PLACE, SPACE AND ENGELS’ HEAD

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“There’s a 350 capacity theatre next door”…..”I’d prefer to use the service corridor actually:

The brief
So we started the MA with an incredible and exhausting 2 week intensive with Jem Wall from Hydrocracker – a theatre company who specialise in site specific performance.

One of the most interesting things I found this week was Jem’s approach to theatre. For the majority of his career he was a stage and screen actor, almost always working with characters and a script – about 10 years he started Hydrocracker, and started creating site specific work, and has gone on to win awards and even work with Blast Theory. This means that Jem’s traditional notion of theatre has already been altered by his recent work. It was his open mindedness that really impressed me. Many people on the MA aren’t too concerned with ‘traditional’ forms of performance, and Jem was really accommodating to this. He was happy to explore all possibilities of performance with us and see what we could all create together – he was certain from the beginning that this was going to be a democratic process and not the dictator led theatre that he was so often used to working in. This open mind was a great example of something I want to continue on the MA. I am not exactly interested in telling fables and stories with characters, but I was so interested in the way Jem worked. He had some really useful exercises, approaches and even warm-ups that I know I’ll be using whenever I come to make work again.

Starting with a provocation (asking us to think about the old and the new) and with only 3 days, we were instructed to simply make a piece of site specific performance in the New Adelphi Building. Framed with two pieces of academic writing (Machon J. 2013 and Tompkins J 2012) we worked hard over 3 days and came up with quite an extensive ‘work in progress’ showing. The two pieces of writing focussed on 2 things: Site Specific Theatre, Immersive Theatre.

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New Adelphi is a pretty spectacular place. Surely we can do more that Romeo and Juliette on this balcony?

For me it was like pushing gravy up a hill

In other words – I found it challenging. This last week has really illustrated how important space is. I am so used to using the theatre as a space – trying to impose context into a ‘blank canvas’ – but really, nothing is truly blank. We were in a university building and I found it so difficult to forget that at any part of the process. Whatever we did, I felt like it was framed by institution, education, arts, student loans etc. And then to really mess with my head, there is a huge statue of Friedrich Engels’ head outside. This further framed everything with a sort of left wing political slant that I found hard to shift. However it really made me think, we already give so much context when categorising performance into space . Even when I perform in a theatre, its always is a particular type of theatre: ‘Studio theatre’ or ‘black box’ theatre. Audiences already have an expectation of what goes on in these spaces (cue people saying words like ‘contemporary’ ‘ experimental’ ‘avant garde’ or if they are brave enough ‘postmodern’). We know what happens in large scale proscenium arch theatres (Anyone fancy seeing Annie tonight?). In fact, most of the places where we are led to consume art try impose a context. Art galleries have different categories, even concert halls and gig venues like to categorise (unless I can expect to see Death Grips in the latest season at the Bridgewater Hall?). Occasionally these categories are broken down, and they are not as strict as they used to be, but it’s still framing work in a context I might not want! Ultimately I understand the reasoning for this, it is easier, for programmers an audiences alike.

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How does it feel to treat me like you do?
When you’ve laid your hands upon me and told me who you are?

Lets put dairy in the bakery isle…just for fun
As I was hanging off Engels’ beard, signing ‘The Red Flag’ in our outdoor rehearsal, we were drawing an awful lot of attention to ourselves. I’ve no doubt this was a great first impression to give on my new university campus. I can’t wait for my first university squash session next week, when my opponent will no doubt say something like “Did I see you in that commie choir hanging off that statue?”

And you know what? I’m going to really enjoy that moment – because it means that somebody is going to engage in a political discussion with his squash opponent that he might not have had, if we had kept our performance within the confines of the theatre.

There is a slight issue with the accessibility of art (even though we like to think there isn’t). For decades we’ve been trying to explore new venues (My favourite example being the Fluxus group from the 1960s).  One of our readings focused on the popularity of ‘immersive theatre’ and hailed the ‘non traditional marketing methods’ as a reason why so many non-theatre goers are attending these shows. Machon (2013) then went on to list methods such as ‘E-flyering, social media and word of mouth’. This being the 21st century I can assure these are already fairly traditional methods of marketing (sorry, but I’m not going to have the print vs. digital debate, even my nan has a kindle now). Although I do think Machon was on to something here. Blast Theory often market their theatre as a game. Some people are far more interested in playing a game than seeing theatre. Also, Blast Theory almost never perform in a theatre. They like to perform across a city, or on the internet, they have a series of performances that are mobile applications (including their latest piece ‘Karen is my life coach‘ which I took part in. Sadly Karen fell out with me- which had an unusually profound effect on me considering she isn’t real and I have never even met her).

So maybe we should look to reclassify theatre. As we move forward and the boundaries between visual art, theatre, gigs, comedy and even gaming become blurred perhaps it is time we step out of the studio theatre and onto to Engels Head….or maybe another location. What better way to end this post than with a quote from the communist manifesto:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

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