Author Archives: Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing. www.dorothymaxprior.com

Almost There

Celebrating the launch of his newly commissioned short film for London International Mime Festival 2021, Dorothy Max Prior meets performer, choreographer and theatre director Andrew Dawson, an artist whose eclectic career has taken him across the world – and even to the moon and back

‘Our human essence lies not in arrival but in being almost there, we are creatures who are on the way, our journey a series of impending anticipated arrivals.’ David Whyte, Close

These words from poet David Whyte were the starting point for the latest work by Andrew Dawson – a poignant performance-to-camera piece with a beautiful soundtrack that is one of five specially commissioned short films for London International Mime Festival 2021.  

The resulting film – available from 18 January 2021 online and free via the Festival’s website – is called We live by unconsciously measuring the inverse distances of our proximity. Or Proximity for short… 

For Andrew Dawson, this is a particularly special project – a film made with his son, Roman Sheppard Dawson – and he muses on the fact that without the pandemic, he may not have made the film. Even terrible events bring blessings. In lockdown with his partner and their two adult children, who returned home for the duration, Andrew found that when he was offered the commission he just happened to have a professional filmmaker resident in the house, making the whole thing far more do-able. Roman is not only a Moving Image graduate from St Martin’s art school, he has also grown up with his father’s work, and has often travelled with him, teching the shows – so they work well together. In many ways, Andrew muses, this new piece is as much his son’s work as his own – a true collaboration, enhanced by the soundtrack by composer Jonny Pilcher, who is another person Dawson has regularly worked with, although in this case the collaboration was online. As for its themes:

‘It is for those who are reaching for something more but can’t quite grasp it. For those on their journey, not yet at their destination,’ he says, ‘We set out to develop a visual poem, as we searched for what is intrinsic in our relationship with others.’

Andrew Dawson. Photo Sarah Ainslie

The film was shot locally, in a park near the Dawson residence in London. It’s a movement piece that’s about both the intimacy of touch in nature and the loss of touch between human beings that the current pandemic has precipitated. It is presented as a split-screen work – the two screens not quite touching, emphasising the ‘almost there but not quite’ underlying theme. We see hands gently waving or undulating against the sky, a small plane moving across the screen, tree branches stark and still. As the camera pans out, we realise that Dawson is standing on a chair, swaying gently – secure but alone, in splendid isolation. In some shots, we just see his torso, clad in black, a single hand opening and closing slowly, or a finger slowly tracing down the side of his torso. Sometimes the screens mirror or echo each other. Sometimes they are literally a split screen – a tree spreading across both like an X-ray of lungs. Sometimes one stays blank, or gives us an almost-identical repeat of a shot seen earlier. The camera sometimes pulls right back, leaving the little figure standing on a chair with a backdrop of trees less the focus of attention than one integral part of a whole landscape. A feeling of delicacy and vulnerability pervades every shot, with the washed-out colour grading adding to that feeling. Central to the piece is the constant motion of Andrew’s hands, which are rarely still – circling, flowing, carving shapes in the space.

Andrew Dawson: Space Panorama. Photo Roman Sheppard Dawson

Ah yes – those famous hands! So much of Andrew Dawson’s work is focused on and around them. His first show, Space Panorama, gave us that now famous ‘triangle’ shot which was featured on the cover of  a very early edition of Total Theatre Magazine (Autumn 1989), previewing his LIMF appearance the following January. The show has returned to the Festival numerous times since, and can be seen in this year’s videotheque – a programme of filmed shows from previous editions that gives us the chance to catch up on seminal shows we might have missed, or may want to see again. The version we’ll get to see is a 2016 ‘bespoke’ recording: created in Dawson’t own studio, and filmed with a fixed camera and no editing. The piece lends itself very well to the static format. ‘And it’s just 30 minutes long, so a tolerable length,’ says Andrew, with a characteristic gently self-deprecating humour.   

Space Panorama is a solo recreation of the Apollo 11 moon landing, using only Dawson’s hands, a re-enactment of the entire mission that is set to sections of Shostakovich’s 10th symphony, with narration by Gavin Robertson. It was only after making it that Dawson noted to himself that he’d chosen a piece of Russian music to accompany the story of an American mission! It’s a piece of music he loves, with ‘an epic quality that carries the story’ but he finds it hard to listen to in any other format than the version used in his show, as ‘it’s all in the wrong order!’ – an allusion to his deconstruction and rearrangement of Shostakovitch’s work when making the piece. Dawson takes us from Houston to the moon and returns us safely to earth, conveying the colossal distances and the risks involved simply through the extraordinarily skilled movement of his hands. Space Panorama has been performed at theatres and festivals throughout the world, including for the  marking of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing at the Kennedy Centre. ‘It was fantastic to perform it there, and to see all three Apollo 11 astronauts at the air and space museum – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins brought back together for the occasion,’ he says. the occasion,’ he says. 

Looking through Andrew Dawson’s website, I’m interested to discover a piece called Landscapes, created in response to the 1948 John Cage work In A Landscape. This very lovely piece came about when Dawson and Sarah Ainslie, from whom he rented studio space, decided to create an Open Studio event. Sarah, who many know of as Complicité’s photographer, mounted an exhibition of her photo works; whilst Dawson chose to create this new piece inspired by Cage’s gentle piano work – if you didn’t know it was a John Cage composition, you might believe it to be by Erik Satie or Alan Hovhaness. As a former Merce Cunningham student and dancer, Andrew already had an interest in Cage’s work, and when played this piece by a friend, found it to be the perfect inspiration for a performance-to-camera work that was improvised rather than meticulously choreographed, performed in one take. ‘The only time I performed it was for the making of the film – and I decided never to do it again,’ he says. There’s something so beautifully Cage-like about all this! The John Cage Trust saw the film and loved it, and added their blessing. Landscapes is available on www.andrewdawson.info and although very different, is a beautiful companion piece to Proximity, the new film commission.

Andrew Dawson & Hos Houben: Quatre Mains. Photo Nitin Vadukul

Another of Andrew Dawson’t legendary ‘hands’ pieces is Quatre Mains, a collaboration with Jos Houben, who provides the other pair of hands. This one, like Space Panorama, will be shown in the LIMF 2021 videotheque 1, 1990-1999. Quatre Mains is described on Dawson’s website as ‘an intimate dance for four hands… an evocative visual poem of finely tuned movement and gesture.’ Much later, the piece was recreated with Sven Till, and this, as Andrew remarks, ‘allowed Jos Houben to see it from the outside for the first time!’ Again, as a piece that takes place on a table, it transfers very well to film. We’ll get the 1998 version at LIMF 2021 – and like all of the rest of the videotheque programme, it will be available free to view online from 18 January at www.mimelondon.com 

Talking of Sven Till takes us neatly to Andrew’s other main strand of work, as a choreographer and director. In recent years, he has worked as movement director on a number of plays and operas, including MET/ENO productions Doctor Atomic and The Pearl Fishers, which were both directed by filmmaker Penny Woolcock, the working relationship between Penny and Andrew brokered by designer Julian Crouch. But long before these big-cast large-stage successes came the far more compact and contained Pandora 88, a multi-award winning piece co-created by performers Wolfgang Hoffmann and Sven Till with Andrew Dawson in the director’s seat. It sits somewhere between dance and theatre, and is set inside a bespoke ‘box’ that is just 1.5 sq metres. This box is ‘their playground, home, prison, and their sanctuary, source of light, sound and memories. A place where their lives start and finish, to which they’re bound for better or worse’. The piece was inspired both by Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling (about his experience as an imprisoned hostage) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey. ‘It is about restraints and confinement,’ says Andrew, noting that in its investigation of confinement, it it suddenly seems prescient, foreshadowing our lockdown days. Pandora 88 was presented at the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe as part of the Aurora Nova festival-within-the-festival produced by Wolfgang Hoffman. It was created at Fabrik, Potsdam – a venue and creation centre run by Wolfgang (he’s an enterprising person who wears many different hats!). 

Andrew Dawson: Absence and Presence

A year or two later, Andrew returned to Potsdam to create Absence and Presence – which like Pandora 88 won a Total Theatre Award, amongst many other accolades, at the Edinburgh Fringe. This highly personal piece is very different to most of Dawson’s work, an homage to, and dialogue with, his dead father. It’s a wonderful bringing together of movement theatre, object animation, video, and spoken text, enhanced by a lovely score by Joby Talbot – and it was a long time in the making. Dawson senior died in 1985, when Andrew was in his mid-twenties, but the piece only saw the light of day two decades later, in 2005. For a long time, it was a gestating idea at the back of his head, or explored in brief notes. Eventually, the time was right – a grant from Arts Council England, plus the offer of creation space at Potsdam, meant that the project could be given the time and attention it needed. When Dawson senior died, his body lay undiscovered for ten days – a fact that Andrew mused on constantly over the years: ‘The idea that he lay dead, but life went on all around him – next door, outside his window, even the food in his fridge going mouldy. Nothing stops, but there is an absence, a silence…’ This constantly replaying thought became the catalyst for the making of the show. 

