Total Theatre Awards 2000

Feature in Issue 12-3 | Autumn 2000

The Total Theatre Awards 2000 were announced at a ceremony at the Assembly Rooms at the end of the last week of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. John Daniel introduces this year’s winners.

Lifetime Achievement – Monika Pagneux

The Total Theatre Lifetime Achievement Award was this year presented to Monika Pagneux. In a long and distinguished career, Monika Pagneux has worked with such masters as Jacques Lecoq, Étienne Decroux, Moshe Feldenkrais and Peter Brook. For ten years she ran a movement studio in Paris, visited by actors and dancers from all over the world. Today, drawing on Alexander, Feldenkrais and massage techniques, she leads workshops around the world. Commenting on her work, Monika says, ‘The task throughout my life has been to help people re-find the life in their movement on stage. The big risk for us all is to become mechanical in our movement. What we must seek out is the same quality of surprise and spontaneity that we find in our everyday lives. It is our bodies which teach us. All my work has taught me how to feel and how to listen with my body. It is such a difficult process to describe, but I know that it involves a lifetime’s searching.’

Accepting the award on her behalf, Dick McCaw, director of the International Workshop Festival, relayed the following message in Monika’s absence: ‘I don’t feel it’s right to describe me as a teacher. What is important to me is the people who are standing in front of me. It is their work, their responses, that give me my inspiration. I am profoundly touched that you have honoured me in this way and I thank you all.’

Ariel Teatr (Poland), A Little Requiem for Kantor

It is fitting that Ariel Teatr’s A Little Requiem for Kantor played at Richard Demarco’s Rocket venue in Edinburgh this summer, as it was Demarco who first introduced Kantor to British audiences twenty-seven years ago. Zofia Kalinska, artistic director of the Krakow-based Ariel Teatr, performed with Kantor’s company Cricot 2 in three of his productions. The Water Hen, Lovelies and Dowdies, and Dead Class. This show, which was originally created for the 1998 Edinburgh Festival Fringe (when it won a Fringe First), is Kalinska’s tribute to Tadeusz Kantor.

A letter posthumously written to her artistic mentor – Kantor died ten years ago this year – Kalinska’s ‘little requiem’ evokes the master’s spirit by lovingly recreating images from some of his epoch-defining shows. For an audience too young to have seen the originals, Kalinska provides a tantalising glimpse through the mists of time. Accompanied by a haunting score by Bartek Chadecki, Kalinska and Mira Rychiska (also a veteran of Cricot 2) don the black garb and ashen faces of Kantor’s iconic Dead Class. Both actresses – now in their seventies – are joined by an ensemble of players too young to have witnessed Kantor’s work first-hand. This is really the key to Kalinska’s project – the mission to keep the spirit of Kantor alive and to introduce his ideas to a new generation

Commenting on winning a Total Theatre Award, Kalinska said, ‘I am very happy to receive this award from a group of people who, though so much younger than myself, nonetheless appreciate my work. I am so pleased that my work, itself a continuation of the work of Tadeusz Kantor, can continue to move people. Mine is a theatre which brings a message, which provides people with a cathartic experience, and thus allows them to live with their memories. With reference to tradition, Kantor used to say that it is impossible to invent something totally new, you always have to draw upon the past.’

blackSKYwhite (Russia), Bertrand’s Toys

Midnight at Demarco’s Rocket venue was the perfect time and setting for this full-on sensory assault from Moscow’s underground theatre company, blackSKYwhite. Amidst a wilderness of mediocre theatrical fare, this show was like manna from heaven. Presenting a simply conceived, hour-long slice of pure mime theatre, finally here was a company whose physical skill matched their artistic ambitions.

