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

Boom!

Boomtown Fair is more than a music festival with a bit of performance tacked on – it’s a full-on five-day immersive theatre event which invites you in to a living, breathing, fictitious city. Dorothy Max Prior talks to the festival’s narrative director Doug Francisco, to performer Ciaran Hammond, and to ‘citizen’ Frank Foster-Prior to hear their individual stories

‘A world of unity, creativity and freedom is what we aspire to achieve from our make-believe city’ says the Boomtown website. Founded in 2009, and set in the beautiful surroundings of the South Downs National Park in Hampshire, the festival titles each edition with a chapter number – emphasising Boomtown as an ongoing narrative. The 2019 edition, held 7–11 August, was called Chapter 11: A Radical City – festival attendees are encouraged to see themselves as ‘citizens’.

The ‘city’ is made up of distinct districts which have evocative names, such as Oldtown, Paradise Heights, Metropolis, and Copper County. Each district has at least one main stage and a selection of smaller street or theatrical venues, as well as small and medium-sized music venues.

There are also large stage areas (Lion’s Den, Town Centre, and RELIC) which are more like traditional music festival main stages – they accommodate crowds several thousand strong, with vast stage sets at the centre, and food and drink outlets.

 

Boomtown Fair. Photo Charlie Raven

 

Each of the ‘districts’ has its own narratives and characters, made up from a massive pool of theatre companies, circus performers, and installation artists that help with the unravelling of a city-wide grand narrative which comes to a finale on the last day: ‘In following a particular mission or quest, audiences can traverse the entire festival, travelling between high-tech utopias, to a reconstruction of the Wild West, into a holiday land for filthy rich socialites from the 1980s, and finishing up in a cage in a pirate’s den. Interactions they encounter along the way range from intimate one-on-one installations, to helping to stage large outdoor happenings.’ (Boomtown website).

Performer Ciaran Hammond explains further:

‘Boomtown is split into districts which all have their own style and personality. This year, I was working in Paradise Heights, the uptown holiday-home for the uber-elite characters of Boomtown – and there were around 180 immersive actors in our district alone. Each district is comprised of outdoor music stages, and smaller street venues, all of which are styled accordingly to the district they are in. Some of these street venues exist solely for music, whilst others exist solely for the immersive theatre experience. One of our Paradise Heights venues, Villa Avarice, was an immersive venue in which core parts the narrative took place during the daytime, but for the evening it turned into a music venue.’

‘Citizen’ Frank Foster-Prior, who was on his third trip to Boomtown in 2019, wandered through Paradise Heights and describes it thus:

‘Paradise Heights is full of big fancy high-rise hotels and retail outlets… the interaction here is all about becoming an evil capitalist, and ultimately a VIP member of Paradise Heights.’

It even had a weekend-long No Tomorrow conference, in which characters had a ten-minute slot to give an anti-climate change TED talk – as Ciaran put it, ‘basically spouting bizarrely awful and backwards ideas about how to save the world’. Ciaran’s character this year was an evil fracking entrepreneur called Arthur Coalandoyle: ‘Essentially, I was recruiting audience members as think-tanks to help expand my fracking industry throughout Boomtown. I’d push their ideas right up to the limits of the absurd pastiche of consumer capitalism that Paradise Heights was all about, and then pay them accordingly, stating that I now “own you AND your idea”.’

 

Boomtown Fair: Oldtown. Photo Daisy Brassington

 

One of Frank’s favourite areas of Boomtown is the Bohemian Oldtown, with its dark alleys and colourful cast of Carny characters where ‘If you’re not careful you could get a bucket of water emptied over you from an upper window.’

Boomtown’s narrative director, Doug Francisco of The Invisible Circus, explains Oldtown’s key role in the development of the immersive theatre elements of the festival:

‘For Boomtown Chapter 1, The Invisible Circus hosted Oldtown, the city’s first immersive district, where the audience member could jump in and become part of the play – haggling with fishwives, pirates and brigands for clues and ways into hidden rooms, or more intimate theatrical experiences. That element has basically expanded wildly with the scale of the festival and more recently we have made this a city-wide quest where by all the smaller interactions – games, treasure hunts etc – tie into and circulate around the main narrative arc or theme of each year, which is revealed on the main stages as it develops with shows each night, culminating in a climatic cliff-hanger moment on the final night that leads into the next chapter.’

Another area of the festival is Town Centre, where you can find the fictitious city’s centres of government, education and employment. Frank again:

‘There’s a police station, a university, and a job centre with realistic queues, rude clerks and officious security guards. Last year, I went into the job centre and got assigned a job as a musician – I got given a toy flute and told to go out and busk, and had to earn some money to become a “professional” – which I did. This year, I went to the university (the Ivory Towers Academy) and studied art – drew some trees, to represent something that would save the world. I got some points, but “failed”, probably for too much blagging – my friend Emma got pulled off to a separate area and given loads of points and told she was a high achiever!’

 

Boomtown Fair: Metropolis

 

Another of the districts (new in 2018 and developed for 2019) is Metropolis – musically, the home of House and Techno, in sharp contrast to Oldtown’s Balkan Beats and Folk Punk. Frank gives us his impressions:

‘Metropolis is a fancy, shiny city district dedicated to hedonism, the future and new technologies. There’s a Digital Funfair and a disco called Pleasuredome. One of its venues is called Little Pharma, where you can have your brain ‘recalibrated’. You can get attached to machines and be ‘assimilated’. I also went to somewhere that sold alternatives to soil – there was a brand called Zoil, which is supposedly a million times better than soil. I had a job interview to become an executive marketing director, or whatever, but I got kicked out for not looking the CEO in the eye – but Emma got the job! Then there was another area (outside Metropolis) that was all about soil testing, to see if it was safe – actual soil, not Zoil – we were given some edible soil samples…’

The level of interactivity – and the framing of Boomtown Fair as a fictitious city – is indeed unique in the festival world. But there are antecedents. The most obvious example is the theatre, circus and cabaret fields of Glastonbury – where many of the Boomtown creative team cut their teeth, and in some cases still continue to work. One of my favourite Glastonbury areas was Joe Rush and the Mutoid Waste Company’s Trash City, which spawned Arcadia (the later becoming a separate area in 2010). This was built around an enormous and wonder-inducing mechanical structure called the Arcadia Spectacular – a mighty metal monster that spun and pumped out light and sound, animated by live circus performance. At the creative heart of the performance element of Arcadia was Bristol’s Invisible Circus. The company’s artistic director, Doug Francisco, was also a mainstay of another favourite Glastonbury area – Lost Vagueness. This full-on, immersive, and theatrical venture was the size of a small village, and featured the Chapel of Love and Loathe (where guests could get involved in a whole cabaret of rituals, from marriage to divorce, bingo to boxing); the gourmet Silver Service Restaurant – an oasis in the midst of muddy fields; the Ballroom, featuring Come Dancing parodies and ska/punk/gypsy jazz bands – not to mention the casino, roller-disco, launderette, trailer park and sculpture garden. With burlesque and camp Carny elements a-plenty, Lost Vagueness even had an in-house ten-strong Can-Can team, Can-Booty-Can, choreographed by circus star KT Sarabia.

 

Showman Doug Francisco, Boomtown’s Narrative Director. Photo  Andre Pattenden

 

So it is hardly a surprise to learn that Doug has been involved from the very start of Boomtown – and is now narrative director of the event. It is obvious from his work with The Invisible Circus and Boomtown that he has a fascination with the imagery and iconography of traditional circus and fairground, particularly in the ye old worlde travelling circus aesthetic of the Oldtown district, but prevalent throughout the festival.