He spent a year working on it, ‘drilling into that time…quietly pottering’ reading and re-reading his father’s letters, recording them for inclusion; creating short video pieces to be played on an old TV monitor; making a ‘chicken-wire-man’ sculpture of his father that is gently danced with onstage. He worked alone a lot of the time, but had collaborators in Graham Johnson and Jos Houben. He talks of Jos’s role being to come in and ‘rupture’ the procedure, saying: ‘Ah yes, you’ve tried this, but have you thought of that?’

When finally it was made, he realised that it was a piece about ‘a missed relationship with my father,’ going on to say that ‘you never quite know what you’re making until it’s done.’ He very much valued the special time and space that Fabrik, Potsdam provided in the early stages of the process: ‘I stayed in a little room at the back of the studio – I could go in and work on the piece at 2am if I wanted to.’ Sometimes the intensity of it all got too much and he would leave the studio for a couple of weeks, only to come back to find something – a half-made sculpture, or one of the key objects ‘his glasses, his pipe, the letters’ – would ‘talk’ to him in a different way to before, and provoke the next stage of the work. ‘I don’t see at as a solo piece – I feel I made it with my father’ he says.

Which leads him to muse on the fact that here he is now, another two decades on, creating a piece of work that could be seen as his own son’s dialogue with his father. ‘It was just him and me – and it’s almost more him than me…’

Poet David Whyte’s line We live by unconsciously measuring the inverse distances of our proximity is the starting point and title of this new film. But it also serves as a comment on that earlier work, Absence and Presence, and on the relationship between Andrew Dawson and his now long deceased father.

Seeing both pieces of work together, we can readily grasp the connections and continuity. Life goes on, quietly. There is absence, there is presence – and there is the space in between.

Featured image (top): Andrew Dawson: Space Panorama. Photo Nidin Vadukul

For more about Andrew Dawson and his work, see www.andrewdawson.info  

See https://mimelondon.com/ for full details of the London International Mime Festival 2021, including the new film commissions by Andrew Dawson and others; and the full three-part videotheque programme which includes Space Panorama, Quatre Mains, Pandora 88, and Absence and Presence.  

Long Live LIMF!

It’s January, and we know what that means – the London International Mime Festival is back with another wonderful array of ‘image-rich performance for an adventurous and curious audience’. Dorothy Max Prior reflects on the 2021 programme

London International Mime Festival is the longest established international theatre festival in the country. Founder and co-director Joseph Seelig has repeated this claim often, and ‘nobody has ever contradicted me,’ he says – so it must be true! 

LIMF is most certainly an institution – calendars marked annually for this eagerly anticipated London-wide event that brings together an extraordinarily varied range of physical and visual theatre shows, workshops and screenings, presented in venues across London throughout the month of January.    

This year, for very obvious reasons, there are changes. Joseph and co-director Helen Lannaghan took the decision mid-2020 that LIMF 2021 would run online. At the time the decision was taken, lockdowns were easing and there was talk of theatres re-opening – but the wise directors knew that it would be better to make a call that would mean an online programme could be properly curated and delivered, regardless, rather than risk a live programme which would need to be hastily re-arranged at the last minute if the situation worsened. Which it has.

Apart from anything else, how can you issue proper invitations to international artists to come to the UK to present work when you can’t get out of the UK to see their work, and you have no idea if the artists would be able to travel in to the UK? Quite apart from Covid-19 restrictions, there was the fact that the 2021 edition of the festival would come to town mere weeks after Brexit, with the risk that the situation on international visas, work permits and carnets for artists would be unresolved. Which it is. 

But let’s accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative. (Thank you, Johnny Mercer.)

Jacqui Beckford’s BSL interpretation of Nothing Compares 2U from Kiss & Cry. Photo Jaco von Dormael

With activity switched online, LIMF 2021 is offering a series of five new short films, a videotheque of documented shows by renowned artists, a truly outstanding package of workshops led by top industry professionals, plus a series of ten talks by distinguished Mime Festival participants from recent years, delivered digitally.

Starting with those film commissions: what a brilliant decision this was! Mime, clown and physical performance has always had a symbiotic relationship with film – from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton’s silent classics, through to the legendary Les Enfants du Paradis (starring one of the godfathers of mime, Jean-Louis Barrault), and onto Jacques Tati and beyond. Then, there’s the noble tradition of filmed puppetry and object animation, with a particular nod to the Czech innovators, including Jiří Trnka and Jan Švankmajer.      

It feels right and fitting, therefore, for LIMF to commission contemporary physical and visual artists to make their own word-free works. Of the five free-to-view short films, four were created especially for the festival during lockdown. The four commissions are: movement director/performer Andrew Dawson; puppeteer/animator Gavin Glover; multimedia artists Kristin & Davy McGuire; and movement director, actor and War Horse choreographer Toby Sedgwick. 

Additionally, there’s Jacqui Beckford’s British Sign Language interpreted version of Little Jimmy Scott singing Nothing Compares 2U from Kiss & Cry (Barbican, LIMF 2017). And what a gem this is – proving, if we didn’t know it already, that BSL is a beautiful physical performance mode in its own right, especially when in the hands (and arms, and face, and body) of an artist as expressive and communicative as Jacqui Beckford. It’s a dance of love, nothing less.

Gavin Glover’s Bleak House is as darkly demented a piece of work as you’d expect from the former co-director of Faulty Optic Theatre of Animation. Scenes of domestic discord are played out, with miniature three-piece-suites and shaking fridges moved around by ominous giant woolly-gloved hands, or dragged along desolate corridors – particularly disturbing is a fast-moving little cot tied to a length of string. All augmented by an excellent soundtrack from sound designer and Foley artist David Moré, scratches and screeches vying with the discordant tones of an old fairground organ.

In Toby Sedgwick is Bernard Knowles, we encounter Sedgwick in Commedia half-mask as the wonderfully eccentric naif Knowles – a ‘personal play on the play of life’ that sees him dancing around his garden with a mannequin that falls apart in his arms, playing musical saw, coaxing some vintage jazz from his wind-up gramophone, or flirting with flowerpots. It’s shot and edited beautifully – the piece is created with filmmaker Genevieve Stevenson and features a vintage Kodacolour home-movie aesthetic, with a colour palette of gorgeous faded rose pinks and golden yellows, and lots of flickering Super-8. ‘We do diddly do what we must muddly must’ sings Toby/Bernard as he revs up his ancient motorbike and rides off into the sunset…     

In complete contrast, Kristin & Davy McGuire’s dance-to-camera piece Vertigo gives us an ultra-slick duet between digital technology and the physical body; a pole-dance performance paired with projections onto gauze, the holographic projection becoming the dancer’s partner. Giddying physical skills!

That just leaves Andrew Dawson’s intriguingly titled We live by unconsciously measuring the inverse distances of our proximity, inspired by the words of poet David Whyte. Andrew Dawson, working with his filmmaker son Roman Sheppard Dawson and composer Jonny Pilcher, ‘set out to develop a visual poem, as we searched for what is intrinsic in our relationship with others…’ Filmed in a park close to Dawson’s London home, and using a split-screen format that lovingly frames the waving branches of the trees and Dawson’s undulating hands, the piece is indeed a visual poem – a dance with nature, and an exploration of the liminal space between things. 

LIMF 2021 videotheque: Cie Les Antliaclastes: La valse des hommelettes. Photo E Dubost

Also onscreen: the Festival’s videotheque programme, whilst not intending to replace the experience of real live theatre, gives audiences the chance to catch previous Mime Festival shows they might have missed, or to see much-loved favourites again. Divided into three batches representing the last three decades – they feel that work from the first two decades of LIMF can’t be adequately done justice by the poor quality of filmed documentation from those years – the impressive list includes Compagnie Philippe Genty, Josef Nadj, Mossoux Bonté, Akhe Theatre of Engineering, Ockham’s Razor, Les Antliaclastes, and Thick & Tight, amongst many others. 

One of the most renowned of all LIMF presentations, Peeping Tom’s 32 rue Vandenbranden (a 2015 Olivier Award Winner), and the company’s later shows Mother and Father, will be available for three nights over the weekends 22-24 January and 29-31 January. 

Phew – that’ll keep us all busy for the rest of January!

