Bricks & Mortar

 

You can build a wall around you, stone by stone a solid ring

You can stay alone in an empty home, sit at home and be the King

A hymn, beloved of the teachers of Garden Fields JMI, and quite well-liked by the children because the chorus involved accompanying hand movements that offered the opportunity to ‘accidentally’ punch the people around you, circa 1990.


*************************************************************************

 

As part of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, it has been announced that Manchester will get a brand new building, The Factory, which will receive £78 million of government investment. Reactions to this idea have been mixed – including some people wondering whether Manchester really needs another arts building.


I’ve recently come to the end of a period during which I’ve had an association with a particular theatre building, and also the end of a year of work for fanSHEN which has included building and non-building-based work. At D&D this last weekend, I surprised myself with a bit of an anti-building rant, so I thought I should probably address the subject in a more reflective way.

 

I think I want to make the argument for the need for porousness in what we use any building for, especially in an age where property and space are at a premium, especially in London (the city I’m most familiar with). The argument that we need very few buildings with a singular dedicated usage, and by implication very few Theatres with a capital ‘T’. There’s two parts to this, and then a third part where I contradict myself. Here we go.

 

 

i.

Not hiding

 

For the past couple of years my company fanSHEN have partnered with Transition Town Tooting (TTT), to make projects in our particular bit of South London. TTT is a Transition group, a local initiative with the aim of raising awareness locally of the effects of Climate Change, Peak Oil and the impact of human activities on the environment. TTT are known within the Transition Network for working a lot through the arts – which is in no small part due to TTT’s founders the incredible Lucy Neal and Hilary Jennings.

 

Lucy and Hilary have long maintained that one of the reasons that TTT has been so successful, with so many links into Tooting’s diverse communities, is because it has no physical base. Every time TTT want to do an event, they need to find a space to hold it in. This has meant conversations with all sorts of people who have access to all sorts of spaces in Tooting. It has meant explaining what TTT do a lot, and building up personal trust-based relationships.

 

In 2015, fanSHEN and TTT ran a project called Tooting Field Days, a series of 6 free family activity days. Field Days ran to the same model – talking place in the library, the space in the middle of Tooting Broadway market, Mushkil Aasaan Islamic Community Centre, Tooting Community Garden, Tooting Common, Tooting Graveney Common, the lido, Sprout Arts – and all sorts of spaces in between (each day involved a walk between two locations). Each place we went to meant that we encountered a new group of people, people who had a pre-existing relationship with Mushkil Aasaan or the library or wherever. Lots of these people were intrigued by what we were doing, chatted to us and got involved. Although Field Days developed a core of regular attenders, each location meant a new group of people could access the project. Field Days had a clear affiliation to a place – in so many ways they were a way of celebrating the chaotic, imperfect, brilliant place we’ve been lucky enough to find as out ‘artistic home’ – but had no affiliation to any building. One of their strengths was the fact they were peripatetic, picking up people wherever they went.

 

(I think this affiliation to place is pretty easy if you can walk across that place in less than an hour… I’d be really interested to hear how the experience translates for an organisation like NTW who are non-buildingly affiliated to a whole nation, rather than two postcodes in SW London.)

 

We talk a lot about audience development in the arts but –and this isn’t rocket science- I think there’s no substitute for going and talking to people. Neither Dan nor I are people who regularly strike up conversations with strangers in the street, but with Field Days, we learned the importance of being visible and explaining why we were carrying a giant orange bird through Tooting and inviting people to be a part of what we were doing. There’s a thing we realised, that we’re people first and artists second. We found that the best way to serve the arts was to be a person talking to other people. I don’t think this diminishes the role that artists can play within communities but does mean that you are accountable and -certainly for us- the work becomes more dialogic.

 

With Invisible Treasure, a very different project we made in a theatre later in the year, it was important that we were around at the end to talk with people about their experiences, our intentions, and how it all worked. The show ‘ended’ when people chose to leave the space. I don’t think we’d have made this choice so consciously without what we’d learned on Field Days. Artists need to be more visible (and indeed to be people first) so my fear of people had to take something of a back seat. This – rather circuitously - relates to buildings because in buildings you can choose to hide, or indeed the default is that you the artist are hidden, you actually have to make a concerted effort not to be. Some buildings (e.g. ARC in Stockton) bring artists and audiences together in great ways but I just wonder if as a dedicated arts building, you’re always working against a structural bias to achieve this.

 

Amateur dramatics productions in this country are attended to a level that a lot of professional theatre companies would kill for. Lots of those audience members are attending because someone involved in the production means something to them. Our experience is that there’s something about being an artist in a place rather than an artist in a building that means you start to build up relationships in a way that becomes more than transactional. There was a moment at the last Field Day where we said goodbye to one of the families who’d attended almost all the sessions which was quite weird – we weren’t friends, we wouldn’t meet for a drink or dinner, but I think we were all genuinely sad that we didn’t know the next opportunity we’d see each other. One of the reviews we received on Mumsnet for Invisible Treasure talked about being proud of having an experimental theatre company based locally. This meant so much to us. I don’t know if the reviewer mum had been to any of the Field Days or just knew us indirectly but there was something in this that felt like the way you might be proud of a friend or relative who’d done something cool. Do people have this relationship to buildings? Maybe – but is it really this personal?

 

What I think fanSHEN are always trying to do is make work which is experimental but not elitist. There’s something about an unmediated relationship with our community (and the same people within that community are sometimes collaborators, sometimes audiences, sometimes funders) to do with trust. It’s saying, you know us, you trust us, come on this new journey with us?

 

And of course this is the role that many venue programmers or artistic directors or other curator-ish people in buildings can play for their local community: build up a trust and then work from this place of trust to introduce them to incredible art that they might not have otherwise encountered. But is a dedicated building necessary for this? Outdoor arts festivals like SIRF would suggest not. Organisations like MAYK, working through partnerships across spaces in Bristol, would suggest not. Sure - these organisations have office space in the way that TTT don’t but neither have sole usage of a building with the unique purpose of presenting art. And yes, MAYK work with Arnolfini and Bristol Old Vic which are art-buildings but what I’m arguing for here is fewer of these, rather than their wholesale eradication.

 

 

ii.

the undeniable uses of buildings

 

Maybe we’re going around in circles here. Maybe the more useful way to look at this is to ask, what do we need buildings for?

 

1. to keep stuff in - concentrations of specialist equipment that are necessary for some types of art (we couldn’t have done Invisible Treasure in any old space.) This is important but I wonder if sometimes the walls of buildings are used to keep artists away from this stuff rather than keeping the stuff out of the wind and rain. I spent quite a long time working for an organisation, which, despite its rhetoric about the central importance of artists, spoke about them in incredibly disparaging terms and often moved items to ‘keep them safe from artists.’

 

2. to keep knowledge (=people with knowledge in) so that people know where to find the people with that knowledge. Yes maybe, but I don’t think those people have to be in buildings and I do have a question about how current the knowledge in some buildings is - once you’re behind those walls, it’s easy to lose touch with what is happening in your hinterlands.

 

3. to meet our ‘tribes’ in. The people who look like us and sound like us and have opinions comfortingly similar to ours.  It strikes me this is absolutely a thing that happens in exclusive-purpose buildings and would not happen in a market or library or community centre. But for me, art is not about further entrenching the segregation we sleepwalk into.

 

4. as stuff for funders to point at. Y/our money paid for this building – look. There was also some art, some performance but it was live and it has gone now. I think our love of buildings has a lot to do with theatre doing battle against its own ephemerality. It’s part of the overarching challenge we have, which is how do we transition from a values system based on consumption/ stuff to a values system based on experience. But that’s a whole other thing.

