The Outdoor Arts sector is back with a bang! Dorothy Max Prior goes to Great Yarmouth for the Out There International Festival of Circus and Street Arts 2021
People out and about – lots of them, in the park, at the town centre market place, and along the seafront. Families, and gaggles of teenagers, and couples young and old (and all things in between). A mash-up of English, Portuguese, Polish and Arabic in the air, reflecting the make-up of the local population. Happy people, strolling, chatting, eating ice creams, watching shows of all sorts. Static and walkabout street theatre shows. Shows set on big circus rigs, circle shows, and fire shows. Shows in shop windows… There’s acrobatics, juggling, physical comedy, dance, live music, DJs. Installations and augmented reality. Art and craft workshops. Pop-up coffee shops and food stalls. It’s all here, and now. It feels so – normal.
It’s been a while. Yes, stuff has happened over the past 18 months (and not just over Zoom). Yes, the outdoor arts sector has been more resilient to the impact of Covid than venue-based theatre. And yes – as Outdoor Arts UK chair Angus MacKechnie said in a session for the Bounce Back professional programme – the sector has expanded rapidly as venues realised that taking work outdoors was an option. But this is a key moment: the first big, brash, full-on outdoor arts festival post-pandemic.
Which leaves us with a few questions to reflect on. Where is the outdoor arts sector now, after the devastation of the 2020 and 2021 summer seasons? How has the pandemic impacted established street theatre and outdoor artists and companies? How are they recovering and reinstating themselves? And what of those newcomers, eagerly signing up to the outdoor arts scene?
There was plenty of evidence of bouncing back in style after the ‘shitstorm’ (Angus again!) of the past 18 months. Diehards of the outdoor arts scene presenting work at Out There 2021 included Whalley Range All Stars, Dizzy O’Dare, Hocus Pocus Theatre, Bureau of Silly Ideas, The Flying Buttresses, Jon Hicks, Plunge Boom, and Circo Rum Ba Ba.
In fact, Whalley Range All Stars (Edward Taylor and Sue Auty) managed not one but two premieres. In Godzillatown, shifted from the cancelled Stockton International Riverside Festival to Out There, audience members are invited to collect and fold a Godzilla mask (with help on hand for those who struggle with card and tape) and then to enter the ‘town’, negotiating a 10 metre by 10 metre maze of cartoonish buildings, whilst trying to avoid collision with fellow Godzillas. One of the delights of the piece is seeing people exiting in their Godzilla masks, wandering off towards the seafront or into the park, which creates a lovely additional performative feature to the piece. I did feel, whilst in the maze, that the town was a little small, and perhaps could be expanded. But then I realised that it was the perfect size for the small children who’d come in behind me, who for once in their lives could feel big and strong. And pragmatically, if the street maze had been bigger (and time in it therefore longer) the long queue of eager Godzillas waiting their turn would have been even longer!
Their other show, Glock & Beretta, How? Why? What? is an absolute delight. Supported by Out There Arts (so this one was always intended to premiere in Yarmouth), it’s a witty piece of Kamishibai theatre – literally ‘paper drama’ as Edward tells us at the start, although pointing out that in this case, the images are printed on PVC rather than paper. Deprived of live gigs, Edward Taylor spent his lockdown drawing and painting for three different projects: two books and this show, which uses a grand total of 65 A3-sized drawings. The effect is of a graphic novel brought to life. It’s delightfully low-tech – just Sue pulling the images in and out of the simple frame-stage wooden box construction that she has built, whilst Edward tells us a tale of ‘destructive children, dogged journalists, military intervention, and nuns’. The images of deserted streets and shopping centres are an eery evocation of locked-down cities – although in this case, people aren’t isolating in their homes, they are stuck in a traffic jam that runs the length of the land. Edward is a good storyteller, taking the audience into his confidence, and Sue is a lovely foil, the two sharing moments of gentle humour. Although this show is a new direction for them, being something that can be played indoors or out rather than specifically a ‘street arts’ show, their experience in making work for the outdoors is apparent in the delivery of the piece and the easy-going relationship with audience.