In a performance that is part sideshow, part freakshow, this fantastically talented Russian duo present a scene from a nightmare, in which two ‘mannequins’ (Bertrand’s toys of the title) come to life to perform a mediaeval dance macabre. Performed in semi-darkness amidst swirls of dry ice and against a vicious industrial soundscape, Bertrand’s Toys is an intense and unnerving experience, vomited from deep within a disturbed psyche. Two human mannequins – one male, one female – hang from their necks from bungees. One is painfully skeletal with a ghoulish grin and cavernous eyes. She is manipulated by a sinister puppet-master; contorting her slender, distended frame into postures that are unrecognisably human. With incredible physical precision and skill, both performers twitch and jerk in painful ecstasy: limbs appear to extend way beyond their limitations, arms are tossed in the air as if dismembered.

No words are spoken and – apart from what I’ve already explained – nothing much actually happens, but this company create a stomach-churning and totally absorbing theatrical experience. Comparable perhaps to Derevo’s Red Zone or Franko B at his blood-spilling best, Bertrand’s Toys may not be for the faint-hearted, but for lovers of the dark, the twisted and the bizarre, and for all who like their theatrical experiences to be transcendental, blackSKYwhite deliver in bucket-loads.

Spymonkey (UK), Stiff – Undertaking Undertaking

Since its first airing almost two years ago, Spymonkey’s debut show Stiff has been polished and perfected so that it now sparkles like a freshly-cut gemstone. Side-splittingly hilarious with some inspired comic routines and characters, Stiff is set in a funeral parlour. Self-consciously artificial, the show explores the notion that its central character, the Rada-trained Forbes Murdston (Toby Park), fancies himself playing the lead in a high-brow dramatic tragedy, whilst his supporting cast (Petra Massey, Altor Basaur and Stephan Kreis) see themselves more accurately as clowns in a ridiculous black comedy. The mayhem that ensues hinges on this central dichotomy – that the players are not all working towards the same end. Murdston – the conceited tragedian – is, of course, the butt of most of the show’s jokes.

There is rich comic potential in the funeral trade and Spymonkey take every available opportunity to make tasteless and vulgar jokes at the expense of such a dignified profession. Best of all is Petra Massey, who in the show’s most inspired routine, crudely applies clown make-up to her own face whilst describing in meticulous detail the painstaking process of preparing a corpse for burial. That some of the material is reminiscent of Peepolykus is not surprising, given that the show is directed by Cal McCrystal. However, Spymonkey effectively carve their own niche and for pure bad taste and raucous tomfoolery this show can’t be beat.

Generally Better Productions (UK), 3 Dark Tales

This young company of Lecoq graduates have come on leaps and bounds since their Edinburgh debut in 1999 with Bond. This year their hugely inventive and good humoured show 3 Dark Tales played to packed houses at the Assembly Rooms. Not since The Right Size or Peepolykus at their crowd pleasing best have I seen a company whose comic routines are met – more often than not – with spontaneous rounds of applause from their audience.

This is comic, physical storytelling at its best, performed by a talented bunch who might, I suspect, spawn the next round of Hayley Carmichaels, Sean Foleys and Hamish McColls, from amongst their midst. Watch out for Lucien Lindsay MacDougal in particular. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Rowan Atkinson, he’s a comedy king in the making. It’s unfair, however, to pick out one actor from a company whose strength lies mainly in the collective skills of the ensemble. Artistic director Joseph Alford, Sarah Coxon and Carolina Valdés also shine.

It’s a broad comic terrain that Generally Better Productions (GBP) traverse – with its roots in Lecoq’s exaggerated ‘buffoon’ style theatre. 3 Dark Tales weaves together the disparate life-stories of four gloriously grotesque characters – the downtrodden Tibble (Lindsay MacDougal), his indomitable Italian wife Amelia (Valdés), the corporate hotshot Frank (Alford), and the aspiring opera singer Dawn (Coxon). Although the show could at this stage benefit from a tightening of its dramatic structure (the story does at times gets a little woolly), it is performed with such spirit and commitment and is so wholly in-the-moment, that its flaws are more than compensated for. GBP are definitely a company to watch out for.

