Friday 31 January 2014

Monthly Film: SENSELESS

This month's film is a delve into the archives. Documentation of one of our earliest durational performances, Senseless, created in collaboration with Arnolfini, Bristol, and The Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield.

This is the text of a talk I've given about Senseless over the years.

Senseless at Arnolfini, January 1998

We build three corridors. They are 30' long and 4' wide. The walls are made of translucent plastic, the ends covered by solid wooden board, the sort you get on building sites.

In each corridor we place a performer. We blindfold them and leave them inside for ten hours a day, for three days. As they move about the corridors, they trigger overhead security lights, like you get outside a house, next to the garage.

We can see the performers through the walls of the corridors: when they are close to the plastic we can see them quite clearly. As they move away, they become out of focus. It's sort of like the frosted glass in a bathroom window.

In the doors at each end of each corridor, set at different heights, are three fish-eye security viewers, sort of like the ones you get in front doors in high-rise flats. Looking through these you can see the performers live, the perspective accentuated by the black and white checked lino on the floor, like in a kitchen.

Corridor One is the Heartbeat Corridor. The performer wears headphones, listening to the sound of their own heartbeat, measuring time. Every hour they put a notch into the leg of their wooden chair with a Stanley knife. Outside the corridor, next to the spy-holes, hangs a set of headphones, allowing the audience to listen to the performer's heartbeat with them.

Corridor Two is the Rooms Corridor. At each end there are headphones, through which we can listen to the performer, who is speaking very quietly into a microphone taped to their face. This is an audio close up to contrast with the wide shot presented by fisheye lenses in the spy-holes. The performer's job is to describe, in as much detail as they can, every room that they have ever lived in, and then to invent their ideal bedroom, bathroom or kitchen. As they describe these rooms, they draw them in marker pen onto the walls of the corridor.

Corridor Three is the Photographs Corridor. The Performer is armed with Polaroid Camera, and a Dymo Sticky Label maker. Each hour the performer takes a Polaroid of their environment, and then, still blindfold, they print out a label for it, letter by letter. They hang the labelled picture in front of one of the spy-holes at the end of the corridor.

It is noon on Friday the 23 January 1998. Rachael, Heather and Jamie are in their corridors. Our friend, photographer Helen Sharma, is in the space armed with a digital stills camera. Every hour we will upload three photographs of the installation onto the Internet. The soundtrack, by Sheffield composer John Avery, begins, combining ambient music with sounds of the outside world: church bells, a police siren, wind and rain, a Tibetan monk singing...

We open the doors to the small audience that is waiting. The corridors glow with security light as the performers go about their tasks. For the next three, ten-hour, days, I watch the audience as much as the performers.

The performers get bored, pissed off, a little hysterical, tearful, desperate for a fag, lonely. On the first day, over the ten hours, two of them use the secret escape password: Is there anybody there? to be let out to go to the toilet. On the second day we prescribe a ten-minute break, five hours in. On the last day Heather and Rachael stay inside all day, but Jamie has to be let out three times.

The audience come and go. They begin touching the performers through the plastic, stroking their heads, playing follow-my-lead games. Unnervingly, quite a few people get into power games with the blindfolded, imprisoned performers: trying to beat them in the hand chasing games, pushing against them through the plastic in some sort of show of strength. The performers, it seems to me, are often treated more like animals than people.

Some people do talk to them, ask them both banal and fundamental questions about the work, or about life. They play music to the performers, through personal stereo headphones. Some of them find cannot leave. Many of them come back, later that day, or the next. One man goes home, downloads a photo from the Internet, and writes us a poem underneath it, prints it out and brings it in for us the next day.

The blindfold drawings of rooms are quite beautiful and the audience co-operate to view this corridor, the person with headphones relaying what is being described to other people watching the drawing ten feet away. But it becomes apparent that this is the hardest corridor to occupy: the pressure is to talk constantly; describing rooms they lived in as children, the performers stumble across memories that are perhaps better dealt with in a less public arena. This corridor has the most tears.

Each day the audience thins out between 7 and 8 pm, and the performers go off duty, coming to rest in their corridors like giant stick insects, bored and hungry. As the end of the day nears, the audience picks up again, people who came at lunchtime, and then after work, come in as part of their night out.

They want to see the performers get released, to see what state they are in, but we don't let them. We close the doors to the public each night, before opening up the corridors at 10pm and letting the performers out. 


Third Angel presents Senseless
Devised, Designed and Performed by Heather Burton, Jamie Iddon, Alexander Kelly and Rachael Walton
Photography by Kate Boddington, Robert Hardy and Helen Sharma
Directed by Alexander Kelly and Rachael Walton
Documentation by Christopher Hall & Alexander Kelly
Special thanks to Bridget Mazzey

Commissioned by Arnolfini Live and the Mappin Art Gallery. Funded by Yorkshire & Humberside Arts and Sheffield City Council. Supported by Gremlin Interactive, DED Associates, the northern media school, SYM and SIF.

