It Started with a Ship...

Feature in Issue 16-3/4 | Autumn 2004

Dorothy Max Prior attends Total Theatre Talks Street Inspirations.

So here we are-a-gathered in a tent for a Total Talk on what inspires street artists. We learnt that what this very diverse range of artists present have in common with each other – and with other total theatre practitioners in or out of the street scene – is a willingness to use any starting point in creating their work: it could be a sculpture, a poem, a drawing, a gag, a Situationist intervention… or in the case of Walk The Plank – a ship.

WTP’s Liz Pugh, who opened the presentations, told us that their beloved ship was not only an unusual site for performance but also a starting point in the creation process. Small-scale intimate pieces on the ship itself grew into large-scale spectacles using the ship and the surrounding water – often using a variety of disciplines – poetry, pyrotechnics and projections being one interesting mix, as seen in the currently-touring Supernova. This used poems by Lemn Sissay – and the challenge, said Liz, was to see if they could make poetry work for an audience of 3000. For Walk The Plank, the site used is both text and character… and projects have included work in derelict dockyards, multi-storey car parks and the canals of Manchester – embracing the estate agent’s leitmotif ‘Location, Location, Location!’.

Jim Parris has a rather different set of inspirations. As a musician (with the band Carmel but more pertinently as member of Nzi Dada, whose sound-and-vision project premiered this year at Bracknell), Jim finds inspiration in music of all sorts, from African to ambient via James Brown who he discovered at age 14, describing that experience as ‘visceral – like losing my virginity’. But he is also very interested in sculpture and architecture, and takes inspiration from a number of visual sources, including classical African art. Add in an interest in dance, costume and ritual performance and we can see a very exciting mix emerging – one in which Jim takes inspiration from a number of cultural sources whilst avoiding a deliberately ‘ethnic’ style.

For Roger Hartley of the Bureau of Silly Ideas, his inspirations were often – you’ve guessed it – silly ideas. There is more than a little of the Trickster in his work – which has included animating wheelie bins – ‘the most inane objects in the world’ – and, most recently, creating a mock roadworks. Concept is his main inspiration – the notion of making things that look like real things to create interactions with daily life; a ‘ballet of things and people’. He described the glorious beginnings of the Roadworks – their research took them outside London Bridge station in the rush hour as a try-out. With hard hats, signs and road furniture they set up shop – ignored by passers-by until one of the ‘workers’ does a back-flip. It is this playing with a transient audience that most appeals to Roger. Future plans include a set-up with aerialists changing light bulbs in the street…

Following the presentations, a lively discussion started. The many thoughts from the floor gave even more credence to the notion that street inspirations can be many and varied. But emerging themes proved Liz Pugh’s earlier-made point about ‘a zeitgeist of similar ideas floating around the ether’. Going from the evidence of this group, there seems to be growing interest in the dramaturgy of sound and the use of sound in street and outdoor performance; in site as a text; in the use of public places other than the streets – parks, canals, stations; in the possibilities for direct interaction with daily life; in a street theatre that has moved on from party politics to embrace the personal politics of sex and ethnicity.

But why – ultimately – do this? What is the most often cited inspiration, the most powerful driving force? The answer is the one that seems the most innocuous at first: ‘Fun!’ says Roger… But think about it: the right to make mischief in public – to confront, challenge, enlighten and entertain the passer-by. Is there anything more intrinsically political or more inspirational? I doubt it.

This article in the magazine

Issue 16-3/4
p. 23