Shunt (UK), The Ballad of Bobby Francois

With such limited time allowed for get-ins and set strikes, it’s no wonder that so much theatre on the fringe is visually unambitious. Full-marks, therefore, must go to Shunt for transposing their brilliant site-specific show, The Ballad of Bobby Francois, from the East End railway arch for which it was originally created, to Edinburgh University’s students’ union building, without compromising for a moment on its technical realisation. In fact, although the Edinburgh venue could not match Shunt’s London base for atmosphere arguably, in every other respect the show has gone from strength to strength since its London run last year.

A totally engaging participatory experience, Shunt involve their audience from the moment they arrive. The stylised recreation of an aeroplane crash in 1972 – when a jet carrying a team of young rugby players went down in the Andes – The Ballad of Bobby Francois takes its audience on an exhilarating and doomed flight aboard Shunt Air. From its comic opening – in which a bored air hostess issues garbled safety instructions whilst swigging surreptitiously from the spirit miniatures on the mini-bar – the show soon descends into bleaker territory: the icy Andean landscape in which the few survivors of the crash emerge dazed and terrified to wait for their rescuers. With scant resources, as the days pass, there’s only one option left to them to stay alive – they must cannibalise one of their deceased team-mates.

Avoiding sensationalising what is undoubtedly a ghastly scenario Shunt create a subtle and evocative performance that is at times darkly comic, but also quietly moving.

Most Supportive Venue – The Pleasance

Christopher Masterson collected the 2000 Total Theatre Most Supportive Venue award on behalf The Pleasance. Now firmly established as the main venue of the fringe – having eclipsed the Gilded Balloon and the Assembly Rooms in terms of its scale and programme for the last couple of years – The Pleasance is most immediately identified for its strong line-up of stand-up comics. However, in a festival than has been hijacked over the last decade by stand-up, the venue is to be applauded for having retained its commitment to the physical and theatre sector, from newcomers to established companies. This year two Total Theatre Award-winning companies – Spymonkey and Shunt – were both programmed by The Pleasance, amidst a line-up of others that included: Unlimited Theatre, Blow Up Theatre, Trestle, The Weird Sisters, Rejects Revenge, Maybellene - The Living Fashion Doll, UMO Ensemble, and Les Bubb (to name a few).

Audience Choice – Pig Iron Theatre Company (USA), Poet in New York

The Philadelphia-based Pig Iron, whose show Gentleman Volunteers was highly commended in the 1999 Total Theatre Awards, won the 2000 Total Theatre Audience Choice Award for Poet in New York. In contrast to Gentleman Volunteers, which is performed in promenade by a cast of five, Poet in New York sees actor Dito Van Reigersberg assume multiple roles in a one-man show that takes us back to New York in the late twenties, just before the Wall Street crash of ‘29. Taking the actual event of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s nine-month visit to the Big Apple in that year as its starting point, the play is a fictional account of the poet’s experience of the city. From gay parties in Brooklyn to the burgeoning mixed-race jazz dives of Harlem, Poet in New York – written by Dan Rothenberg and Dito van Reigersberg – follows Lorca’s tentative journey of discovery. Infused, like Lorca’s own writings, with melancholy, magic and romance, the sensitive and intelligent text evokes a clear sense of character and situation.

Van Reigersberg really embodies the role of Lorca – the introverted, tongue-tied innocent cast adrift in a foreign metropolis. But he also excels as Lorca’s fellow countryman Salvador Dali (whose hedonism couldn’t contrast more with Lorca’s hesitancy); the bohemian poet Hart Crane; the Harlem blues singer Victoria Spivey; and the New York socialite Mildred Adams. Catapulted from rural Spain into a city of skyscrapers, New York must have seemed like a fairground to Lorca and the city was to provide rich fodder for his poetry.