The same is true of Dizzy O’Dare, whose Falconry Dismay is a far larger and noisier affair, yet shares that same sense of confidence and control, a strong relationship with audience always evident. There’s a great set-up, with our safari-suited host Kevin Tickle revving up the crowd, priming us for a real-life display of majestic birds of prey, whetting our appetite for the encounters we are about to have with these wondrous creatures. And yes, here they are! Malvolio the theatrical vulture, who unfortunately tries to mate with a man in a blue Adidas shirt, mistaking the blue for the plumage of a lady vulture, then foolishly feasting on poisoned food; Princess the owl, who scuttles on to the tune of ‘I’m Every Woman’, and is on the look out for worms (a cue for the audience to waggle their fingers, causing many a small child to squeal excitedly); and – the jewel in the crown – Boo Boo the peregrine falcon, fresh from Dollywood in Texas, with her killer talons and a flight speed of 250mph, making her ‘the fastest creature on earth’. Or in the air, I suppose. I very much enjoy these little educational facts that we are fed, in amongst the fabulous clowning, physical comedy and audience interaction from the four-person team. Great bird costumes too!
I also much enjoyed Circo Rum Ba Ba’s Box, which features – yes, you’ve guessed – a mysterious box sat on the decking outside festival HQ Drill House. Demonstrating a lovely relationship between music and physical performance, the box comes to life to the sounds of gypsy jazz, swing and tango, as errant limbs and eyes on stalks pop out. As things build, we meet a wonderful succession of strange creatures: beaky birds and big-mouthed fish, people with lobster claws, and headless worms with oogly-googly eyes. All of these fabulous beasts break free from their box and run into the audience, tickling teens and chasing toddlers. The box is also used nicely as a performance podium for the acrobalance, contortion and hand-balancing work from this two-woman team. Clever puppetry and object manipulation, a lovely score, and a great display of circus skills all delivered with more than a dash of humour – this is a show that sparkles with charm and competence.
Over in the park, other circus-skills shows include Italian/Argentinian Duo Musawa’s V.O.G.O.T. an elegant and fluid duet merging circus (acrobalance, hand-to-hand) and dance, which I caught a section of as I passed through the park (and this, of course, is often how it is at street arts festivals – things you’d like to catch are missed, or seen in part, in passing); and the excellent Strong Enough, exploring circus strong lady Charmaine’s personal journey from fat schoolgirl who comes last in the sports day races to successful circus base and demonstrator of feats of strength, all this paired nicely with recorded verbatim stories of strength and resilience. If I Can’t See You, by Living Room Circus, featured a good-size rig on which was suspended a sofa, the site for a witty aerial exploration of isolation and connection, via the power of pop.
In the town centre market place, a large dance stage and a few near-by pitches are used for 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. This strand of work is supported by Out There partners Freshly Greated. Artists appearing include Morocco’s Said Mouhssine with a show called Routine; and Joseph Toonga with Born to Protest, a new hip hop dance work. I enjoy Born to Protest with its vibrant and energetic choreography for an ensemble of five, four men and one woman. It explores cliches around representation of Black men and women, and I find myself musing on my own inherent racist responses to the sound of loud shouting from Black people, which white people have been culturally programmed to view as aggressive. It is a dance piece set on a stage, rather than an outdoor arts piece per se – there is most definitely a ‘fourth wall’, and I would have preferred to see it set at audience level rather than on high. But there’s room for all sorts in a festival like Out There. Said Mouhssine’s Routine is performed ground-level, on three sides, with a chalked-on back wall that is used very nicely. Mixing Chinese Pole, acrobatics, and physical action/interaction with the space, it is augmented by an excellent soundtrack by Arash Sarkechik, blending music from a variety of cultures with sampled sounds and spoken text in French, English and Arabic. Although it doesn’t feature any audience interaction, the connection with audience feels solid throughout the show, which is an exploration of boredom, tedium, and insomnia, perhaps inspired by the boundaries imposed on young people’s lives by the pandemic. The various props and objects – a mattress-sofa, cushions, clothing, and the pole itself – are engaged with carefully and employing strong dramaturgical logic in a push-and-pull between inertia and energy. A beautiful and inspiring piece of work – Said has a lovely stage presence as well as being a gifted physical performer.
All the above are static shows – circle shows, or with a back wall, or on a dance stage. There are also a number of promenade and/or site-responsive works in this year’s festival.