 

5. to provide a continuous source of entertainment for people, in that they know where to go to find the stuff. Yeah… maybe… but I’d argue a website could do this: how many people just show up at a theatre not knowing what’s on but wanting to see whatever it is because it’s a theatre?

 

6. (and this is the cynical one that I’d like not to believe) to provide employment (for people who wouldn’t survive as freelancers/ wouldn’t get another job they applied for) - rather than to achieve a mission. NOT ALL BUILDINGS. Some buildings even smartly mitigate against this by –for example- having the artistic director reapply for their job on a 4 year cycle, ensuring that the walls are always temporary/ semi-porous. But I think that a theatre ecology where every job was on a 4 year cycle would look significantly different to our current one.

 

7. to feel civic pride about? This one gets a question mark because I’m not sure. Is there a theatre people are super-proud of in the way people are proud of the Angel of The North? I think it’s more that the Angel of the North is a piece of art rather than a built structure that makes people proud. Although when the Grand Hall at BAC was so badly damaged by fire at the start of 2015, it felt like the outpouring of grief and subsequently support was as much about the building as the art that took place within it. But BAC is a civic, mixed-use building – for some people, the Grand Hall is the place they got married not the place where Little Bulb did Orpheus. So it would be difficult to conscript BAC to the argument in favour of exclusive Theatre buildings.

 

 

iii.

Queen Rachel of Artsbuilding

 

So if all this true, and actually there are very few things we need arts buildings for, why do I want my own building? (And I do, to the extent that we have even planned its layout.) If I’m honest, I think I want this space, the fanSHEN space to create my own little microcosm of the world as I want it - with making theatre, and a craft room and a library and a kitchen with a big table where everyone can eat together, with a garden outside we can grow stuff in and perform in, and of course everyone locally can come and use it and we’ll all get to know each other and blahblahblah. Because that’s my vision of the world - and so, to me, it’s perfectly reasonable and indeed, highly desirable.

 

But maybe everyone in buildings is living out their perfect version of the world - a world where no one can bother them (no demanding artists or difficult audience members), where they get to have meetings which make them feel powerful and successful, where their ‘community’ can exist as a kind of theoretical concept that gives them a warm and fuzzy feeling. (Again, NOT ALL BUILDINGS.)

 

And who wouldn’t want a place to physically realize their ideal version of the world.

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

There are plants within any ecosystem which have the sole function of creating the conditions within which other plants can grow. Once those conditions have been created, those first plants die out. Do we ever plan obsolescence into the life-cycle of a building? No - because buildings are expensive and a faff to put up/ take down. But -and this takes us back to the start- if we were less attached to the idea of exclusive function, it would be less of a problem if a building which had once been a theatre became a day-care centre or a library or a chicken shop. Maybe it’d happen gradually - maybe Mon-Weds you’d go there for hot wings and on a Thurs for art - would that be such a terrible thing?

On Co-creation (or 'An out-pouring of anxiety 2 weeks before we open a show'.)


On Co-creation

or 

An out-pouring of anxiety 2 weeks before we open a show

(by Rachel)


In summer 2014 we made an audio walk project in Tooting. We interviewed a lot of people. We ended up with 8 and a half hours of material. We knew we had to create two half hour walks, one curated by me and one by Shireen Mula. We were co-creating with the people we’d interviewed - our walks wouldn’t contain any words not spoken by our interviewees. But there were going to be acts of authorship - through the material we selected, Shireen and I would be shaping how people experienced what our interviewees had said. We had quite a few discussions about methodology… aside from a general respectfulness towards our interviewees, what should guide the selections we made? There’s one version of these walks (which we didn’t make) where we would roll a dice or some similarly random selector and allow the sections of interview that we used to be determined by this. In these versions of the walks, we as ‘curators’ wouldn’t have any choice - we might as well be machines rolling dice. 


The walks we ended up making have a sort of thematic narrative - linked to the place that the walker is experiencing when she hears that section, or wider thematic currents that we drew from/ imposed on the 8 and a half hours of material we’d collected. The middle bit of my walk is about people’s reactions to the rapid demographic change that Tooting (like many other parts of previously fringey London) is going through, and specifically housing. It contains a lot of different points of view, which are not resolved in any way. I suppose that within my selection/ imposition of this theme, I also wanted there to be space for the walker, as he passes up a residential street decorated with estate agents’ signs, to create his own meaning. I enjoyed not having to find any sort of agreement or even dramaturgy to the disagreement - perhaps this is about wanting to leave space in the work for people experiencing it - or perhaps it’s because this particular theme is difficult and I’m part of the big gentrifying problem. I start to wonder whether sometimes ‘leaving space for co-creation’ is the A side to a B side which is irresponsibility/ being frightened. And maybe that’s ok. 


I don’t think that at this point we were thinking consciously about co-creation. That came later, after Playable City conference in Bristol; a presentation made by Usman Haque in which he listed ‘collaboration without consensus’ as one of the principles guiding his work and perhaps the best piece of advertising ever where the well-known James Bond motif allowed people to feel like heroes on their daily commute (although the trendiness and general high level of attractiveness of everyone in the video makes me wonder if they are ’normal’ people). Once upon a time I really wanted control over what audiences looked at, felt, thought about. Now I’m far more interested in what people bring, and in creating work with a flexible structure in which people can play. I think I am, anyway.


Co-creation can mean all sorts of things of course. Perhaps we think first of experiences where the audience are doing something physical or at least visible to further the experience - Coney’s Early Days, in which audience members assume the role of citizens of a new nation and have to argue out the course which that nation will take; or where audience members' contributions populate the structure of the show, like Hannah Nicklin’s Songs for Breaking Britain; or where audiences go on some kind of physical journey like Circumstance’s A Folded Path, where audience members become a sort of orchestra, carrying location-sensitive and reactive speakers through a city.


But arguably, in any theatre experience you’re asking an audience to co-create by asking them to use their imagination. Some of my favourite theatre experiences have been this - in Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, I sat in my seat in the Noel Coward Theatre while onstage some actors moved around an office set, reading from a book - but what I saw was Tom and Daisy’s house, the parties, the accident. In Forced Ents’ The Notebook, Richard Lowden and Robin Arthur stood onstage reading from folders; I saw Grandmother’s house and the girl with the dog and the arrival of their father. Both pieces, perhaps because they were not interested in replicating the events of the story, invited me to co-create the world they described: Gatz and The Notebook are -in very different ways- asking audiences to commit acts of extreme imagination. You could try to argue that a production of Macbeth is also inviting an audience to co-create - any event that takes place offstage like Macbeth killing the grooms or Macduff’s account of his birth requires them to imagine. But I’m not sure about that - maybe the intention of co-creation has to exist, rather than it happening accidentally, within this codification that I’m figuring out. Maybe it has to be an explicit part of the contract with the audience.


I think this is slightly different from the old ‘liveness’ of theatre mantra. How many times have we heard people express their devotion to theatre as a form because of its live nature - that it needs people/ an audience in order to exist, that you can see close up/ smell/ touch the performers. But for me, this idea of co-creation is slightly different. Punchdrunk create impressive, engaging experiences which absolutely thrive on their liveness - but they’re not co-created, or at least I’ve never felt that I’m contributing anything to the overall experience.


