Elemental, My Dear Watson

Feature in Issue 15-2 | Summer 2003

The Elemental project is a touring ‘festival within a festival’ that premieres at Chalon dans la Rue, France’s most prestigious street theatre festival. Co-producer Simon Chatterton leads us there…

At the start of the event, the audience will experience a ten-minute performance that takes the dramatic elements of fire, water and air as a starting point for the evening, before being led into a courtyard installation environment animated with sound and light. At its heart, Elemental will feature a new show fusing visual theatre, circus, projection and music and staging live performance amongst, around and above the audience. Also within the Elemental world will be outdoor performances from a number of well-established UK street theatre artists. Running over three nights, the event involves 56 artists and technicians from six UK companies and will represent a landmark in British outdoor performance.

The result of almost two years of planning, Elemental is a ground-breaking partnership between the British Council, Arts Council England and producers elemental arts and will be the first time that any significant amount of British work will have been presented at a major French street arts festival.

Chalon Festival is one of the biggest and most established festivals in France and is a major showcase for international work, attracting almost 300 programmers and street arts professionals. This year the festival has nominated the UK as its ‘country of focus’ with Elemental a major part of the festival’s core programme. In addition to Elemental, Chalon Festival will also be featuring a number of British acts in the ‘off’ programme supported by the British Council.

The origins of the elemental project lie in discussions between Pierre Layac, Chalon festival’s artistic director, and Elemental’s creative director Jonathan Holloway, creator of the National Theatre’s Watch This Space outdoor programme. In July 2000, having attended Chalon for a number of years, Jonathan proposed that Pierre focus on the UK in 2003. Pierre was interested and sympathetic to staging British work, but both agreed that there needed to be a way of presenting artists that would allow a variety of work to be presented in an exciting and unusual way.

Through these discussions the idea of creating a late-night ‘festival within a festival’ was born. In the UK, two more creative producers, myself and Jo Ross, music project manager for the British Council in London, came onboard. Sophie Travers, Drama and Dance projects manager for the British Council in London, played a key part in developing the project. Meanwhile in France, Sarah Hickson, the fourth co-producer of Elemental and head of arts for the British Council in Paris, worked to confirm commitment to the project in France. L’Abattoir, Chalon’s street arts creation centre, was identified as a venue for the project and the necessary funding partnerships started to fall into place.

The British Council was interested in the idea of a flexible touring model for work that could build on the success of Sensurround, a similar curated environment that combined music and design. While financial commitment from the British Council forms a core part of the resources needed (and means that the project will now go on to tour internationally beyond Chalon) the most remarkable aspect of the British Council’s involvement in the project is its co-producing role, with the organisation closely involved from inception. Sarah Hickson said, ‘For the British Council, raising the profile of this type of work in France, in partnership with a major festival such as Chalon dans la Rue, has been key to our support.’

Discussions with Arts Council England focused on the opportunities created by Elemental, to explore approaches to devising and collaborating which could produce a new model for the creation of street arts. On this basis, Elemental was awarded a major research grant from the National Touring Programme and veteran film puppet pranksters Forkbeard Fantasy, aerial theatre company Company FZ, Bill Palmer of Avanti Display and 12-piece musical collective Homelife were invited to be the core companies who would create the performance at the heart of Elemental.

The show is being produced through a devising process with the companies led by Jonathan Holloway. Much of this is scheduled to take place in Forkbeard’s studios in Devon, a lottery-funded project that is in itself a fascinating example of a company-managed creation space. At the end of the devising and creation process, a tryout of work-in-progress will take place, allowing for critical feedback from professionals and members of the public.

Around the core show will be an installation environment created by Birmingham-based multimedia artists Blissbody, an opening event featuring Dream Engine’s Heliosphere and a programme of performance that will include newly created work from Bill Palmer of Avanti Display as well as smaller-scale music, circus and street performance.

Along with notable recent international successes such as Improbable Theatre’s Sticky, it is hoped that the success of the Elemental project in Chalon and beyond will be one of the projects that helps to put UK street arts and outdoor performance firmly on the map.

Simon Chatterton is Director of Bracknell Festival and co-producer for elemental arts, a creative production company established to promote and produce exciting and unusual performance and arts events. E-mail: simon@elementalarts.net

This article in the magazine

Issue 15-2
p. 21