The programme of ten artist talks – which includes juggling supremo Sean Gandini in conversation with Thomas Wilson, Gecko’s Amit Lahav in conversation with Hoipolloi’s Shôn Dale-Jones, and Told By an Idiot’s Paul Hunter in conversation with himself – kicks off on the festival launch night, 18 January, with Mime Festival founders Joseph Seelig and Nola Rae talking about 1977 and All That. Expect reminiscences on the legendary Friends Roadshow and working with Marcel Marceau, musings on the merits of structured chaos and the importance of international collaboration, the Festival’s rise from the Cockpit to the Barbican via the ICA, and the magnificent success of its workshop programmes – always a vital part of the LIMF programme, from its humble beginnings to the present day. 

The PappyShow: How We Play and Move workshop

Talking of which: the workshops in the 2021 programme include offerings by many dearly beloved LIMF regulars, including a magnificent posse of clowns and mimes: Nola Rae invites you to Upgrade Your Clown; Avner Eisenberg leads An Introduction to Eccentric Performing; and Les Bubb offers Playing with the Invisible – A Crash Course in Mime

Then, there’s Theatre Re’s corporeal mime-based Falling Man; The PappyShow’s How We Play and Move; and David Glass Ensemble Learning’s Devised and Physical Object Theatre. Told by an Idiot’s weekend workshop will explore Building the Chaos; and Mark Down of Blind Summit offers two different workshops, a one-day How to do Puppetry Home Alone; and a five-day What’s So Special About Zoom – An investigation into the possibilities of puppetry on live internet platforms. All of these workshops are taught online, and all are sold out, with waiting lists.

‘We have students joining from all around the world,’ says Helen Lannaghan, ‘Belgium, Canada, Canary Islands, China, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Renunion, Spain, Switzerland, USA and the UK. Really rather marvellous and a feature we shall keep, going forwards.’

So, workshops, talks, commissioned short films, and the wonderful archive material of the three videotheque programmes – that’s the fantastic array of work on offer at LIMF this year. 

But what will be happening in the future? Helen again:

‘We’re waiting to hear what the implications of Brexit will be on our ability to present international work from January 2022. We’re also waiting to hear from our venue partners how their re-opening plans might affect our programming – at the moment, realistically, it’s just too early to be able to plan for live performances with any certainty, but we will push forwards in whatever way we can. The bottom line is that we’re supporting the creation of new work by ten British companies which we hope will help carry them forwards. We also hope we’ll be able to programme much of that new work in LIMF 2022.’

The new commissions Helen mentions will include work by Nikki Rummer, Dik Downey’s Opposable Thumb, Theatre Re, The PappyShow, and Thick & Tight.

Finally, on the eve of the the launch of its 44th edition, here’s a last word from Joseph Seelig on LIMF past, present and future:

‘Those early years now seem so risky and chaotic. I’m sure they were. But it was great fun, an endless journey of exploration discovering extraordinary artists and work so different from mainstream theatre. I never dreamed that the Festival would become an institution, still gathering new followers year after year. I can’t tell you how proud that makes me. Long live LIMF!’

Peeping Tom: 32 rue Vandenbranden. Photo Herman Sorgeloos

Featured image (top); LIMF 2021 workshop leader Avner Eisenberg aka Avner the Eccentric.

LIMF 2021 runs online 18–31 January. For full details of the programme and information on how to book talks and access the free online film screenings and videotheque content, see https://mimelondon.com/

Total Theatre in the Age of Covid – Part Three

Dorothy Max Prior chronicles the year that turned out to be – well, different to expected. Part three takes us from September to December 2020

It feels like things are on the up, with theatres and galleries opening up, artists once again meeting in real space to work together – but the news is getting gloomy again. As we reach the autumn equinox, cases rise. There are warnings of a second wave of Covid-19 infections. The blame game starts. Is re-opening schools the cause? Eat Out to Help Out? Gyms? Hairdressers? Partying freshmen? Who knows. By mid-October, a new three-tier alert system is in place. Tiers. Another word that has taken on new meaning. We collectively emit a loud sigh.

But there is diversion! A riot of interesting new online productions emerge in the autumn months, ACE emergency funding providing the wherewithal for artists to make new online shows or rework old ones; or the results of commissions from initiatives such as the Culture in Quarantine fund or venues such as Farnham Maltings, HOME Manchester, and the Centre for Live Art Yorkshire. I put aside my world weariness and dig in…

Some are re-workings of shows previously presented. Dante or Die’s User Not Found is an interesting example, as the show is about our relationship to online apps. It’s also about relationships, full stop. When I saw the show live, set in a specially adapted café, I loved the interplay between the live performer – Terry O’Donovan, musing out loud on the dilemma handed him when an ex-lover makes him his digital executor (yes, such things do exist) – and our interaction with the primed smartphones we were given. The phones are loaded with a specially created programme so we can see Terry’s phone interface. On one level, the show looks like something that could potentially be moved wholly online – but how well would they manage it without the atmosphere of the café, and Terry’s live presence? The answer is: brilliantly. The reworked show is placed on YouTube. We are asked to tune in on our phones, not on a computer, and to use earphones. We therefore, regardless of where we are, become completely embroiled and enmeshed in Terry’s world. We see his phone interface on our phone; we hear his voice in our ear. It starts with a flurry of  ‘Are you OK?’  messages, as Terry learns of the death of his friend, moving into a loving re-evaluation of the former relationship and the person’s life, as viewed through their online activity. The level of detail is superb, with even a (fictional) hit pop video created from scratch. The post-show talk between performer/company co-director Terry O’Donovan and journalist Lyn Gardner is a well-managed and interesting extra element.

Nando Messias: Aurora

Nando Messias’s Aurora, a new show commissioned by CLAY (Centre for Live Art Yorkshire), is performed live on Zoom and really uses the medium for what it is. Aurora is a gorgeous reflection on image, on beauty, on ageing and mortality – and  specifically, on the role that hair – a girl’s crowning glory – plays in all of these. A whole pageant of personae present themselves in this one sacrificial body, whose parts are offered up to us piecemeal as gifts for us to consume in voracious close-up: eyes, lips, hands, nipples. There’s Oxun – the Afro-Brazilian orixa of the rivers; golden goddess of beauty, of vanity, and of youthful femininity – who is often depicted (as here) adorned in rings and bracelets, carrying a hand-mirror and a hairbrush. Enter an Indigenous American spirit who tells us ‘the longer the hair, the stronger the soul’. Now Medusa, who’s a perfectly lovely and reasonable woman until she is ‘seduced’ (let’s call it what it is – raped) by Poseidon, her rage turning her into the monstrous snake-haired harridan we know from Greek mythology. ‘I am Antigone,’ says Nando. ‘I am Penelope.’ ‘I am Delilah.’ And Samson too – animus and anima unite. We learn that when Mary Queen of Scots was executed, her wig came off in the executioner’s hand. Nando/Aurora is losing their hair. S/he shakes loose the top-knot, curls tumbling, brushes her hair and shows us the hair that has come out on the brush: a symbol of the loss of youth, the loss of hope, ‘now closer to death than to birth’. But Nando is not yet defeated: ‘I can decolonise my body’ he says. Aurora is not done for yet: ‘I will rise again’ she says. So simple, so beautiful – a body framed, a poetic text, a carefully constructed piece of work. That’s the way to do it!

Split Britches: The Last Gasp. Photo Christa Holka

Also created for Zoom is Split Britches’ The Last Gasp. Commissioned by New York’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, it was originally planned as a stage show, but ended up being a very different piece, devised via Zoom by the team of five – performer Peggy Shaw, performer/director Lois Weaver,  lighting and video artist Nao Nagai, choreographer Morgan Thorson, and sound designer Vivian Stoll. It was created in the first four months of the 2020 lockdown, the two performers in residence in an empty house in Allerton, West Yorkshire: a house that ‘told us what to do’ as Peggy says in the post-show talkback. The scenography is provided by the house, the bodies within it, the few objects deployed (trestle table, cloth, bucket), and the carefully choreographed use of the house’s features – stairs, hallways, walls, doors – the performers’ bodies bathed in natural light, framed by doorways or windows. Then there’s the garden – wild in the best possible way, a riot of overgrown hydrangea bushes and buzzing bees. Much of the text from the show as first planned remains in the new version – particularly Peggy Shaw’s wonderful monologues – and most of the movement work had been sketched out in the studio pre-lockdown, but the piece is allowed to breathe and grow as a site-responsive work in the empty house. At the heart of the piece is the relationship between Split Britches’ co-founders, Lois and Peggy: partners in work and life for 40 plus years. Lois the hard-working academic, holding down a proper job. Peggy who gets awards and fellowships just given to her, easy peasy, on a plate. Lois who muses on the story of Echo and Narcissus, tells us how to set up a picnic in an apocalypse, and dances to Derrida. Peggy who muses that ‘Black male musicians were my butch role models’, reflects on the ‘Prince of Wails’ Johnny Ray (and the man who wrote his most famous song, Johnny Bragg – there’s a lot of Johnnies in Peggy’s life story), and reminds us that Johnny B Goode is up there whizzing round in space for all eternity on the Voyager spacecraft. ‘I never really know where you are going with your stories,’ says Lois, close to the end, ‘ but when you get there, I go – oh yeah…’ 

