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.

Circus Resurrection

Circus, circus, circus! Three thrilling shows – UNITY, Luminosa, Passagers. One outdoors, two indoors. All seen September 2021 and reported on here by Dorothy Max Prior

Well, it’s been a tough couple of years for all of us. Theatres closed, festivals cancelled. Actors, musicians, dancers, technicians all twiddling their thumbs at home, wondering what’s going to happen next. 

But if there’s one branch of the performing arts that has been slammed harder than any other, it is surely circus. If circus artists are not able to train, they are adversely affected in a way even more fundamental than the difficulties faced by dancers: it is not just that they need to be fit to do their work, if they don’t get to train safely, they are potentially putting their lives at risk. Working with other circus artists and/or with their specialist equipment is vital. Denied that, they can become dangerously out of kilter with the demands of their work. And earning a living through teaching circus skills became a complete nightmare this past year, with new rules demanding that you have twice as much equipment (silks, ropes, whatever) as usual to-hand so that there is no touching and sharing.

There have been small oases of sanity in amongst the Covid madness. Whilst some circus artists and schools have been totally stymied by venues, local authorities or educational institutions taking their spaces from them, or making operating in them nigh-impossible with an ever-more complex set of rules, a number of venues and arts organisations have gone out of their way to enable circus artists to continue training and making work, finding ways to open up their spaces to them. These include Out There Arts in Great Yarmouth and Jacksons Lane in London. 

Out There Arts have had numerous circus artists in residence over the past couple of years, including the legendary Circolombia, working in their lovely Drill House creation centre. The organisation has resolutely kept the centre open and available to artists – and of course if artists and companies are operating as a bubble and testing regularly, than there is no reason why not. It is a mystery why more venues and arts organisations have not done the same, rather than staying closed, with furloughed staff having their livelihoods secured whilst artists languished. Fair enough if audiences can’t be allowed in, but there is no justification for the lack of initiative in allowing artists in to theatre/arts spaces to work.

The Outdoor Arts sector has provided some outlet for circus artists whilst theatres have been closed – throughout 2020 and 2021, festivals and outdoor events have gone ahead, including the Greenwich and Dockland festival in London, for example – and it is great to see that good work continuing. But now, thank goodness, we are also seeing the re-opening of theatres and the reinstatement of touring shows, both national and international. So here, we highlight three great shows seen in the past fortnight: one outdoors, an indoor show from UK-based companies, and a large-scale international show. Believe me, it is great to be writing this! 

Gorilla Circus: UNITY at Out There Festival, Great Yarmouth. Photo David Street

Outdoors first. In programming the Out There Festival of Circus and Street Arts (September 2021), the organisation have been rigorous in honouring commitments to artists booked for the aborted 2020 festival. They’ve also picked up the slack and booked artists whose premieres at other festivals were cancelled. Gorilla Circus, for example, whose show UNITY should have been seen at the cancelled Stockton International Riverside Festival.

The show closed the Out There Festival 2021 on a massive high, both literally and metaphorically. An enormous rig – sky high, but also long, in three sections separated by large pylons with platforms – becomes the site for a thrilling piece of circus-theatre. As lights sweep across the sandy beach, casting shadows and patterns, and a cracking electronic soundtrack by Peter Buffery builds (shades of classic Ninja Tunes here), the set becomes slowly peopled by a fabulous team of four humans – together with a number of mannequins, causing many a double-take! Nothing is hurried. We are allowed to experience each visual picture, and given time to hear and appreciate the soundtrack of poetic text (by Liverpudlian writer/actor Ellis Howard), who delivers a determined plea for political change: ‘Is this the best we could have done? Is this who we want to be?’  he asks. ‘Are we all in the same boat?’ Hardly. Cronyism and corruption is rife. Shared laptops and bad internet mean missed school, and meanwhile millionaires are engaging in a pointless space race. The voice continues: ‘The poorest of us will pay. We are in the worst mental health crisis of our lives. This system is broken. The only possible answer is to change everything.’ Meanwhile, the physical performance highlights include solo trapeze plus a gorgeous hair-hanging journey along the wire by Delia Ceruti, who has a wonderfully wriggly physical presence; and a shockingly scary chair balance and tightrope walk by Ellis Grover. There’s a lovely, positive finale as the four (human) performers spin around in a Mexican-style high carousel (there is possibly a name for this structure but I don’t know it!) as Ellis Howard speaks of a hopeful future in which humans forget egotistical journeys to the stars and work together to improve life on earth for all. A really interesting blend of powerful political theatre and extraordinarily skilled circus.

Jacksons Lane/Lost in Translation: Luminosa. Photo Alex Brenner

Meanwhile, down south, Jacksons Lane have kept their finger on the circus pulse in numerous ways throughout the terrible 2020–2021 season, which has coincided with the venue undergoing a massive redevelopment. They’ve made their spaces available for training, created a ‘building site’ show, made circus films, and taken circus out onto the streets of North London (on one occasion, in tandem with Christmas parcels and dinners for local elders). In recent months, they’ve created a brand new circus cabaret  show called Luminosa, which re-opened the venue in September, this produced by Jacksons Lane with Lost In Translation Circus, and supported by Upswing Aerial Theatre and Extraordinary Bodies. Luminosa features a core-cast of seven circus artists plus special guests each night, with live music from Peter Reynolds, and is directed by Ade Berry (artistic director of Jacksons Lane) and Massimiliano Rossetti (director of Lost in Translation Circus).

As a cabaret format show, Luminosa features a series of acts not a whole-show linear narrative, but there is a feeling of it being a cohesive whole, with the rigging and kit change-overs built into the show very nicely; for example, when performers move in up the aisles with ropes wound around them, or shouldering trapezes and clutching carabinas. Interludes between acts are also filled beautifully with quirky songs performed live (with vocals, keyboard and accordion) by Peter Reynolds, who many in the circus world will know as NoFit State’s musical director. There is also a great twist on the classic floor-based clowning work that is a crucial element of any circus show (allowing for a contrast with the aerial work and, of course, a re-jigging and re-rigging opportunity), with tongue-in-cheek acrobalancing by Lawrence Swaddle and Tilly Mae.

As everybody onstage is in multiple roles as ‘act’ or ‘support’ or ‘crew’, there’s a great decision to have the cast clad in grey boiler suits, peeled off to reveal their specific chosen costume when it’s their turn to do a turn; the jumpsuits then re-donned to help out with the next number. We get a whole host of gorgeous acts. Tasha Rushbrooke gives us precise and controlled hand-balancing, whilst Zaki Musa gives us a burlesque take on flying pole – a near-naked male body, stripped down to a sassy sequinned jock-strap, sporting an extraordinarily fetishistic pair of high-heeled black patent boots that squeak enticingly as they rub up against the pole. And there’s foot juggling! Rarely seen in contemporary circus, so a lovely surprise – and delivered with great humour and panache by Val Jauregui. Aerial work includes a fabulous side-by-side aerial hoop duet (from Danielle Summers and Upswing associate artist Joana Dias) that takes an ebony-and ivory black-and-white theme through decoration of hoop to costume. Sometimes they are in tandem, sometimes one or other takes the spotlight, and eventually the black/white hoops are swapped – a gentle message on integration whilst retaining one’s own identity, perhaps? – all delivered with beautiful precision and artistic cohesion. There’s a thrilling aerial straps number, replete with awe-inspiring splits and drops, from Holly Downey, who is also one of the three-girl gang of trapezists; and a Russian Cradle finale from Massimiliano Rossetti and Roisin Morris that makes good use of the greatly increased head-height on the redeveloped Jacksons Lane stage.

