Forkbeard Fantasy - Stars of Stage and Screen

Feature in Issue 19-1 | Spring 2007

Edward Taylor pays homage to a company of makers and doers.

In the early ’80s Jeremy Shine had set up Radiator, a Manchester-based agency that promoted alternative theatre in all its forms in a wide variety of venues. You could see everything, from performance art to dance to community theatre, as long as you were prepared to seek it out. Forkbeard Fantasy were always one of the highlights of this period and 25 or so years later, they are still a highlight, but these days they tend to play in bigger more prestigious venues – and quite right too.

Forkbeard Fantasy started life as Tim and Chris Britton. They came out of the explosion of performance art in the ’70s and developed their craft performing in the arts labs and festivals that were a feature of that period. Established venues were at a premium in those days, so much of the work took place in pubs, parks, clubs, the streets, and galleries. Early shows saw them working with their brother Simon and notorious performance artist Ian Hinchliffe, as well as other performers later to make names for themselves on the circuit. Despite the fact that they were extremely active, most texts on UK performance art tend to ignore them, possibly because their work involves a strong element of humour – apparently the greatest sin you can commit if you are a performance artist. Fortunately, this kind of inverted snobbery hasn’t hindered them…

Their work always involves strong visual elements. Their sets had some sort of mechanical element to them and costumes were often highly and heavily sculptural in form. In the early ’80s they started to incorporate Tim’s cartoon films into their shows in order to expand the worlds they were creating. They were also joined by maker extraordinaire Penny Saunders whose adventurous approach has proved a perfect complement to their work.

A good example of their early work would be The Brontosaurus Show, made in 1983. This featured two palaeontologists, and the set was the ribcage and legbones of a teenage brontosaurus (I’m guessing it was a teenage creature as the adult version would have been too big to fit into the small art centres and village halls that made up their touring circuit). During the show a cartoon film is shown which illustrates the work of great palaeontologists of the past, and another film shows a Siberian dinosaur dig in all its glory. As the show develops they unpack crates. One features the telescopic neck of the brontosaurus and the second features the skull. The completion of the brontosaurus skeleton in front of your eyes is a lovely theatrical moment: the skull contains a secret which will change the very course of history.

Scientists and the introverted, hermetic world in which they operate is a recurring feature of their work. The scientists are invariably squabbling over different theories and there’s a whiff of competition in the air which allows Tim and Chris to add their relationship as brothers into the equation.

Their touring shows came in two sizes. One was a relatively simple get in on the day, do the show, get out on the day affair, and the other involved a day’s build beforehand and allowed their visual imaginations to really go to town. Ghosts, made in 1984, is a great example of this and it proved to be a real breakthrough for the company. The story is of a ghosthunter and to begin with you see a cobwebcovered set which is a haunted house. A film, projected onto a screen stretched behind a window-frame with ragged net curtains, shows a view of the countryside out of the window. You see the ghosthunter in the fields, approaching the house. He peers in the window, there’s a bit of a noisy kerfuffle, and he falls into the set onstage. Thus began a relationship between film and live performance that Forkbeard have developed ever since in ever more inventive ways.

In the mid ’80s the Brittonioni Brothers, a pair of hilarious film directors with a dodgy taste in clothes who were forever winging their way over to international film festivals, started to present short feature films alongside the touring theatre shows. It was these two characters who were chosen to be involved in performances where the performers were forever climbing in and out of the film. At times you were watching someone who was half celluloid and half real. This technique eventually fed into the full-length touring shows such as A Serious Leak (1989), in which two live characters argued with two characters on film, or The Barbers of Surreal (1998) in which the performers stood in front of a mirror whose reflections were in fact film and where the view out of the window was a film which ran throughout the show.

Forkbeard’s sets have always done far more than just stand there and look pretty, but in latter years they became ever more elaborate and intricate to the point where all their touring shows required a day to get in, and they moved from being a smallscale to a mid-scale company. This had its downside in that their touring network got a little smaller, but it also meant that they could stretch out more with the technical back-up to each touring show, which is a definite plus for the audience. Shooting Shakespeare (2004) featured a sequence where technicians in brown coats created a backdrop for a silent film to be made of The Tempest. It was a seamless mix of live performance and film and you really couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. The only thing you could do was sit back and immerse yourself in the experience.

Speaking personally, Forkbeard Fantasy have always been an inspiration for me, not only for the quality of their work but also for their generosity after the show when they would offer words of encouragement and quite happily pass on tips on how and where to get work – a boost to any emerging artist or company. I know of other people who feel the same as me. By all accounts, they were the first performance artists to be in residence in a school and they have carried on this educational activity, as well as running professional training and development programmes (often in the form of Summer Schools) which take place at their home base in the South West of England. This big workspace is alive with objects, puppets, and gadgets from past shows that now feature in interactive exhibitions which form an increasing aspect of their activity. As much thought has gone into how they can come alive for visitors to an exhibition as to how they were used in combination with performers in the shows.

The company are 30 years old but their fertile imaginations and ability to ring new changes on familiar techniques show no sign of slowing down. A pint of what they are on would be beneficial to us all!

Forkbeard’s next show, Invisible Bonfires, is scheduled to tour in the spring of 2007 and again in the autumn/winter of 2007/8. For further information email studios. forkbeard@virgin.net The 2007 Summer Schools will take place on 29 June–6 July and 13–20 July. For further information on all the company’s projects, see www. forkbeardfantasy.co.uk

This article in the magazine

Issue 19-1
p. 16 - 17