The collaborators worked together remotely with only the two performers actually present together in the house. The camera work is basic – this is not a film, and I feel it’s important to distinguish between work made by filmmakers and this new strand of Zoom-based performance-to-camera work – but everything works very well. The sound design is particularly good – snatches of Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ and Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t no Sunshine’ deconstructed and weaved in with the spoken text and the outdoor sounds of children playing or birds singing.  I know, I know, I know, I know… But what if we didn’t know? Also in the rich mix: references to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s madness-in-isolation novella The Yellow Wallpaper, Dorothea Tanning’s surrealist paintings, and Fred and Ginger’s ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’. Oh, and there’s a gorgeous cover of Ewan McColl’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, perhaps the greatest love song ever written. It was first sung by Peggy Seeger – but here delivered by Peggy Shaw, accompanying herself on ukulele. A fitting finale to what is, ultimately, a show about longterm relationships, survival, and the power of love. 

David Hoyle: A Grand Auction of My Life. Photo Lee Baxter

Late autumn brings along a little glut of ‘Zoomies’ that play with the TV game show format. David Hoyle’s A Grand Auction of My Life – an interactive auction in which we can bid for David’s prized possessions, which included a tawdry calendar, a jar of house dust, and a lipstick-stained mug – is on for one night only, streamed live. Be there or be square. David and his lovely assistant Debs Gatenby (he in mini-skirt, stilettos and fishnets; she decked up to the hilt in full PPE) are live in the HOME theatre in Manchester – alone but for a friendly producer/technician. Nothing sadder than a game show with no audience – the lack of laughter and applause echoes around the empty building – but never fear, we’re here, ready and willing for online interaction. In between auctions – which include a live ‘spirit painting’ for the highest bidder – we get ad breaks, which include a fabulous parody of the Cadbury’s Flake classic: ‘Only the crumbliest, flakiest chocolate…’  Hoyle is his usual wonderfully acerbic self throughout, lambasting the UK government for its multiple failings. What do we want? Revolution! When do we want it? Now! ‘There must be no return to normal,’ he chides. The monologues feel a little low-key without the audience to bounce off – Hoyle sparks so brilliantly off of a real live audience – but it works well enough. I like the fact that you can’t see it on catch-up: you were either there or you weren’t – just like real theatre!

Also playing with the game-show format, and also interactive, is Yael Karavan and Silvia Mercuriali’s Human Rights Bingo (presented as part of the Voila! Europe 2020 festival at the Cockpit Theatre). Here is a truly international show, with each performer in a different country (UK/Portugal), and the Juicy Ball Spinner somewhere else again; with audience members (alone or in family bubbles) wherever they happen to be. We are here to find out how much we know about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We each have a bingo card – issued to us on our phones by one or other of the performers, who greet us in a Zoom ante-room, before letting us through the curtains into the main space – and once everyone is in, the game begins with a little boogie, bouncing balls, and the teller calling the first number. ‘You are all equal until one of you wins,’ says Silvia with a gleam in her eye. ‘Just follow the rules,’ says Yael with a wicked grin. If there’s a match to our bingo card, we are invited onscreen to try and guess which human right is being referenced. There are verbal and visual clues: one of the cleverest is a little video of an orange being peeled to the sound of screams. Yep, come in number 5 – the right to freedom from torture. It’s all weaved together cleverly, and delivered with great gusto by our two energetic performers, who hold the space admirably – with disco-dancing and clever quipping a-plenty. Jolly good fun, and educational to boot!

Nir Paldi as Mr Pink in The Small Gathering

In another strand of work, I see a number of short films made during lockdown. Ad Infinitum created a trio of performance-to-camera works under the tag A Small Gathering, presented by the company in their own online festival, Where You Are. Three performers – company co-director Nir Paldi and regular collaborators Deb Pugh and Charlotte Dubery, ably aided and abetted by sound designer Sam Halmarack and director George Mann – each present their own word-free take on isolation. Nir’s alter-ego is a nightmarishly lurid gent, Mr Pink, replete with popping eyes and a whole succession of fears and obsessions, including lascivious hand-washing with a very slippery bar of soap – Paldi using his admirable mime skills to bring this darkly funny persona to life. In Rewilding, Deb Pugh finds herself in a parody of normal life as kettles boil and cupboard doors open and shut, the scenario becoming more bizarre as toilet rolls mount up and windows are taped over – eventually leading to an escape bid and a demented dance in the landscape. Cynthia’s Party, by Charlotte Duberry, is a terrifyingly spooky piece, a ritualistic dolls’ tea party in which the clunkily animated china dolls turn on their mistress – echoes here both of Jan Švankmajer and Barbarella. All good stuff!

Emma Frankland: River Adur Duet

Emma Frankland’s River Adur Duet is a beautifully shot outdoor film, commissioned by Farnham Maltings and created with filmmaker Rosie Powell – a performance-to-camera piece that is also an homage to the gorgeous West Sussex landscape surrounding Emma’s home (she lives on a houseboat in Shoreham-by-Sea) – a liminal, in-between kind of place: ‘An estuary. Not land, not sea. Not salt water, not fresh water.’ A large piece of chalk stone is taken from nearby Pyecombe Quarry, ritualistically carried to the water by shaman-woman Emma, who is dressed in layers of trailing skirts weighed down by the water she wades through. The carved rock is immersed in the water, and scrubbed – a celebration of impermanence, of continual change and renewal, chalk dissolving into water to make something new. What has come in for you on this tide, she asks. What do you hope to release? The cinematography is great – long shots of the walk from muddy banks into the flow of the river, then the camera focusing in on Emma’s hands scrubbing the stone in the water, then panning out to take in the interested onlookers peering over the bridge taking photos, or the passers-by walking along the towpath giving a quick glance over to see what’s happening. Really lovely work from the whole team. 

London Artists Projects/Jeremy Goldstein: Truth To Power Café. Photo Kate Holmes

Jeremy Goldstein’s Truth To Power Café is another excellent film – a reworking of ta pre-existing live show that is far more than documentation, being a valid piece of art that stands up on its own merits. It is written and performed by Jeremy and poet Henry Woolf – the latter one of the Hackney Gang of writers and artists that included Jeremy’s father Mick Goldstein and the Nobel Prize laureate Harold Pinter. And there’s a proper filmmaker on board – hurrah! Jen Heyes has a great eye for a good shot. Close to the start, in a smart demob suit, the Film Noir lighting carving out the contours of his face, the camera closes in as Jeremy looks around an empty Conway Hall. It then pans out to lovingly explore the dark corners of this magnificent space – a venue in London’s Red Lion Square holding a longstanding relationship with left-wing politics and free thinking. Carved above the stage: To Thine Own Self Be True. ‘Don’t let go of what you know,’ says Jeremy, ‘Yesterday’s tomorrow is today.’ The dead may be invisible, but they are not absent…  

The piece is a carefully crafted and loving triple-aspected memoir: first of the Hackney Gang, with their left-wing politics, their precocious love of Bunuel and Beckett, and their group antics in post-war London with ‘poems in their pockets and the world up their arse’; then, of Jeremy’s father Mick, including their falling out and the heartbreaking story of the letter sent ‘to patch things up’ which arrived the day Mick died, and was thus never read; and finally, the story of Jeremy’s own personal journey as an activist and artist. We see him in a multitude of guises throughout the film: a winged angel, a red anorak clad activist, an Ian Dury style punk proclaimer, and of course that besuited post-war wide-boy, his father’s son. We also get to meet Henry Woolf, a cheery old East End geezer with a wicked grin, who delivers his own poetry with panache. Watch out, he warns, I’m the genie in the bottle. The film is cleverly edited, with vintage TV/video cut-ups giving us a montage of the Battle of Cable Street, Black Lives Matter protests, ACT UP! demos, and refugee boats coming to shore – thus uniting past and present political concerns and the ongoing history of turmoil and resistance. Another section gives us a block of invited guests speaking to camera, offering their responses to the question: Who has power over you, and what do you want to say to them? A final message, writ large: BLOW OUR TRUMPETS, ANGELS. And so they should… collaborative art-making at its best.

