Making Their Debut

Feature in Issue 23-2 | Summer 2011

Honour Bayes samples the Coming Up festival for emerging theatre-makers.

For the Coming Up Festival six theatre-makers were given a total of £75,000 to create adventurous projects with no constraints. All under 25 years old, this dreamlike commission was made possible through a partnership with IdeasTap and Old Vic New Voices, two institutions dedicated to the development of emerging artists. In any circumstances, this was a golden opportunity; in the middle of the recession, it was a fairytale moment for these new (or newish) artists.

Taking place over two weeks and encompassing eight main performances and a peppering of side events and evenings, the eclectic programme certainly hinted at unrestrained imaginations. Opera sat next to politically charged drama, tastes of new writing, a wrestling extravaganza and an apocalyptic feast. Spoken word performance was mixed with rap and folk (in Cherry Franklin’s Old Roots/New Routes); and the cavernous underground tunnels of festival venue Debut were transformed (by Preethi Mavahalli) into an underground cinema to showcase new talent. Conventional performance structures were thrown to the wind, but in the void left behind was what they filled it with worth it?

My first encounter of the festival, Kindle Theatre’s Eat Your Heart Out, is a theatrical banquet at the end of the world. Long tables fade away into the smoke; deranged cooks dance and sing on tables. A maniacal narrator (Nina Smith) weaves tales of lost civilisations and global natural disasters that have left humans an endangered species; a species hiding out underground, starving and wild.

We who have found our way to the final few are promised asteroid ash, coal bread and edible pansies. But disappointment dogs this decaying dinner party. Theatrical wares and gypsy bombast mean that promise and possibility abound; you really can’t fault Nina Smith’s grotesque tick-ridden Aide who conducts the proceeds with great gusto. But whilst the dramatics at play here begin with bloody curdling delight, they quickly dissipate as the prosaic logistical requirements of this banquet take over: you can’t feed a party of over 100 people and do speeches in an hour; any wedding planner worth their salt knows that. It’s a pity that Kindle Theatre seem to have bitten off more than they can chew by attempting to do just this; in the end both food and drama lose out.

Each artist on the programme has curated their event within underground nightclub Debut. This uber-cool venue under London Bridge station, full of cavernous arches and atmospheric lighting, was used to create a myriad of worlds from a city in civil unrest (in the aptly named Civil Unrest, another theatrical dining experience written by Ben Ellis and presented by Spike Laurie) to a wrestling ring in the apparently bombastic if slightly underbaked BritWres-Fest by Jamie Lewis Hadley. There is a palpable sense that, if nothing else, the Coming Up gang have fully taken on the potential of this potent space.

But perhaps the most isolated from this venue’s dank glamour is another of the festival’s offerings – Silent Opera. Fringe opera seems to be in the midst of a renaissance with London’s Little Opera House bringing pared down versions to the masses. But for Daisy Evans, the brain behind Silent Opera, this stripping away of the ‘essentials’ is not an option. Instead she’s looking to plug into the iPod generation and give us a duality of live singing to a recorded score, played just for us using the Silent Disco ‘individual headphone experience in a shared space’ technology.

We are a generation for whom a personalised soundtrack is the norm, we are used to receiving our music in surround sound, blocking out the noise of the external world, the coughing and spluttering of the commuters packed in too tightly next to us. But herein lies the rub; isn’t the opera, or the theatre, supposed to be a communal event? Is purity of sound at the expense of a shared experience too high a price to pay? In Silent Opera’s Dido and Aeneas the alchemy seems to have eluded a terribly well-meaning production. Trendy hipsters stand around, bunched together in a group but with arms crossed, nonchalantly leaning on one foot, chewing lips, listening to the soaring melodies of Henry Purcell through bits of plastic attached to their ears. Performers desperate for some connection writhe against this distanced crowd, handing out flowers, staring into eyes but we remain in our bubble of sound, untouchable. The whole thing feels very lonely and the quality of sound just isn’t there to transport you into this passionate story.

A month on and the disparity between what was promised and delivered from this festival seems to have been its resounding legacy. Jam-packed with oodles of potential, but lacking the experience to match that in its production values, the success of the investment in Coming Up seems to rest on what happens next. These are young artists who have dreamt big: as we follow them into the future, it will be interesting to see if they hatch their golden egg opportunity into a golden goose, because as the storm clouds roll in this may have been a once in a lifetime moment to learn such lessons.

The Coming Up festival took place at Debut, London Bridge, 21 February – 4 March 2011. Creative directors were: Spike Laurie, Jamie Lewis Hadley, Cherry Franklin, Daisy Evans (Silent Opera), Nina Smith (Kindle Theatre) and Preethi Mavahalli (Underground Cinema). There were additional commissions by Rachel Tyson (Coalition Theatre Company) and Alex Le Roux (Electric Tunnels).

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Issue 23-2
p. 34