The Best Corn Chip in the Universe and its Fringe Birth
Back in 2016, actor, puppeteer and director Michael Cullen took a punt on a play he’d been writing for the past year and a half, and pitched it to Michael Dean, artistic director of Sydney theatre outfit Lies, Lies and Propaganda. By his own estimation Michael – Cullen, the first one – had about 75% of the play written when he showed it to Dean.
Dean’s response after reading that draft?
“OK. I don't know what it is, I don't quite understand it, and I'm not sure how it will work, but I'm in, let's do it!” he exclaimed (as paraphrased by Cullen).
The result of that gamble was The Best Corn Chip in the Universe, a solo show featuring clowning, physical theatre, puppetry and celestial snack food that snatched up the 2016 Sydney Fringe’s ‘Melbourne Fringe Tour Ready Award’. That the work stood out among the masses of a Fringe Festival isn’t too surprising, however, given that The Best Corn Chip combined the dark humour and weirdness of Dean’s directorial language with Cullen’s impressive performance skills.
A seasoned performer for Sport for Jove, a puppeteer for the acclaimed Warhorse, and with regular appearances in television dramas, Cullen’s drama chops would impress a fussy butcher and there is a sense in the subject matter of The Best Corn Chip that this was a vehicle for the stranger, more absurd aspects of Cullens’ range to come out and play. Those absurd aspects tacked between the apotheosis of the proto-nacho and more mundane topics such as, you know, the meaning of life.
After it's Sydney Fringe outing, The Best Corn Chip has been to the Adelaide Fringe, and Singapore and Macao have since invited the show to tour in 2019, which may very well be a springboard for a regional Australian tour somewhere down the line too.
“I’m so humbled and happy that audiences really connected to our work,” says Cullen, recalling a “palpable sense of manic glee” while performing the show as part of the Fringe. On one particularly memorable night, the lighting desk went down during the show and Cullen had to improvise for ten minutes as Dean and the venue’s tech operator madly wrangled the device back into order.
“The audience and I had just enough light to see by, so we ended up having a spontaneous conversation that veered off into some pretty wacky territory. Luckily, the lights came back and we were able to resume before things got too out of hand…” Cullen recounts.
Not all of the mania was attributed to the unpredictability of live performance, however, as Cullen also doubled as producer of his own show, a common requirement in the Fringe scene.
“Being an indie producer, you're effectively working two full time jobs and only getting paid for one,” notes Cullen, “in fact the other one is costing you money at first!”
This he concedes was a constant battle as to where to prioritise his energy, and sometimes he felt like he wasn’t able to give himself enough time to do an effective job in either the creative process or the logistics of producing the show. Clearly his show wasn’t hurt by this, but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the lead up to a Fringe season: you’re just one show among so many, and if you’re not careful you’ll drown among all the talent on display.
“I wish I'd done my research about how to hit up local media, as well as maximising venue support for publicity,” admits Cullen. “Knowing where and how to plug your wares really can make the difference for getting people through the door.”
Cullen and Dean have had ample opportunity to practice these skills since The Best Corn Chip’s first outing. Earlier this year they brought the show to the Adelaide Fringe, and Singapore and Macao have since invited the show to tour in 2019, which may very well be a springboard for a regional Australian tour somewhere down the line too.
In the meantime, Cullen maintains a busy schedule and can be seen playing the eponymous role in Sport for Jove’s upcoming production of Macbeth at the Seymour Centre and Riverside Theatre. He’s certain though that he’ll collaborate with Dean again, just as soon as he can find the next bizarre idea for a prize-winning Fringe treat.
Words by James Dalton
Photos by Sam Hickey