As the year nears its end, we get ever more inventive responses to the need to create work to be received by remote audiences, artists re-interpreting the notion of a shared space. Silvia Mercuriali is the queen of ‘auto-teatro’ having in the past created numerous actor-less theatrical experiences in non theatre spaces, including cafés and supermarkets. Now, she offers us Swimming Home an ‘immersive show in your bathroom’ for which participants are sent a pack that includes swimming goggles and a code to access the instructions and soundtrack. Augusto Corriere – or rather his alter ego, the ‘magician not wizard’ Vincent Gambini – delivered The sky from this window as part of the Edinburgh Magic Festival, a 15-minute piece that happens over the phone, and includes ruminations on the nature of reality, the connectedness of all things, and the unlikeliness of finding a double-headed coin in the street. It also, fulfilling its obligation to be a magic show and not just a show about the magic of everyday life, includes a mighty fine trick in which Gambini correctly guesses the number you have revealed from calculations that involve your birth date and secret pin number… 

Murmuration Arts: Nightlight Lullabies – The Mother’s Voice at Leonardslee Illuminated. Photo Ray Gibson

Meanwhile, what of actual live performance? Is anything happening out there? Not a lot. Even shows commissioned for Christmas runs, created with Covid-19 safeguards firmly in place, have the rug pulled out from underneath when the revised tier restrictions kick in. Indoor theatre is once again completely grounded.

But there is one beacon of light and hope – outdoor arts. Across the country, a number of magical illuminated gardens open up to visitors. As long as you arrive in household bubbles, stay socially distanced on the paths, and keep moving – you’re OK.  Take Leonardslee Illuminated, for example. Set in a beautifully landscaped park in mid-Sussex, replete with hilly walkways and a grand lake, here be dragons and a whole lot more – including owls, wolves, and bears. Declaration of vested interest: the musician husband, James Foz Foster, has composed the soundscapes and is performing live, fingers freezing nightly as he tackles musical saw, bells and chimes. Elsewhere on site, Bear North give us weird and wonky interpretation of folk art music, dance and European midwinter rituals around the fire-pit, dressed enticingly in bear and rabbit costumes; John Knowles gives us a virtual (or is it actual?) encounter with the legendary Jack, Green Man of the Woods; and Murmuration Arts present their new show Nightlight Lullabies – The Mother’s Voice which features verbatim recordings of mothers’ songs and related experiences with their young babies, emanating from beautifully crafted ‘cradles’ hanging from trees; and from across the lake, on which gently float a half dozen or so moses baskets, the archetypal Mother herself, replete in a flowing star-spangled nightgown, soothing the audience with softly sung lullabies.

Oh what a joy to experience live performance – to be outdoors on a cold and frosty evening, with a flask of mulled juice (with a dash of rum, natch), promenading through a beautiful space, serenaded by bears and dragon-masters and magical mothers… 

Let’s hope there will be more – much, much more – in 2021.  

Leonardslee Illuminated, featuring James Foz Foster. Photo Ray Gibson

Images credits, top to bottom:

Featured image (top) Leonardslee Illuminated (live outdoor arts). Photo Ray Gibson; Nando Messias: Aurora (live on Zoom); Split Britches: The Last Gasp (Zoom). Photo Christa Holka; David Hoyle: The Grand Auction of My Life (live on Zoom). Photo Lee Baxter; Ad Infinitum: A Small Gathering. Nir Paldi as Mr Pink (short film); London Artists Projects / Jeremy Goldstein: Truth To Power Café (written by Jeremy Goldstein and Henry Woolf, directed by Jen Heyes). Photo Kate Holmes; Murmuration Arts: Nightlight Lullabies – The Mother’s Voice at Leonardslee Illuminated (live outdoor arts). Photo Ray Gibson; James Foz Foster at Leonardslee Illuminated. Photo Ray Gibson.

Total Theatre in the Age of Covid – Part Two

Dorothy Max Prior chronicles the year that turned out to be – well, different to expected. Part two takes us from June to September 2020

Midsummer 2020. There’s hope in the air. Covid-19 case numbers and deaths are falling, lockdowns are easing, life is returning to – well, not normal but a ‘new normal’ (another of those phrases that soon became a cliché, along with ‘stay safe’ and ‘keep your distance’). 

We wash our hands constantly, we stay two metres apart from people, we have socially distanced picnics in our garden or local park, we walk around wearing masks – homely paisley hand-mades, functional white disposables, cool sporty black, or fancy high-fashion sequins, or what you will. There’s talk of theatres re-opening soon: in fact, it’ll take a month or two more – they stay very low on the list of priority industries, and when they do open it is after five months dark. The internet is awash with campaigns to persuade the government to give more support to independent theatre-makers and other artists. In the first week of July, there’s a big government investment of £157 billion announced for the theatre industry – this is welcomed, but there is a worry about how much will be swallowed up in maintaining buildings rather than supporting artists. A few days later, theatres and other venues across the land are lit by night in luscious red lights to highlight the plight of the sector. 

Significantly, many individual artists and theatre companies are given emergency grants from Arts Council England and other funding bodies, allowing them at the very least to stay afloat, and at best to carry on with some creative work. For some, this support means just taking a breather and looking to re-positioning their work for 2021; for others, it’s about using the money to make new work or transpose some aspects of existing work into online experiences – with greater or lesser degrees of success.

Usually in the summer months, I’d be racing round the country with a suitcase full of frills and furbelows, entertaining the good people of Brighton, Norwich, Stockton, Winchester, Hull, Stoke or wherever else with outdoor shows and interactive dance events (such as the Ragroof Tea Dance) as my Dorothy’s Shoes alter-ego. Or perhaps presenting a site-responsive show in a car-park, or wherever. I’d also be donning my Total Theatre hat to review work seen at the major summer fests, such as Brighton Festival, Norfolk & Norwich, LIFT and Greenwich + Docklands Festival. And by late June, I’d normally also be working my way through the great big telephone directory that is the Edinburgh Fringe brochure, organising accommodation and travel, liaising with Total Theatre writers and with the Total Theatre Awards producers about their plans. May to September is traditionally my busiest time of the year – juggling all of my hats constantly. Not this year. 

As mentioned in part one of this 2020 chronicle, the spring lockdown lulled me into a very different mental state – I found myself more interested in listening to the birds in Hollingbury Woods or watching the waves on Brighton Beach than in tuning in to see screened theatre performances – a feeling exacerbated by a complete exhaustion with Zoom (I was now teaching three days a week on this platform, as well as all the meetings and social interactions). I know I’m not alone in feeling that the last thing I wanted to do at the end of the day was open up the computer again to stare at a screen.

But I had to admit that the big bellyful of theatre that I’d ingested in January and February, in both the UK and Brazil, together with the sense of loss the cancellation of the spring festivals brought – I was especially mourning hometown Brighton  Festival, and perennial favourite Norfolk and Norwich Festival – left me feeling a little bit hungry for some new theatre experiences. And with the venues still dark in July, it would seem it had to be online (whilst acknowledging that some of the Outdoor Arts community were making some live outdoor performance happen). 

What interested me was seeing what people with a history of innovative thought around both content and form might do with an online platform. Hopefully, something more than just plonking a pre-existing show online.

Tim Crouch: I Cinna (The Poet)

 Enter stage left – Tim Crouch. When news came that he was re-working I, Cinna (The Poet) for Zoom, I signed up. If anybody can crack this, Tim can, I thought. And he didn’t disappoint. He is live, in the space. We are live, at home but here at the same time, not watching a pre-recorded show. Already I’m starting to muse on the shifting definition of theatre, from a shared space to a shared time. The show is set up in conference mode (oh, all these Zoom terms, suddenly so familiar). We, the audience, are here but can’t see each other. But we can click on the little hand icon or suggest questions through the Q&A option, joining in at given moments. The play (one of a series that includes I, Malvolio and I, Peasebottom) deconstructs Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, re-telling key moments of the play from the perspective of Cinna the poet – who is not to be confused with that other Cinna, the conspirator – and expanding  Cinna’s role from a minor character to the centre of the (in)action. What use is a poet in times of political and social upheaval, is the question at the heart of the piece. What use are words?