It is thrilling to see such a clear example of how far British circus has come in the past couple of decades – we are no longer the poor cousins of the circus world.

Oh how we’ve grown! Twenty years ago, our national contemporary circus community was just emerging from the extraordinary experience that had been the Millennium Dome Show – which had seen the training and professional development of scores of UK-based circus artists, leading to a revolution of the artform in this country, this led by what was then called Circus Space (now National Centre for Circus Arts) with support from Arts Council England and others. This combined with the parallel initiatives taken by companies/training schools such as NoFit State in Cardiff and Circomedia in Bristol to lead off a game-changing era. All three of these venerable institutions have trained up and nurtured the performers seen now in Luminosa

The 7 Fingers: Passagers

But two decades back, when seeing the phenomenal level of skill, artistry and professionalism from visiting companies from countries such as Canada/Quebec and Australia, we could only dream of a future in which British-based circus artists could reach such dizzy heights. One such visiting company, on the brink of its 20-year anniversary, is Les Sept Doigts de la Main (aka 7 Fingers). A Montreal based break-off from Cirque du Soleil, Les Sept Doigts stunned the world with their extraordinary integration of the highest level of circus skills with a theatrical sensibility. Their first show, Traces (or at least, the first to be presented in the UK – seen originally at the Edinburgh Fringe) totally changed the circus landscape, with its integration of circus skills with dance and spoken text, mining the possibilities of using autobiographical material in circus. 

So, many years later – and post-pandemic – how are they doing? Passagers, which comes to Brighton Dome as part of a six-venue tour across England, does not disappoint. They are still at the top of their game. It is not a brand-new show – it was created and toured pre-Covid, but has been re-launched with a nine-strong cast (although only eight are present, including some original and some new members).  As with many other of the company shows, Passagers is written, directed and choreographed by Shana Carroll – although, as with other shows, it is clear that devised material from the original cast is a crucial element.

The show is an ode to train travel: “Departure vs. transit vs. arrival. Chance vs. choice vs. destiny. Stillness vs. acceleration. Reflection vs. transparency. Familiar vs. foreign. Private vs. public. Confinement vs. border-crossing. Bright headlights vs. tunnel-darkness. Past vs. future…’

It is an oddly – although we presume deliberately – old-fashioned work. In the post-show discussion, an audience member asks the company if they know the work of Theatre de Complicité, which draws a blank, but I’m with that person in seeing a constant stream of Complicité (or perhaps it is Lecoq in general) tropes and images onstage. Most obviously, rows of chairs as train carriages; but there’s also all the hero-and-chorus groupings and swayings, the greetings and leave-takings, the rhythmic walkings and crossings of stage space, and the endless playing with piles of brown-and-blue leather suitcases.  Actually, I know what it reminded me of – Gecko Theatre’s work. Now, this is not a bad thing. It’s classic physical theatre tropes, is what it is. Fine by me. It is also augmented by a very beautiful and sophisticated lighting design (lots of straw-and-steel and moody blues) and a great use of projections, both stills and moving image. On the back wall, we see passing landscapes, silhouettes of  bodies to-ing and fro-ing across station forecourts, electricity pylons, and the gorgeous roofs of wrought-iron stations. In one shot we see a tight-wire walker – I presume this is missing company member Brin Schoelkopf. 

Enacted in a limbo between leaving and arriving, many aspects of ‘journeying’ are explored. The classic 7 Doigts device of performers grabbing a mic to deliver a morsel of text is in full evidence (an autobiographical story of loss and moving on; a musing on the plights of refugees crossing borders; a reflection on the nature of time in light of Einstein’s theory of relativity). It feels very familiar these days – but I remind myself that when Les 7 Doigts first did this, it wasn’t. A company has the perfect right to use the theatrical devices it has pioneered and made its own!  

As for the circus skills employed: a fabulous array, as we’d expect from these world leaders. Acrobalance, aerial hoop, hula, contortion, Chinese pole… Every single act is superb, so it feels a little mean to single any one out, but my personal favourite was the wonderful doubles trapeze (on a big fat double-sized bar) delivered by Marilou Vershelden (base) and Sabine van Rensburg (flyer), beautifully supported and augmented by whole-ensemble floorwork and hand-to-hand – so that, for example, Sabine jumps down into waiting arms, walks across a row of hands, and is then tossed up again to be caught by Marilou. Absolutely stunning work. Sabine also delivers one of the best silks/tissue act I’ve seen, an act that eschews pretty posing for pure power and strength in her twists and drops. I enjoy Argentinian Pablo Omar Pramparo’s clubs juggling – mostly because the integration of dance, physical theatre and object manipulation in this scene is so brilliant. And I must mention the Russian cradle act by base Samuel Renaud and flyer Louis Joyal (a company regular) whose swings and throws take on a phenomenal momentum and force as this metal contraption rocks back and forth. It’s odd – I think of Russian cradle as a rare circus discipline, and here I am seeing my second act in just one week! 

It is so wonderful to see that international touring has once again resumed, and all kudos to everyone who has made this possible, including the Dance Consortium theatres who have worked together to bring the UK tour of Passagers to fruition. Un grand success, bravo!

The 7 Fingers: Passagers

The 7 Fingers: Passagers was seen at Brighton Dome, 30 September 2021. Tour continues across the UK, supported by Dance Consortium. See 

Jacksons Lane/Lost in Translation: Luminosa was seen at Jacksons Lane theatre 22 September 2021. See 

Gorilla Circus: UNITY was seen at Out There Festival, Great Yarmouth, on 19 September 2021. See   

Total Theatre Artists as Writers 2021

News Release – 15 September 2021

Total Theatre Artists as Writers – developing new critical writing

Success in Total Theatre Magazine’s Arts Council England application! The third incarnation of this innovative scheme will start November 2021

Total Theatre Magazine is delighted to announce that, following a successful application to Arts Council England and with the support of a number of key industry partners, a new edition of the Total Theatre Artists as Writers scheme will take place from November 2021 to March 2022.

The Total Theatre Magazine editorial team will offer a series of online workshops and one-to-one mentoring sessions for a new cohort of twelve contemporary theatre/ performance artists interested in exploring writing about their own and other people’s artistic practices.

Participants will have their work published on Total Theatre Magazine, at and we will also be commissioning a number of new long-form articles from established artist- writers.

The programme will be led by editor Dorothy Max Prior and associate editor Beccy Smith, alongside a number of guest mentors and workshop leaders. We are keen this year to continue our support for critical writing about still-neglected areas of practice such as outdoor arts; to support cross-artform and innovative performance practice; and to reach out to potential artist-writers from neglected or less well represented communities.

Editor Dorothy Max Prior says:

‘Total Theatre Artists as Writers is at the core of our work – celebrating and supporting contemporary theatre and performance, and prioritising the voice of the artist. In our 2021-2022 programme, we intend to include as diverse a range as possible of both emerging and established artists; and our quest is to find participants from all corners of the UK, and all sections of the community.’

Total Theatre Magazine will be appointing suitable mentors/workshop leaders in accord with our aim to diversify the team, and in order to meet the specific needs of chosen participants. – including artists of colour, artists with disabilities, migrant and working class artists, and LGBTQ+ artists.

The call-out to potential participants will go live on Thursday 16 September, with the deadline for applications Monday 18 October.

