The Natural Treatment

Feature in Issue 9-2 | Summer 1997

The Natural Theatre Company produce theatre for the streets – fleeting glimpses of the ridiculous for busy shoppers. Company member Simon Boyce explains how shopping arcades, grand boulevards, quiet country lanes and even deserted mountain tracks have all come in for the ‘Natural’ treatment.

The Naturals don’t often perform in focused spots for more than a few minutes. The minute the crowd thickens, they move off to the next street corner, always seeking to avoid the ‘me theatre show / you audience’ situation. Unlike conventional theatre performers, we never take a bow, for ours is the theatre of non-ego and showing off is not allowed. Our teams of immaculately costumed, almost ‘real’ characters, simply live-out a pre-arranged scenario. Although ‘skills’ may be brought into use, they must be incorporated seamlessly, not featured as ‘turns’. We want people to pretend we are real. Only then is it genuinely funny in a new kind of way.

Our scenarios are tightly planned but each performance is completely different, relying entirely on audience reaction. That reaction may be total indifference or over-the-top participation – but always we are in the hands of the observer. Thus, a walkabout by our team of starched nannies can vary from a ‘parks and gardens’ passing image to a wild knockabout, masses of baby powder, traffic-stopping farce. They simply go for a walk, follow a pre-arranged set of nanny rules and see what happens.

Our theatre is all about adjusting to situations, audiences and the constant bombardment of stimuli in the real world. For us, the whole world is a stage and we have performed on ships, planes, trains, roof tops, in theatre foyers, swimming pools, private homes, cornfields, shop windows, on a slag heap, at cricket matches and in a cattle shed.

Thrown in at the deep-end amongst the world’s shoppers, we experience our own kind of culture-shock. Nine weeks in Germany, followed closely by two weeks in New Zealand, a day in Glasgow, ten in Houston, a quick trip to Louisiana on the way to Japan and back to Bath in time for the Fringe Festival. What we call a ‘dartboard tour’, darling. The whole world seen through the tiny holes in a plastic flower pot mask!

As we plunge into surprised crowds in some new and alien ‘shopper’s paradise’, a number of questions flash up. Are Japanese police armed? Why are all Texans bigger than me? Are they really keen on the British here or is it an unfortunate delusion on behalf of the British Council? Is that man pouring praises on my head or is he about to hit me? (Luckily someone told us that a V-sign in Japan means something nice.) For although our humorous images are pretty universal, countless little adjustments and discoveries take place. Thus our Lost Pink Suitcases found that in Houston, despite the simple grid of straight streets, they really did get lost, because everything looks the same. Conversely, in labyrinthine Osaka, it’s impossible to get lost because everyone is so helpful.

In the Pink Suitcases, the cast of up to 20 performers ‘get lost’ for 45 minutes, searching vainly for each other in a chosen set of streets and buildings, drawing as much attention to themselves, having many small-scale adventures. At a pre-arranged time and location they all come noisily together. The cases link, becoming one unwieldy unit, which is toted around, audience following, getting up to a different kind of group adventure in the same area, for another 30 minutes.

In Japan, I arrived at the meeting spot to see groups of white-gloved police officers scurrying in all directions, shouting excitedly and trying to round up the wandering Pinks, all of whom were pretending madly that they hadn’t yet seen each other. Having brought us all together, they bowed, shook hands and marched off. They weren’t arresting us, just trying to be helpful! Next time we would act really farcically lost, just to make it quite clear. After all we are ‘Art’, not ‘Beadle’s About’.

Of course, we have been actually arrested – once in Vienna dressed as Hare Krishnas and once at a British seaside resort where my face was cut open by an over-reacting officer trying to rip off my mask. A mean-minded German windowdresser once locked us in a display cabinet for a not-funny length of time and 25,000 people shouted ‘Poofters’ and threw beer cans when the Pink Suitcases strode onto the Test match pitch in New Zealand.

But, on the whole, considering we are the uninvited guests in your average shopping day, the reaction is one of hilarity, surprise and delight.

This article in the magazine

Issue 9-2
p. 7