On our screens, we see a stark room, like a police interview room, or one of those unloved spare rooms in a school or other institution. Watching Tim/Cinna filmed in his confinement feels a bit like watching CCTV footage. We are with him, live, witnessing his distress, but we can’t intervene. A formica table, a chair, a kettle. ‘I won’t go out today, not to those streets’ says Cinna. He is neither agitated nor morose, but there is an edge, a sense of danger. Outside is dangerous. Stay home. Oh yes, so perfect for our times! He comes close to the camera as he speaks, looks us straight in the eye, moves back. The piece is elegantly directed, beautifully delivered. We think of Beckett, where every physical action and every pause is perfectly choreographed. ‘I won’t go out again today,’ he says, brandishing a chicken. ‘I will live quietly in the shadows – make soup.’  He talks of the city holding its breath. Later, he says ’I am silent and I am scared’. Together, we write poetry. We make art from words. Word-pictures. ’Think of words as a republic’ he says. ‘All made of the same 26 letters, all equal’ But are they? All equal? This is a show about the power of words. Some words can get you killed. While the kettle boils in real time, we do a quiz, of sorts: ‘I would die for…’ ‘I would kill for…’ Some share their answers. Children are mentioned a lot. We see footage of real-life Black Lives Matter protests and the news of Ceasar’s assassination, delivered as if it had just happened. Maybe it had. What is time, after all? What is real, and what is pretend? Are they allowed to show that, asks Cinna. A man’s death live on TV – are they allowed to show that?  I dreamt this, says Cinna the Poet. I dreamt this. And he steps outside the door.

With the ante for online performance well and truly upped by Tim Crouch, I have an appetite for more. A week or so later, in August, come Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari (of Shunt fame) with A Conversation – an interrogation of Ethel Cotton’s 60-year-old etiquette course on the art of conversation, performed live ‘from the heart of London’s West End’ as part of the Electric Dreams Online Festival. Like Tim Crouch’s I Cinna, the show had previously existed as a regular live play. As is usual with their work, the show is performed by Nigel and directed by Louise. Richard Williamson, who designed the lighting for both the original show and this new version, had another crucial role – creating the digital platform it used for its live broadcast (the company were determined to make something that was ‘more than just a Zoom call.’). When you book your place, you say whether you want front or back row seats. Nigel is there onstage in the beautiful site that is the Stone Nest Welsh Chapel. Using an advanced modification called ZoomOSC, plus other technical wizardry, the screen we see has Nigel in the middle, with a ‘picture frame’ surround of little postage-stamp squares, each showing a ‘front row’ person in it (the front row are told when they book that they will need to keep their camera on, and are invited to bring along drinks – Nigel’s tipple of choice will be a G&T, we learn). 

This is an interactive performance, and in scenes that invite the audience in, we have up to four people in Nigel’s space: two on traditional screens set within the theatre space; one on an iPad in Nigel’s hand; and one projected onto the rough stone wall behind him. It is completely magical, particularly the moments where people suddenly ‘jump’ into his space from the picture frame surround. Nigel recites verbatim sections from Ethel Cotton’s guidance on how to hold a conversation. Some of these seem extraordinarily dated (those relating to race and gender, say); some right of the moment (those relating to kindness and consideration of others, say). The words are placed in dialogue with visual images/physical actions, as Nigel dons wigs, frocks, topcoats, hats, and other accoutrements, becoming a whole ensemble of personae. Endeavouring to further the art of conversation, he engages the front row in exchanges about holiday highlights, notable birthdays, and exciting adventures. Sky-diving! Pot-holing! These are later re-enacted as he feeds back people’s words to them, now worked into odd little theatrical monologues. A wondrous show – and probably the cleverest use of Zoom any of us are likely to encounter.

The thing that the above two shows share for me is both their inventive use of Zoom, and the fact that I hadn’t seen the previous ‘live onstage to live audience in auditorium’ versions (you can see I’m struggling to find the vocabulary for what we previously just called ‘theatre’). I also, around this time, got to experience a reworked version of a show previously seen live: 1927’s Roots, which was presented as a Radio 3 broadcast, commissioned as part of the BBC/ACE Culture in Quarantine season. Oddly, re-named as Decameron Nights, and even more oddly, labelled as and broadcast in The Essay slot – why? Suzanne Andrade’s stories work very well on the radio, paired with Lilian Henley’s reworked sound compositions. But I did so much miss Paul Barrett’s animations, and the fabulous array of unusual instruments played by the performer/musicians in the stage version. So I felt it didn’t completely work for me – but I am sure that for those who hadn’t seen the show previously, the three episodes would stand alone well as audio pieces.

Eva Yerbabuena & Company: Carne y Hueso

So now we are in August – theatres start to tentatively open their doors, but this is little more than a theoretical change for many, as there is nothing that can be programmed in on such short notice. Many traditionally have nothing in-house in August, when the whole theatre world would normally be in Edinburgh. The stop/start, will they/won’t they manner in which the re-opening has been, ahem, ‘managed’ by our dear government means that most are struggling to know what to do and how to do it. Meanwhile, Eat Out to Help Out is launched, to bolster up the struggling restaurant sector. It’s debatable whether offering reduced costs to people who would have gone out as soon as they were allowed to anyway is a good use of government money –  but it does seem to give the country a boost, and the streets and bars and restaurants are filling up again with merry revellers. Some theatre folk start up a Seat Out to Help Out campaign, to encourage the government to similarly boost theatre by offering a free seat for every bought seat.

But I miss all this. I’m in Spain – for yes, the musician husband is back playing flamenco guitar in Andalusia, and I’ve gone along for the ride. It’s a very different world. The major festivals have cancelled their 2020 editions, yes – but galleries and theatres are open, and fairly well attended. Masks are worn by everybody, everywhere – indoors and outdoors, even on the beach. In all my time there, I see only two people unmasked: a very old gypsy gentleman with brown leather skin and flowing white locks, walks unchallenged from his cave in the Sacromonte hills,through the Albayzin; and emerging from the famous squat next to the Plaza Joe Strummer, a hardcore ageing punk in combats strides briskly down the street sans mask. Although he may well have had a mask in his pocket, as here it’s no mask, no entry to shops or on to buses. No exceptions. It’s great to be seeing and hearing live performance nightly – outdoor flamenco music and dance in Granada replacing indoor fringe theatre in Edinburgh for this particular August. I get to see one theatre show. Legendary dancer and choreographer Eva Yerbabuena’s Carne y Hueso is the closing event for a season of work dedicated to Granada’s most famous citizen, Federico Garcia Lorca, in the Summer Nights with Lorca festival at the Generalife, a magnificent outdoor space that is part of the Alhambra complex. It’s a dance-theatre piece that is focused around flamenco (of course) – traditional dance and song, but with a theatrical structure using all the mores of contemporary scenography to create a visually beautiful piece of work, in which solo figures, duets, trios, quartets or the whole ensemble of singers, dancers and musicians come in or out of frame through shifting lighting states; or move in and out of mathematically precise patterns and groupings; the percussive sounds of feet, hands or instruments setting the pace and evoking moods and images of conviviality or conflict; the three talented and very different singers telling the story, on their own or in dialogue with Yerbabueno and the other dancers. 

Back in Blighty, post quarantine (which is bizarre, as Spain is safer than the UK, all things considered – who is being shielded from whom, we wonder, but we do as we’re told, even if others don’t) we note that Brighton’s seafront has grown a new outdoor venue: The Warren, a regular Brighton Fringe fixture, has moved from May to August/September, and from its usual space inland to the beach. This is interesting for a number of reasons – not least because they’ve broken away from the Fringe, who have messed everybody around rather by refusing to properly cancel the Fringe in May, ‘postponing’ it and moving it to October 2020 (but where does that leave May 2021, we all asked). The major venues, including The Warren and The Brighton Spiegeltent, didn’t go along with this let’s-move-to-October notion, so we now have an oddly fragmented Fringe sector in Brighton. No one quite knows what will happen next. 

Upswing: Catch Me. Photo Dave Pickens

Not only, but also: one of UK’s most established outdoor arts festivals, Greenwich + Docklands, shows the world that their gamble in going ahead, by switching from June to August/September, had paid off. I missed it all, being in quarantine until mid-September, but this is an important milestone, so I report vicariously from the company’s website: 

Reimagined to facilitate social distancing, the festival saw over 150 performances and welcomed over 20,000 people over three weeks. With an emphasis on UK artists, commissions included 846 Live, a co-production with Theatre Royal Stratford East created in response to the murder of George Floyd. Luke Jerram’s In Memoriam was an installation of flags made from bed sheets, created in memory of those lost in the Covid-19 pandemic; and Bernardine Evaristo’s The Weavers of Woolwich brought a people’s history of Woolwich right up to the present day, presenting it on a giant illuminated book. Many artists and companies adapted productions to accommodate social distancing. These included Upswing’s Catch Me, an intergenerational circus and contemporary dance duet exploring isolation with the use of a Perspex screen; and Mimbre’s To Untouch which replaced the company’s traditional close-contact acrobatics with movement which evoked the emotional and physical sensation of touch.