Thursday 16 January 2014

Life & Loves 4: Things come back

Wednesday, week 2. We're getting in to the detail of the show, now. We've moved rehearsal space to The Montgomery Theatre's studio, just the other side of Tudor Square. We're still making new material, but we're rehearsing more, interrogating how things will happen, physically, logistically. How they should feel. The set is more complete, more precise. 

We spent some time last week developing the way paper works as part of the set, having gone with a simplified version for the sake of time back in Bradford. Last week the paper wasn't playing ball, and was proving something of a headache. Some discussion of vertical, perpendicular and sag. So we spent a fair bit of time this Monday trying out cloth as an alternative to paper. We got into an interesting discussion (well, interesting to us at least) about how cloth, whilst more beautiful when stretched taut, feels more like a screen than paper does, and how we were less keen on that. We want a material that feels more like an object, less like a 2D surface. By the end of the day we were back using paper, pretty much in the same way we were in Bradford.

Other stuff comes back from longer ago. As noted earlier, there have been several incarnations of this show, several voices, that have been discarded along the way. But those early versions clearly had something we were interested in. Details, a feeling, something, that made them stepping stones rather than dead-ends. But something about them wasn't right, so they were put aside, whole.

Now we're at the stage where we know what the show is, we know who the performers are, what the task of their story-telling is. We make passes through the material, adding detail, finding and reinforcing connections. And we go back, inevitably to some of those earlier voices that had something

The very first version of the show, called All About The Full Stops, contained the image of the narrator, as a young girl, sitting on the sofa with her grandad, watching old films and musicals on a black and white TV. Mention of it was no longer than that last sentence, but Rachael and I had both commented on how we liked it. As we've moved sections and text around this week, things got bumped, gaps appeared. And then Rachael called me on evening to read me a new text for one of the gaps. The image of the girl, watching movies with her grandad, revisited and stayed with for longer.

I love the way moments like this point back to show you the way you have come, help you map your own journey to where you've got to - and, I guess, help you understand what's going on in what you've got. They remind you of your early thoughts and interests in these ideas, in this material. Look, this is where it started. This has been here all along.

Saturday 11 January 2014

Life & Loves 3: Stagger Through

The Friday Afternoon 3pm Stagger Through, that inevitably becomes a 4.30pm Stagger Through. For those of you not familiar with the term, 'Stagger Through' is theatre slang for the first time you put it all together, but it would be unrealistically optimistic to call it a 'run' through. I suspect it started as a joke, but it seems to me that it is used fairly normally now.

I always find it tricky running material in rehearsal that has already been in front of an audience. Much as the Lyceum Theatre rehearsal room is a great space - and one in which we've made some work we're really proud of over the years, now I think of it - it's not a particularly technically equipped space. (In fact the daylight, the views of Sheffield and the airiness of the room are what make it so refreshing). Watching the run stagger on Friday afternoon, without lighting, and with only rudimentary sound (as Ivan couldn't be with us), and with a half constructed environment/set, it became clear how important the atmosphere, the world, of this show is. We've dipped back into the video of November's performance at Theatre in the Mill a few times this week, to check on things - how did we do that? - and whilst rough and ready, the feel of the piece is distinctive.

This means making the new material, and weaving it in to the existing sections, we're thinking about, we're imagining to an extent, how they will be influenced/ emphasised/undercut by the environment around them, and how they will affect the balance of the show they become part of. I'm aware, as I write this, that I have a sense of 'no spoilers!', not wanting to give too much away. But; we're balancing the light and dark, joy and tragedy of a normal person's life - the Nobody of the title. We're playing with the tone, feel, voice of the show, of the storytelling, in relation to the emotions and events of the narrative. And we are asking ourselves, (how) does this articulate our thoughts and questions about what we think the work is about? And by 'this', of course, we don't just mean the words, we mean the visuals, the sound, the environment, the atmosphere. 

Writing in the Evening Standard this week, Conor McPherson, who's play The Weir is one of the most compelling things I've seen and heard on a proscenium stage (I was surprised to realise at the time), observes 
No playwright knows what their play is even about until actors start performing it. 
As is often the case, we've found ourselves acting/performing and writing this show at the same time. But McPherson's observation is certainly resonant for me - making (the material that makes up) a show, is a process of us figuring out what it's about, and why we're so intrigued and bothered about that.

So, whilst we missed the atmosphere in our afternoon Stagger Through, we also recognised the strengths of what's there, and confirmed where the gaps are - narratively, physically. So that's our weekend homework. Thinking about a couple of branches for further exploration.

Thanks again to Marcus Sarko and Clive Egginton for the photos in this post.
Booking details for The Life & Loves of a Nobody are here.