Our partners in this project are: Out There Arts, Without Walls, London International Mime Festival, Polari LGBTQ+ Literary Salon, and Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance. We thank all of these organisations for their support. We also thank Arts Council England, and National Lottery players, who have made this project possible.

Dorothy Max Prior (editor)
On behalf of the Total Theatre Magazine Editorial Team

Contact the Total Theatre Editorial Team for further information:

Dorothy Max Prior, editor Tel/WhatsApp + 44 7752 142526 Beccy Smith, associate editor, Tel/WhatsApp +44 7977 511556 | @TotalTheatreMag |

Notes for Editors:

More about Total Theatre Magazine

Total Theatre Magazine champions artist-led critical writing, putting the practitioner at the heart of the discourse about their own work and the work of their peers. For more than thirty years the magazine, first in print and now online, has played a crucial role in promoting and championing alternative theatre and performance practice in the UK. The Total Theatre Magazine website can be viewed at The Total Theatre Magazine Print Archive is at

Total Theatre Magazine also runs a number of other projects, including Total Theatre Talks, presented in collaboration with festivals and venues across the UK; Total Theatre Training & The Writing’s On the Streets, offering one-off or short-course writing workshops; and Total Theatre Artists as Writers, a three-month+ scheme mentoring artists who wish to write about their own and other’s work.

Total Theatre Magazine first ran the Total Theatre Artists as Writers training and CPD programme as part of our Total Theatre Print Archive project in 2019. For that incarnation of the programme, participants reflected on their own practice in relation to artists’ work explored through the archive: See http:// This went so well that TTM ran the programme again in 2020 (completely online this time). The third iteration runs November 2021 to March 2022. Articles generated from the programme will be posted on the main website:

More about our partners:

Out There Arts

Out There Arts / National Centre for Outdoor Arts and Circus produces the Out There International Festival in Great Yarmouth each September with one of the largest programmes of circus in the UK, as well as producing other large-scale shows and events, including the new Fire on the Water. They also run the Drill House International Creation Centre – a 20,000 square feet complex for creation, training, fabrication, community activity and events working with UK and International Artists and Companies.

Out There Arts is funded by Arts Council England and supported by Great Yarmouth Borough Council and Norfolk County Council.

For more information on Out There Festival 17–19 September 2021, see there-festival/

Without Walls

Without Walls is a consortium of over 35 festivals and arts organisations that brings fantastic outdoor arts to people in towns and cities across the UK. Since its formation in 2007, Without Walls has developed and toured over 200 new shows by UK companies and supported the Research and Development of over 75 projects. Without Walls commissions have toured widely both in the UK and internationally across 22 countries.

Without Walls is managed by XTRAX, an independent management and production company based in Manchester with over 20 years’ experience in Outdoor Arts:

Without Walls is supported by Arts Council England as a National Portfolio Organisation. | | @WWconsortium

London International Mime Festival

The London International Mime Festival (LIMF) is an annual theatre event in London. Its directors are Joseph Seelig and Helen Lannaghan, winners of the International Theatre Institute Award for Excellence.
It was established in 1977 by Joseph Seelig and Nola Rae and it is the longest running event of its kind in the world – a month-long showcase for ground-breaking visual/physical theatre, new circus, object theatre and live art.

LIMF returns in 2022 with a full programme of shows at venues across the capital from Wednesday 12 January – Sunday 6 February. In addition to these performances, LIMF will run live and online workshops, after-show discussions with artists, and a new series of short films created by international artists.


Polari is an award-winning LGBTQ+ literary salon. It was founded by author Paul Burston in 2007, and began in a bar in Soho. Since 2009, Polari have been based at London’s Southbank Centre. They also tour regularly, funded by Arts Council England.

The Polari Prize Tenth Anniversary Tour showcases writers long- and short-listed for the Polari Prize awards for emerging and established LGBTQ+ literary talent, as well as winners from the Prize’s ten year history, dating back to 2011.

Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance

Rose Bruford College, based in Sidcup, south-east London, is a drama school offering degree programmes in acting, directing, and other theatre arts. The college teaching, learning and training ethos is based on artistry, collaboration, community, discovery, diversity, employability, independence, and professionalism. Students and staff work in collaboration across a number of campuses to make and produce over 75 shows a year.

The College mission is to achieve social and cultural impact by delivering the highest quality vocational training and education. Their teaching covers a wide, innovative spectrum of subjects and delivers proactive graduates who are creative, empowered and employable.

Something in the Air

Dorothy Max Prior talks to Joe Mackintosh, chief executive  of Out There Arts and artistic director of the Out There International Festival of Circus and Street Arts, which returns to Great Yarmouth 17–19 September 2021

‘There is quite an upbeat mood around culture in Yarmouth at the moment,’ says Joe Mackintosh, ‘an upswell of energy – we’re awash with all this levelling up stuff…’

He’s not wrong: there has been news recently of a 10 million pound investment to restore the Winter Gardens, a beautiful, deserted seafront palace of cast iron and glass; plus the re-opening of the legendary Venetian Waterways. Then, there’s Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft’s joint bid to become UK Capital of Culture; and what Joe calls ‘all the Banksy action’, referring to the street art/graffiti that has appeared in the town, verified as bona fide Banksy work by the artist himself.

So this oft-neglected East Coast town – a once-famous seafaring and fishing port which has been in existence since Roman times at least; a lot longer than its posher neighbour, Norwich – is on the up. 

And Joe has a vision for his organisation, Out There Arts, and the festival they produce, that fits in very nicely with the development of Great Yarmouth (or plain old Yarmouth, as it is more usually called) as a high-flying cultural centre:

‘What we really want to do over the next ten years is to develop and grow Out There Festival, but also to build a high-level, creative artistic hub – to create a circus and street arts community that live here… They may tour worldwide, but Yarmouth would be their year-round base. Circus and street theatre artists like the idea of living in Bristol, Toulouse, Ghent, Barcelona – if Yarmouth is to compete, we’ll need to make artists a great offer!’

And yes, Out There Arts certainly does have a great offer to make. More on those future plans anon… 

Gorilla Circus: who will be appearing at Out There Festival 2021 with new show UNITY

Meanwhile, how are things right now?

Out There Arts has recently rebranded itself. Joe winces at the word ‘branding’, but it can be a positive thing. The organisation was previously known as Sea Change Arts. So why the change?

‘We had all these different names: Sea Change Arts for the arts organisation, the Out There Festival, our venue Drill House. People were confused and nobody understood it was all the same organisation doing all these different things. The aspect people mostly knew about was Out There Festival so we thought, why not bring it all together around that?’

Hence the emergence of Out There Arts – with the tag line ‘A National Centre for Outdoor Arts and Circus’. Not ‘the’ but ‘a’, we note. One of many, in the style of the fourteen French Creation Centres or Ateliers dedicated to outdoor arts, often (but not always) linked to a major street arts festival.

‘To combine a year-round creation space with an annual festival,’  says Joe, referring to the new organisation’s mission, ‘to produce and commission work under one banner.’ The name change thus ‘makes some kind of sense’ as the organisation strives to ‘develop the town as an International Centre of Excellence for circus and street arts creation, training and delivery’.

In fact, Out There Arts – which is based at the Drill House – already operates a year-round programme of events and residencies; as well as producing Out There Festival, the region’s largest free festival of street arts and circus, which is now in its 13th edition, and regularly attracts audiences in excess of 60,000 people. So they will be building on what has already been established. 