Raising the Spirits at The Rose Hill

I emerge blinking into the world post-quarantine as the days shorten, to witness one of my favourite venues in Brighton, The Rose Hill, announce a new event – Raising the Spirits. Opening their doors mid-September for the first time since March, the Rose Hill’s show is a new audio-visual interactive installation by artists-in-residence Jim Sanders (visual artists and sculptor/installation maker), Abraham Moughrabi (producer and sound designer), film maker Iloobia, and creative technologist Benedict Sheehan. Raising the Spirits invites us to enter an Otherworld ‘where the sights, sounds and smells take you on an immersive journey through your subconscious’. As we arrive we are greeted, given a glass of what appears to be mulled wine enriched with a healthy dash of herbs, and then sent into the space to wander alone (or with our companions if we’ve come in a bubble). A real fire burns in the hearth, emitting strange intoxicating woody smells, as projected flames dance on the walls. Jim Sanders’ trademark totem-pole sculptures command the space. Figures obscured by whole-body masks made of what seem to be shredded natural materials and fabric strips – so they resemble straw bears or other strange folk creatures – are lurking in the darkness. Are they mannequins? Ah no, they are real… In a back room, Iloobia’s films are projected onto the ceiling, a riot of ever-changing shapes and images, in a palette of black, white and blood-red; Abraham Moughrabi’s intense soundscape pulling us in. On the floor are two ceremonial masks. Should we pick them up? They seem to be inviting us to… It feels thrilling to be back into the world of live art. Zoom can do many things, but it can’t make up for the lack of taste, smell and touch – and the visceral experience of being in an actual 3-D space.

It feels like things are on the up, with theatres and galleries opening up, artists once again meeting in real space to work together, companies forming bubbled rehearsals for new shows in progress, film and TV production stepping up to fulfil delayed schedules. 

There are some warning signs that Covid cases are rising again, following all the opening up that has been happening. But still. We’re on the up, yes? We can see light at the end of the tunnel.

The Rose Hill artist-led venue in Brighton

Image credits, top to bottom:

Featured image (top): Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari: A Conversation, performed live on Zoom+; Tim Crouch: I Cinna (the Poet), performed live on Zoom; Eva Yerbabuena: Carne y Hueso, live onstage at Generalife/Alhambra, Granada; Upswing: Catch Me, live outdoors at Greenwich + Docklands International Festival. Photo Dave Pickens; Jim Sanders, Abraham Moughrabi, Iloobia, and Benedict Sheehan: Raising the Spirits, live installation/interactive performance at the Rose Hill, Brighton.

Total Theatre in the Age of Covid – Part One

Dorothy Max Prior chronicles the year that turned out to be – well, different to expected. Part one takes us from January to June 2020

Early March 2020. The man sitting next to me on the overnight flight from São Paulo to London Heathrow is wearing a mask. Bit excessive, I think. Must be something to do with that new flu thing.

You’ll have to forgive me – I’d been in Brazil since the end of January, and the news there is mostly limited to what’s happening in Brazil. It’s an enormous country and very little of anything beyond its borders, with just a nod to the rest of the Americas, makes it into the newspapers or onto the news broadcasts. I’d tuned into BBC Sounds a few times and accidentally caught a news bulletin that had mentioned rising cases of this new coronavirus, Covid-19, in Italy. And Facebook friends living in China had posted about being quarantined, unable to go out other than to buy food or medicines. That’s a bit harsh, I think. Good job we don’t live in China! 

So I landed in London in a state of ignorance. 

Five weeks earlier, I’d left the UK on the day we’d left the EU – 31 January 2020. In fact, at 11.59 I’d glanced at the flight map and noted that the plane was just leaving the western-most tip of Portugal – we were literally leaving Europe. Hey ho! I felt glad to be escaping Britain, and what would no doubt be the news story that would dominate early 2020. 

Backtrack to the weeks before that, and 2020 had started the way it often does, with a Xmas and New Year run of the latest show by multi-media company 1927, at The Old Market venue in Hove – this time, it’s Roots, which premiered the previous summer at the Edinburgh International Festival 2019. What a pleasure to see this show again – a return to the company’s ‘poetic sketch’ format, with a number of reworked folk tales (all with a nasty twist) animated beautifully by Paul Barrett, with spoken word soundtracks that included the voice of not only company founder/director Suzanne Andrade but also brilliant guests such as Kazuko Hohki of Frank Chickens fame. The live performer–musicians take composer Lilian Henley’s music into new adventures, using a fabulous array of unusual instruments. Well, that’s a good way to start the year – a year no doubt due to be filled with all sorts of fabulous live theatre.  

January continued, as it always did, with the month-long London International Mime Festival 2020. Some of the highlights included an intergenerational circus-theatre show about family relationships, This Time from Ockham’s Razor; a multi-media exploration of a fantasy love-affair with a kangaroo man, ROOMAN by Fleur Elis Noble; a show in which a musician and a puppeteer dance with death, La Pendue’s Tria Fata; a pair of clowns trapped in a cardboard world, Coulrophobia by Opposable Thumb, Dik Downey’s new company; and a darkly disturbing dance-theatre exploration of childhood, Peeping Tom’s Child, the third in their ‘family’ trilogy. And these are just a few of the fabulous shows that were presented. As always, I felt enormous gratitude to have such a marvellous programme of top-notch international physical and visual performance brought to us by LIMF. My theatre belly felt so full, I could almost live off of it all year. 

And the feast continued in Brazil.

In São Paulo city, the 34th biennale was about to launch, with a year-long exhibition, installation and performance season called Faz escuro, mas eu canto (Though it’s Dark, Still I Sing), the title taken from a line of verse by the Amazonian poet Thiago de Mello. The curatorial starting point was a desire to bring together a large number of artists to explore the notion of finding light in the darkness of oppression and confinement. The original intention was a focus on colonialism and the legacy of slavery – but as time went by throughout 2020, it took on other meanings informed by both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. The opening event, on 8 February 2020, gave us South African sound artist Neo Muyanga’s A Maze in Grace, the enormous space of the Fundação Bienal gallery taken over by a chorus of forty Afro-Brazilian artists and musicians who processed through the space and through the crowds singing Amazing Grace over and again, with varying tones and emphases. Composed by English slaver-turned-abolitionist John Newton, the song was reinterpreted as an emblem of the Civil Rights Movement in mid-twentieth century America by gospel greats such as Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. It was a favourite both with slaves and with their church-going slave-masters, so has multiple resonances. The chorus then erect a giant ‘ship’, the sails of which which become the screen for the projection of Muyanga’s linked video installation (this co-commissioned by Liverpool Biennale).   

I was there in Brazil wearing the hat of my performance alter-ego Dorothy’s Shoes, to make a new processional street theatre show called Hen Party: A Parada Delas, which was inspired both by the British tradition of hen parties (the idea of which causes great bemusement to my Brazilian friends) and by feminist texts, both classic and contemporary, including the recent publication ‘Feminism for the 99%’. Created in collaboration with Marilia Ennes of ParaladosanjoS, it set out to celebrate the Femme spirit in people of all genders. and brought together professional and community artists in a joyful journey through streets, bars and parks. We did a work-in-progress showing in Barão Geraldo, a district in Campinas SP, and got the support of a number of festivals on board, with a British Council funding application done, and plans to develop it in October 2020. It was just a start, a mere one month’s work, but it felt good to get the year’s performance work started… I was looking forward to coming back to Brazil after the busy summer season of UK festivals had finished.

Meanwhile, Campinas was celebrating its annual Feverestival – so I had another bellyful of great international theatre to digest. From Rio de Janeiro came the Black Brazilian company Coletivo Preto with Cia de Teatro Intimo. Their collaboration, Negra Palavra Solano Trindade, explored the experiences and self-identities of young Black males, using the words of renowned Brazilian poet Solano Trindade, combined with ensemble physical theatre, street dance, and live music. Feverestival also brought us the immersive and messy Inauguration Party by Teatro de Concreto, which investigates ‘the act of destroying, reconstructing and producing narratives as a constant cycle in the history of mankind’. We are invited to crunch through pieces of broken statues; watch the actors voice found texts, manipulate toy dinosaurs, and simulate sex with tables; then contribute to the destruction of the (plaster) set with hammers. The notion of lost worlds, destroyed civilisations, archeological layers exposed, and the never-ending cycle of creation and destruction in the world felt both of the moment and timeless.   

Then, there was the wonderful Renata Carvalho with her solo autobiographical piece Manifesto, exploring her journey as a trans woman. I’d previously seen her give a wonderful performance in the Brazilian version of Jo Clifford’s The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven

A great festival programme – but the best was last: from Mexico came the brilliant Vaca 35 Teatro, with Josefina La Gallina Puso Un Huevo en la Cocina, featuring one of that country’s greatest physical theatre performers,  Jose Rafael Flores, who played all characters (yes, including the eponymous Josefina the hen), and created onstage sparks with musician Alberto Rosas, playing call-and-response with each other; the words, music and physical action creating a fabulous conflagration of theatrical brilliance.