This idea of co-creation, and the different ways we can co-create with an audience, has driven a whole new strand of fanSHEN’s work - our Ministry of Remoldability (we decided we needed a Ministry - everyone needs a Ministry, right?) The Ministry of Remoldability is an ongoing project about how we think, hope and act for the future. It uses lo-fi, playful methods to explore big ideas in participatory settings - it’s all about co-creating. The idea of co-creation has also inspired us to create playable theatre with characters and costumes, like The Apple Cart; working outside has been a big factor in helping us let go of wanting control of an experience… it’s pretty futile trying to control every aspect of the experience when you’re contending with weather and passing samba bands. 


And now we’re making Invisible Treasure - which is a sort of playable space with no actors. It’s a collaboration with Hellicar&Lewis, who are a design and technology studio that specialises in engagement. They design experiences over a variety of mediums that put the user first - and believe if you gift users with a system that augments their existing behaviour they will reward you with their attention. Which means, perhaps, that the opportunity to co-create opens up.


In Invisible Treasure, we’ve created a dramaturgical structure and a system of lights, sound, projection and other technology to support it. It isn’t a ‘choose your own adventure’; that wasn’t what we were interested in making. But in each of the seven chapters, the decisions and behaviours of the people in the space will determine what happens. Each show will be a co-creation with the people present (and we’re lucky enough to be working Goldsmiths’ Department of Computing to record each of those co-creations for subsequent analysis). 


Now it isn’t loss of control I’m worried about, it’s that people won’t have a ‘nice time’. Which is odd, because that isn’t what I look for in the theatre. And Invisible Treasure is a piece about agency and power and systems and I wouldn’t consider it a successful exploration of those ideas if people didn’t have moments of feeling angry or uncomfortable or frustrated. But who wants to co-create themselves an unpleasant experience? Throughout the process we’ve tried to curb the fear which makes us want to do more, put more in, cushion the experience, make it nice. There is an idea we use which is borrowed from permaculture, a system of design principles, and the idea is this:

make the smallest possible intervention that will have the greatest possible effect

I try to go back to this at the moments I am tempted to stick in loads of text and rewards and other more didactic elements.


The other thing I’m alternately fascinated/ terrified by is how we co-create meaning. Invisible Treasure is a metaphor - and a pretty abstract one - so you can just enjoy the experience as lots of cool things happening in the space around you. And even within the core team who conceived it, we see the metaphor in different ways. For me, it’s about invisible systems and the way that if you can’t see how things function, it’s hard to ask questions about them or change them - the way I see it, the invisible treasure is the things around us that we forget are there but actually could have more control over. For Cécile, the designer, the invisible treasure is the people taking part and what they bring. For Dan, the other lead artist, the invisible treasure is the collaboration and the competition, the freedom and the responsibility of the participants. Maybe meaning is always slightly subjective and co-created but we often try to get the meaning ‘right’ and so end up converging. How can we really celebrate the different meanings that people co-create with the structure? Will I be ok with different people taking vastly different things - or indeed nothing at all - from the experience?


This blog thing doesn’t really have an ending, partly because we haven’t done the show yet. Maybe next we’ll do Private Lives (or some other play with no explicit intention to have its audience co-creating) and I won’t worry about people not having a nice time. On some days, I think theatre should not be about pure entertainment and distraction from all the shit, but on other days, I do think what is wrong with wanting that?


(Yes, it’s an abrupt ending)

(But it was getting quite long)


To be continued…

The one about the tree falling in the forest: a practice-based reflection on the stories we tell and who we tell them to

A paper delivered at the Performance, Ecology and Research Symposium at University of Christchurch, Canterbury, on 1 July 2015, by Dan Barnard and Rachel Briscoe (fanSHEN)


1. (Rachel)

Hello

I’m Rachel

And I’m Dan

We are from fanSHEN.

fanSHEN exists to transform the world into something to be experienced rather than something which is consumed. We make theatre, live performance, participatory projects and other playful interventions which create more moments of beauty, joy and meaning, and which challenge the idea that life is frightening. In the past few years, we’ve done a lot of thinking about how we as artists and as an organization can engage with climate change – or at least make work in the context of climate change.

This talk is rooted in where our thinking is at right now and is intended as a provocation  for further discussion. We’re going to make a few sweeping assertions along the way. When I read it back this morning it felt a bit depressing. It isn’t meant to be – it’s meant to acknowledge the complexity of this issue.

Some of what we’re going to share are thoughts that we’ve had over the last few years and some specifically come from a research trip that we did to Belgium in January of this year which was supported by the British Council and the Arts Council through their Artists International Development Fund. We learned a lot from what was happening (and not happening) there and also being there gave us some distance and perspective on how things work here in the UK.

 

 

2. (Dan)

If you approach the vast majority of theatre organisations in England and Wales and ask them what they are doing about climate change, they are likely to talk first about how they are reducing their impact, rather than the work that is taking place on their stages or the dialogue they are having with their audiences. The 2012-2015 funding agreements for Arts Council England’s National Portfolio of organisations contained a requirement to measure energy and water usage and have in place an Environmental Action Plan, making them the first national arts funding body in the world to ‘legislate’ to reduce carbon emissions.

So far so good. But to what extent are audiences aware of these efforts that theatre organisations are making? To achieve the top star ratings from Julie’s Bicycle there is a requirement to communicate these efforts to audience members. This might translate into having an environmental page on the website and the odd tweet – but I would question how many audience members who don’t work in theatre are likely to visit these pages or read these tweets.

Many organisations are reluctant to communicate their carbon-cutting efforts to audiences. One organization who were working hard to reduce their impact spent quite a while agonizing over how it would fit with their “brand.” And in the first of the Young Vic’s Classics for a New Climate productions, After Miss Julie, they made various adjustments to create a production with lower carbon emissions but decided to only tell their audience on the way out that this is what they had done. They felt that if the audience had known this in advance, it might have devalued the experience for them.

 


3. (Rachel and Dan)

But maybe we don’t need to tell people. Maybe telling people would even weaken the act, maybe people would think the greenness of any given piece of theatre was a publicity stunt or a bid to get in with green-minded funders or similar rather than an act of conviction. Maybe it would be enough if the entire theatre sector quietly got on with lowering their emissions and greening their practice. Maybe no one needs to know about the tree falling.

On March 15, 2011 the Flemish performance artist Benjamin Verdonck published his ‘Manifesto for the active participation of the performing arts sector in the transition towards a fair durability’ In a letter to all the performing arts organisations that received structural support from the Flemish government, he proposed a manifesto for the next 160 days, a list of actions which he called ‘the work of art’

AT THE START OF THE WORK OF ART

THURSDAY AS ‘VEGGIE DAY’

IS RESCINDED

THAT DAY IS SERVED A CHOICE OF

STEAK AND FRIES OR LEMON SOLE WITH ‘POMMES DAUPHINE’

THE PARTICIPATING ORGANISATIONS ARE THEN ASKED NOT TO SERVE

ANY MEAT OR FISH DISHES

IN THEIR STAFF CANTEEN ON THE OTHER DAYS OF THE WEEK

ANY EMPLOYEE HAVING A MEAL OUT OF THE OFFICE WHILE ON THE JOB

WILL ALSO ABSTAIN FROM CONSUMING ANY MEAT OR FISH, EXCEPT ON THURSDAYS

 

AFTER THE START OF THE WORK OF ART

ALL PROMOTION MATERIAL DEEMED NECESSARY

FOR PRODUCTIONS PREMIERING WITHIN THE STATED PERIOD

WILL BE PRINTED IN BLACK LETTERS ON UNBLEACHED RECYCLED PAPER

THE SHARE OF THE COMMUNICATION BUDGET SAVED THIS WAY

WILL BE USED COLLECTIVELY AT THE END OF THE STATED PERIOD

TO RENT ONE OR MORE BILLBOARDS

ON WHICH WILL BE WRITTEN ON A WHITE BACKGROUND

IN UPSIDE-DOWN BLACK LETTERS:

‘WE AGREED ON EVERYTHING’

 

AT THE START OF THE WORK OF ART

PARTICIPANTS WILL BE ASKED

TO USE PUBLIC TRANSPORT AND/OR A BICYCLE

TO TRAVEL TO AND FROM WORK

PARTICIPANTS NEEDING TO WORK

AFTER PUBLIC TRANSPORT HAS STOPPED RUNNING

WILL BE OFFERED A PLACE TO SPEND THE NIGHT

ANY PARTICIPANT MAY INVOKE UP TO THREE TIMES FAMILY CIRCUMSTANCES

IN ORDER TO RETURN HOME USING A TAXI SERVICE

 

AT THE START OF THE WORK OF ART

PARTICIPANTS WILL BE ASKED

TO CREATE DANCE OR THEATRE PIECES

WITHOUT A SET

OR

WITH A SET

BUT ONE BUILT OF MATERIALS

ALREADY IN POSSESSION OF THE ORGANISATION

BEFORE IT AGREED TO PARTICIPATE IN THE WORK OF ART

 

SPECIFICALLY FOR TRAVELLING PERFORMANCES

THE FOLLOWING RULE APPLIES

THE SET

(WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE EQUIPMENT PRESENT AT THE HOST THEATRE)

SHOULD BE OF A SIZE

ALLOWING THE CAST AND TECHNICIANS

TO CARRY ITS PARTS SAFELY AND COMFORTABLY

WHILE TRAVELLING

THE AMOUNT SAVED ON THE SET BUDGET

SHOULD BE USED TOWARDS EMPLOYING ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCE ARTISTS

 

AT THE START OF THE WORK OF ART

PARTICIPANTS UNDERTAKE

NOT TO TRAVEL BY AIR

NOR TO RECEIVE

ANY COMPANY USING AIR TRAVEL

NO EXCEPTIONS TO THIS RULE ARE POSSIBLE

UNLESS THE PARTICIPATING ORGANISATION CONTENDS

THAT AN INTERNATIONAL TOUR IS ESSENTIAL

TO FINANCIALLY ENSURE ITS CONTINUED EXISTENCE

OR

UNLESS A PARTICIPANT IS IN POSSESSION OF A RING

HE TWISTS AROUND THE FINGER

MAKING HIM INVISIBLE

WHILE FLYING

AND DOING THIS

TWICE ON A EUROPEAN FLIGHT

AND

ONCE ON A TRANSATLANTIC FLIGHT

WHEREUPON THE ADVANTAGED PARTICIPANT

UNDERTAKES TO

HOWL LIKE A DOG

EVERY NIGHT

FOR A MONTH

UP TO THREE TIMES A NIGHT

 

You can read the responses that Verdonck received on his website. They are varied. Some applaud Verdonck for his provocation, some quote Schiller (‘Art that pretends to be anything other than itself is bad art. Beauty is freedom in appearance.’) to illustrate that adopting the manifesto would be inimical to art, some are very angry, some see it as misguided:

I just wanted to say I’m not going to sign your manifesto. This doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about our environment. I only think the world doesn’t change for the better through artistic or symbolic actions. The world will only change when somebody realises he can make money out of it. Is that a problem? No, I don’t think so. Well of course, it’s a pity money is our main motivation. But good intentions won’t help us further.

And on figures alone, this guy has a point. In the grand scheme of things, the emissions of the theatre sector are tiny. Even in the unlikely event that all theatres, companies and individual artist adopted a version of Verdonck’s manifesto, would it really make any impact?

London’s Green Theatre Plan, launched in 2008, identified that (in 2008) London’s theatre industry created 50,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year – roughly the equivalent of emissions from 9,000 homes. The Plan proposed that if all its recommended actions were taken, the industry could reduce carbon emissions by almost 60 per cent by 2025. This is equivalent of converting over 5,000 London homes to zero-carbon. Great.

It’s equivalent to the carbon emitted in about 130 transatlantic flights. Ok.

But there are around 1000 transatlantic flights per day. So in one day, transatlantic air travel makes 4 times as many emissions as the whole of London theatre does in a year.

So, with an emissions and measurement-based approach, can theatre ever really make more than a symbolic gesture against climate change?

 

4. (Dan)

We don’t want to undermine the good intentions of the people who are working hard to achieve these carbon reductions. And carbon cutting efforts do have some real meaning  - especially in the context of statistics like Mike Berners-Lee’s estimate that for every 150 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, there is one climate change related death somewhere in the world. However, the system as it operates creates a tick box culture that suggests that when we have ticked the box we have done enough. Also, measuring tends to lead you to focus only on the things that you measure. Here is an example of what I mean:

For the last few years we have taken the decision to tour by train. This began as an environmental initiative. We worked in the way Verdonck describes, restricting our set, props and costumes to what could comfortably be carried by the company on a train. For our 2012 tour of GreenandPleasantLand this lowered our emissions compared to other forms of travel. But four our 2014 tour of The Apple Cart we calculated that travelling by train actually had a slightly higher carbon footprint than if the whole company travelled in a van. How should we have reacted to this? By abandoning the model and travelling by van? 

But we didn’t: travelling by train means that we are looking towards a possible future where there are no longer private motor vehicles. It allows us to have conversations with people who are curious about what is in the trollies we push around – what we are doing and why we are travelling in this way. And it allows the company to have a lifestyle that is sustainable in another sense of that word. When we used to tour by van, the stage manager who drove the van wouldn’t be able to relax after the show in the way that everyone else could. And there is a human cost to this way of working – one of the more mature technicians at the most Sustainability in Production Alliance meeting commented that he went to too many funerals and not enough retirement parties. We want our team to thrive, not to burn out.

The final problem with this “measuring and reducing” approach is that it tends to leave out the two most essential groups of people in theatre – the audience and the artists.

 

5. (Rachel)

An approach which is focused on measuring is necessarily going to engage the people who do the measuring – production managers, general managers, front of house managers. The subtext of this approach is that the artist should get on with being creative and the people around her should work to make sure that what she is doing isn’t catastrophically damaging. I want to make a plea for engaging artists in art’s responsibility to respond to climate change. We may not be able to change the world by cutting our own emissions but surely we could inspire people to think about the world in a different way.

Here, some of you may be preparing to red card me for instrumentalising art. There’s a significant contingent of people who feel that artists should create, unfettered by agendas and any other sort of restrictions. And too often in this area of arts and climate change, I do agree that artists are regarded as the PR guys for hard science or council agendas or Green Week or whatever it might be… we’ve politely declined a number of invitations to make performances of didactic books hectoring kids to recycle, a town centre installation to encourage people not to drop chewing gum and some other uninspiring stuff.

So yeah. Including the artist is not a brief like this – or a process like the National Theatre’s Greenland which –it seems- brought together a group of artists with no existing interest in the issues but who, understandably, were very interested in making a show at the National Theatre. The challenges that resulted from that are brilliantly documented in Kellie C. Payne’s article in Culture and Climate Change: Narratives.

But I don’t think that including the artist is actually that hard. I don’t think we need to do all that much shoe-horning. Maybe there aren’t that many artists out there making work which features mechanical polar bears (and anyone who saw Greenland will be thankful for that) but there are hundreds of artists making work exploring social justice, migration, identity, geopolitics, capitalism, human rights. These are climate change issues. Maybe we don’t need to instrumentalise the artists but to think about climate change in a different way. To tell stories which invite people to think about their relationship with their environment in a different way.