‘We’ve done a lot already,’ says Joe, going on to flag up that none of this would have been possible without the skills and experience of his right-hand woman, executive director Veronica Stephens, who Joe describes as ’the best street arts producer in the country – she just delivers it all. Brings together the best art and artists with the best community engagement.’ 

Orquestra de Malabres, one of the international highlights of Out There Festival 2021

And so to this year’s festival, which – gods and governments willing – takes place over the weekend of 17th to 19th September. When I speak to Joe, there’s around a month to go. How is he feeling about it all?

‘We’re doing pre-production work now that we’d ideally have done a while ago,’ he says, with a wry smile, ‘but we’re getting there’. We talk briefly about the recent cancellation of Stockton International Riverside Festival by the local council on just a few days’ notice, which is enough to strike fear into the heart of any festival director, but Joe feels confident that this isn’t going to happen in Yarmouth, where the support of the council and communication between all parties is a key feature of the success of all ventures to-date. Plus, they have Veronica! 

‘It’s all extremely challenging but she is a genius. And we have a great team, a young team, the next generation of producers and directors, numerous apprenticeships. Veronica is such a terrific leader and mentor and role model…’

So what will we see at the 2021 festival? 

’First and foremost,’ says Joe, ‘we wanted to honour commitments made to artists for the cancelled 2020 programme. Of course, there have been changes, especially with the international programme, as some shows booked are not going out this year… So we have additions. Throughout all of lockdown, more or less, we kept going as a creation space with a stream of companies coming through – quite a lot of stuff that has come out of those residencies is in the festival.’

In fact, almost half of the festival programme of 35 or so companies has been co-produced or nurtured by Out There Arts.

‘There’s a good mix of national and international, and a good mix of scale,’ he says.

Of the international programme, Joe is especially excited about the appearance of Orquestra De Malabares from Santiago de Compostela – which features a core-company team of six jugglers who perform and interact with an orchestra from the region, in this case Norwich. Joe tells us to expect ‘Morecambe and Wise-esque chaos’ as the jugglers take on a 50-piece brass band.

A change for 2021’s festival programming also comes as a result of leaving the Without Walls grouping of outdoor arts festivals. ‘Without Walls is a great consortium,’ says Joe, ‘but we are slightly different to many of the partners as we have both a fully-fledged street arts festival and a year-round creation centre making work that we want to include’. The emphasis for Out There Arts is now on nurturing and developing both local artists and incoming artists-in-residence, national and international.

One of the local talents being nurtured is Matthew Harrison, whose lovely Actual Reality Arcade was a massive hit of the pre-Covid 2019 street arts season – a show which restores ‘game playing’ to actual physical engagement with the material world. Produced by Out There Arts, and created in residence at the Drill House, the new show is called The Community Chest – which Joe describes as  ‘a local community themed escape room’.

Puppets with Guts: The Lips, developed at Drill House and appearing at Out There Festival 2021

Another of the in-residence companies has been Puppets With Guts, whose show The Lips was developed at Drill House. The Lips features a chorus of ‘delightfully deviant divas’ whose mouths have broken free from their bodies, allowing them to lip-synch and jive merrily to an exhilarating mix of much-loved pop tunes. ‘Seductive yet subversive’ promises the advance publicity! The company have not only been in residence at Drill House developing the show throughout the past year, but have also delivered an extensive amount of community engagement work with local schools. 

Joe has also been keen to lend a helping hand to some of the companies whose premieres were sadly put on hold with the Stockton cancellation. Shows ready to go, but with nowhere to go, included a new work by flying trapezists Gorilla Circus (last seen at Out There Festival 2019, collaborating with Generik Vapeur in Thank You For Having Us). So their new show, UNITY, will now be seen in Yarmouth at this year’s festival. We are promised ‘high wire and hair-hanging’. Sounds terrific!

Other highlights of the programme include Whalley Range All Stars’ Godzillatown, in which audience members are invited to collect a Godzilla mask; fold, tape and put it on; then, enter the ‘town’, negotiating a maze of cartoonish buildings whilst trying to avoid collision with confused fellow Godzillas.

Whalley Range All Stars: Gozillatown

The festival is also taking over a number of disused shops in the town centre, giving them over to various commissioned artists. In what looks to be a particularly exciting event, Mark Copeland (of Insect Circus fame) will be turning a closed department store into a retirement home for elderly pantomime horses, possibly titled The Equidae Retirement Home, although as it’s near Anna Sewell’s home it might reference Black Beauty (pronounced Booty locally!)

There will also be a new strand to the festival called Extremities – a kind of festival within the festival, focusing on high-energy dance and acrobatics with a strong street vibe and African /global culture influence. It’s hoped that this might be a way to engage with that oft hard-to-reach demographic, the teen and young adult audience, especially boys. Traditionally, they’d come to the big Saturday night spectacles, but eschew the ‘family-friendly’ daytime programme on streets and in parks. Joe points out that there is a decent-sized Portuguese-speaking Black community in Yarmouth – mostly from Brazil, Angola and Capo Verde – and it is hoped that Extremities will also draw more of those communities into the festival. This strand of work will be sited right in the centre of town, in the Market Place, and is supported by partners Freshly Greated. Artists and companies appearing include Morocco’s Said Mouhssine with a show called Routine; Etta Ermini Dance Company with the Hammich Brothers; and Joseph Toonga with Born to Protest, a new hip hop dance work.  

   Joseph Toonga: Born to Protest, part of the new Extremities programme within Out There Festival 2021

Also aimed at the young adult audience – although no doubt to be enjoyed by all – is a promenade show called Ghosted, created by James McDermott and Marcus Romer. Ghosted follows six Norfolk teenagers as they investigate the disappearance of a schoolfriend, whose clothes are found on the beach.

Joe describes it as ‘a mini-soap opera on headphones; a kind of voyeur theatre – Yarmouth’s version of Skins – sex and drugs on the seafront!’ 

Which brings us neatly to talking about the fact that the seafront and beach will be used far more in this festival than it has been in the past. The Gorrilla Circus show will be sited on the seafront, and there will also be a special Friday evening Cobham Island Beach Party, bringing elements of the festival to Yarmouth satellite town Cobham. 

And talking about parties, Joe says, ‘What the outdoor arts sector really wants at the moment is to get back together and have a party… we’re really excited about doing a proper festival!’ A festival that will include a programme of workshops, seminars, and networking events for artists and producers – with a Total Theatre Talks on artists at the crossroads, and a Total Theatre Training session on scripting and scoring outdoor arts work amongst the delights on offer.

Rise Up! Professionals’ day at Out There Festival 2019. Artwork on wall by Paris68Redux

All this sounds terrific, but what happens once the festival ends? Joe is keen to reflect on what happens on the other 51 weeks of the year: ‘How does that transformational energy feed into the rest of the time?’ he says. 

Well, for a start, as if one festival is not enough, 2021 will also see the launch of Out There Arts’ new venture Fire on the Water in October and November, an event postponed from 2020 that might evolve into a new annual festival:

‘We’ve commissioned a lot of work – site-specific installations using fire and water – for the Venetian waterways,’ says Joe.

As well as commissions for circus and physical theatre artists to re-purpose their skills to make non-performance work, Fire on the Water will also see the inclusion of some of the heavyweight fire-artists, such as the legendary Paka, who’s bringing along some flame-throwing saxophones…

And when that one is done too? What happens then?