‘There is such a magic and mystery in circus history – the roving heroes and clowns, daredevils and divas bringing tall tales and curiosities (true or false no matter) from distant lands; its place outside mainstream society, its travelling nature, often rebellious and revolutionary in its way, and also an equality ahead of its time. So it is indeed a rich and ancient tapestry to draw inspiration from, having held everything within its temporary walls at one stage or another. It also has a strong connection to the common people (so to speak) – it always was, and still is, accessible. But you have to respect its tradition as much as be fearless to take it into new dimensions: we were always a bit too contemporary for the traditionalists, and a bit too traditional for the contemporaries, which I loved and still do.’

In Boomtown Fair, there is an outlet to take circus, street theatre, and immersive performance into those fearless new dimensions – away from the restrictions of the regular performance circuits. Here is an audience of people who might never (throughout the rest of the year) go to a show staged in a theatre or circus tent, but are more than happy to be actively engaged in it all within the festival setting. As Boomtown has developed over the years (it is now a well-established fixture on the summer festival circuit), the audience has come with it. Many people return year after year, and some take the donning of costumes – or indeed of fully developed characters – very seriously, and throw themselves fully into the interactive theatre elements. 

Ciaran says: ‘The audiences at Boomtown are the most generous and giving audiences that you’ll find anywhere in the world. Whilst their openness allowed me to test and try new ideas and methods, it also challenged my reflexes. As they’re so into the narratives, games and tasks that are hidden throughout the city, it’s immensely hard to decipher whether some of them are fellow performers or not; the characters that some of the punters come as makes it seem like they’ve been rehearsing all year round (and maybe some of them have!).’

 

Boomtown Fair – performance everywhere!

 

The carnivalesque blurring of roles is something that is at the heart of Boomtown Fair: who is performer, who is guest? Both merge into a total environment, jointly creating a shared fantasy.

This shared fantasy, of course, takes a lot of work to develop. Doug explains what his role as the festival’s narrative director entails:

‘A lot of writing of the kind of top-line titles, threads and briefs that feed into all the other departments and venues; and coming up with the over-arching arc, which I then confirm and develop a bit further with my co-theatrical director Martin Coat from The Dank Parish. We then work with the Boomtown creative producer Mair Morel and co-producers Michelle England and Sophie Shaw to further devise, disseminate and deliver this across the entire festival. So its a collaborative process, but we all have our defined roles and responsibilities.’

And from Ciaran’s perspective as a performer:

‘Within our district, Paradise Heights, we had five venues and each venue had its own director and actors. Each venue team would devise their content, characters and narrative as a team, with direction from an overall district director, to make sure all the venues are connected by a district philosophy. This philosophy is an outlook on the world that all the characters have and the district embodies. The devising process began with discussions around the district’s philosophy and attitude, so that all the venues were united in this. Once this was solidified we started working on immersive tracks and interactions that tied into the festival’s overall narrative and explored the district philosophy. Rehearsals were short and sweet, and focused on developing the key elements. But because the performances are interactive, they are based on what the audience bring to us, so we discovered a lot of the material as we performed it. This meant that we were given a lot of trust as performers to self-direct and devise on-the-go once we were out in the depths of the festival.’

From Frank’s perspective as an audience member:

‘I love exploring all the districts, interacting with the actors in-character, seeing a band of strolling musicians or circus artists go by, and picking up on stories from wandering around and stumbling across things. One of my best experiences was in 2017, my first time, just scouring Boomtown for hours and hours on a Saturday night. You’d go into a side alley, and there’d be your grandma’s house, but there’d be a bunch of people in there having a rave. And sometimes you’d discover something that maybe only five people got to see.’

 

Boomtown Fair Chapter 11, August 2019: Performers? Citizens? Boundaries blurred

 

Frank has been to Boomtown three consecutive years now – on the first two occasions as a regular punter, and in August 2019 on behalf of Total Theatre, to check out the immersive elements of the festival, and to test-drive the new Access AMI app http://accessami.com/ developed to give another dimension to the interactive theatrical elements of the festival, and to turn the experience into something more like a live interactive video game. There have been apps for previous editions of the festival, but AMI (the acronym stands for Artificial Machine Intelligence) is a step up. The growing connection and interaction between digital Alternate Reality Gaming (ARG) and live action  is something that Boomtown is pioneering.

Citizen Frank explains further, from his perspective:

‘At the end of the 2018 festival’s closing show, there was a big story about hackers getting into the system and taking down the government of the city, and now AMI is the answer – she’s been brought in to fix everything. Although we don’t know the exact specifics of who is up to what…’

As the Boomtown website puts it: ‘The mighty Bang Hai Corporation was toppled in the end by its own Machine that could not be stopped! Now omnipresent in all systems, AMI is everywhere. Though life seems to be going on as normal, strange new ecosystems are erupting from the Relic that was formerly the Bang Hai Towers corporate epicentre… Who will save us? No one but ourselves! The time is now to become a player in the game of survival and the most urgent and epic chapter in history. We must become the change we seek!’

Frank picks up on how it all works:

‘You download the Access AMI app, and there’s a map of Boomtown and all the different locations, the districts – like Copper County or Oldtown. They each have an icon, and you click on it, and there’ll be something, a snippet of news, a hint of what’s going on, and you go to the area – say, for example, it’s Copper County, where there was a storyline about an explosion. You had to ask around to find out what had happened – the actors are all in character, in period costume, and you have to try to get the information out of them. So we saw a broken window, some broken machinery… and there’s a QR code in the broken window, which you scan to get your point and move you along in the game. So every district you go to, there are these interactive performance elements, linked to an evolving story… ‘

And the AMI app is not the only digital support for the story – clues, riddles, characters and storylines also play out on other platforms, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook; and via websites, podcasts, and VR. So there are multiple sources of narrative within Boomtown, virtual and otherwise, as Frank explains:

‘There’s a newspaper, an actual physical newspaper, which is “in ‘character” talking about the districts and the storyline. You can piece together bits of information from the newspaper, from shows and interactions in districts and venues, and from AMI and other sources, to work out what’s happening. I feel I lost track after  a while… But some people are really on the ball and follow everything.’

And this is the point, and what is marvellous about it all – you can ignore the app and just wander about; you can dip in and out of the app; or you can follow the game fastidiously, amassing points till completion. A quick glance at any social media outlet will bring up thousands of posts about AMI and Boomtown, with people picking up clues and sharing their progress.

Frank, though, has some reservations:

‘Because the app is highlighted as being so important to the narrative this year, and is telling you to go find things – you have to get five scan codes, say – it all becomes more task-driven.’ He also feels that the prominence of the new app has shifted how people behave in the venues: ‘There’s this cult of the snake god storyline – I went into the venue where there was a ceremony for the snake god, and instead of staying part of the ritual, people were chatting about finding codes…’

 

The ever-present AMI: who’s controlling whom? Photo  Andre Pattenden

 

Interestingly, the fact that Frank is a dedicated video gamer makes him less inclined, rather than more inclined, to appreciate AMI:

‘I love gaming, but I never really liked the whole hunting Pokemon thing. I can see that a lot of people really enjoy integrating real life and gaming, but for me I game because I want an escape from the world; to get as far as possible from it. But that’s just me! I can imagine the performers might want a bigger audience for their piece – and there were a lot more people at all the immersive venues in the districts this year – but for those of us who get that unique, unexpected experience, it is amazing. It’s a bit like in Punchdrunk shows when you’re alone down in the basement and get a unique one-on-one encounter. I don’t think you need to force or over-encourage people to discover the interactive elements.’

That small quibble aside, Frank does feel that Boomtown is the best festival experience out there:

‘Boomtown is like a real place – a town rather than a festival – it has its own life. You feel that you are inside a fantasy – like being in the Truman show! You never know what you’ll discover. That’s the side of things I love….’