 

6. (Dan)

And this is happening. Figures as diverse as Naomi Klein and Pope Francis have reframed climate change as a social justice issue:

As part of the project of getting our emissions down to the levels many scientists recommend, we once again have the chance to advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up. ~ Naomi Klein

Today, however, we have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor… we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest. ~ Pope Francis

This reframing can engage more people more deeply in the topic. Ideas of fairness and justice are very emotive or many people and it can be easier to be empowered to act against injustice than to try and prevent a global apocalypse.

 

 7. (Rachel)

 So if we could reframe climate change to include a broader subject matter, would that also result in a broader, perhaps richer range of forms? Forms where people might notice the tree in the forest falling themselves, rather than needing to be told about it. What strikes me about the Emergence Culture Shift mapping report on ecologically-engaged performance in Wales (no England-based equivalent is available) is that most of the 104 respondents define their work as ‘relational’ or ‘empathic and participatory’ - work in and with communities. There is no way that over 50% of performance work being made is relational or participatory - so perhaps there is something about work which engages with ecology which invites this approach.

The nature of much of this work is that it takes a more indirect approach to ideas of climate and responsibility - no Greenlands here. But I do have the perhaps uncharitable question: how many participants knew that what they were taking part in was ecologically engaged work? And perhaps it doesn’t matter if they simply enjoyed activity growing vegetables or crafting or walking. The New Economics Foundation have massively reduced their use of the double c word (climate change), consciously choosing instead to talk about well-being; they feel that improving well-being is going to be the most effective way to reduce climate change. And perhaps they are right.

I recently read George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It; why our brains are wired to ignore climate change’; it planted a lot of questions in the heart of our practice and a few stones in my heart. In the book he describes visiting the Science Museum’s Atmosphere gallery, an ‘immersive environment’ about climate change:

In the fashion of modern museums, the displays have been converted into computer game consoles. When I visit, one schoolgirl is immersed in a game involving loading a virtual gun with insulation and firing it at a house. She seems to have no idea of what this means but is enjoying firing a gun at things.

How different is this experience –really- to the Young Vic’s reticence about sharing the production philosophy behind Miss Julie for fear of devaluing the experience? Whatever form the art we’re making takes, no matter how active the participants look, we need to be honest with ourselves about what their engagement with the ideas is. fanSHEN are currently making a playable theatre environment… something between a game, an installation and the Crystal Maze. It’s a piece about agency. It’s also about community renewable energy - but we don’t always tell people that because - well, because it just isn’t sexy is it. And also because climate change awareness isn’t our only agenda - we want more people to engage with the arts and it’d be a shame if we put them off by coming on too heavy with the subject matter. We can’t afford to gamble our box office return on people wanting to hear this particular tree fall. Perhaps talking about agency is ok, perhaps that sits with the broader reframing of climate justice. Or perhaps we’re just kidding ourselves that we’re making a difference.

We don’t have many answers, or a recipe for success. Whatever the recipe is, it probably involves measuring but also includes artists. For fanSHEN, that’s pretty easy – the same people who do the measuring are the artists. We’re a small organisation, agile in our lack of resources and unafraid of change because that’s our day to day existence.

By way of finishing, I want to read this, the response from the only organisation to sign up to Verdonck’s manifesto, the small arts centre Scheld’Apen:

 

Hi Benjamin,

just to tell you we’re in. We sign the manifesto. All of us. No thanks, you’re welcome! It’s not the first time we adjust our own routines out of necessity. We have to adjust our working routines all the time, even when we don’t consider it necessary, when we’re confronted with regulations regarding public safety for example, or public health, youth protection, copyright, and so on. And we usually also dare to take into account budget cuts, weather conditions and audience preferences. Now when some theatre dude passes by and asks us if we would like to participate in an artwork, a temporary experiment to save our planet (imagine!), we don’t have any troubles with that. On the contrary, it heats up our hearts and drives us a little bit crazy. Our work will not suffer from it, it will just be different. 


Thank you for listening.

10. (semi)connected thoughts


These are ten thoughts I’ve had recently, on the subjects of art, value(s), language, who gets to do/ say stuff, community. They’re in a vague order but they work in other orders too. I suppose I don’t yet know how they connect for me, so I’m not going to try. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know, or if you figure it out, you can let me know... 


1. 

Out of my depth 

I meet a guy who works with research into why people do stuff. I meet him at an event on arts and climate change and subsequently we meet for coffee. He is a new face in a scene that does not always have new faces. When I meet him, I ask him how the event was for him. He says he felt out of his depth. He says that he went to the event because of 40 years of research in values and why people do things, an urgent knowledge that something needs to be done to avert climate change and a real belief that the arts can make the final leap where the campaigning organisations and companies he does the research for can not. Here was his chance to talk to artists who could help. He tells me that he explained this to another person at the event -he is brandishing a great sheaf of research and a strategy plan as he explains this me to- that he presented her with THIS evidence and asked her what artists could do, and she told him that a real artist wouldn’t be interested in that sort of brief. He was worried that he offended her. He says he didn’t really say much at the event after that. I write him a long email after we meet, I try to provide some context, half apologise on behalf of people I don’t speak for, half wonder why anyone would think the arts -or theatre in particular- are their go-to PR people when we are so fucking terrible at talking about what we already do and why it has value. He doesnt reply to my email.



2. 

Doing/ being

After a conversation with Maddy Costa, I start reading Francois Matarasso’s blog. I read an entry called ‘Who Speaks?’, which I chance on by clicking through from the ‘About’ page - on which I have read about all the people Francois has worked with and the many interesting papers he has written. ‘Who am I?’ is linked as an ‘alternative version of this.’ In it, he explains that his ‘About’ entry is not who he is, but what he’s done.


'Who I am, even in the limited sense that this question can be legitimately relevant to my work, is complicated by the gap between ideas and reality. Occupations are simply ideas that help us organise and understand reality. If we mistake them for reality, we inevitably have to start manipulating that reality to fit our ideas…’


I think yes. I think that this is a fascinating article and a very intelligent person.  


'Western culture has lost much of its confidence in authorities since the 1960s. We are insubordinate. We want to know why we should listen to Professor A, or Minister B. We have rightly emancipated ourselves from cap-doffing respect for our ‘betters’.  But we seem unwilling to take responsibility for the freedom we have won, which means making our own judgements about who to trust, and living with the consequences. So we behave like surly teenagers, demanding credentials and resenting those who present them. Are you an artist? Who says so? Prove it.’


I think about my own discomfort with writing answers to the ‘about you’ section. I always write a list of things I have made/ done or -if I’m feeling brave- a list of things I believe in or want to make happen. I never write ‘I am x’, without a substantial body of evidence to prove whatever x is. I tell myself that this is because of my training in history - never make an argument you don’t have evidence for. But it probably isn’t.


'We want to police the world according to our own expectation and demand to see the identity papers of all persons of interest, who, as in the world of policemen everywhere, are often just those we mistrust because they might have some power we don’t understand. And not accepting your rules, your authority, your interpretation of the world can be a frightening power.’


I imagine an exercise where I have an A4 piece of paper with ‘I am…’ written at the start of every line, and I try to fill it in. I get about 3 lines down. I am boring myself. I go and clean the kitchen (doing not being.)



3. 

Not for me

For years I think I do not like Forced Entertainment.  I have never seen any of their work but I know several people who love love love don’t stop talking about Forced Entertainment and they are people I don’t like. They have mostly studied Forced Entertainment as part of an official qualification in theatre (something I do not have) and they talk about Forced Entertainment in reference to philosophies and movements I have never heard of. I smile and nod and decide Forced Entertainment is not for me. Years later I encounter Forced Entertainment’s work by accident and I love what I experience and I want to hunt these qualified people down and yell at them. Which would be unfair because me missing out on ten years of Forced Entertainment is really nobody’s fault but mine.