‘We have a brilliant festival and creation centre (at Drill House), and we do good stuff year round. Most days I go up there and discover artists in there I’d forgotten were coming! Always a pleasant surprise. The word is going around and demand is going up…’ 

Over the past few years, Drill House residents have included many contributors to the festival programme, alongside numerous others, including the highly renowned Colombian circus company Circolombia, who developed their award-winning show Acelere there.

The Drill House is currently being revamped, with a new big tent over the rear courtyard space so it can be used day-in day-out for making and doing, and there are plans for a new Portuguese deli and bar at the front:

‘The Drill House is great but it’ll be even better when you can get a nice Portuguese coffee and cake, and a little glass of Douro there,’ he says with a smile.

The Drill House’s capabilities already match the facilities available at many of the well-known French outdoor arts creation centres, but it is now at full capacity, so a crucial part of Joe’s vision and Out There Arts’ plans for the next ten years is the creation of a new venue, the Ice House.

Acrobat  Said Mouhssine, part of the Extremities programme at Out There Festival 2021. Photo Zakaria El Attaoui

The Ice House is a 3400 square-foot former storage warehouse. Once repurposed and redeveloped, it will be able to provide the additional large-scale making space and dedicated circus training space that the UK so sorely needs, and which is no longer possible to initiate in London and other southern cities as property prices are at such a premium. It’s now the turn of the more neglected areas of the UK to take the cultural lead – all part of the aforementioned ‘levelling up’.

‘It’s right in the middle of town on the waterfront’ says Joe. ‘We can have a riverside terrace bar, and late-night events. The Drill House is great but it is a bit hidden away in a residential area, and we can’t make a lot of noise there…’

Out There Arts have already secured half a million pounds worth of government funding for the Ice House project, with plans afoot to raise the million or so it’ll take!

And that’s not all. Another thing on Joe’s mind is housing for artists – and has started to purchase properties for that purpose. The first is a building opposite Drill House, which will provide extra artists’ accommodation, to tie into that stated desire to encourage more circus and street arts practitioners to make Yarmouth their year-round base.

 ‘That’s such a big obstacle,’ he says, referring to the high cost of housing in many cities, forcing artists out. Here in Yarmouth, Joe wants to turn the tables and welcome them in. ‘We want to come up with an offer to attract artists to Yarmouth; one that combines training, housing, storage space, industrial making space, mentoring support, and the opportunity to work as part of a collective… to collectively transform this town. I think that’s a very exciting offer in these troubled times!’

He envisions building a collective of around 50 artists from a mix of disciplines – acrobats, jugglers and other circus artists; plus makers, technicians, kinetic artists, sound artists… He’d ideally like to see this collective take over the Extremities strand of Out There Festival, ‘so it takes ownership of that part of the festival and it is not just me programming it; it becomes artist-led – a foundation for experiment and collaboration’.

As for Out There Festival as a whole, he’d like to see it not just sustained but growing, with possibly an ‘off’, a fringe festival, and perhaps a showcase element. His vision, both for the festival and for all of the arts organisation’s ventures, is summed up in one neat line:

 ‘We want to create something that is truly transformational of place’.

A worthy ambition indeed!

Featured image (top) and above image: Out There Festival 2019. Photos JMA Photography

Out There Arts is an independent arts development charity that is based in Great Yarmouth, but collaborates with artists worldwide. 

Out There Festival takes place across Great Yarmouth 17–19 September 2021. It is funded by Arts Council England and supported by Great Yarmouth Borough Council and Norfolk County Council. For more information and listings for Out There Festival 2021, see 

Fire on the Water takes place 21 October–6 November 2021. It is funded by The Norfolk Strategic Fund (NCC), Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Interreg Experience, Great Yarmouth Borough Council and Out There Arts. For further details, see   

The Art of Behaving Badly

Still anonymous and still committed to action, the Guerrilla Girls just keep chipping away at the patriarchy. Dorothy Max Prior talks to the legendary masked avengers of the art world about campaigns past and present, including their latest, The Male Graze 

‘Frida Kahlo has joined your meeting’ is possibly the best Zoom alert ever… Especially as also in the room is the German Expressionist painter and printmaker Käthe Kollwitz.

Let me explain. When art activist collective Guerrilla Girls were founded in 1985, it was decided that anonymity was the way to go – hence the iconic gorilla masks worn by the group members when appearing in public spaces. To further hide their identities, each Guerrilla Girl adopted the name of a dead woman artist. Hence me speaking to Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz.

So the first question, quite naturally, is why each chose their particular dead woman artist alter-ego.

‘I chose Frida Kahlo because she’s an artist whose work I’m crazy about,’ says our Frida, ‘and whose life I find fascinating’. She goes on to say that her own personality is quite different to that of the original Frida Kahlo.

Käthe comes in with a reflection on her assumed identity: ‘Käthe Kollwitz, like me, was a political artist – an artist who pushed forward a better world for people, creating anti-war work, work about women’s position in society, using art as a tool to change the world for the better.’ 

Both Frida and Käthe are founder members of Guerrilla Girls, working right at the heart of every campaign – from those seminal early days right through to the current project The Male Graze, commissioned for Art Night 2021, which can be seen on billboards at sites across the UK, and online anywhere, from 18 June to 18 July.

Guerrilla Girls: The Male Graze billboard in situ, Barrowland, Glasgow

So before we talk about the latest work, I take advantage of having two GG founders in the (virtual) room to ask about the origins of the group and those wonderful early campaigns – I’m keen to hear the story, even though I know the story, as I’ve had the posters on my walls for decades, and can recite the headlines unprompted. Favourites include: Do Women Have to be Naked to get into the Met. Museum?; The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist; and Dear Art Collector, it has come to our attention…  

Here’s Käthe: ’Before we formed as an entity, we had the idea to do a new kind of political poster. We were a bunch of women artists in New York in the 1980s who, after a wave of feminism in the 60s and 70s, realised things had gotten worse. We went to a demo outside MoMA’s International Survey of Painting and Sculpture. On the picket line we saw that the strategy wasn’t working, people just walked on by into the museum…’

She feels that people thought that the museum knew best – if you weren’t being shown, it was because you weren’t good enough. ‘We knew this wasn’t true,’ says Käthe, ‘we knew that there were so many amazing women artists and artists of colour left out of this system’. 

That was the ‘aha’ moment. They decided that rather than do the traditional protest thing of picket lines, they needed to fight art with art – to put something up on the streets to show people the stark truth.

‘We didn’t have a plan,’ says Frida, ‘We were angry and wanted to speak out  in the world and transform people’s views. After thirty-five years it’s become a mission… ‘  Thirty-six years, Käthe corrects, and they both laugh. Time flies when you’re having fun and changing the world.

Guerrilla Girls: Poster Campaign, New York and beyond, 1989

Those early poster campaigns are striking both in their graphic punch and their take-no-prisoners political approach. Many are signed ‘A public service message from Guerrilla Girls – conscience of the art world’. A few things to note about these early campaigns: First, that it wasn’t just the galleries being targeted. Sponsors, critics, and even artists themselves are hauled over the coals. What Do These Artists Have in Common? (followed by a long list of names), says one poster. Answer: they allow their work to be shown in galleries that show no more than 10% women artists or none at all. 

Secondly, we note that racism is flagged up alongside sexism right from the very start: What’s Fashionable, Prestigious & Tax Deductible? Discriminating Against Woman and Non-White Artists, proclaims one 1987 poster. Alongside the posters came postcards, calling cards, and stickers, often targeting specific galleries or events. Why in 1987 is Documenta 95% white and 83% male? asks one, and We Sell White Bread says a famous sticker, Ingredients: white men, artificial flavourings, preservatives. Contains less than the minimum daily requirement of white women and non-whites.