Ghosted, created by Eastenders writer James McDermott and director Marcus Romer for Yarmouth’s St George’s Theatre, follows six Norfolk teenagers as they investigate the disappearance of a schoolfriend whose clothes are found on the beach. The writer’s stated objective is to make a piece of live theatre inspired by TV soaps and Netflix series. (But why, I wonder?) Rather oddly, Ghosted is just part one of what is intended to be an ongoing series. So we don’t get to discover what has happened to the disappeared teen, which is frustrating. The writing is good enough, the acting is feisty, and the journey along the prom – taking us from the overload of neon arcades and noisy bars on one side of the pier to the deserted dunes and shelters on the other – is enjoyable (although it was a little odd to be walked down to a deserted part of the beach then left there). But this is clearly a piece made by people who don’t make outdoor work. The site is used in the most minimal way, and there is little or no physical action in the space – it’s all mostly talking heads. The decision to mic up the actors and put the audience in headphones creates an odd dissonance between audience and actors, as we are more often than not stood in a line staring forward at a framed scene, almost as if viewing a film on-screen – although I do enjoy the between-scenes soundtrack. The only scene that really owns its site features two gay male characters (one of whom is in denial, despite proposing marriage to his boyfriend) that happens outside a seafront bar, drinkers and dog-walkers providing a backdrop, with the sound of The Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm’ booming out. So, Ghosted has some nice bits but I left confused – wondering why they didn’t just make a film or TV series if that’s where their ambition lies.
Compare and contrast with Square Two by Dutch company Tall Tales. Also a promenade work. Also placing the audience in headphones. But my goodness, these people know what they are doing and why! We gather in a yard, and are asked to sit on numbered stools, set in a horseshoe. After a small technical hitch (which the performer – company co-founder Harm van der Laan – deals with calmly, with grace and humour), it starts. Sitting facing us he juggles, and talks as he does, explaining the basic principles of juggling, calling out the moves: 411 – 411 – 31 – 31 – 411. This, he notes, could be an algorithm, a password or perhaps a code. He hopefully asks if anybody in the audience is a coder, but sadly none of us are! The piece is based on the mathematical artwork of Dutch visual artist Don Satijn, and explores how codes can be the basis of movement and juggling. As someone who has always enjoyed experiencing the relationship between patterns, sequences and sets in choreography, I’m delighted when we’re invited to stand up in numerical order and follow the leader on to the next site, where we are instructed to find a circle with our number on it (I’m 13 – auspicious!). Here, in the beautifully wild Dissenters Graveyard, a lone juggler is working quietly alongside a metal sculpture, one of the artworks that inspired the piece, the stone walls and ancient trees of the graveyard her backdrop. On the other side of this strange little secret garden, three jugglers now work together. Just outside, whilst our attention is diverted by following along in the right order and finding a circle to stand on, one of the three performers has climbed on top of a building and is throwing higher and higher into the sky, the voice in our ears ruminating on chaos theory, Newtonian physics, and perpetual motion. We are led out into a maze of back alleys and courtyards, each stop offering us perfectly choreographed solos, duets or trios. At one point, we are split (via instructions arriving in our headphones) into three sets to experience three lovely solo scenes – in one, Harm van der Laan is continuing his investigation of numerical sequencing and coding, inviting audience members to change the juggling patterns by swapping over numbered blocks set on a small table. The two men perform a wonderfully gentle and moving contact dance/juggling number. The woman is seen sitting on a chair at the end of an alley, on the cusp of the high street, passers-by looking on curiously. We are instructed to ‘follow our guide’ creeping ever-forward toward her in an odd game of Grandmother’s Footsteps. The soundtrack on our headphones gives us a mix of music and philosophical musings: ‘you have to know the rules to break the rules’ resonates. The ending is a lovely coup de theatre, as we turn a corner to find our three jugglers working away behind glass in a shop window. Beautifully choreographed, elegantly performed, with a great soundtrack and a fabulous use of site. That’s the way to do it!
Also making use of a shop window – in this case the sadly now-closed Palmers department store – and equally fabulous in a completely different way is Insect Circus supremo Mark Copeland’s latest venture: The Equidae Retirement Home for Pantomime Horses. Behind glass, microphone in hand, we see Mark in his latest character guise – Edgar ‘Gar’ Feral, a Country & Western fan, part-time cowboy and would-be care home boss; dressed splendidly in sky-blue fringed shirt and trews, with (of course) cowboy boots and a natty hat. Gar introduces us to Carol the career carer, another fabulous character, played by Sarah Munro. Her costume is equally meticulous – gingham shirt, PVC tabard and white Mary-Jane shoes, plus a blonde bob and a packet of fags for her tea break. Carol fetches Old Paint, the home’s first resident – and the tomfoolery begins. As Gar sells us the charms of the care home, Carol and Old Paint line-dance to the Johnny Cash classic ‘I Walk the Line’; and Carol coaches Old Paint in his gymkhana skills (the poor old dear does struggle a little here). I’m so busy watching all this fabulous horsey nonsense that it’s only as I walk away at the end of the show that some of Gar’s lines hit home: apparently, the pantomime sea-horses will be on the top floor so they get a sea view; and the basement will be given over to the pantomime pit-ponies, who’ll get a reduced rent in return for time on the treadmill generating electricity for the home. In true Insect Circus tradition, attention to detail is everything: the shop window is set up as a sitting room papered in pink horsey wallpaper, with horse portraits on the wall and a shelf unit filled with ultra-kitsch plastic and china pony ornaments. Cheery posters advertising the retirement home’s rates are given pride of place. Old Paint himself is gorgeous – a lovely design, and beautifully inhabited and animated by Persephone Pearl (rear end) and Freya Watson (front). Oh, what a splendid idea. And oh, how joyfully realised.
