Mapping the Total Theatre Territory

Paraladosanjos: Pontes Integradas

Brazilian site-responsive theatre maker, artist and PhD researcher Marilia Ennes goes treasure hunting in the archive. Here’s what she finds. 

From the first time that I entered the Total Theatre Print Magazine Archive, I noticed that this space is so much more than a record of performance and art making from a certain period of time. This virtual space is, in fact, a whole new territory of encounters, which taken as a whole inhabits a variety of voices, images and presences that set up a kind of map, creating a complex and effective site of shared experience.

In one way, it could be  seen as a treasure map, but even this image, so common in our imagination, doesn’t give the full picture – because, there is no ‘X marks the spot’ for us to follow. Instead, the whole archive is a big X in itself, where each step is of value, the direction depending on the eyes and tastes of the viewer-explorer. 

There is another point that definitively enlarges our sense of a map: the archive is not just two-dimensional: it gathers all the dimensions that it is possible to imagine, combining different crossings and connections in a complex mathematical operation, with infinitive possibilities in its logic and angles. It is something close to the image of a labyrinth, or perhaps to the hole down which Alice falls to Wonderland – depending which element the viewer is more drawn to, a magical rabbit or a path through a mythical maze! 

Taking off from this starting point, I propose an adventurous approach –  viewing the archive as a fertile territory to be explored and excavated, from all sides, including the in-between, with a willingness to go beyond its limits.

So, as everyone gets to choose the items that seem important at the start of any epic journey, I will take my compass and my wings and enter here…

My personal interest is in art experiences that include the importance of site in the creative process, and conscious walking as art. Holding this idea in my heart, I decide to choose Artform under the Explores navigation option. As I am an adventurer coming from the tropics, some subjects organised in the website’s navigation (such as the Writers, Festivals or Venues tags) are less easy for me to negotiate in the first instant, so Artform seems a safer start…

I find a few clues under this index: 

I – Immersive & Interactive

O – Outdoors Arts & Street Theatre

P – Performance Art & Live Art

S – Site Responsive

V – Visual Arts & Installation

I–O–P–S–V   

Hmmmm. I write this in my diary as the first clue of my exploration. My intention is to create procedures that help me to inhabit this place. I understand that these letters are reference points that reveal to me some important clues to composing my personal map through the archive. I choose the Immersive & Interactive artform, and decide to start from the oldest entry, to see what mysteries this early article might contain. 

A review of Shaker Productions’ show 2000 (autumn 1995, 17-3). The article, by Sarah Dawson, talks about a piece performed at the Union Chapel, Islington. 2000 is an adaption of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. By reading the review, it’s possible to observe a set of issues that involves site-specific work, and visualise the challenges that emerge from this kind of production. There are some points that explore the process of creating an art piece situated in a site that is outside of the conventional spaces of representation, such as the dialogue between the journeys of the audience and the performers, and between the pre-existent text and the singularity of this specific space. For me, in the end, the site itself will show the artist what path needs to be followed. It becomes the hyper-visual element which brings complex information together through the forces of the historical context, the architectural materiality, the symbolism, and the functionality of the space. It demands articulation, a dialogue between many things, not just the transfer of a play text from a black box theatre to a different building. In art everything is possible, but not everything becomes art… 

This is a good example of mashing together different elements to create a work in a non-theatre site: there is text as inspiration and the application of other meanings to the site. But the big issues that define it are there: the need to develop the art of listening to the site, the necessity of guiding the audience in order to inhabit the place, and the idea of game-playing as the main drive that brings together the space and the narrative in the audience’s experience.

‘The audience involvement was never uncomfortable, but cleverly balanced to create a tension between the fictional “Dostoevsky” world and the reality of the audience,’ says Sarah Dawson.

Jumping to the Outdoor Arts & Street Theatre section – a step out from the materiality of representational space that a building offers, to outside spaces. What will be revealed here? An engagement with the public sphere, perhaps? 

The decision to perform outdoors, in streets and public spaces, is a big step outside the purpose built venue – a decision to take risks, putting the artistic body in direct relation to the audience, in this public space. The article title that entices me to follow it is ‘Urban Surprises’ (21-2) The standfirst says: ‘Secret agents on the streets! Charlotte Smith looks at some interesting alternatives in French outdoor performance and art in public spaces.’

In the summer of 2009, a new housing scheme called Chronoclub is ready to be sold – but is it real or is it a theatrical hoax? The audience takes a fair amount of time to understand what is there, of what emerges in the public space. It could be real, but it’s not, it’s an art project by Ici-Même: they and other companies devising this sort of work are indeed the secret agents of street theatre. 