In 1990 came the first of the giant billboard posters, and that decade sees an extension of their work: whilst continuing to target the art world, there are campaigns run in collaboration with New York homeless shelters; campaigns supporting A Woman’s Right to Choose; posters highlighting the continuing prevalence of rape; posters advocating a better education system.  

‘When the first posters [about women artists and the art world] worked, we realised we could take this strategy – the headlines, the outrageous imagery, all backed up by facts – and take on any subject: anti-war, issues of systemic racism, corruption…’ says Käthe. 

Frida adds: ‘What was operating – although we didn’t necessarily understand it at first – was the idea of intersectionality. The problems and limitations and issues of privilege are all inter-related. The art world is part of the rest of the world, even though a lot of people like to think of it as its own bubble.  Everything that’s wrong in our larger capitalist society is doubly wrong in the art world, but no one really looked at it this way, as they saw the art world as a refuge from the rest of the world – when in fact many of the awful things that go on [in the wider world] happen in the art world too, maybe even in a more magnified way’. Hence, the art attack goes on – alongside other work.

We talk briefly here about other art activist groups like the Extinction Rebellion aligned group Red Rebels; and other political/social activist campaigns such as Black Lives Matter. So yes, Guerrilla Girls do sometimes do street actions, and also have a performance piece that they take into schools: ‘Students often get really excited and want to do their own work to push things forward.’

Guerrilla Girls at Art Basel, Hong Kong 2018

Which brings me to ask whether anybody can be a Guerrilla Girl – to which the answer is that the collective is actually quite a close-held group, and although there have been times when people (particularly women artists) have been asked to publicly put their names to a specific campaign – most amusingly in the Guerrilla Girls Identities Revealed campaign – for the most part the GGs keep a tight reign on the membership.

‘We’re not as large a group as one might think – you can’t do the type of things we do in large groups. And if we were to work with everybody who wanted to work with us, we’d spend all our time managing people and things. The truth of the matter is, we do things in a very informal way. When we need help or certain skill-sets, we find individuals we can work with. Being in a collective and collaborating is not something you can do with everybody.’

So the bad news is that not every one who wants to work with the Guerrilla Girls can, but here’s the good news:

‘They don’t need us!’ says Frida. ‘We could operate as a model for similar actions in other places. We think the world needs more – more feminist activists, more masked avengers, than just this single group, the Guerrilla Girls. It would be a much scarier place if there were 10, 15, 20 a 100 similar groups…’

We then talk about some of the group’s recent campaigns, and in particular ones that have been commissioned by and placed in British galleries. One that grabbed my attention was the performative Complaints Department hosted by Tate Modern in London (2016) which Käthe describes as an example of creative complaining, ‘because we do do a lot of complaining about what’s going on in the world!’

The GGs have always loved to do interactive work, she says, to do things in which ‘we get something back in some way’. They’ve done several installations which have involved big chalkboards, and when Tate Modern asked them to do a special project in their new building, ‘we set up all these giant chalkboards, and big tables full of materials so people could write and do whatever they wanted’. Thousands came and did just that – came along to complain about art, about their lives, about people in their lives, about politics. ‘Every issue you could imagine.’

Guerrilla Girls: Is It Really Worse in Europe? Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2016. Photo David Parry

Another is the Is It Really Worse in Europe? project which came to Whitechapel Gallery in 2016, a continuation of the group’s four-decade-long critique of museum culture. Frida talks of the private investment system of gallery governance in the US, which she says is ‘run like a small poker game. It’s not so very different to the days of kings and queens and aristocrats. A few rich people are deciding what should be preserved and conserved – and that’s a lousy way to write art history’.

For this campaign, they sent out out a questionnaire to all the major galleries in Europe, urging them to identify what their problems were. Close to 400 were sent out, with around 100 responding. The 300 who didn’t respond weren’t left out of the exhibition – their names were on the floor of the gallery, trampled on by visitors. ‘We then took tidbits out of their responses,’ says Frida, noting that they also made a book of all the responses.  ‘The interesting thing is that they mostly thought they were doing better than they actually were’. Like the Reina Sofia of Madrid, for example, that ‘thinks about diversity all the time’ despite its collection being 87% male and overwhelmingly white. 

Perhaps it’s not surprising, with private collectors running the show in the States, that most major exhibitions and retrospectives of the Guerrilla Girls’ work have been outside of their home country. But back in New York the Guerrilla Girls have come full circle recently with a campaign targeted at MoMA – in particular, criticising the naming of the new(ish) Jeffrey Epstein galleries. Käthe has plenty to say on this:

‘There are so many board members on museums who have nefarious connections to all sorts of things – drugs dealing, arms dealing, sexual abuse, sex trafficking. When news started to come out that Leon Black, chair of the board at MOMA, was deeply, deeply involved with Jeffrey Epstein, we started going after him, in many different ways. One way was to put a poster up outside MOMA telling them to fire Leon Black’. 

Another recent campaign saw the Guerrilla Girls helpfully providing wall labels for works of art created by abusers, an example being the Bill Clinton painting by Chuck Close, ‘a portrait of an abuser by an abuser!’. The poster campaign reads: 3 Ways to Write a Museum Wall Label When the Artist is a Sexual Predator. The first is the usual type of label, for museums ‘afraid of alienating billionaire trustees’. The second is the hedging-your-bets type for ‘conflicted’ museums. The third is one for museums who ‘need help from the Guerrilla Girls’. The one for Chuck Close’s portrait of Bill Clinton reads: ‘Chuck Close has had a huge career with prices to match. He has been accused of sexually abusing models, and students he picked up at fancy art schools. How fitting and ironic that he painted the official portrait of Bill Clinton. The art world tolerates abuse because it believes art is above it all, and rules don’t apply to “genius” white male artists. WRONG!’

Which brings us neatly to the latest work, The Male Graze.

Guerrilla Girls: The Male Graze, commissioned by Art Night 2021. Billboard campaign and dedicated website

There are two aspects to this work. One is the billboards in 11 locations in the UK which ask, Are There More Naked Women Than Women Artists in Art Museums? encouraging people to go to any gallery and count the number of naked women in artworks versus the number of women artists (a kind of back-to-their-roots throwback to that seminal Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum? campaign). These figures can be uploaded on to the new dedicated website at   

The other part of The Male Graze is a typically fiery and funny critique of Western art history and flagging up of the intrinsic abuse and misogyny of the art world, explored through other sections of the website, which have racy titles like Flesh Through the Ages and Arts School Confidential. A quick click on Flesh Through the Ages brings up a gallery subdivided into sections that include Sexy and Dead, and Naked with Animals.

Talking of why reflections on the female nude remain pertinent well into the 21st century, Frida says ‘the more you look at Western art work – European and US art – the more you realise that objectification of women is intrinsic, in the work, and in the culture… Often, in the paintings, the women are naked and if they are not being spied upon, they are being acted upon – harassed, seduced, abducted, raped, murdered. Sexual violence is part of our culture and has become part of our artistic tradition. Oftentimes it gets shoved under the table, because the paintings are beautiful. We wanted to focus on that a little bit. We think a deeper understanding of Western art is dependent on talking about the subject matter in art, and what is happening to women as subjects in Western art. Because if we are going to deal with sexual violence in our culture, we have to understand how it has been expressed in our art. So that’s what we wanted to do in The Male Graze

‘When we looked at Western art, there’s this idea about “the male gaze” but when we thought about the male gaze, we saw a lot of grazing, not gazing! That’s the genesis of this whole project!’