Doug (who as well as being artistic director of Invisible Circus and narrative director of Boomtown is also the instigator of the Extinction Rebellion-linked Red Rebel Brigade) reminds us that although it is all a fantasy, and fabulous fun, there is an activist intention: ‘Our aim is always to mirror the real world and question the status quo; the commercial domination and environmental consequences – so using theatre to hold that mirror up to the world’.

For Ciaran, the best thing about being a performer at Boomtown is how playful and generous the audiences are: ‘They will rock up with their own fully-formed characters and will do absolutely anything to get through the narrative, which is such a treat as an immersive actor because you can just react to what they bring you, and every audience member creates a completely new and fresh interaction.’

And really, you can’t ask for anything better than that! A truly ‘total’ theatre experience.

 

Featured image (top): Boomtown 2019. Photo Rosa Malcolm.

For more on Boomtown Fair, see www.boomtownfair.co.uk

Boomtown Fair Chapter 12: New Beginnings will take place 12–16 August 2020. Tickets are now on sale.

Boomtown have received funding from Arts Council England to further the development of artists and the immersive elements of the festival.

Boomtown’s Town Centre ‘university’, The Ivory Towers Academy, was created by Bath Spa University students, as part of a scheme developing partnerships between Boomtown and several different universities.

Frank Foster-Prior and his friend Emma attended Boomtown Fair: Chapter 11, A Radical City, 7–11 August 2019, as guests of the festival.

Ciaran Hammond is an actor, director and writer – and a regular contributor to Total Theatre Magazine. He has performed at numerous editions of Boomtown Fair.

Doug Francisco is narrative director of Boomtown and creative director of The Invisible Circus.  www.dougfrancisco.com 

For more on the Red Rebel Brigade www.redrebelbrigade.com

The Invisible Circus are celebrating 20 years of ‘site-specific wonders and acts of creative revolution’. https://invisiblecircus.co.uk/

 

 

Tim Crouch: Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation

We enter the auditorium of the Attenborough Centre, but are led onstage. There’s a double circle of chairs, and bright white light. ‘Don’t sit in the front row!’ someone behind me hisses. ‘They’ll make you join in.’ On each seat is a book.: hardback, plain institutional green, embossed with gold writing that reads: ‘Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation.’ The book looks like a bible or a hymnal. We are a congregation. Someone comes into the circle, a woman – not young, not old – dressed in the sort of sensible clothes you just don’t notice. The lights stay up. Hello, thanks for coming, thanks for being here, she says. Does everyone have a book? We nod, a mumble of ‘yeses’. The book is part of the play, she says. It’s part of the play. Are we ready? OK.

And so off we go – the prologue is done, the page is turned, we travel from page to stage and back again. This is what the play is, a negotiation between reading and watching, in a kind of parody of those outings to see something by Shakespeare in which half the audience members are clutching the playtext, eagerly reading along. Does that happen anymore?

Tim Crouch has never been afraid of the word ‘play’. He writes plays. Playful plays. They are often dark, disturbing, troubling – but always playful. He has fun. He has fun with words; he has fun with theatrical form. He plays with his audience, a cat-and-mouse game provoking them into re-evaluating things. Things like the relationship between belief and scepticism, between ethics and indecency, between truth and lies, between earth-bound fact and airy fantasy.

In this play, the three actors, and sometimes the audience members, read the words of the play aloud from the book. There are pictures in the book that also tell a story. When an actor says ‘OK’ we can turn the page. Sometimes there are words spoken that are not on the page. Sometimes there are physical actions different to those described on the page. The first time this happens it is a jolt. We do a double-take. Did I miss something? Am I on the wrong page? Afterwards, when it is all over, my companion says, it’s amazing isn’t it how easily we became institutionalised. I agree. How quickly we become complicit, disturbed if we see the rules being changed!

The story is of a personal, family tragedy that swells out into a crisis for humanity. It references all those ‘imminent collapse of civilisation’ moments that have plagued us over our lifetimes. War, bombs, famines, floods. Ecological disasters and evangelical dictatorships. It’s all in here. Who’s old enough to remember the three-minute warning; the public information films about using an overturned table to shelter from the imminent nuclear attack? And here we go again with the latest imminent catastrophe. Extinction beckons. What to do, rebels? Tell the truth. But whose truth? The writer’s truth? Each character’s truth? Some sort of indisputable, objective truth that is truly the truth? Yeah, right.

Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation shakes us, stirs us, and leaves us shell-shocked. Using just the power of words, we travel through time and space. No fancy sets or props needed – say it and we’re there. You too can believe six impossible things before breakfast! We’re guided with care through every step of this journey into a parallel world – the world of the play. Tim Crouch is disturbingly messianic in his role of cult leader/father figure/author of the text – offstage for most of the play, but always there in his words; making a Deus Ex Machina appearance towards the end to lead us through the imminent total-eclipse-of-the-sun Rapture moment that he has predicted – or more accurately, pre-ordained with his words. So what happens? Does the world end? Of course not. We’re still here, aren’t we? Although who knows where we might be in fifteen years time… Shyvonne Ahmmad gives a powerful performance as the cult leader’s nervy, wild-eyed daughter Sol, who has grown up believing that nothing can exist outside of The Book. Susan Vidler as her mother Anna (separated from her partner and daughter ten years earlier in an incident called The Breach) gets us on her side quickly – she is both the outsider and the person who initiates our engagement with it, and thus our ally, our representative. Will she rescue Sol from her father’s cult? There is a touch of Gilliam’s Brazil in the heartbreaking escape that isn’t really an escape. Or is it? It has all been directed with precision by longterm Crouch associates Karl James and Andy Smith. The book is beautifully illustrated with pencil sketches by Rachana Jadhav, looking something close to a graphic novel in part; and there is a great sound design by Pippa Murphy – buzzing bees, jet planes, ominous drones and all. The form of the play – this interaction between written/illustrated book, and live performance – is genuinely innovative.

It ends, and we start to leave – slowly, stroking our books before reluctantly placing them back on the chairs. People form small clusters. ‘It’s all a bit too clever-clogs for me’ says one. ‘It’s brilliant, the best thing I’ve ever seen’ says another. ‘It’s slippery’ says the author.

And what is ‘my truth’? Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation is a brilliant, slippery, clever-clogs, and utterly playful play. Virtual reality with no need for fancy headsets. Just bring your reading glasses.

 

Featured image (top): Tim Crouch:Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation. Photo Eoin Carey

 

 

Reach for the Moon – VR in Contemporary Performance and Installation

As more and more artists turn to virtual reality as a medium, Dorothy Max Prior reflects on what works well and why

VR – Virtual Reality – has been with us for quite a while. Some would argue that to trace its origins we need to go right back through the annals of time to early human societies – anthropologists noting initiation ceremonies that involve altering sensory perception and augmenting reality to simulate dangerous situations, in order to put adolescents through a harrowing (but ultimately safe) coming-of-age test. And we could also say that all theatre – even if it is resolutely ‘non immersive’ – invites us into a virtual reality environment: we are invited to suspend disbelief  and enter an alternative world, to believe we are somewhere other than sitting in a seat in a theatre.

This has always been the case, but is particularly so since Antonin Artaud advocated a ‘theatre of the senses’, a ‘total theatre’ that swallows us up, so that there is nothing other than the world we have been brought into. And we all know just how popular immersive and interactive  theatre has been in recent years, thrusting audiences into a kind of virtual reality environment.

But for the purposes of this article, let’s stick to what most people think of when we say ‘VR’ – the donning of a mask or headset that offers us a sensory experience of some sort of lifelike or fantastical world that our mind is tricked into feeling that we are part of in a mock-3D fashion.