This kind of work invites us to challenge what is real and part of the everyday world, and what is an artistic invention (and intervention), blurring the line between the real and the fictional. But also, it takes a look at the idea of ​​the passer-by and the spectator. The company ‘infiltrate the everyday, the public space of the street, distorting the landscape subtly and provocatively’. It’s looks like the street itself becomes a specific site. What most interests me in this article is the way the writer uses an example of a show to reveal a whole scenery of outdoor theatre as a provocative and reflective process in itself, challenging the status of art and the classical structures of theatre to build creative pieces in order to risk new encounters between body, space and the public passing by. 

Let’s take a pause to comment on this use of the word ‘public’. I prefer to say ‘public’ rather than ‘audience’ or ‘spectator’ because the word brings with it the idea of ‘public’ in all its dimensions, something that exceeds the singular and individual universe of the artist to touch the collective.

Continuing on: I find myself  bringing references from the tropics to reflections on this theatre in public space that doesn’t look like theatre. The connection with my fellow Brazilian Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Invisible puts a grin on my face. Boal is a very important theatre-maker from my side of the Atlantic, and even though I knew he was very famous everywhere, hearing about him from Charlotte Smith strengthens the possibility of recognition of people who make theatre beyond the Eurocentric vision, and this is remarkable. I find myself musing on this as a theatre-maker from the global South.

Another aspect to this article that calls my attention is the fact that a whole panorama of details of festivals and companies in France that present this kind of art is available here. Again, as a tropical adventurer, it makes for a rich map which contains the names of the main actors involved in this artform – from references to the resource centre/organisation Hors Les Murs, to key festivals such as Aurillac, to established companies such as Royal de Luxe, and Les Goulus. There is also reference to UK companies making this sort of work, such as Dot Comedy. The article becomes a document boasting a deep level of research, offering precious information for non-European researchers and producers. This text reinforces the idea of sharing as an immersive experience itself.

Let’s give a step forward. Maybe the action should be to jump out to another letter – I choose S for Site Responsive

What first calls my attention in this new area is that there are two articles with the same name, Site Lines – so as I am a very curious adventurer, I stop to check them out.

The first ‘Site Lines’ article is in autumn 2005 (17-3). The reviewer, Dorothy Max Prior, reflects on four different shows – what a colourful kaleidoscope!. At the start of of this adventure, I chose two objects, a compass and a pair of wings, and now it’s time to use the second of those. The dynamic of the text brings references that suggest the possibility of jumping out of the archive to visit other places; to hover above with wings or with drones. It’s a complex reflective journey because of the plurality: in choosing four different pieces to talk about, the article shows me unrevealed ways of making art situated in specific places; and by presenting pieces that use different strategies for the audience to get lost, this increases my points of reference. 

In Frantic Assembly’s Dirty Wonderland the audience ‘get drawn into a hectic race around the building that is full of thrills… We are herded around at a fair pace; there is a continuing feeling of slight panic as we hurry along, encountering room-swapping guests running naked in corridors lit with ultra-violet light, being squashed up against gyrating disco dancers or trudging up staircases as “guests” in underwear push past’.  

Compare and contrast to Dreamthinkspeak’s Underground in which the audience are ‘left unguided to experience Underground, an exploration of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment set on, around and under the stage of Brighton’s Theatre Royal’. And in Punchdrunk’s The Firebird Ball, the audience are let loose in a labyrinth. The lack of guides (although there is ‘guiding’ in both shows – by sound, light, the actions of performers – gives the audience the quality of exploring adventurers, just like the experience that I am having now, here in this archive, wandering through time and space. 

In these examples, the audience become a part of the show, as they choose how to move and where to go – the experience gives to them the power of create, in a very singular way, their own show. Rather than interactive or participative, it gives a sense of composition as a sharing practice at the very heart of the creation process. In this situation the subject is not so much an artform as an aesthetic issue, but a strategy of sharing presences.

The fourth show in this kaleidoscope calls my attention in a different direction: as Dorothy Max Prior says, ‘Station House Opera’s Live in Paradise is a rather different kettle of fish – an exploration of the possibilities of live and screen performance that takes place in three different sites simultaneously.’ This one develops even more the idea of sharing presences which I mentioned before – because the show brings together three different places, with three performers in each of the three sites dressed in similar ways, the dialogue projecting and ricocheting between the spaces in shared time. As the article says, there are moments where it can be hard to assume where the audience is looking, and who they are looking at. Here I see a possibility to shorten the distances between the north and south hemispheres of the  global art process – and using new technologies it is possible to cross boundaries of country and culture without passport or permission, going through the images directly to the imaginary field. Let’s share presences, culture, empathy – and maybe, weather.   