Finally, we go out with a mission statement – similar to the one we came in with:

‘We really believe museums must change. As they are now, they don’t represent who the culture is, they represent special interests, and it’s time for all of that to change’ says Frida.

Plus ça change…

‘A lot of people like to believe that art is above it all,’ says Käthe, reflecting on the myth and exaltation of ‘one great genius’ (usually white and male) who springs from nowhere, rather than telling the story of art that reflects the time it is made in. ‘All art is part of its own time. We think that’s important to know about, and that’s why we’re advocates for better museum practices, casting  a wider net and collecting the whole story of our culture and in general changing how things are taught and viewed’ says Käthe.

Frida again: ’Our project The Male Graze isn’t to moralise and censor, it’s merely to inform; to create a richer, deeper, broader understanding of art to culture.’

So, thirty-six years of chipping away at it all, with plenty of work done, but lots still to do. Let’s hope Guerrilla Girls continue to make trouble in the art world and beyond for many more years to come – and continue to inspire the rest of us to also use art to make change.

Guerrilla Girls on home territory, New York City

Dorothy Max Prior spoke to Guerrilla Girls founder-members Käthe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo via Zoom on 15 June 2021.

For more about the Guerilla Girls past and present see

Guerilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly – ‘not a monograph, a call to arms’ – is published by Chronicle Books. Punch out gorilla/guerrilla mask included 

Art Night 2021 runs 18 June to 18 July, across the UK and online. Artists include: Guerrilla Girls, Alberta Whittle, Isabel Lewis, Oona Doherty, Adham Faramawy and Mark Leckey. The festival is curated by Art Night’s artistic director Helen Nisbet and this year’s edition is titled Nothing Compares 2U. The programme takes inspiration from defiance in small acts and moments of self-determination, both personal and collective. All details and locations listed on

The Male Graze is Guerilla Girls’ largest UK public project to-date, exploring bad male behaviour through the lens of art history. Eleven large billboards will be on display from 18 June to 18 July in partnership with Art Night, and the interactive website can be found at  

Full list of The Male Graze billboard locations:

345 Old Street, London, EC1V 9LT

London Bridge/Borough High Street, London, SE1 9OG

The Anchor Inn, Rea Street, Birmingham, B5 6ET

2 Forfar Road, Dundee, DD4 7AR

Cardiff, Motorpoint Arena A, Bute Terrace, Cardiff, CF10 2FE

231 Gallowgate, Barrowlands, Glasgow, G4 OTP

1 Warehouse, New Orchard Street, Swansea, SA1 6YL

A209, Lewes (opposite Elephant and Castle pub, adjacent to New Road)

1364 Neath Road, Swansea, SA1 2HL (14 June – 27 June)

57 Neath Road C/O Lyndu Street, Morriston, SA6 7BH  (28 June – 11 July)

Compton Verney, Warwick, CV35 9HJ

Headingley Lane, Headingley, Leeds LS6 2AS

Eastbourne Redoubt, Royal Parade, Eastbourne BN22 7AQ   

Guerrilla Girls: The Male Graze hoarding in situ in Eastbourne

Lights in the Darkness

Colliding particles, sunshine on a forest path, overlapping monologues, a beautifully lit empty theatre, and a candle lighting ceremony – Dorothy Max Prior samples the delights of the installation programme at Brighton Festival 2021 

The invitation came in early May for a press viewing of Semiconductor’s latest installation work, Halo. So used was I to everything these days being online that it took two read-throughs of the email to be sure that it meant I was expected to actually go to the Attenborough Centre and experience something indoors, for real. 

And what an extraordinary initiation back into live experience it turned out to be! Halo is a full-on, visceral, immersive installation. You step into a great dark space – the whole of the large theatre auditorium at ACCA has been given over to it – feeling a little uncertain of your footing, your eyes blinking under a constellation of flashing and flickering snow-white lights, a low hum and drone shuddering through the space. Suddenly, the lights explode into a frenzy of activity, and the noise level rises into a cacophony of sounds at different frequencies and resonances.

Semiconductor: Halo. Photo Claudia Marcelloni

Then, emerging from the darkness you make out a large central structure. It’s cylindrical, around the size of a bandstand, but roofless; the sides made up of a large number of vertically strung piano strings, with hammers hitting at the bottom. The lights and the sounds we can hear are apparently ‘triggered and controlled’  by data collected from the ATLAS detector that forms part of the particle-collision experiments at the CERN European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva. No, I don’t understand how either – despite visiting the installation twice, reading the press release and programme, and watching two different films – one by Semiconductor about the making process, and one from CERN itself, in which learned scientists talk of advanced mathematics as a kind of branch of philosophy, saying that both language and visual imagery have reached the limits of their capabilities to explain what’s happening right now with ATLAS and the Hadron Collider. Apparently, we have entered a new reality. Semiconductor’s Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt spent time as artists in residence at CERN, and Halo was then developed with support from numerous physicists (including some from University of Sussex). Having given up Physics age 14 (you could do that back in the day), I readily admit to being completely out of my depth here…

But I should make it clear that any pre-knowledge or understanding of the physics involved in this art-sci collaboration is completely unnecessary. You can, as I did quite happily, experience the piece purely as the visual, aural and physical installation work that it is. A sensory playground. Like a small child, I walked round the outside repeatedly, running my fingers along the wires (they aren’t taut enough to cut, thankfully), then knelt down to watch the little hammers striking, then went into the middle and stood still, absorbing the sounds and images all around me in glorious 360 degree sensurround. I then put my ear to one the metal poles holding the structure up, and got a fantastic echoing and reverberating soundbox sensation. A truly total experience!

From this most modern of scientific developments to that most ancient of environments: the forest. Our Northern European and Celtic lands were once densely forested, and our myths and fairy tales and books and films are awash with stories of the woods and the wilderness – from Red Riding Hood to Sweet Tooth. 

Olafur Eliasson: The Forked Forest Path

Olafur Eliasson’s The Forked Forest Path has been installed in Fabrica gallery for May and June 2021 – the venue’s previous life as a church, still replete with gothic arches and stained glass windows, adding to the fairy-tale feel. The piece is one of the Danish-Icelandic artist’s early works, made in 1998, a few years before his famous ‘sun’ (The Weather Project, commissioned for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2003). It’s kind of what it says on the tin: a path through a recreated forest in which the audience member reaches a fork, and thus a choice of routes. It is a stipulation for its recreation that galleries/festivals must only use branches and saplings sourced locally and sustainably in the making of the piece, which is good to learn.