Then, there are the ’big draw’ shows.
Puppets With Guts’ The Lips features a chorus of delightfully deviant divas whose mouths have broken free from their bodies, allowing them to lip-synch and jive to an exhilarating mix of much-loved pop tunes, with a bit of a slant towards hen party karaoke classics: ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’, ‘It’s Raining Men’, ‘Kiss’… You get the picture. The lyrics roll by above us so we can sing along. The big gang of girls on a night out who are sitting behind me particularly like Beyonce’s ‘All the Single Ladies’, and the two Spice Girl numbers. There’s a few blasts of pyrotechnics – showers and fountains and red smoke erupting out from the ‘lips’ every so often – but it’s mostly all about the tunes. Yes, it’s a one-trick pony, but it works and it’s a genuine crowd-pleaser – I end up seeing it twice in St George’s Park after dark, and both times it’s very well received. It was also presented in a promenade version during the day, and was featured as part of the Friday night Cobholm Island Beach Party, which saw Out There Festival take itself off to a part of the Yarmouth community less likely to come into town for arts activities.
Community engagement is a key feature of the festival, and the Great Yarmouth version of The Lips includes a lovely troupe of young dancers from Afro Lusa and Broadway Bellas – two local community dance groups – who join in stage-front for the early part of the show, then morph into the crowd, still dancing, as proud parents cheer them on.
Galician company Pistacatro’s Orquesta De Malabares – another of the big crowd-pleaser shows – takes it all a stage further, re-devising and co-creating their show wherever they present it. A core-company of six jugglers perform in front of, and interact with, an amateur orchestra from the host region – in this case, Norwich City Concert Band, who give us a cheery mix of light classical and pop tunes (from ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ to ‘Delilah’). The work by the core team of jugglers is excellent. We get clever solo and ensemble club and ball routines; and lots of lovely physical theatre games, including a feisty Musical Chairs, and various takes on those classic vaudevillian upstaging skits we know from the likes of Abbott and Costello or Morecambe and Wise, each juggler in turn trying their best to steal the limelight (a way of showcasing everyone’s talents). There’s some brilliant clowning as mock fights break out between the jugglers, and between jugglers and orchestra. The core company performers are always generous in their interactions with the local musicians, and everyone works together to give us a hearty blend of physical comedy, music, and skilful juggling. The crowd laps it all up, giving the company a standing ovation at the end of the show.
Paka’s fire sculptures aren’t officially in the programme – it’s more that he is going to be featured in Out There’s coming Fire on the Water festival later in the autumn, and is giving the people of Yarmouth a taster. As metallic saxophones and tubas puff and bellow smoke and fire, there are excited roars and squeals from the crowd. It’s interesting to note how many of the young adult male population are here – the very demographic Out There were trying to entice into the festival with the high-energy acrobatics of the Extremities programme. Fire, that is clearly what young men like and want!
My time at Out There finishes on a massive high (literally) with UNITY by Gorilla Circus, reflected on here – a really interesting blend of powerful political theatre and extraordinarily skilled aerial circus.
Just three days, but what an action packed three days! A full-on outdoor arts programme. A fabulous professionals day, Bounce Back, which sees an Artists’ Marketplace, and not one but two Total Theatre Magazine events: a Total Theatre Talks addressing Artists at the Crossroads post-pandemic, and a Total Theatre Training session called Script, Score, Storyboard, reflecting on writing outdoor arts, circus and site-responsive shows. And perhaps best of all, a chance to be with people. To meet and greet; to share food and gossip; to see shows together and talk about them afterwards over a drink.
It’s what we’ve all needed for so long – it’s so, so good to be bouncing back!
Featured image (top): Puppets With Guts: The Lips on the streets of Great Yarmouth for Out There Festival 2021. Photo by David Street
Out There Arts / National Centre for Outdoor Arts and Circus produces the Out There International Festival in Great Yarmouth each September, as well as 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. https://outtherearts.org.uk/
Out There Festival took place across Great Yarmouth 17–19 September 2021.
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 https://outtherearts.org.uk/event/fire-on-the-water/