Desires apart, for me this article reveals a very important clue, which expands the notion of journey and flags up the complexity of cartographic experiences – so that, when I am summoned to use an element that at first is outside the common field of assumed roles, the wings for me and the compass for the audience in the case above, suggests the possibility to glimpse a tangle of paths that connects everything in this moment – references, experiences, articles, presences and meanings. An invitation to fly high over art-making spaces.

The second ‘Site Lines’ article (21-2, summer 2009) is interesting because it is an inside rather than an outside view: the writer, Mehrdad Seyf, takes us inside two different works by his company, 30 Bird Productions: Plastic and The Multi-Storey. It’s as if through the text I could feel the author’s presence, as if I am the voyeur looking at him looking at the two different site responsive projects he had created. The descriptions of each of the shows are very precise, and conjure images that mean I can easily visit the scene with him. Though this article, we get taken into two very different sorts of buildings, neither a conventional theatre space, which fits in with the continuation of my studies, and my reflections on the issues that emerge in the creative processes carried on outside of the black box.

’In Plastic,’ says Seyf, ‘the site has a constant presence, its curves and angles lit to reveal its structure. The performances are dispersed, sometimes glanced through a doorway, sometimes through an arch. There is no rush, no compulsion to fill the space with action. The audience are left to look at walls, the bricks, the shape of the building, or just to look for something to happen’.

And of The Multi-Storey, he says: ‘Using the extremely manipulative town-planning scheme in the leisure centre, The Multi-Storey creates multiple perspectives: the CCTV cameras recording the audience watching the events unfold through the area… The story in itself only acquires significance through the function of the space.’

Seyf shares his experiences on the challenges faced during the shows, which reveals the value of craftsmanship in the construction of the work when it occupies an unconventional place – the discoveries are dynamic and often unpredictable.

‘The audience presence is defined by the dynamics of the space. With the audience being such an important component of the performance, each showing varied in energy and intensity.’ 

From my own experience, and reflecting on the experiences of others, I realise that creators of most site specific works have little time to research the spaces before the opening of the performances. The writer presents this same problem. This condition brings important issues to the process that will give different meanings in the moment of the opening. These conditions induce the artists to work with an idea of what it will be in the space and the dynamic of bodies in there, as the work only really comes alive when in the space. On the other hand, the space gives so much to the artist – so while they are in action, performing with an audience present, they are still figuring things out. The desire of the artists in this kind of work is to have more time in the space, but there is rarely ‘enough’ time. So, because of these circumstances, work situated in a specific site can enforce an interesting democratic experience on to the bodies of both audience and performers: one knows a bit more than the other, but both are submitted to the conditions and dynamics imposed by the space/site. A truly live experience!

‘The nature of the performance is not predefined or rehearsed independently of the setting. Performers become extensions of the site: their presence, their movement, and even their speech serve to demonstrate the complex ways in which the architecture and physical location determines and influences our lives. The audience too have a multiple function.’

By contrasting two such very different shows, Seyf’s reflections on specificity and on variability from one show to the next are strengthened.

After this, I decide to research through the Topics, to directly encounter the experiences of walking artists.

My only concern is about the weather, as I am a tropical girl, and have some trepidation about the challenges facing walkers in the cold Northern Hemisphere. But never mind – here I go…

Aha, I see a luminous sigh calling me: ‘Walk This Way’.

In site specific or site responsive pieces, the creators use a variety of resources to conduct the audience from one place to another. Here, the title of the article (published in winter 2005, 17–4) serves to lead this explorer who speaks to you into her next adventure.

A thought strikes me and I pause to consider: Can Total Theatre Magazine be seen as a site-specific territory?

But onward I go: for this experience, I might need to get extra well prepared with jumpers and a flask of hot Redbush tea. But no, the article is actually about a show that was built after the walking experiences, and it is set indoors. 

This article presents an interesting point of view, because the author Phil Smith takes me by the hand and shares with me his questions and concerns about being fragile and porous: as a human being, as a walker, as an explorer, as an artist who writes with his own body, charting the experience through the landscape; and as a poet, who finds the right words to build images that complete my own feelings. The show, Crab Steps Aside, (which follows on from The Crab Walks) is part of an ongoing project; a continuation of Phil Smith’s artistic research. He is looking forward to establishing a dialogue between ways of processing theatre and other representative art forms, and the walking as an art experience in its own right, in the moment. Disrupted walking, exploratory walking, drifting…

As he says, ‘the show is made up of narratives and snatched moments from walks that I’ve taken, alone and with others. And again, the show is evangelical and rhetorical, aiming to provoke its audiences into making their own walkings rather just consume an entertainment about mine’.