 

Morton Heilig’s Telesphere Mask

 

So on that criteria, the beginnings were probably in the 1950s, with the arrival of Morton Heilig’s Telesphere Mask, which was described as ‘a telescopic television apparatus for individual use…  Heilig went on to develop the Sensorama – which took things even further by incorporating not only sights and sounds but also smells! ‘The spectator is given a complete sensation of reality, i.e. moving three dimensional images which may be in colour, with 100% peripheral vision, binaural sound, scents and air breezes.’ (Holly Brockwell, ‘Forgotten Genius: the man who made a working VR machine in 1957’). In 1968, Ivan Sutherland built on Heilig’s work and created a cumbersome headset suspended from the ceiling that got dubbed The Sword of Damocles, in honour of its unwieldiness.

But although Heilig’s experiments had been linked to an interest in ‘experience theatre’ (thus pre-empting not only VR but also immersive/interactive theatre), the development of VR through the late twentieth century become associated almost exclusively with applied science, the developing technologies (now strongly linked to parallel development in computer science) put to use for medical purposes, flight simulation, car design, and military training. NASA became lead game players. In 1977 the artist David Em joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he held the newly created position of Artist in Residence for seven years. He is considered to be the first fine artist to work in virtual reality, creating a computer-generated navigable landscape titled Aku (1977). Other notable NASA Artists in Residence include Laurie Anderson – more on her later!

There were, though, other parallel developments. Jaron Lanier, founder of VPL Research developed the DataGlove, the EyePhone (yep, pre-Mac!), and the AudioSphere. VPL licensed the DataGlove technology to Mattel, which used it to make the Power Glove, an early VR device that the public could get their mitts on.

The research continued, with the development of real-time graphics, texture mapping, and – as we entered the new millennium – the first affordable VR headsets came on the market, with Sega VR-1 and Nintendo Virtual Boy both pushing forward VR’s development as an entertainment tool. As the new century unfolded, we saw Google (who had by then developed Street View) get in on the game with its (rather odd, I always felt) Cardboard viewer;  then came Sony’s Project Morpheus, a virtual reality headset for the PlayStation 4 video game console. The launch of the Oculus Quest VR headset was a game-changer (literally) – here was a quality set at an affordable price that could be used by gamers and artists alike. And so, in recent years, we’ve seen a plethora of artists using VR.

 

Marina Abramović: Rising

 

A few names from contemporary practice to bandy about: first up, there’s Jon Rafman (from Montreal, Quebec), who, having worked with applications such as Google Street View and Second Life, described the progression to VR as ‘the next logical step’. His View of Pariser Platz (co-directed by Jon Rafman and Samuel Walker) appeared at the Berlin Biennial 2016, amongst many other places.

Founded in 2017, Acute Art has worked on projects with high-profile artists including Anish Kapoor, Marina Abramović and Olafur Eliasson. We can differentiate here between artists like Rafman, who are trained (or train themselves) in how to use programming software to create the simulations themselves; and artists like Kapoor and Abramović, who work with VR specialists and key organisations (like Acute Art) to create the work – Kapoor’s Into Yourself, Fall and Abramović’s Rising were both enabled by Acute Art. Gabrielle Schwarz, writing for Apollo Magazine (January 2019) describes Abramović’s Rising: ‘An avatar of the artist is suspended in a rapidly filling water tank, her hands pressed against the glass wall. When the viewer lifts their own hands to meet Abramović’s, the wall comes crashing down and they are transported to an Arctic seascape, surrounded by melting polar caps. The viewer is then invited to pledge their support for the environment, and the Abramović avatar is rescued from drowning.’

 

Circa69: The Cube

 

A UK artist whose work falls into the Rafman territory (that is, merging vision and technological know-how) is Simon Wilkinson. Simon describes himself as a ‘transmedia artist’. His work incorporates audiovisual, installation, virtual reality, electronic music, and online and performance media – often combining all of these forms simultaneously. His breakthrough VR work, created with Silvia Mercuriali (of Rotozaza) under the name Il Pixel Rosso, was And The Birds Fell From the Sky, a mad virtual car ride that the company describe thus: ‘An immersive video goggle performance for two people, combining cinema and instruction-based theatre to cast the audience as main character in a wild journey to the world of the Faruk Clown.’ It thus combines Silvia’s interest in what Rotozaza dubbed ‘autoteatro’ and Simon’s developing interest in VR. It is described by Andy Roberts in his Total Theatre review  as ‘an immersive video goggle experience with a rich mix of sound, scents and film – an emotive journey where you’re placed at the centre of the narrative as its lead character.’ (Seen at the Edinburgh Fringe 2011, although the work premiered the previous year as a White Night commission in Brighton). In their next show, The Great Spavaldos, the company also place the audience member in the centre of the action – this time as a high-flying trapeze artist! Reporting in a Total Theatre review, Hannah Sullivan writes: ‘Wandering in space, guided by a hand and completely immersed into a video reality, it is difficult to overcome a sense of danger and allow yourself to let go. But the video plays through a series of encounters in the corridor, and the time this takes allows you to process the idea of moving through the virtual world and being dependent on these anonymous guiding hands.’ then later: ‘It is exciting. I hold onto the rope for dear life. In my eyes are bright lights and my brother up ahead. I watch him swing. I take my own ropes and sit back on the trapeze. The floor is taken from my feet and I swing out into the air. It is a blissful moment and after being so terrified I am ecstatically happy.’ I saw the piece when it was presented (fittingly) at CircusFest 2012 and also found it to be a delightful experience.

In 2014, Simon started to make work under the name Circa69, with the first outing a show called The New Commandments, a collaboration with experimental theatre maker Liyuwerk Sheway Mulugeta in which the audience is invited to become a member of a focus group – their task to re-think, re-brand and re-launch the Ten Commandments for the 21st century. This was a live and multimedia show, rather than a VR show – as was its follow up Beyond the Bright Black Edge of Nowhere. But then came The Cube, in which Simon returned to VR work, using an Oculus headset to immerse the one-person audience into a Dali-esque environment. The next project, Whilst The Rest Were Sleeping, is a virtual reality performance with live music for 16 audience members at a time. Simon is based in the UK, but he takes his work around the world.

 

Me and the Machine: When We Meet Again

 

Other early players with VR were Sam Pearson (UK) and Clara Garcia Fraile (Spain), known collectively as Me and the Machine. When We Meet Again (introduced as friends) is described as ‘a wearable film and one-to-one performance’. The company were supported artists at The Basement in Brighton, and the work was developed there and presented as a work-in-progress in 2009. I saw the piece in Brighton Festival 2010 – it also went to the National Review of Live Art and the Forest Fringe in Edinburgh in that year, and subsequently toured extensively across the world. It reframes the audience member as the first person narrator of a rather melancholic nouvelle vague inspired love story. Donning the headset, you take on another body; become someone else entirely. The couple have since stopped working together, but Me and the Machine, under Clara’s direction, continues to make VR, multimedia and experimental theatre work exploring the relationship between the physical body and technology.

A major player on the world stage is Laurie Anderson, who for decades has been at the forefront of transmedia (to steal a word) artistic exploration. Musician, visual artist, composer, poet, photographer, filmmaker, electronics whiz, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist. Pop star – O Superman reached the number 2 slot in the UK hit parade in 1980. NASA artist-in-residence in 2002 which inspired world-touring show called The End of the Moon. (She’d previously scored the Robert Lepage show Far Side of the Moon, so moon-themed work is an Anderson trope.)

As the moon is such a constant in her work, it is hardly surprising that her most recent (2019) work is called To the Moon. It is a virtual reality piece, created in collaboration with Hsin-Chien Huang, to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. It follows on from 2017’s Chalkroom (also a VR piece made by the same two artists) in which the reader flies through an enormous virtual structure made of words, drawings and stories.