Feverestival ends; Carnival begins. I stagger through exhausted. I’ve made a new show, and done a month of festival shows – of course I’m tired. But this tired? I spend the first couple of days in Barão Geraldo, enjoying the wonderful local samba ensembles Cuipinzeiro and Altaneira – all the usual exuberance of durational performance as the troupes process through the streets from 5pm till 2am (although I bow out by 11pm). The samba troupe – a small band, a large bateria of drummers/percussionists, and accompanying dancers – are of course the main focus, but there’s also the flag-twirlers, the stilt-walkers, and the animated objects and giant puppets. Outdoor arts at its best. Foolishly perhaps, given how tired I am, I fly over to Rio for a few days. Why so tired, I wonder again as I clamber up and down the steep streets of Santa Teresa for Mardi Gras, and for the following day’s Me Enterra na Quarta bloco – the name meaning translates as ‘bury me on Wednesday’ and is a reference to Ash Wednesday, the holy day after Mardi Gras when Carnival has supposedly ended and Lent begun. The diehards party on, and I’m there – hours of being propelled along in a sweaty crush of thousands of people, pulling out occasionally to take a break with a beer. Eventually I’m too tired to move, and I stagger home with friend Joelson to his Lapa house. I fall asleep, awake in a deep fever, and then sleep another 12 hours. I sleep some more, I sweat some more. I have extraordinary dreams. I’m eventually diagnosed with dengue fever – and only just get myself ‘signed off’ in time to travel back to the UK. 

Arriving at Heathrow, still weak, with a cough (not a dengue symptom – so plane flu, then?) I’m greeted by a phone call from my eldest son. Go straight home, he says. (Of course – what else would I do after a 12-hour flight with a heavy suitcase in tow?) Go home, stay home. Why? There’s a pandemic on its way to the UK – haven’t I seen the news from Italy? Well no, actually. You need to go home and self-isolate, he says. We’re about a month behind Italy, following the same pattern. You’re old (!), you’ve been ill (true), and you’re vulnerable. Really? I promise I’ll be good. 

Of course, I wise up soon enough, jolted out of my ignorance by the barrage of information and mis-information in newspapers, on the radio, online. My friends from ParaladosanjoS – whose circus-theatre show Nini’s Hair I’m going to bring to Brighton Spiegeltent in May – message to say that Virgin Atlantic have cancelled their new flight route to Heathrow, and that their London friends have said there’s a lot of panic about rising cases of this Covid-19 illness. Not here in Brighton, I reply. Safe as houses, no panic. But it is odd – all my company’s bookings (I produce and direct outdoor arts shows and interactive dance events) for the UK festival season have come to a halt I have April and May gigs in the calendar but nothing for June onwards. Hmmm….  Will the Brighton Fringe go ahead, ask my Brazilian colleagues. Of course, I say – book another flight.

Things change daily in March – it’s hard to know what’s going on, and what it all means. A week after arriving back in Blighty, on 12 March, England moves from the ‘contain’ phase to embrace a new ‘delay’ policy. Nothing to see here, it’s all going to be fine, is the vibe. We’ll sort it, and sort it soon, you’ll see. My musician husband is in Spain. There’s a lockdown here, he says, they are taking it all very seriously. Police patrolling the streets. 

Oh, these unfamiliar words, that trip so awkwardly off the tongue – pandemic, lockdown, self-isolate. 

A week or so later, everything has shifted again. Brighton Festival and Fringe have cancelled. Norfolk & Norwich Festival (also in May) take a bit longer to make the decision, but soon they’ve cancelled too. One by one, over the coming days and weeks, every major festival in the UK cancels or postpones – other than Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, one of the beacons of the Outdoor Arts season, who are determined to go ahead, moving all activity from late June to August. Oh and the Edinburgh Fringe, which despite the Edinburgh International Festival cancelling are holding on to the idea that they might be able to make some sort of Fringe programme happen – August is a long way off, after all. The flamenco-playing husband is ferried home on an Easy Jet emergency flight from Granada to Gatwick. 

By Friday 20 March, we’ve entered lockdown. Theatres go dark. Galleries, concert halls, pubs and clubs close. People can’t gather anywhere, not even outdoors. Like everybody else I know, I lose all performance work: all my confirmed and pencil bookings are wiped off  the calendar, not just for the summer festival season, but even the indoor bookings for autumn and winter. We just don’t know, say the bookers. We’ll get back in touch when we do.

Now what? We sit and wait it out. It’ll be around 12 weeks, say our government. Sorted.

Once I’m over the shock of all the performance work cancellations – and the tedium of all the funding applications for ACE emergency support, and for the minuscule crumbs in the form of commissions that everyone else is also applying for – I settle down to the ‘new normal’ as it gets called. Luckily, I’m a writer. I write. I read. I read. I write. There’s this thing called Zoom. I set up classes to teach on Zoom. Writing not dancing. No way am I dancing on Zoom.

Now it’s early April. Case numbers and deaths hit a horrible peak over the Easter weekend. The Edinburgh Fringe has finally conceded that it can’t go ahead. All the major theatres are now falling over themselves to offer us online content. The National Theatre gives us a season of big hits. I watch One Man, Two Guvnors. A film of a theatre show. Documentation, not art. Performed by people who are acting to a live audience, not acting to camera. It just doesn’t work – not for me, anyway. It’s a facsimile of theatre. And it’s not film – there’s no cinematographic skills involved here. I watch some of Sadler’s Wells Pina Bausch films – Palermo Palermo, and Rite of Spring. These are better – good documentation of a live event, at least. 

But it’s not what I need right now. If I can’t have real live theatre, I’ll opt for theatre of the mind – novels – and for actual film rather than filmed theatre. Film, a medium in which people who are trained to perform to camera do so, within a scenographic context forged by someone who knows how to create a mis-en-scene on film. Oh, and the live web cam from the Wolf Conservation Center in upstate New York. That too.

I walk, I garden, I try to bake cakes and fail. I read, I write, I teach. I listen to Radio 3. I do yoga and Pilates and Feldenkrais on Zoom. I watch the wolves. I walk to the woods. The birds are nesting, here and in my garden, and in the local parks – singing louder than they have ever done, or so it seems. The skies are the bluest of blue, with no vapour trails to tear the blue veil apart. The moon waxes and wanes. Life goes on. April becomes May. Our local coffee shop re-opens – for take-aways only, but still. Oh, the joy of a take-away cappuccino, drunk in the local park to the sound of birdsong. It feels like such a luxury, so exciting, so dramatic a shift. The theatre of life goes on.

May becomes June. The elderflower tree in the garden out-performs itself, overflowing with blooms – I’ve never made elderflower cordial before, but I find out it is easy, and now there is cordial for any one who can be bothered to walk up to our house to collect it. We get eggs delivered to the door from a local farm. We continue to get our fruit and veg delivered. We cook every day, three times a day. I walk down to the seafront once a week. The sea is its own wonderful self, always. Constant, and constantly changing. It ebbs and flows. Waves roll or crash onto the shore. It’s a theatre show that doesn’t care a jot about whether humans are there to witness it or not. The seagulls ignore me. They’ve given up on instant fast food, and have learnt to fish for their supper, rather than wait for it to appear in a rubbish bin, wrapped in paper. They are now roosting in their scores under Brighton Pier, and as I watch them diving down into the waves, I muse on the fact that some of those young birds have forgotten what chips are, if they ever knew. The tide comes in, the tide goes out. 

Who needs theatre when you have all this? 

Actual theatre – making it, watching it – seems like a distant memory. My Total Theatre inbox is chock-a-block with invitations to online theatre performances. I ignore them all. I’m enjoying the peace and quiet, and the email cacophony irritates me. 

I bide my time.

Images, top to bottom:

Featured image: Neo Muyanga: A Maze in Grace, part of Faz escuro, mas eu canto/ Though it’s Dark, Still I Sing for São Paulo’s 34th biennale.

1927: Roots at TOM, Brighton & Hove.

Renata Carvalho: Manifesto at Fevrestival, Campinas, São Paulo state.

Me Enterra Na Quarta bloco, Rio de Janeiro Carnival.

Pina Bausch: Rite of Spring, filmed performance at Sadler’s Wells.

Neo Muyanga: A Maze in Grace, part of Faz escuro, mas eu canto/ Though it’s Dark, Still I Sing for São Paulo’s 34th biennale.