While I walk in his fields, I learn a lot about so many different aspects of his practice – his article is a class which educates, literally ‘leads me’ to his thoughts and reflections. He likes it when the audience look out at the scenery in the middle of the show, because everything in there is about outside experiences – so in a way, looking outside strengthens the aspect of the landscape itself, and the idea of being an explorer rather than merely an audience member, encouraging people to break with what is expected of them. In other words, the audience are encouraged to ‘drift’.

He describes his Crab Walks series as ‘perversely provincial because it’s a geography of strangeness rather than cultural authority that I’m mapping’. In his words it’s possible to visit the show as the idea of walking as a new trend in art (in 2005 – less so now), and the critical ideas around it. There are so many questions jumping out the from the page that are still highly relevant now in 2019, perhaps more so: How to create ‘extra official’ narratives of artform, of landscape, of human aesthetic experiences? ‘Bits of grit in the eye of the tourist gaze’?

As Phil Smith says, ‘This is an odd kind of performance – where you take it as a compliment that the audience isn’t watching the “stage”.’ For Phil, to break the journey of the audience several times is an invitation to re-create the references of the performance itself. He shows us a map that allows both the crab and the audience to go in and out as many times as they want – and as he says, there is always a map to go back to.

In a way, his reflections about the walking movement in particular and performance art in general has an intimate dialogue with the journey of the Total Theatre Magazine Print Archive territory itself. The idea of mapping things in order to be part of them; to be provoked and to provoke; to share the experience and to compose in real time with the references and the elements we have in front of us.

I look at the archive as a site; a place which can be triggered by touches, drawing things out from the other side of this enchanted (art) world. Each one can drift on his own journey within it.

Wandering in this Total Theatre territory, we can be provoked (as the crab man Phil Smith is) to jump in and out – because the archive is a map in itself.

On this journey, I realised the value of the Topic as a ‘map inside the map’ that helps lost adventurers in the archive. On the other hand, I bring the idea of crossing over and taking wild gambits as an act of cutting the space (in this case, a virtual one) with the body (or the experience). This situation, without a defined route, brings me the quality of a drift that favours the adventurous, and the pilgrimage continues guided by the footsteps on the floor of those who have gone before us.

So, keeping pace with the walking artists brings me to a very odd experience,

’30 Days to Edinburgh’ (in 24-2, summer 2012 – the very last print edition of Total Theatre Magazine):

‘A Spaceman, a Cowboy and a Disco Dancer are going on a journey. A journey undertaken in the spirit of discovery. There’s a gig that they’ve got to get to and they’re the performers. The gig’s 468 miles away and they’ve only their feet to get them there; this will be 30 Days to Edinburgh.’

This action could become an extremely potent reference point to open a discussion about the state of the art of contemporary performance – subverting the idea of ​​art as a material object or product to be shared in time and space – particularly, subverting the commercialisation and ‘meat market’ aspects of the Edinburgh Fringe. But the company, Bootworks, did decide to create a kind of materiality that could be shared during the journey, and at the moment of arrival itself, with progress reports integrated into an installation set up at Edinburgh’s Summerhall venue, and the company delivering a performative lecture on the process at the end of the journey. But they were always insistent that the journey itself was the artwork…

This provokes me to think about a series of issues related to artistic processes and their forms of sharing, and to reflect on questions specifically connected to the walking movement, and walking as an artform in itself. Composing a shared experience bigger than the personal experience of the three men doing the walking, and the public whose paths they crossed, brought the opportunity for Bootworks to invent new ways to connect with their audience, including the possibility to create a new experience by distance, sharing in real time what was happening with them during the 30-day journey.

We can see walking artists as part of an artistic movement that exists just for its own sake; but is also sometimes (as in this case) an inventive movement of new ways to process art, to dialogue between human creative experiences.

From this point, I decided to stop look back and understand the route I have taken through the Total Theatre Magazine Print Archive. I realised that what I have done during this article was to drift around this complex territory, using the Topics and Artforms listed in the Explore section as reference points to draw my own map of this experience; to jump in and jump out, between texts, images and reflections about art and shared experience.

So, I invite you to dive in – to take up the offer of a participatory experience that encourages everyone to create their own map, using the available clues to empower the adventurer-cartographer that lies within each of us.

Good luck, and happy drifting.

Marilia Ennes is co-founder and co-director of Paraladosanjos company, who make outdoor arts, circus-theatre and site responsive performance. They are based in Sao Paulo state in Brazil. Marilia is also a solo walking artist, and is currently researching her PhD thesis at UNICAMP university in Campinas.