 

Laurie Anderson & Hsin-Chien Huang: To the Moon

 

To the Moon continues the exploration – although in this case, in a simpler and more linear fashion. Whereas in Chalkroom there are very many choices to make of ‘rooms’ to enter and spaces to travel through, To the Moon gives the ‘player’ a more limited number of choices – although there is still plenty to do: you can fly fast or slow, linger around structures, delve into craters, or soar high up into space. But comparing notes with my companion afterwards, we realise that we both encountered the same things in the same order: strange see-through skeletal beasts made of letters, buildings made of numbers, a journey up a precipice to sit on a chair to look out at planet earth, abandoned American flags and moon-buggies on the moon’s surface, a spaceman floating eternally in space (evoking 2001 A Space Odyssey), and – most marvellously – a journey on the back of a donkey-like creature. In Chalkroom, there are multiple narratives, and if you experience the work more than once (as I did) or talk to others who have experienced it, you realise that here are a large number of possible narratives to experience. In this sense, Chalkroom is closer to the world of video gaming than the newer piece (and indeed the controls are more complex in Chalkroom). But although simpler in structure, To the Moon is a beautifully conceived, designed and realised VR piece. Not least, having Laurie Anderson’s gorgeous voice and composition skills make for a wonderfully full and satisfying sensory experience: as we fly through this gorgeous alternative moonscape we hear her voice in our ear: ‘You know the reason I love the stars? It’s that we cannot hurt them. We can’t burn them. We can’t melt them or make them overflow. We can’t flood them. Or blow them up or turn them out. But we are reaching for them. We are reaching for them.’

Using VR to create fantasy worlds (inside a 3-D blackboard), or trips into re-imagined real places (the moon) feels completely in keeping with what we suppose its purpose and function to be. But what of issue-based art, or art created from or with social sciences or medical research? Can VR be employed successfully in these contexts?

Remy Archer’s Zoetrope, presented in London for CircusFest 2018, is a 360-degree film installation ‘exploring the life-changing effect of social circus projects in places of adversity’. Donning a VR headset, the viewer is taken to Fekat Circus School in Addis Adaba, Ethiopia; the Battambang Circus in Cambodia; and the Palestinian Circus School. We are transported from a well-resourced contemporary circus festival at the Roundhouse in hipster Camden to environments in which there are few resources – and in some cases, in which even travelling to and from the school is fraught with danger. I enjoy the piece, but don’t feel completely convinced that VR adds anything much to the experience – I would have been as happy to have sat and watched a documentary film. 

 

 

Lindsay Seers: Care(less) at Fabrica, Brighton. Photo Tom Thistlethwaite

 

Lindsay Seers’ Care(less), seen at Fabrica Gallery in Brighton takes the form of a 15-min VR experience, set within a sculptural environment, and accompanied by photographs, drawings and texts. The artwork and exhibition, funded by Wellcome Trust, is a response to research done by three British universities on care for older people – and it also, crucially, is built around the personal experience of the artist’s elderly mother, whose voice and avatar feature. in the VR film.

It is a worthy project, and it is always difficult to critique work that has a social purpose, and is built on autobiographical experience – but it has to be said that the VR experience central to the piece is of a quality that anyone with any experience of VR art and/or video gaming would have to describe as pretty basic (‘Pure unadulterated Adobe After Effects’ said one commentator.) It is unfortunate that I saw this piece on the same day as To the Moon as the difference in quality is notable. Yes, I’m aware that an artist of Laurie Anderson’s stature has a far higher level of money and resources – but this only brings me to ask: why use VR if you don’t have the knowledge of the form and resources to do a really good job? I’m aware, saying this, that many people going into Fabrica to see this piece will be unfamiliar with VR, and see it as an exciting new experience. But for some his isn’t the case, and I don’t think we can start from that perspective, as VR art is now a well-established form.

There are aspects of the Care(less) VR piece that I love, particularly the integration of still photography (such as family photos, and hyper-real views of a large number of bathrooms in various states of disrepair). I also liked the use of perspective and scale in the piece: we find ourselves staring down at a body on a bathroom floor, or Borrowers-like discover we are under a bath. And the central character (the artist’s mother) talking about her care, and her view of her own ageing body, is wonderful. Reklama: Anglų kalbos dienos stovykla vaikams Vilniuje Kaune Klaipėdoje https://intellectus.lt/dienos-stovykla-vilniuje/ I also appreciate Seers’ intention with using VR, which sends sensory information to the brain, shifting consciousness – thus creating a parallel to the confused perceptions of many elderly people with dementia. The sound design, integrating recorded text and composition, is good. So there is nothing wrong with concept, the writing of the piece, and the raw material assembled – it is just the execution of the VR that is lacking.

So this is the key question, to ask of all the above works: is this a good, well-designed piece of VR and/or does the piece actually need to be VR? In some cases, most definitely yes. In other cases, there seems to be a desire to find innovative ways to present ideas that isn’t matched by the technical knowledge required.

Back to Laurie Anderson. In the programme notes for To the Moon, she has this to say: ‘As someone who has used technology to tell stories for many decades I don’t have any illusions that tech has any great advantages over other media. A good story is a good story. And while the latest technology has a certain sexy lure and commercial appeal, I like to spin on a common technology proverb: if you think technology will solve your problems, you don’t understand technology. And you don’t understand your problems.’

 

To the Moon, by Laurie Anderson & Hsin-Chien Huang, was seen at Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts on 4 October 2019. www.attenboroughcentre.com

Lindsay Seers’ Care(less) is presented at Fabrica in Brighton from 5 October to 24 November 2019.  www.fabrica.org.uk

 

 

Emma Frankland and company: We Dig

So tell me what you want, what you really, really want…

Ah, here they are, dancing into the space, five feisty gals, each with a story to tell. No, not the Spice Girls – but an equally refreshing burst of energy, redefining girl power for the 21st century.

In this case, the girls (Emma Frankland and company) are a bunch of trans women and trans feminine people, armed with spades and jackhammers, who are here to dig a hole. No, not a metaphorical hole. An actual great, big earthy hole in the ground of what is (was?) the stage of the Ovalhouse – a legendary South London venue that for decades has been ‘a hotbed of artistic activism’ and now about to be demolished, the theatre relocated to a new building in Brixton.

So there is proper, deep digging going on here, dust and rubble everywhere, and we are issued with plastic goggles. And yes – a hole is the ultimate (Freudian cliché) metaphor for female sexuality: the receptive space, the empty receptacle to be filled. The digging is real and the digging down is also a metaphor for excavating the past – a quasi-archaeological quest for recovering who and what has gone before. Actually, it’s not just symbolic, we have real archaeology here: along the way we learn that the diggers (another nice resonance, a nod in the direction of early anarchists The Diggers) have uncovered all sorts of treasures in this under-stage space – old shoes, newspapers, and myriad Coca Cola bottles and cans from the past 50 years. Thirsty work, theatre. A real, full can of Coke is unearthed and shared – as is a box containing a pumpkin pie made by stage manager Nemo. Time to take a break… But not for long. A woman’s work is never done.

As they dig, they tell stories: autobiographical snippets about growing up in a body not recognised as their own; reflections on their cultural heritage; historical evidence of the existence of trans women stretching back over millennia. This interweaves with a site-responsive reflection on the Ovalhouse itself, unearthing its magnificent history as the site for so much of London’s experimental performance over the past 50 years – including, as lead artist Emma Frankland flags up, the appearance of New York’s legendary gay/trans company Hot Peaches. 