Although I enjoy The Forked Forest Path (experienced twice) it has to be said that it feels a little tame, and substantially less immersive than other Eliasson works, such as the famous ‘tunnel of fog’ piece, Your Blind Passenger. The route is short, taking just minutes to get through, and you can always see the outside walls of the building from all points inside the ‘forest’, so there is no sense ever of being deep into the woods, nor any danger of getting lost, even for a second – although it is nice to appreciate the architecture of the building, and to see the sun shining through the stained glass windows. I walk in woods regularly, and this didn’t really replicate the experience strongly enough for me, nor add any new insights to the lore of woodlands. Perhaps the piece is aimed at people unfamiliar with woods and walking in them? It’s worth a visit, but I would suggest that going to nearby Stanmer Park (which has supplied some of the wood for this piece, alongside Foxwood Forestry) for a ‘creative walk’ in the woods could prove to be a stronger, more immersive, artistic experience…

Tim Crouch with his installation House Mother Normal

Just round the corner from Fabrica, in one of Brighton’s famous Lanes, a very different sort of installation work is sited. House Mother Normal is a screen work adapted from the 1971 novel by BS Johnson, a darling of the British avant garde literary scene in the mid-twentieth century. The novel is a dark and satirical look at the goings-on in a care home, in which the House Mother and eight ‘friends’ (we don’t call them inmates, or patients, or even clients, sneers Mother, we’re all friends) each tell their story in consecutive chapters, although all occupying the same timeframe. Here, all nine present their monologues at the same time, each framed in splendid isolation, voices cleverly spliced together, so that they rise and fall – sentences, phrases, or perhaps just isolated words leaping out at us. Mother’s voice rises above them all…

So here we are – Ron, Rosetta, Ivy, Charlie, Gloria, Sarah, Sioned, George and House Mother herself – nine lives in a day at the care home. God save us from this. Craft sessions. Pass the parcel. Exercise. Meals. Bums and poos and piles. Dribbles and drools. Grudges and gropes in the toilets. Corporal punishment, paedophilia, bestiality – it’s all here, in its nasty nakedness. All the actors are excellent. The eight characters suffering from various degrees of deterioration, degradation and senility give us resignation and resistance in equal measure. House Mother’s cruelty and perversion – shouting abuse, switching her ‘twitcher’, and panting at the thought of Ralphie the dog’s ‘long probing red tongue’– is appallingly credible. I cringe away from the screen as she breaks the fourth wall and draws us into her confidence: ‘Friend (if I may call you friend), these are also our friends…’ 

I saw it twice, once here in Duke’s Lane and before that online, and got a very different sense of the narrative each time – to the extent that I had to check with the invigilator that the piece did have a fixed soundtrack and wasn’t variable. The piece has been adapted and directed by Tim Crouch, with the films made by Shared Space and Light, and sound by Thor McIntyre. I can’t fault it conceptually or technically – the nine talking heads locked into their boxes is a brilliant way to present Johnson’s sordid and darkly funny narrative. It’s clever as can be, but leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It feels good to leave Mother behind and get out of this oppressive dark room and back into Duke’s Lane, gulping the healing and cleansing fresh air.

Neil Bartlett: Tenebrae: Lessons Learnt in Darkness. Photo Summer Dean

Tenebrae: Lessons Learnt in Darkness, on the other hand, leaves me feeling energised and nurtured, despite it being a lamentation for the past year of collective loss. Beauty can grow out of darkness, we learn. The soul is fed, and there is catharsis. The piece, which director Neil Bartlett describes as ‘a love-letter to an empty theatre’ is created with sound designer Christopher Shutt, and lighting designer Paule Constable, working in collaboration with a team of writers, singers, and musicians. 

Fifteen local writers were commissioned to write poetic texts in response to 2020. These texts (or parts thereof) are presented as pre-recorded spoken word pieces, integrated into the soundscape – the audience experiencing them in darkness from seats on the stage of the Theatre Royal, looking out at an empty auditorium that is animated by a most wonderful scenography of lights that emerge from the darkness, highlighting a balcony or a door or a row of empty seats, then fading away gently. It is hard to imagine a more moving metaphor for the past year’s losses than this gorgeously lit empty auditorium. The texts are weaved together expertly with the sigh of a cello, and the melancholic lament of angelic voices, moving around the spoken words.

Some writers focused on the obvious losses of the past year: ‘the longest year in history’ as Lucy Naish calls it. ‘We see a woman slip from a graveside,’ says Maria Amidu, ‘She is hiding her grief, gripping her house keys’. Mark Price says: ‘In this city I see so many people. I see their pain, their fear, their anger / Held within a a jutting jaw, fidgeting hands, downcast eyes.’ And Oliwafemi Hughes Jonas says, ‘I saw us seek words to explain silence, echoes of aching loss everywhere…’

For others, the subject broadens out to embrace issues heightened rather than eased by the pandemic: the environmental crisis, Black Lives Matter, homophobia, the ongoing refugee crisis… But there is hope: ‘Our spirit will never go dark’ and ‘together our stories will be told and heard’. Then, ‘ I was able to breathe again. Suddenly, I was able to shoulder the burden and carry on.’

‘Things won’t be the same when the lights come on,’ says Sam Kenyon Hamp, ‘What is important is we’re here when they do’.

Abigail Conway: The Candle Project

Light in the darkness is an obvious metaphor for both the collective mourning process and the current emergence from the pandemic, so it is not surprising that more than one work in the Brighton Festival explores this. And also that religious or quasi-religious experience is a point of reference.

Where Neil Bartlett’s Tenebrae takes its cue from a church ritual of alternating light and darkness, using all the resources that contemporary theatre lighting can offer, Abigail Conway’s Candle Project is set in an actual church (the Spire is the deconsecrated St Mark’s Church) and mostly uses that most elemental and sacred of light forms, the candle.

Throughout the last week of May, anybody who would like to can come along to the Spire to make a traditional beeswax tapered candle, with a message for a stranger placed inside. These candles are then placed into the nave of the church.

On the last day of the installation, a small invited audience, and a much larger online audience, watch as the candles are ritualistically lit: ‘As a candle slowly burns, remnant messages left behind become glimmering beacons of hope, whispers, for others to discover and take home’. This burning-down happens over an hour. Seeing the little lights gently go out is meditative and very moving. The candles provide most of the light in the space, with just a soft wash of stage lighting enhancing the beautiful architecture of the church. The secular ceremony is accompanied by choral singing, a number of local choirs involved, the voices built into a soundscape created by the artist. All well and good, with some lovely sound design in evidence – although the choir’s choice of material is sometimes suspect, and occasionally downright cringeworthy. Do any of us ever need to hear John Lennon’s Imagine ever again, be it the original or a cover version? Not I! That aside, a really beautiful and nurturing event. 

The day after the communion ceremony, participants are invited to ‘evacuate and receive’ a message from a stranger. A message in a candle rather than a message in a bottle – how lovely!  A fitting finale to a rather gentle and subdued Brighton Festival 2021 – a festival which has placed installation work at the heart of its programme.

Featured image (top): Abigail Conway: The Candle Project. Photo Rowan Briscoe

Brighton Festival 2021 ran online from 1 May, with live events from 17 May. The guest director was poet, author and broadcaster Lemn Sissay.

Semiconductor: Halo was presented 19 May to 4 June 2021 at Attenborough Centre for the Creative arts, University of Sussex 

Olafur Eliasson: The Forked Forest Path opened 18 May and continues at Fabrica until 20 June 2021

Tim Crouch: House Mother Normal ran online 1 May to 9 June 2021, and as an installation at 8 Duke’s Lane from 17 May to 6 June. 

Neil Bartlett: Tenebrae: Lessons Learnt in Darkness installation ran from dawn (4.45am) to 5pm on 22 May at the Theatre Royal Brighton, with a live performance of Couperin’s Leçons de ténèbres at 7.45pm. The writers’ texts are avialable as online short films, here:

Abigail Conway: The Candle Project ran candle-making sessions 24–28 May, 12–7pm. The Lighting Ceremony Livestream was broadcast live on 29 May at 8pm, and is currently (June 2021) still available online 

Neil Bartlett: Tenebrae: Lessons Learnt in Darkness. Photo Summer Dean