4. 

Noticing/ maybe the hundredth time I’ve talked about this story

In the last of Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures, he relates a story of an artist friend working with a group of kids on a project linked to Whitechapel Gallery. At the start of the project, she asked the kids. ‘what do artists do?’. One of the kids answered, ‘They sit in Starbucks and eat organic salads.’ At the end of the project she asked the same kid the same question. ‘Artists notice things’ was the response. 


I love this so much. It kind of changed how I thought about the work I was making. It links to real discomfort I’d started to have with what looked to me like the professionalisation of creativity - how, because of something a careless teacher or parent or classmate said, some people didn’t give themselves permission to sing or dance or, maybe most importantly, to imagine. 



5.

Everyone an artist

Earlier this year, I was involved with making a Fun Palace - a celebration of the centenary of the birth of Joan Littlewood, in commemoration of which lots of people in lots of different places put on free activities, guided by the idea: ‘everyone an artist, everyone a scientist.’ It was great, lots of people who’d never come to the venue before came and it was indeed lots of fun. I don’t know if there has been a subsequent spike in the use of the ‘everyone an artist’ phrase/ sentiment or whether I’ve just noticed it more but it seems to be around a lot. And I don’t know what I feel about it. 


In the sense of potential (see Grayson in number 4) or of right to access, I agree. 


But -and this is not about the Fun Palaces movement- I guess my discomfort is for a few reasons… I’m sure some people use the phrase with care but others don’t. Has everyone bandying it around really thought it through? Setting aside the questions about current equality of access and the fact that for many people, being an artist is in the part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs they don’t yet have the luxury of… why should everyone be an artist? Does everyone want to be an artist? If the phrase was ‘everyone a WWF wrestler’ I wouldn’t be signed up. Is it arrogant to think just because I like the arts, that they hold some sort of intrinsic ‘good’ which will enrich the lives of everyone who comes into contact with them?


Mostly I think my discomfort is because I fear it’s getting commodified, the kind of phrase I’m going to start seeing on tshirts and mugs (Keep Calm and Carry On Everyone Being An Artist?). I see it becoming a short-hand, in the way, ‘diversity’ has, used by privileged people in arts organisations to mean: give me funding, even though I may not be particularly rigorous or even active in addressing the issue. We probably all know arts organisations which are not restructuring themselves and the use of their resources to extend the invitation to everyone to become an artist, who don't even acknowledge the structural inequalities between themselves and the people they currently works with who *are* currently able to call themselves artists. We need to start calling these organisations and asking them WHY everyone an artist, not because we disagree with the sentiment but because they don’t actually embody it and this shit is too important to end up just painted on a mug.


(This is the part of this thing where I try to not descend into an angry rant. If you know me, you’ll have heard it all before. If not, you’re a half hour of your life better off.)



6.

Grayson Perry again/ reject the premise

In Grayson Perry’s brilliant Default Man edition of The New Statesman, this is one of the points which I dwell on, and think about a lot.


'When talking about identity groups, the word “community” often crops up. The working class, gay people, black people or Muslims are always represented by a “community leader”. We rarely, if ever, hear of the white middle-class community. “Communities” are defined in the eye of Default Man. Community seems to be a euphemism for the vulnerable lower orders. Community is “other”. Communities usually seem to be embattled, separate from society. “Society” is what Default Man belongs to.’


But I want to belong to a community. I’m not sure I want to belong to a society. But maybe I say that because, apart from gender, I’m pretty Default and have never not been part of society...


I talk about this article (not particularly this paragraph) with Rebecca Atkinson-Lord. We talk about how even using language reinforces the Default Man paradigm. Calling things the thing that Default Man has decided they are called. One of the things Rebecca says -generally, not in this instance- that sticks with me is ‘reject the premise’. But how can we reject the premise of Default Man when it’s so deeply embedded in language, other than communicating in grunts or something. Plus, we mostly think in language, right? Language shapes thought? We don’t really come up with any solutions but it is a good conversation.


(Shortly after this though, in a slightly tangential way, I do decide to call a session at the next D&D entitled ‘What would happen if we all stopped talking (and DID SOMETHING)?’)



7.

Frie Leyson

I read the acceptance speech of Frie Leyson which she delivered when receiving the Erasmus Prize in November 2014 (it was tweeted by Tim Etchells, yeah that’s right, artistic director of Forced Entertainment).


It’s a beautiful brave speech that I’ve left open as a window on my internet browser and re-read many times.


'This prize is presented to me by the King of the Netherlands, King Willem-Alexander. Your Majesty, your country has become a place where the arts can hardly breathe any longer,


• a country where the distinction between art, culture and cultural industries is scarcely made any more;

• a country where funding for culture and arts is being slashed. The theatre landscape alone has been thoroughly erased, rigorously pruned as though it contained a proliferation of weeds. What a pity, because it is precisely from there that renewal and change can come;

• a country where places of artistic creation, laboratories and research centres no longer exist;

• a country where conservatism runs rampant;

• a country where art is dismissed as a ‘left-wing hobby’;

• a country where the international circulation of artists and their work is reduced to a ridiculous minimum;

• a country where (almost) all theatres, with the odd exception, do the same: offer a bland programme containing something for everybody, the main goal of which is to reach targets. As a result, most of them have emptied;

• a country where artistic audiences are no longer satisfied;

• in short, a country where art and culture, and their audiences, are under severe pressure.’


I think these observations could also be made of the UK. I enjoyed reading this part.


I’ve participated in many conversations where I’ve heard the instrumentalist cause for why the arts are Good. Music or drama programmes with kids for whom the traditional school environment doesn’t really work. The fact that 47% tourists to the UK cite cultural stuff as part of the reason for their visit. The infographics showing the economic impact of X theatre or arts centre on its local environment. I’ve made the argument, in funding application after funding application, for how the arts can improve wellbeing, can help people at risk of social exclusion, can do whatever, and I do believe -in cases- that it’s true. In this climate of funding cuts to everything and a Conservative government who don’t seem particularly well disposed towards the arts, the pragmatist in me absolutely understands the need to have the conversation in terms that the other party understands: social cohesion, economic growth, whatever it might be. But as soon as we do that, purely by engaging in that debate, have we lost the right to make a case for arts funding because art is inherently part of what being human is?


'Aren’t we trying too hard to serve political interests by attempting to solve problems that politicians have failed to solve, such as social deprivation, migration and racism? Problems that the arts will not, should not, and cannot solve. Not even the modish “participatory art”, or the “everybody is an artist!”. Not everybody is interesting, and everybody is certainly not an artist. Aren’t we justifying ourselves too much with figures and economic arguments instead of with artistic substance? Haven’t we reduced ourselves too much to entertainers, who obediently obey the rules of managers, marketers and accountants instead of remaining the sources of disruption and inspiration that we should be?’


A big part of me agrees. 



8.

The why, the what, the how/ the values 

We write the word citizen in our new mission statement. It doesn’t mention theatre at all. It is the why of what we do, not the how. Why/ How has it taken us so long to realise this?



9.

Your shitty workshops

One of the (many) questions that came up in Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola was, ‘are your shitty workshops what has replaced social services?’ It made me laugh a lot and want to cry at the same time.



10.