There is a Deus Ex Machina moment towards the end of We Dig in which a surprise guest performer (on this occasion, La John Joseph – there will be someone different every night) calls for a time when theatre critics review work by queer or trans people without referring to them as such, just looking at the work – but in this case, that would be pretty difficult, as the piece is built around biography, and is both personal and political. Emma Frankland has worked in her own autobiography, the biographies of her four collaborators in the ensemble, and testimonies from trans women and trans gender/non binary people across the world. I don’t know if it is because I’ve known and loved her work for a long time, but when Emma takes the space, the ante feels upped – I sit up taller and listen as she riffs on the unity of all matter; the components of rock; and the need to dig down and get your hands dirty in life. I’m also drawn to Canadian artist Gein Wong, a strong, nurturing figure, embodying ancient sacred knowledge. I love the moment when she pulls up floorboards further along from the hole and teaches us how to plant garlic. Morgan M Page is also Canadian, but lives in London. She’s known mostly as a trans historian and writer/blogger. Her story of the recovered ‘male’ body replete with feminine dress and jewellery, buried many hundreds of years ago, offers her (and us) a link to a trans sisterhood stretching back through the years.

Tamarra is an Indonesian historian and artist who brings to the table (or building site, at least) the notion of the ‘chita chita’ (which may well not be how it is spelt) – the very special dream or wish that everyone holds in their heart. No one here wants world fame or riches. To be safe, to see their children grow, to have a slightly better home, to honour the earth. But mostly, to be safe, to feel safe, everywhere – that comes up again and again. They are ‘the children of stress’ – they dig to feel safe, to relieve themselves of the oppressive weight of the world’s judgement.

Travis Alabanza is local – a London-based writer and performer who recently won a Total Theatre Award for best emerging artist. Travis is the joker in the pack, always ready with a quip, playing it for laughs. Until there comes a point where they just can’t do it anymore. The comic veneer cracks, and – from the top of a scaffold tower, water pouring down from a fractured pipe –  Travis delivers a heartfelt rant on oppression, freedom and the strain of holding it all together.

We Dig is one of those performance pieces that constantly references the fact that it is a piece of theatre being constructed right here and now. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it slows the piece down. The show works best when each performer is delivering a heartfelt personal monologue (all five are gifted performers, each with a strong but very different stage presence); or when they collectively work together without words – the movement direction by Nando Messias is excellent, the spades used to provide rhythmic, percussive accompaniment to simple but strong choreographic motifs. A dust sheet is used for a brilliant moment of shadow theatre that passes all too quickly.

Less successful are the informal chats around the building site. Creating an ambience of supposedly casual, impromptu talk onstage is one of the hardest tasks for a theatre-maker, and there is a need for meticulous behind-the-scenes scripting and rehearsal to give the appearance of spontaneity. Especially hard when some performers are speaking in a second language, and most are performance artists rather than actors – so there is sometimes a lack of pace and zip in these sections. A dramaturg (Subira Wahogo) is credited, but no director – which is telling…

Viewed as activated installation/living sculpture, We Dig is wonderful – vibrant visual imagery, dynamic physical action, and luscious lighting working together to create powerful pictures that speak volumes. You dig?

 

Featured image (top): Emma Frankland and company: We Dig. Photo taken at Ovalhouse by Rosie Powell

Homage to Catalonia – Street Theatre and Circus Pioneers

What makes Catalan performing arts so special? Dorothy Max Prior reflects on the rich tradition of circus, outdoor arts, and site-responsive performance by artists from Catalonia

I’m trying to remember the first time I saw – or consciously recognised that I was seeing – work by a Catalan company. I think it must have been La Fura dels Baus’ 1985 UK debut in a warehouse in what was then a run-down part of London’s docklands. The show was called Suz/O/Suz, and a review in music paper NME described it as ‘a kind of adult adventure playground of fun, danger, slapstick and fantasy’. There was no stage, no separation between the audience and the performers, who emerged from nowhere, naked, breaking eggs over heads, beating on barrels, wheeling preposterous hybrid metal carts into the fast-scattering audience members, setting off fireworks, and climbing walls like unleashed lunatics. I remember my delight and astonishment at seeing something so raw and wild, a show in which experimental music (mixing live and electronic instrumentation) provided the soundtrack for such extraordinarily visceral physical action. La Fura established their own, and Catalonia’s, reputation as creators of anarchic multi-discipline performance that challenged conceptions of what ‘theatre’ could be.

 

La Fura dels Baus: Suz /O/ Suz, 1985

 

Sometime after that, I came across Els Comediants (under the direction of Joan Font), whose masterful teatre de carrer (street theatre) came to the UK courtesy of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), who brought The Devils (Dimonis) to Battersea Park – a piece which somehow made it feel like there were hundreds of these mad devils popping up unexpectedly from the bushes, brandishing flares, and chasing us down the paths of this urban park. Although in style very different to La Fura, Els Comediants shared their multi-disciplinary approach, and their exuberant energy – staging work in unusual spaces and breaking down barriers between artist and audience. These things feel pretty usual these days, but in the 1980s it was far less common, and for many British artists, Catalonia was looked to as ‘market leaders’ in the development of outdoor and site-responsive performance, and for a cross-artform practice in which visual artists, actors, musicians and circus artists were all brought into the melting pot.

Another legendary Catalan artist presented by LIFT was Albert Vidal, who turned himself into an exhibit, taking up residence in London Zoo – audience members (and regular zoo visitors) getting to see him eat, sleep and field the deluge of chocolate biscuits offered through the bars of his cage by small children. Vidal’s work is still regularly cited as one of the most adventurous examples of site-responsive performance ever seen!

 

 

Els Comediants: Dimonis (The Devils)

 

These trailblazers have been followed, in more recent years, by a new generation of equally vital and extraordinary Catalan artists who are often difficult to pigeonhole, choosing to cross established boundaries of form and practice.

Take, for example, the work of Barcelona based Xavier Bobés, who brought Things Easily Forgotten to the London International Mime Festival on two separate occasions. The show, which plays to just five audience members at a time in a specially created installation space, feels like a cross between a seance, a family gathering, and a magic show, as the dead of twentieth-century Barcelona are conjured up for us through an extraordinary array of printed ephemera, everyday objects, and crackly sounds that come from a vinyl record player. Bobés holds the space beautifully – sometimes silently, sometimes drawing us in with text. It leaves you with the sort of bittersweet melancholy you feel when you find a cache of old photographs in your grandmother’s wardrobe. There is an added poignancy for anyone with an interest in the painful history of Spain and Catalonia over the past 100 years, particularly the Franco years.

Bobés is one of the Catalan artists programmed and supported by Spoffin, an annual street arts festival based in Amersfoort, in The Netherlands. The festival’s artistic director, Alfred Konijnenbelt, has some thoughts on why so many wonderful artists emerge from Catalonia:

‘They strongly believe in their own culture and are proud of it in a sincere and honest way. Catalonia invests a lot of time and money into the arts – for example, through Institut Ramon Llull. Every year, at festivals in Catalonia, I discover the most beautiful performances. Productions that are distinguished by a beautiful balance of emotion and mind. They are strong conceptually, with the ability to touch your heart.’

Asked to name a company that captures the zeitgeist of contemporary Catalan performance work, he picks Kamchàtka, who have often brought their work to UK festivals, most recently to Stockton International Riverside Festival (SIRF) in August 2019:

‘Kamchàtka is the Catalan company that is always ahead of the times’ he says. ‘As early as 2006, they focused on the subject of refugees, creating performances that are very touching and direct, while leaving plenty of space for your own imagination. They made me feel close, guilty, in love, loved, sad and super happy — sometimes even in one single hour. Kamchàtka has a direct connection to my heart.’ 

In 2017 Spoffin presented a Catalan and Balearic Islands focused programme, consisting of eight different shows of outstanding quality. Alfred picks another favourite artist, presented in that programme:

‘One of the most inspiring pieces was Públic Present 24 hores by Ada Vilaró, in which she performed non-stop for 24 hours at the same spot in the middle of a big square, in pure silence, claiming public space is for everyone, and contacting audience members just with her eyes. This was specifically touching because Catalonia had just faced a terroristic attack and had come under huge pressure from the national government of Spain’.

