Shiftwork Physical Theatre Company

Feature in Issue 6-4 | Winter 1994

Paul Vates focuses on theatre companies that have been performing for more than two years in the world of physical theatre. This issue he takes a look at Shiftwork, a rapidly emerging young Physical Theatre Company from Scotland whose work is grounded in dance and new circus.

The four company members have varied backgrounds. Claire Osbourne, very much dance and Laban. Niki McCretton and Jonothan Wrigg, both Fool Time and trapeze trained. Bryan Angus, visual arts to stage design to festival and company administration. A cocktail for a theatre company, which when shaken and stirred, produces very physical work.

It all started one normal wet night in November 1992 in Aberdeen. A few phone calls, some words exchanged, and Shiftwork was conceived. They didn’t consciously decide to stay there – it just sort of happened. For the arts scene in the city and surrounding districts at that time was silent. Not because of the great mime works being performed, but through absolute lack of anyone performing! Not one single Scottish Arts Council project was being funded in Aberdeen and, although not professing to be the only professional company in the area, the local press grabbed them and thrust them into the limelight as being the only one. A city of 220,000, with a hinterland of another 250,000, and the only professional group around! Scary to say the least, because at that point, Shiftwork hadn’t actually created a show…

Getting funding was hit’n’miss. The Scottish Arts Council, having never heard of Shiftwork, along with the Aberdeen District Council, turned them down. But the city having almost every major oil company in the world within its boundaries led to a successful approach for sponsorship. Shell UK Exploration and Production, with cash and all the PR, moral and practical support they could muster.

So, the real work of producing shows began in earnest: using acrobatics, aerial skills, fool, dance, mime and illusion. Come April 1993, funding for touring was then achieved courtesy of the Scottish Arts Council and the Highlands and Islands Enterprise Council.

Inside Out, a collection of five short stories, has toured ever since in a variety of guises. And, in June of this year, a ten-day workshop residency with Amakhosi Performance Arts Workshop in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, was arranged thanks to Aberdeen District Council’s Twinning Committee, The British Council, and British Airways.

Amakhosi’s activities are based in the high density communities of the townships and relate very directly to the people for whom movement, dance and music are very intimately linked to their daily lives.

Shiftwork discovered much through this visit. Perhaps the strongest piece of advice is the importance of the Gaffa Tape – for many of the theatres in Zimbabwe had never seen it before, and in all the tough conditions it became a very unique bargaining tool! Funding and resources were in short supply and as well as the workshops which focused on contact, catches, lifts, balances, acrobatics and devising techniques, all members of the company were also involved in training members from the groups in how to prepare and run a show.

The non-verbal style of Inside Out meant that there were no problems to communication. The audiences reacted spontaneously and vocally to the ideas and the performers enjoyed the laughter and banter of the crowd.

For the future, Shiftwork simply wish to continue following the very basic urge to find an honest emotional response from every audience. One man, in Orkney, told them they were ‘the best thing I’ve seen since Theatre de Complicite’! At least they know what might be in store for them if a similar successful route is followed. To Morag, one of the stories from Inside Out, has been filmed with a grant from The Scottish Film Council and Scottish TV. It is hoped it will be broadcast in Scotland in early 1995. And later in the year it is hoped that artists from Bulawayo will visit Shiftwork and take part in a short tour. Also to come: their new production Hey, Big Nose!

Shiftwork are aware of the appalling state of funding available and ready for it to fall around their ears at any moment. The search is on for another way to exist beyond the Arts Council funding system. They thought Europe was calling, but it was to Africa that they turned. It might be important to them to come from and work in the North East of Scotland, but they are adamant they won’t be stopped from projects in Russia or South Africa. In fact, having a sure knowledge of their home base and a strong sense of place and belonging is the springboard they need to get out there, and then return home with new energy and ideas. Ideas which they know for sure will contain a lot of comedy!

This article in the magazine

Issue 6-4
p. 14