Stuff that feels right

Dan and I sit in a cafe in Tooting with Hilary. Hilary is one of the people whose opinion we wholeheartedly trust and -probably- whose approval we would really like. She isn’t a professional theatre-maker. We talk to her about a project we want to do next year which is about being outside, and playing, and meeting people we don’t come across in normal life. I guess one might call it participatory arts, if one wanted to. We ask her are there any people she thinks we could work with, other than the list we tell her, we ask her opinion on some of the activities, we generally bombard her with information in a fairly incomprehensive way.


She asks us ‘Why do you want to do this?’. We probably look quite blank. ‘I mean, you don’t need to, do you?’ she says. Perhaps her question is informed by her experience of fanSHEN as a theatre company who have done a lot of projects with actors and audience and a stage of some sort.


We pour out a load of stuff about our work last year and that we’d decided to leave London as a strategic move for the company... and then we’d done a project making audio walks in Tooting and spent time talking to people and that we’d realised that talking to people should be as much a part of our artistic practice as being in a rehearsal room or sending emails, and in this process it had been just as important that Dan grew up in the area and I was a swimmer than that we were theatre-makers or directors or artists or whatever it is we call ourselves because this was the connection we had with the people we spoke to. We tell her about performing The Apple Cart at Tooting Foodival and how the show ended with an impromptu jive with the characters and kids and their families, to music played by a local rock and roll band, and a massive group hug, and how we realised that that thing we were looking for, a community to be a functional, useful part of, might be right here, under our noses and that working with -and being part of- that community probably didn't involve clear job descriptions or a set-up where it was easy to see who the ‘artists’ were. We laughingly curse the Foodival and she laughs too and agrees, ‘I never thought I’d end up staying here either but…’ (and she is, very much, a part of that extraordinary community).


Right now in my head there is a Venn diagram. One circle is ‘stuff I am interested in’ and the other circle is ‘problems in the world’. The space where those circles intersect is ‘stuff that feels right’. 


[End] [for now]

Cheese blog 3: a lightbulb moment

A guest blog by Emma Stirling, who is assistant director on Cheese.


One of the many things that sets Cheese apart as a unique show is the after show events. So far we’ve had two of the three post show discussions, and they both shed light on some of the more philosophical and sociological aspects of the play. The first discussion was on banking, finance, ethics, and alternatives with a panel of six of experts. I know very little about banking and finance – and if I’m honest I’ve never been particularly interested in finding out more, so I was expecting to feel a bit out of my depth. In fact this expectation was directly challenged: one of the most thought-provoking points raised by the panellists was that a lot of people feel powerless when it comes to banking. This discussion about accessibility caused a little lightbulb moment for me – not just about banking, but about theatre as well. In my mind, banking and theatre are pretty far apart, but this problem of inclusivity is a common element.


I’d never really acknowledged that I felt distanced by banking and finance, and my lack of interest in learning more was related to that unidentified feeling of not having the right to learn. I think this is particularly true of young people. The only meeting I’ve ever had at my bank was with an archetypal older male bank manager who told me that keeping too much money in my current account would mean I’d spend it all on shoes. If this is typical of the communication between banks and younger people then it’s not surprising that people feel distanced from it. It seems crazy that banks have made so many people feel marginalised: they should exist for us, and surely ‘us’ includes younger people, people with less money – people with less power.


The same is true of theatre: it should be for everyone. fanSHEN’s vision to “help people imagine what they haven't thought of yet” gets right to the heart of this. I’m aware that I’m in a pretty privileged position compared to many others, yet I’ve definitely felt alienated by the ‘world’ of theatre at times. So in terms of engaging people in theatre, shows like Cheese can do a lot to change this, by letting people know that everyone has the right to ask the questions you didn't think were yours to ask.


I needed someone to point this out to me, and now it’s clicked, it’s made me realise how much plays like Cheese can do in terms of putting fanSHEN’s vision into practice. The first step is feeling like you’re allowed to think about stuff, and this goes for banking too. Changing attitudes to finance is essential to making alternative banking more sustainable. Of course things like local money were in part initiated because people were fed up with mainstream banks, but it seems to me that a much stronger route to a better banking system would be to engage people so that we know why another way is better, rather than be pushed towards it.


So theatre and banking don’t need to be complicated: accessibility is essential to engaging in their terms of operation. But the similarities end with Michael Robinson’s point that we need ’boring’ banking (i.e. stable, reliable, secure banking) – obviously, nobody wants boring theatre, and Cheese is one play that’s anything but.

Cheese rehearsal blog 2: The space

A guest blog by Emma Stirling, who is assistant director on Cheese.


Over the last two weeks we’ve done lots of visualizations for the different rooms and spaces the characters inhabit in the play: we’ve established everything from wall colours to furniture styles and the world of the play is becoming increasingly familiar. In Cheese there are three layers: a building, a ‘frame world’, and then spaces specified by the writer in the text - imagined spaces. Cheese is an immersive play in that the office room in which it takes place is a part of the story, so the imagined spaces are influenced by the physical dimensions of the room. After mentioning in the last blog post how beneficial it is to rehearse in the performance space, I’m wondering what this means for the relationship between our immersive physical environment and the imagined spaces of the play.

 

I’ve always thought rehearsing in the performance space is a good thing simply because it helps to lessen trepidation about the move from rehearsal room to stage. This transition between two distinct spaces tends to mark an end to rehearsals that isn’t necessarily useful to the playmaking process. Of course rehearsals don’t need to stop upon leaving a rehearsal room, but it always feels like the end of a chapter. I’ve been reading Mike Alfreds' Different Every Night and it’s made me think that leaving behind the playfulness of rehearsals isn’t conducive to constantly changing performances.

 

Being in the performance space early on in the process is also helpful on a more practical level: it avoids the logistics of transferring from a rehearsal room with different dimensions to the stage. When you only get into a performance space for the tech and dress, there’s no time for anything but simply making sure it’s possible – there’s rarely time to go beyond that. The stage can feel like a place full of obstacles. Being there for rehearsals means you get maximum time to discover all the different creative possibilities a space has to offer.

 

For me this process of discovery is one of the most exciting aspects of the Cheese rehearsals so far. I think this is because we're in a non-theatrical performance space: it doesn't have the associations of more traditional spaces where convention, expectation, and remnants of past productions can be inhibiting. The office feels like very neutral ground and this enables unhindered creativity.

 

While the office environment is a key part of Cheese, it's also easy to see through it into the imagined spaces of the play. The value of this really became clear to me when we relocated one day last week to an actual rehearsal room with lots of natural light from high windows. We worked on scenes that are set outdoors so the high ceiling and light were really useful. These evocative elements (high ceiling, light) helped us to visualise the setting (sky, outdoors). But that’s not to say rehearsing outside would be ideal for a scene set outside. Perhaps this means that a rehearsal space is, at its best, a blank canvas.

 

Now we're back in the office space again, I feel very aware of its dimensions – and the multitude of dimensions we've discovered in visualisations. The imagined spaces of the play are made so accessible by this awareness of the physical room. And ultimately what's so freeing about this is that it doesn’t feel like a performance space – just a space.

Cheese rehearsal blog 1: Feldenkrais Method as part of the process

A guest blog by Emma Stirling, who is assistant director on Cheese.


We’re a week and a half into rehearsals for Cheese, and so far we’ve started each day with with exercises based on the Feldenkrais Method, led by Rachel. This is a new experience for me so it’s really made me think about why it’s a good way to begin rehearsals. My impression of it so far is that it’s a way of figuring out how your body can move in easier ways, by becoming more aware of your self. I’d guess that we spend around half an hour to an hour on Feldenkrais each morning, but my sense of external time fades while we’re doing it -- an indication of how immersing it is. Something that has really struck me is how the various parts of my body can move in ways that I wouldn’t normally realise.