 

 

Ada Vilaró: Públic Present 24 hores, Spoffin festival 2017. Photo: Wim Lanser

 

This last comment ties in with a thought from Gebra Serra, co-ordinator of Trapezi, the biggest contemporary circus festival in Spain, which takes place every May in Reus (a city that is an hour away from Barcelona):

‘Performing arts, especially, street arts, have been a tool for political vindication at the start of our democracy, often used to occupy public space and to empower the public.’

Trapezi programme Catalan, Spanish and International work. They have moved on from being presenters to also being producers, and in 2019, they produced their third small-format show, Davaii, a two-person show by Domichovsky & Agranov; and also co-produced (with Fira Tàrrega, MAC Barcelona and other partners) a larger scale show called Dioptries, by Cia Toti Toronell.

Trapezi also collaborate with SeaChange Arts and Institut Ramon Llull in the process of selection for the Catalan companies who are invited to perform at Out There International Festival of Circus and Street Arts in Great Yarmouth. Gebra cites Gregarious, by Cie Soon (Manel Rosés and Nilas Kronlid), as a show that she is particularly pleased to have supported.

I see Gregarious at Out There, where it is presented on the main stage of St George’s Park, at the heart of the festival. Ostensibly a piece about sport, two male athletes sweat and puff as they run around the stage towards an imaginary marathon finish line, battle over a teeter-board, and work together to erect a Chinese pole. What it’s actually about is the relationship between the two. Colleagues, collaborators, rivals, brothers, lovers? They seem to be all of these, at various points in the piece, which is meticulously structured, every moment of its 45-minute length used expertly in the telling of its tale, and the exploration of said relationship. They push and pull in a novel take on hand-to-hand and acrobalance, bicker and barter in acrobatic dance-offs, carry each other in fireman lifts, kick-start their seemingly lifeless partner with a hefty catapult from the teeter-board, swing merrily around the pole in an easy rivalry, wrestle, and slow-dance…  The skills are paramount and of the highest level as they interrogate the circus forms used without feeling the need to dissemble them. Parallel to the investigation of male relationship is a gentle commentary on cultural heritage. Catalan acrobat Manel Rosés carries on the pole to a strident Paso Doble, strutting like a matador; the smiling Swede Nilas Kronlid gives us crowd-pleasing gyrations to a Eurovision-friendly Swedish pop tune. It’s a complete delight, from beginning to end – and like many other great contemporary circus shows, the result of cross-European collaboration.

 

 

Cie Soon(Manel Rosés and Nilas Kronlid): Gregarious

 

Also seen at Out There Festival is Collettivo Terzo Livello’s Documento, presented in the romantically named Dissenters Graveyard, a secret garden tucked behind a market. The aspect of this work that interests me most is the excellent interaction with the site. Boundary walls are climbed, walked along, and become a stage for juggling; benches and wheelie bins are used to clamber and trip over, or to climb into; old tyres are piled into towers, and become strange garments when stacked up over bendy bodies. This troupe of Italian and Catalan artists are supremely talented acrobats, although mostly they play down and deconstruct their circus skills with clever clowning as they trip and fall and flounder – morphing into dogs, battling over the inanimate objects they are giving life to. This is not the case in the (almost) finale of the piece – here, the pure skill and spectacle of circus is allowed full reign in a thrilling hair-hanging act, the performer emerging from a black bin liner filled with plastic and bubblewrap, like a strange new bird hatched in a nest of waste materials. She fashions herself a dress made from pieces of see-through blue plastic that look like disposable hospital gowns, attaches her hair-piece to the rope, and is hoisted high up into the trees, spinning furiously. It’s a great moment – an image of breathtaking beauty fashioned from an ugly mess.

 

Collettivo Terzo Livello: site-responsive circus experimenters

 

Collettivo Terzo Livello are one of many companies supported and nurtured by La Central del Circ, a research and creation centre for contemporary circus with a mission to provide resources for training, research, creation, production, and community building. Johnny Torres (artistic director) and Nini Gorzerino (project director) are its key movers and shakers, and they describe their organisation as ‘a contemporary circus lighthouse in the Mediterranean arc’.

Over the years they’ve given support to new collaborative circus formats or projects, ‘in order to propose other models of understanding and sharing circus arts’. So an experimental group like Collettivo Terzo Livello fit perfectly within their remit. Terzo Livello define themselves as: ‘A circus group whose works starts from artistic research, giving the artists a free space to explore and experiment on several issues, in spaces that inspire them.’ Johnny and Nini of La Central del Circ say: ‘Research is an essential element of the artistic processes… providing artists with time, space and economic resources to deepen in their practices gives them the opportunity to escape the pressure of success.’

Challenging ‘classist’ models of performance spaces led by market forces, they are particularly proud of a venture called ‘The week of rupture and transformation’ which began two years ago, the idea being to give, during one full week, the centre and all its economic resources to local artists, and to allow them to do whatever they want.

 

Joan Català: Pelat

 

Amongst a hefty list of artists that La Central del Circ admire and support is Joan Català, who British audiences may know for Pelat, presented as part of a Catalan programme at the Greenwich and Docklands Festival 2014; and Irish ones for his appearance at the 2019 Spraoi Festival in Waterford, Ireland, which this year programmed a number of Catalan and Balaeric artists.

Pelat, which uses audience participation as a key element, is, according to Joan Català, ‘an experiment which has become a spectacle’. He says that his goal is to remind people of the value of collective work – work that is ‘handmade, artisan work, not reliant on technology’. Part of the show involved audience members instructed to build towers, referencing the famous Castellers – although in this case it is with logs rather than human bodies. Talking of those legendary human towers, which I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing rise and fall with spectacular skill at Gràcia festival in Barcelona, I was delighted to learn recently that there is now a London branch of the Castellers!

Català is not the only artist from the region who employs and references local tradition and folklore, and Trapezi’s Gebra Serra reflects that one defining characteristic is a holistic integration of art and daily life:

‘We have a long tradition of popular cultural activity here: every village has a lot of cultural associations – it’s an ongoing activity of our society.’

This thought is reflected by Catalan theatre artist and teacher Marian Masoliver, co-founder of the internationally renowned Actors Space training centre, which is located just outside of the ancient Roman city of Vic (an hour or so north of Barcelona). Marian, who trained at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and was subsequently a performer with La Fura dels Baus, now mostly dedicates herself to teaching and running the centre, which is attended by participants from all over the world. But she and her English partner Simon Edwards are also engaged with the local community, co-running a carnival organisation in the small Catalonian town of Mollet – an opportunity for community celebration, and to laugh together at the ridiculousness of human behaviour. Marian cites ‘tradition, colour, music, and spontaneity’ as key Catalan characteristics, describing the work as both celebratory and meaningful.

It is something that comes up again and again – this way of sitting between populism and experimentation. Legendary Catalan company Els Joglars have as their strapline ‘combining avant-garde and popular theatre’ and talk also of the need to ‘recreate the age-old inconstancy, anarchy and individualism’ of their homeland.

Gebra Serra of Trapezi again: ‘Catalan performing arts are different to Spanish performing arts because historically Catalan artists have looked more to the rest of Europe, and they have evolved faster.’

 

 

Cia Toti Toronell: Dioptries at Fira Tàrrega 2019

 

Catalonia has worked hard both to face outwards and to welcome the world in. It is no coincidence that one of Europe’s leading international performing arts market (with a special focus on outdoor arts and the public space) is held there – the Fira Tàrrega, which since 1981 has taken place every September in Tàrrega, in the province of Lleida.

Fira Tàrrega describe themselves as ‘a shop window for creativity’ and their mission is ‘to invigorate the performing arts market, the internationalisation of the creators, and [to support] the generation of strategic alliances to develop international street art productions or circuits’. The 2019 edition opened with a talk entitled ‘Public Space: Social Transformation, Existence, Creation’ – which they feel was an unusual but successful opening gambit. So, a parallel here with Out Theatre Festival 2019, who dedicated their professional programme Rise Up! to the role of outdoor arts in cultural democracy. These are most definitely topics of great relevance in these tumultuous times – and a reminder that the origins of street theatre are inextricably linked with protest, social engagement, and political action. 

