Street Arts – The Next Generation: Life’s A Picnic

Feature in Issue 21-2 | Summer 2009

Matt Feerick of Wet Picnic is one of the bright new stars of street arts. Here, he explains how the company came into being, and where he hopes they are heading.

It started in a pub. We were searching for a name for the theatre company we were going to form. At the time the name was more important than the work we were planning to create. After a long game of word association and a little fingering of the dictionary, we found we had come up with two names. One was entirely inappropriate and so we chose the second. Wet Picnic.

There were four of us: me, Penny Patrick, Graeme Cockburn, and Russell Kellaway, who all began as a group of students at the University of Winchester and decided that rather than heading to London with everyone else, we would set up a company, stay in Winchester and create work that we wanted to create – and try to find a way in which we could all be employed regularly.

So, we did.

We were lucky enough to receive a business start-up grant from the University of Winchester. Which not only gave us a little bit of momentum to start the company but also demanded we really look at how we were going to make work and support ourselves as artists. It forced us to look at things from a business point of view as well as an artistic one. To begin with, we were totally lost, and also a little scared that we had to learn how to be business people when all we wanted to do was create art. To date, we are still learning and still making a lot of mistakes as we try to marry making work with keeping a business stable and operating effectively.

It was here we met Hat Fair (Winchester’s legendary street arts and outdoor performance festival) and they encouraged us to step into street theatre. Together with the money we had received from our business start-up grant they helped us to develop our first few street acts. Having just come out of university with very little experience of creating work for a real public we were all a little worried that our ideas were not going to be good enough and our skills as performers were not going to match up to those who were working in street arts already. We were right. Our work was not as strong as those who were already out there, of course it wasn’t – these guys had been working for a long time with tough crowds and in tough conditions.

But we were encouraged, our audiences were great, and we soon realised that one of the best theatrical training grounds is in the street, because if you aren’t good enough then the audience just walk away.

Something that really pushed us on and helped to develop our work was the welcome that we received from the street arts community. Promoters and performers were quick to offer advice and opinions, and to hold our hands at events and new places. This gave us confidence and a place to feel safe and play.

One of the best theatrical training grounds is in the street, because if you aren’t good enough then the audience just walk away

Quickly we were performing at more festivals and more events, creating bespoke acts and taking our existing acts all over the place. It was clear that as summer came around we would need more Wet Picnic-ers to join us and start performing. So we auditioned and got some fantastic performers, some of whom still work with us, and some who’ve moved on to have much more successful careers than we do! They helped to develop our walkabouts (which include Parsons, Parsons and Parsons, and The Not So Secret Service); the static shows we started to create; and – most importantly – the way we create work as a group. More and more we are building a network of both indoor and outdoor venues that work with us regularly and commission new work. We have had the opportunity to try different styles; to work with puppetry, dance, physical theatre, text, mime and many other things. Some have stayed and some have gone. But as we enter a new stage of the company’s development, we are now clearer about what it is that the company creates now, and will be creating in the future – both indoors and outdoors.

There is a mix of performers and creators in the company, and backgrounds range from university degree training to schools such as Lecoq, The Circus Space, and Central School of Speech and Drama. This feeds into the mix of work that the company creates, and the way in which we create it. What we learn with outdoor performance is brought inside, and visa versa. Not all of the methods we use are in our final piece, but it is all part of the rehearsal process. We devise together, performers and a director (normally me, but sometimes with a guest director such as Petra Massey from Spymonkey), with regular visits from Penny Patrick who works as our dramaturg.

At the end of 2008 we finished a tour of two new shows. Outdoors, we’ve presented The Dinner Table, which is set around a large table on wheels with eight seats. This piece has different options that include two walkabout shows and a static ‘circle show’. Indoors, we’ve toured Rodney Dillyweed’s Undesirable Demise, a dark tale of a boy trapped between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Both shows were heavily supported and received great responses that allowed us to really look at where Wet Picnic will be going in the future, who are the core group of people that really make the company move forwards, and how do we operate.

We’ve tested different ways of working on each show – we worked with an external director on The Dinner Table, and have worked with both new performers and familiar faces. We made a lot of mistakes making the shows, and so learned a lot, but we also built our networks and gained a much larger audience base. We got advice from ISAN (Independent Street Arts Network), and support from Café Culture (a Winchester-based initiative). We now feel able to evaluate the first few years that the company has been working together, to look at our practice, to plan and to rethink the company’s journey.

We will be taking a mixture of shows out this summer. The Dinner Table will be visiting festivals across the UK, as well as there being two new commissions as yet unnamed, one specifically for Henley Festival and one which we hope to tour next year. We are also planning the R&D phase of our next indoor show, which will be devised as a company, as well as a larger static outdoor show for next summer. All of these projects are massively exciting in lots of ways – not only because we will be creating new work, but also because as a group we are building a company that can support our future and continue to create the work we want to create.

Wet Picnic are Matt Feerick (artistic director); Penny Patrick (dramaturg); and performers Judy Barrington Smuts, Graeme Cockburn, Charley Dubery, Kelly Reayner, and Julia Gwynne. See www.wetpicnic.com

Referenced Artists

This article in the magazine

Issue 21-2
p. 12 - 13