 

Beginning each day with Feldenkrais makes a lot of sense, not only in these early rehearsals, but also in terms of the overall objective of making a play. In the past I’ve felt caught up in potential tension between physical work and script work, so it’s reassuring to feel like there isn’t necessarily any conflict -- this time it all interlinks.

 

The word ‘educational’ comes up in a lot of online informations about Feldenkrais. For me it feels less like education (a word that reminds me of school) and more like letting go of formal education in order to recognise what my body actually does. The emphasis on easy movement contradicts my (learned?) impulse to work hard in order to do well.

 

So Feldenkrais is putting my mind firmly inside my body -- the phrase ‘frame of mind’ keeps popping into my head, which makes me think of the ‘frame’ as the body. I tend (especially when anxious) to feel like my mind and my body are two separate things, so it’s great that this essentially makes me more aware of myself as a whole.

 

In fact this feeling of total awareness gives me a very clear sense of steadiness in myself before moving on to group exercises. We are lucky enough to be in the performance space for rehearsals, particularly because this potentially scary place already feels very familiar thanks to this groundwork of awareness: it puts you in a strong position to really get to know your physical surroundings.

 

While Feldenkrais feels idiosyncratic, it’s also bonding. Coming to the script after this makes everyone very present and aware of each other, and I think this comes down to a fundamental sense of trust. I’d like to be able to hold onto this steadiness in my body, but as with most exercises like Feldenkrais, the feeling of relaxation ebbs as the day goes on -- especially when we emerge from rehearsals straight into the bustle of Oxford Street.

 

 

On falling on your face in the mud, or not

In his introduction to a book called Higher Judo, Moshe Feldenkrais talks about something he calls 'dynamic stability'. He differentiates dynamic stability from static stability, which is what most people are aiming for. Static stability is all about secure, often rigid upright standing - above all, preventing yourself from falling. In the book, Feldenkrais shows a picture of two people doing judo, one throwing the other. The person executing the throw is not in a position of static stability; he has dispensed with upright rigidity in order to throw the other guy with greater effectiveness. He's falling, but not before he has thrown his opponent in the way that he wants: the thrower is functionally, or dynamically, stable.


The day after reading this, I went for a walk in the countryside. Due to the Great British weather experience that we've enjoyed this winter, bits of the walk were in a state of total swamp. Walking was difficult and I was slipping and sliding all over the place. Not falling over was consuming all my attention - hardly the relaxing respite of country air and views that the day was meant to deliver. At some point Feldenkrais' idea of dynamic stability occurred to me - if I let go of the need to be rigidly uprightly stable, then maybe the experience wouldn't be so miserable. 


Travelling along became a constant process of sliding - as one foot slid, rather than tensing up and trying to stop it, I would push into the slide to move onto the other foot, which in turn would start to slide and so on. Travelling was precarious and constantly dynamic but more fun and considerably more effective than what I'd been doing before. It reminded me of experiences at festivals, seeing adults painstakingly pick their way up and down muddy slopes, desperately trying to stay upright but ending up on their faces in the mud, covered in their pint of cider, while kids -less concerned about maintaining their upright cool- ran about about without ever ending up falling in the sludge. Almost by letting go of the need to stay upright, some sort of functional movement became achievable.


Apart from being a useful illustration for me of what Moshe Feldenkrais was talking about, this felt like something that could be usefully extrapolated to a wider philosophy of living. In these times of uncertainty, dynamic stability feels a whole lot more useful than desperately trying to cling to some sort of static stability -or security- that I will never achieve. As a theatre-maker, my life is probably not going to follow the same course as my parents or friends who have jobs with regular hours and regular pay. I can try to cling to the milestones of security and success - an annual income that won't make HMRC laugh, a property I own, the resources to support other people that I might choose to bring into the world - or I can let those go, and see where I end up if I aim for dynamic stability.


In his book Pop-Up Business for Dummies (which is a much more interesting and philosophical book than the irritating series title might suggest), Dan Thompson regularly uses the word 'agility' - with reference to the ability of artists/ other entrepreneurs to react swiftly and effectively to the opportunities presented by empty properties. I like the word agility - it makes me think of cats, falling from great heights but always landing gracefully on their feet. (My earliest memory -I think- is of watching next door's cats climb the trellis at the end of our garden in Culver Road in St Albans; I was totally fascinated by how they moved and seemed to defy gravity …or whatever I understood about the concept at age two and a half.) 


Reading Dan Thompson's book, and fanSHEN's subsequent use of empty property in collaboration with the fantastic 3Space, has made me think more and more about this idea of agility. Being a small arts organisation allows us to be agile, to react to what is happening, to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. There is no static stability - we are project funded, rarely pay ourselves, and work all hours to keep afloat. But at least what we are keeping afloat is not the proverbial oil tanker of a larger organisation, set in its ways and unable to react quickly or meaningfully to our ever-changing environment. We are -for the moment- dynamically stable, one foot sliding in the mud but the other taking the next step. I'm going to try to see this as a positive thing, rather than castigating myself for having reached age 30 and not having 'achieved' all the conventional markers of success and security that my thirteen year old self imagined: in my mind, I want standing rigidly upright to be less important than agility.



A Coda on Finding the Right Word


I've written before, and talked at length with Arcola's Feimatta Conteh and ACE's Ian Rimington (among others), about the right word to use for the thing that is often called environment sustainability. Or sometimes resilience. Or sometimes other things that none of us seem entirely happy with. 


I recently went to a great talk by James Marriott of Platform about his book 'The Oil Road'. The terminology that James chose to use was not 'environmental sustainability' or 'environmental resilience' but 'environmental justice'. He explained this with the oil road itself - of oil being piped from the Caspian Sea, all across Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, the Mediteranean, Germany, and then onto London, home of BP and the various financial institutions that support it. The people along that oil pipeline do not profit equally from the resources; unsurprisingly, local people in Azerbaijan get very little, while UK companies make obscene amounts of money out of our fossil-fuel dependence. Equally, the pipeline exacerbates conflicts like those between minority groups like the Kurds and the Turkish state - and also reinforces regimes with dubious human rights records. Financial and social injustice accompany environmental injustice along the Oil Road.


For me, the idea of environmental justice -and its links to financial and social justice- is useful. Firstly, it puts environmental concerns in a place where they are intrinsically linked to other really important issues - climate change isn't some hermetically sealed problem, independent of other concerns. Follow the money, says Deep Throat. But perhaps more importantly, 'environmental justice' is positive language. Everyone is in favour of justice (as a concept), right? And if you're 'against climate change', you're already losing --climate change is there and you've positioned yourself in an anti-position. Being pro-environmental justice is -psychologically at least- a more helpful stance to take. 


But we've got a long way to go before this terminology -and its wider implications- is widely accepted. In the meantime, I'm going to make a small, manageable change to our current terminology and hope it catches on: we change a 'b' for 'g'. Sustainagility. A combination of keeping hold of the really important things and making dynamic adaptations to the things which really need to change. Staying agile, allowing ourselves to let go of the things which we don't actually need. Because otherwise, if we stay rigidly hanging onto everything that we currently have and do, sooner or later we're going to find ourselves face down in the mud, covered in scrumpy and wishing we'd tried another approach.

The new website/ old blogs

So here is the new website. From now on we'll be blogging here. All past blogs from the old website (via Wordpress) are below.

Fanshen Ltd. Registered in England and Wales No: 06191989 | Registered Charity No: 1120667 | Patron: Mark Rylance | contact: artistic@fanshen.org.uk