Anna Giribet i Argilès, artistic director of Fira Tàrrega says ‘We think that Catalan artists are very good at small- or medium-scale street arts and installation work. They are particularly good at telling local stories that are of interest at the global level. There is a concept that encompasses that: glocal!’

 

Dulce Duca: Sweet Drama

 

But what of the artists themselves? What do they think? Juggler and physical theatre performer Dulce Duca, programmed in Out There Festival 2019 with her new show Sweet Drama, is well placed to answer:

‘I think that Catalonia has become an international artistic meeting point where many cultures cross. It’s a very rich environment with this mix of artists from all over the world. They are open to receiving new artists and to supporting them. I came from Portugal, I lived in France for five years, and then in Catalonia for the last nine years, where I’ve felt really included. I have to say that Institut Ramon Llull have supported a lot of artists to develop their work and to tour internationally – and that has helped the world to get to know Catalan artists…’

Dulce’s first major international show, Um Belo Dia, was presented at a previous edition of  Out There. Her second solo, Sweet Drama, has been developed in collaboration with SeaChange Arts’ artistic director Joe Mackintosh, and premiered at Out There 2019.

It starts with a mock no-show as the stage manager announces that Dulce is late. The phone rings – mobiles become a motif of the piece – and we learn that she’s on her way. And here she is – running around the corner in a gold dress, red tights, and strappy high-heeled gold sandals. We learn that she’s dashed away from her friend’s wedding reception to do this show. There’s a storyline about a missing present – a commissioned painting that hasn’t been paid for, which eventually resolves in a live painting scene – but the piece is less about story than character. Dulce is a great clown, and in this piece she has created a comic character that is simultaneously deplorable and lovable. Like all good physical comedy performers, she mixes technical skill and clowning to great effect. Her core skill is juggling, and she finds ingenious ways to explore the comic possibilities of a set of clubs and a pair of half-on half-off tights. The high-heeled shoes come off, and on go – a pair of high-heeled roller-boots! The piece is a collaboration with local skateboarders who are well-integrated into the piece, and Dulce is a generous performer, letting them showcase their skills.

Dulce is particularly pleased with this aspect of the piece:

‘I am especially proud of what I am doing with the skateboarders. In my opinion they are jugglers – they manipulate skateboards with their feet. They have a very similar dedication. I want to be a catalyst, so the audience can see the greatness of what they do. I’ve been studying them and working with them to understand how can we fit together, and what can we share and evolve. It’s a very rewarding experience.’

 

Pau Palaus: Petjades

 

Just round the corner from Dulce’s Great Yarmouth skatepark is the idiosyncratic King Street, which runs parallel to the waterfront – an interesting mix of secondhand furniture shops, grocery stores, pubs and cafes. Yarmouth has a large immigrant population, with Polish and Portuguese speaking communities (from both Portugal and Angola) particularly in evidence in the groups of people sitting outside the shops and cafes. Into this environment come two men, and a cello. The cello is mounted on a trolley, and a gently melancholy tune is being played by a man in a brown wool coat and floppy felt hat. A younger (or perhaps he’s just more child-like) man in a teal-coloured coat and flat cap is pushing the trolley along. This is Catalan company Pau Palaus, and their promenade show Petjades is a beautiful and moving piece of work about migration – evoking both historical experience (the piece was inspired by Second World War stories) and the current so-called ‘refuge crisis’. How much has actually changed, we wonder? The narrative is simple, but everything in this word-free piece is executed with precision, and the interactions with the audience are handled with the expertise of experienced performers.

The fifth show in Out There’s Catalan programme is PakiPaya’s TocaToc, a two-person circus-theatre show (set in their own big yellow tent) which explores romantic relationships between men and women. ‘Two people meet, they say hello, they hug, they say goodbye, they leave…’ says the voiceover, and the words are acted out in numerous physical motifs – mimed, clowned, then abstracted into dance, and used as the catalyst for a number of skilled aerial doubles act on a specially-designed cradle structure. At first, the doubles acts are comic, with slaps and kicks and comic drops onto a mattress. The final one is tender, loving and totally beautiful. Before we get to that point, we work through very many comic scenes that exploit and celebrate popular culture, with our two performers dashing through a whole wardrobe of costumes, and exploiting the potential of their specially designed space – a unit with two doors is run around, stood on, and popped in out of with excellent comic timing and clown sensibility, and the aerial truss/cradle and ropes are used with expert ease.

 

Cia Paki Paya: Toca Toc

 

As with other European festivals, such as Spoffin or Spraoi, the relationship between Out There and Catalan companies is one that has been developed over a number of years. This special relationship has been brokered by the ‘Catalan culture abroad’ organisation, Institut Ramon Llull, working with Trapezi festival. Amongst other forms of support, the Institut has an Artists’ Mobility grants programme that gives support to Catalan artists to present or tour performing arts work. Four of the five companies seen at this year’s Out There festival were supported by residencies in Great Yarmouth, before presenting their work in the festival.

It is clear from the work seen not only at Out There festival 2019, but also at other festivals and events across Europe, that Catalonia remains a fertile bed of excellence and experimentation, producing high quality and innovative performing arts work, and continuing to both honour its own traditions and to look outwards to the wider art world. 

 

Featured image (top of page) Catalan street theatre company Kamchàtka 

This article is published by Total Theatre Magazine in collaboration with Institut Ramon Llull

Institut Ramon Llull is a public body founded with the purpose of promoting Catalan language studies at universities abroad, the translation of literature and thought written in Catalan, and Catalan cultural production in theatre, film, circus, dance, music, the visual arts, design and architecture. For more information see https://www.llull.cat/english/home/index.cfm 

Out There International Festival of Circus and Street Arts in Great Yarmouth is produced by SeaChange Arts which is headed by artistic director Joe MacIntosh and executive director Veronica Stephens.  https://seachangearts.org.uk/ 

The Out There 2019 programme took place 13–15 September, and included five Catalan companies:

Collettivo Terzo Livello, Documento; Dulce Duca, Sweet Drama; Pau Palaus, Petjades; Cia PakiPaya, Toca Toc; and Cie Soon (Manel Rosés and Nilas Kronlid), Gregarious.

www.outtherefestival.com

Trapezi is a circus fair focusing on Catalan productions, as well as international shows. This year it celebrated its 23rd edition. It is held in May in Reus, a city in the province of Tarragona. https://www.trapezi.cat/en/

Fira Tàrrega is an international performing arts market with a special focus on outdoor arts and the public space. It is held every year in September in Tàrrega, in the province of Lleida. https://www.firatarrega.cat/en_index/

Spraoi International Street Arts Festival takes place in Waterford, Ireland, every August:  http://www.spraoi.com/

Spoffin Festival, is held in August in Amersfoort, The Netherlands. It celebrated its tenth year in 2019: https://spoffin.eu/

La Central del Circ, based at the Parc del Fòrum in Barcelona, is a creation centre which also makes its resources available to circus professionals for training, practice, and continuing education: https://www.lacentraldelcirc.cat/

The Actors Space is an international training centre for theatre and film, located in a place of outstanding natural beauty near Vic, one hour from Barcelona. https://www.actors-space.org/

La Fura dels Baus was founded in 1979 in Moià, Barcelona. The company are known for their pioneering urban theatre, use of unusual settings, and blurring of the boundaries between audience and performers: https://www.lafura.com/

Els Comediants is a collective of artists, actors and musicians who create collaborative work. The company was founded in 1971, and its base is in Canet de Mar (near Barcelona): http://comediants.com

 

Castellers of Catalonia