The best thing about this well-modulated, skilfully performed piece, however, is the way it succeeds in communicating a genuine passion for Lorca himself. Poetic and mystical, the play is rendered especially poignant given what we know of the poet’s tragic demise in 1936.

andco – Sponsors of the 2000 Total Theatre Awards

Formed in 1997 andco is a consortium of Hampshire arts centres, comprising Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham, Fairfield Arts Centre, Basingstoke, Forest Arts Centre, New Milton, Havant Arts Centre, The Tower, Winchester and West End Centre, Aldershot, plus the County Arts Office of Hampshire County Council. Its main aims are to improve the quality, quantity and range of programming at its venues, particularly in the area of physical theatre, and to develop new audiences for this work.

Commenting on the Total Theatre Awards, Kate Barrington, andco’s Staybilisation Co-ordinator, said, ‘Two years ago we considered sponsoring our own andco awards, but then we discovered Total Theatre were looking for a sponsor and realised theirs were just the sort of awards andco was looking at. The companies we saw winning last year are exactly the kind of companies we are interested in, for example, Ridiculusmus, who won an award last year, have recently visited andco venues, as has Ken Campbell.’

The andco consortium was the brainchild of Hampshire County Council’s Arts Office in Winchester. In a successful bid for ‘stabilisation’ money from the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England, the six centres became members of the consortium in 1998 – the main thrust of their bid being to develop the performance programme and market it to new audiences, particularly in the 18-30 age group. Now midway through the three-year period, it is already clear the process has had far-reaching effects on all areas of their output, and that these effects will last way beyond the scheme’s end in March 2001.

By working together as the andco consortium, the centres have found they can take risks and programme productions that would otherwise be beyond their reach. They can also join forces to create new work, which last year led to the bringing of a Grand Guignol performance by the Parisian Compagnie du Carnage to this country. This is not the only time the centres, in their capacity as the andco consortium, have been able to commission work. As well as the Grand Guignol piece, andco has been able to underline its commitment to physical theatre with commissioning money going to Kaos, Jade, Economical Truth, Spymonkey and Union Dance. Their latest commissioning project will see DansConnect performing new work at the six centres in November, following successful schools workshops during the summer.

In addition, andco has broadened its scope to play a vital role in Hampshire’s three-year project to develop the crafts in the county. It is responsible for the creation of a new website for craftspeople (Spacecraft), the commissioning of practical craftware for each of the centres, and craft for offices within Hampshire County Council. It is therefore appropriate that once again the awards that were presented in Edinburgh were pieces of fine craftware made by Hampshire craftspeople.

andco’s philosophy is very much to build relationships with the companies they work with, deciding together the best ways of developing and reaching target audiences. As well as taking a fresh look at the venues themselves – to see if their profile is right for the people they are trying to attract – the consortium work in partnership with companies to find a successful joint approach to marketing productions. This approach appears to be working well, with the consortium happy that it has helped venues and companies reach new and vibrant areas for its audience.

And the partnership with Total Theatre has also helped this process. As Kate says, ‘Our relationship with Total Theatre has certainly been fruitful. Our involvement with the Edinburgh Fringe allows new companies to find out about us, while at the same time we get to know and help reward the best new talent around. The majority of the companies and artists we deal with are members of Total Theatre Network, so it’s a natural partnership. All of this can only be good for our audiences.’

andco’s development programme is supported by the Lottery through the Arts Council of England.

The judging panel for the 2000 Total Theatre Awards comprised: Mary Brennan, Glasgow Herald; John Daniel, Total Theatre Magazine; Anthony Dean, Central School of Speech & Drama; David Jubb, British Festival of Visual Theatre; Helen Lannaghan, London International Mime Festival; Dick McCaw. International Workshop Festival; Tom Morris, BAC; Paul Pinson, Boilerhouse; Mark Saunders, Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama; Joseph Seelig, London International Mime Festival; Martin Sutherland, Martin Sutherland Productions.

This article in the magazine

Issue 12-3
p. 4 - 7