Make ‘Em Laugh: Political Theatre and Comedy as Activism with Bim Mason

In the last three years his Bigheads have become a popular sight at protests up and down the country. Now their creator Bim Mason is training others in his unique brand of performance activism.  

Bim’s history of art, performance and directing stretches back over five decades, from joining circus group Kaboodle in 1978, to co-founding Bristol’s own circus school Circomedia in 1994, to publishing his book – Provocation in Popular Culture – in 2015. 

More recently he is the creator of the Bigheads, larger-than-life 3D masks of political figures including Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Priti Patel. 

Speaking via Zoom from his home in west Wales, Bim explains that the masks are ‘a kind of flipping’ of traditional activism. The activist inside the mask, instead of trying to push their own views, embodies the views of a given politician, exaggerating them ‘to the point of ridiculousness’ to show their absurdity. 

Since their first outing in 2019, the Bigheads have been seen at the G7 summit in Cornwall in July 2021, at COP26 in Glasgow in November and on several occasions on the streets of Bristol. 

On Sunday January 30, Bim is hosting a workshop in “Live Political Cartoons: Masks for Activism” at Circomedia’s Batcave in Kingswood. Participants will learn from Bim how to perform whilst wearing the Bigheads, pick up tips and tricks from a master of maskery and discover Bim’s principles of effective political theatre. 

With a similar workshop taking place in Carmarthen tomorrow, Bim hopes to seed ‘free-standing groups’ trained in mask performance who can respond to current events in their own geographical areas independently. A kind of rapid-response political theatre unit.

In an era of confrontational protests, from the noisy occupations of XR to the disruptive roadblocks of Insulate Britain, Bim’s masks offer a more gentle form of activism aimed at, Bim said, ‘changing the narrative at a very grassroots level.’

Masks are the opposite of noisy protest, which Bim says can be off-putting for many people. Instead, the masks aim to hook an audience’s attention with humour and comedy, finding the common denominator of a shared joke. 

Moving to west Wales, Bim realised that not everyone is as politically engaged as he might imagine. He recounts the story of how in an early outing of his Boris Johnson Bighead a member of the public approached to ask if he was Donald Trump. 

The key to effective performance is pitching a message at a level that is acceptable to the audience in that place and time, Bim says, communicating in a way that is ‘simple but not simplistic.’

Some people just stop to take a photo before moving on, said Bim, but plenty of others will stop and ask what the performance is about or take a flyer from a steward. Young people, in particular, who Bim worries can be apolitical, are often hooked by the spectacle of the Bigheads. 

Five people wear masks to look like Priti Patel, Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, Xi Xinping and Kim Jong Il.
Bim (far right of frame) directs his Bighead performers at the Bristol Peace Vigil on December 10. Image; James Ward.

Bim’s activism has always existed alongside and within his artistic career. In 1974 he and others were arrested for attempting to cement a car to the pavement in central Bath in protest against increasing car dominance in the city. 

After travelling the world in the early ‘80s, Bim’s interests in art, performance and activism crystallised into a desire to pursue political theatre, and this has been the focus of his work ever since, from his theatrical production of Robin Hood as told through the Battle of the Beanfield, to the Bigheads of today.  

He cites among his inspirations Pussy Riot and Leo Bassi, the Italian performer and clown whose performances of his provocative 2005 play La Revalacion, which mocked religion, were frequently marred by bomb threats. 

Bim now seems reluctant to be labelled as an activist, saying he is ‘an outsider to it all.’ Rather than become embroiled in a specific campaign, Bim prefers to remain ‘light-footed,’ advising and helping out where he can, such as his recent projects with XR to bring the Bigheads to COP26 and the G7. 

Bim’s Bighead world leaders make an appearance at the G7 summit in Cornwall last July. Image: AFP/Getty Images.

With hopes to spread his political theatre through the coming workshops, Bim is thinking about the future. It hasn’t escaped his notice that the PCSC Bill, if passed, will change the nature of protest considerably.

When asked if his style of performance will be a defence against an increasingly authoritarian government Bim struck a note somewhere between optimism and realism. 

‘There’s always rules,’ he muses, but it’s the role of artists and creative activists to find the gaps in those rules, to subvert. Clowning, for instance, is predicted on this principle. 

For Bim it seems the battle is not to be fought over specific laws or over power, but instead over which side is having the most fun, saying of the PCSC Bill: ‘You’ve let them win if you get too despondent.’

Anyone who has seen the Bigheads either live or on social media will agree that they are a lot of fun. The caricatured faces, the affected mannerisms of the performers inside: they remind us that behind their aura of power and authority, politicians are just silly people, and we can laugh at them and there’s nothing they can do about it. 

Details of the Bristol workshop can be found here.

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