny had gone blind by the end of her life but her mind was so sharp and she just used to devour audio books. The local library had to ship in audio books from across the country because she kept getting through them so quickly. I always tried to think about her when I was recording audio books… (LAUGHS) except when doing erotica.
JOHN: You do all the voices in the erotica?
JULIETTE: All the voices.
JOHN: So Lady Chatterley AND Mellors…
JULIETTE: Exactly. (LAUGHS) Everybody needs to experience the full kaleidoscopic beauty and glory that is being alive.
JOHN: Is it mildly embarrassing?
JULIETTE: Oh yes. Especially when the studio engineer is your ex-fiancé.
JOHN: That happened?
JULIETTE: Yes, And I talk about it in my show. The last erotica book I recorded was just about a month after we broke up, in the middle of the heatwave last year. It was very awkward and we started having arguments about how you pronounce words like EE-THER or EYE-THER in the now-infamous sentence: “He could have licked either of my lactating nipples”… That’s a genuine sentence I had to read.
That book was actually – for erotica – very well researched. But, in all the books I’ve done – maybe 50 or more – I have only done 2 or 3 erotica.
JOHN: Has the voice-over work impacted – a horrible American word – on your stage performances?
JULIETTE: Yes. It has forced me to really get better at my accents. My repertoire has got much stronger with accents in general. Also, when you record audio books, you are speaking to just one person, you are not speaking to a whole audience in a group.
I now like thinking about that when I am on stage. Although it is a whole audience, you are really still just appealing to that one person who is experiencing your show. So it teaches you how to be a bit more personal and personable.
I want every single person in the room to feel special. It sounds saccharine. It IS saccharine. But shows CAN change your perception of and perspective on the world and your attitude towards yourself. I have been to shows like that and I want every audience member to leave my shows feeling like they can take on the world and they have more fortitude, more resilience because of the show.
This last year has been a hard one for me. The break-up with my fiancé was the right thing, but it was hard. And I’ve had quite a few recent deaths in my family – and friends – A friend passed away earlier this year. Even my therapist for the last ten years passed away, which I thought was hilarious at the time.
JULIETTE: Because she was the one person I could actually turn to.
The thing that kept me going was the fact I had to perform a show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. I had to do all my previews before that and there would be audiences out there who needed to laugh about dark things in their lives.
JOHN: You are very likeable, bright and bubbly on stage… Sally Sunshine.
JULIETTE: I hope I’m not too TV kids’ presenter any more because I don’t feel like that any more. I am trying to move away from saccharine stuff.
JOHN: You’ve changed?
JULIETTE: I think so. I think I was quite naive. Now I’ve come down to earth and I’m a bit more grounded. But I still want all my audience to feel like they’re part of a community. When I did that national tour last year, it made me realise the value of a comedy show to help unite groups of complete strangers. If they can laugh about things like mental illness and grief, then they become a kind of community on that one night. Especially in these times when people feel quite divided politically and socially.
JOHN: You were involved in the recent Pride events. Why? You’re not gay.
JULIETTE: Well, sexuality is fluid.
JOHN: Fluid is definitely in there, yes.
JULIETTE: I was invited to join in by someone who works for the mental health charity SANE. I ended up wearing an amazing feather headdress on the SANE float and I look completely blissed-out in the photographs – not because I’m feeling super-confident but because I’m thinking, on that float in this crowd of people, Finally I have found somewhere where no-one will talk to me.
JOHN: Why is that good?
JULIETTE: Because I’m a very introverted person.
JOHN: So you don’t like people talking to you…
JULIETTE: Why do you think I stand on stage and hold a microphone for an hour talking at them?
When I am flyering in the street, I think I feel more naked than when I’m on stage. You are more prone to rejection when you’re flyering. I am a very introverted extrovert.
That’s part of what the new show is about. You can be an introverted extrovert. You can be an optimist AND a pessimist. You don’t have to be one thing or the other.
JOHN: But you tend to stand next to the door and chat to the audience as they come in…
JULIETTE: Yes. Because then they are individual, special people who are there for their own experience of the show. They are individuals, not a whole big collective. I want every single person to know they matter because, without those people coming to my shows… It’s all about finding other people who want to hear what I have to say and can relate to what I have to say…
JOHN: You are working on a book. What’s it about?
JULIETTE: How to be relentlessly positive and how to find the light in dark times.