Thursday 9 January 2014

Life & Loves 2: Getting on with it

Thursday. Busy day. It felt like we were bigger than the room we were in.

There are days in the devising process where everyone takes their lunch at different times. We're all making the same thing in the same room at the same time, but we're all looking after our own bit of it. At some point someone will check what we're all thinking. Is it one of those days? 'Cos it would be good for us to break now, but I can see you're in the middle of something...

Today was one of those days. The team has grown throughout the week; as well as the core five of us, we've been joined by Tech Manager Craig Davidson, we've been dragging Hilary from her General Manager desk to teach us jive and Lindy Hop, and we've been visited by our friend and PhD student, Deborah Newton, who, although she was there to observe, inevitably got drawn in to the conversations about the work...

And today it got even busier. We were joined by the brilliant Stacey Sampson, who came in record some voice over for us, and some kind-of-choral vocals. Chris Thorpe sent us in a recording of a song, having found a piano to play it on somewhere in the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Those last two gave Ivan plenty to do, building up the soundscape for three separate sections in the middle of the show.

We were also joined by photographers Clive Egginton (who followed the What I Heard About the World process with us) and Marcus Sarko, whose photos accompany this post.

Andrew spent much of the day making new butterflies, and he and Craig found themselves wrestling with some logistical issues to do with big rolls of paper - problems we thought we'd solved in Bradford re-emerging as the structure of the space has developed. 

And Rachael and Nick spent most of the day on their feet.

At about 4pm, it all seems to come together. A run through of some stuff. Our initial plan was to make all new material this week, and then spend all of next week rehearsing & editing the new and the existing material. Inevitably there has been some blurring of that. Today was focussed on the middle third of the show - mainly new material - and how it affects what we already have. There's a recurring discussion about the tense of the story telling. The show seems to come just a little more in to focus.

Which leads to thinking about what fits, and what doesn't fit, in this now slightly clearer vision of the show. Yesterday and today both saw two favourite things - one just a gag, one a bigger physical element - put on the 'watch list'. We like them, in themselves, but they both might cause the rest of the show bigger problems than they solve. I always find this difficult, but as ever, we have to remember, the audience won't miss them like we do - because they won't know they were a possibility.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Life & Loves 1: Picking up where we left off

Back in November we spent four weeks working on our new show, The Life & Loves of a Nobody. At the start of the month we pulled together our existing research from a variety of sources:

  • A 30 minute solo piece Rachael had written and performed a couple of years ago, called All About The Full Stops, about a girl who runs away to the circus, looking for love and escape (and doesn't find either).
  • Some more recent texts Rachael wrote in response to a week's R&D at ARC (thank you team ARC!) in September, and for mala voadora & Mundo Perfeito's 10 Anos Marathon Performance in October.
  • Research about the life of Joseph Grimaldi (particularly The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott).

We talked about circuses, talent shows, entertainment as social control. We watched some Black Mirror and some Hunger Games. We revisited Chris Bachelder's Bear v Shark. We talked about how contestants on (things like) The X-factor talked about how this was their "one chance", their "only chance", how they "couldn't go back" to their other lives. And we thought about how those opportunities to escape always seem to be to allow one person to escape a long way, at the expense of those around them, rather than helping everyone escape by a shorter distance.

We were joined by devisor performer Nick Chambers (who worked with us on The Lad Lit Project, and have wanted to work with again since then) and designer Andrew Stephenson (an exciting development for us, as Rachael and I usually lead on design ourselves). We began to build a life story out of those conversations, and talk about the entertainment of the future. Much of our original material began to fall away, as we began to explore new territory as a new team: the four of us jointly devising the world of the show, Rachael leading on pinning down the route through it.

We moved to Theatre in the Mill for the last week of November, where we were joined by Sound Designer Ivan Mack and, for a couple of days, Chris Thorpe. Chris asked some useful, difficult questions, closing some avenues of exploration, and opening others. Ivan began to build a soundscape out of the physical tasks that we had brought into the theatre. The rest of the team at Theatre in the Mill gave us the time and space and support we needed (thank you team Theatre in the Mill).

When we're making work, we're often trying to find, is what the task of telling the story is in this project, how that task explores what we want the show to be about. By this point on The Life & Loves of a Nobody, we were using the phrase "storybook" to describe how the show works, and building images for different chapters. And the show was in traverse. The process felt like a familiar, older one. And here's a thing. I don't know if other companies do this, but when we're making new work we talk (to each other at least), about which of our earlier shows the new show shares a heritage with. Which point does the new piece branch off from? With this piece we feel a connection back through 9 Billion Miles from Home, through Believe The Worst, to Experiment Zero and The Killing Show. It's the feel of the world, the balance of narrative, text, task and the visuals and environment of the show. I'm excited about that.

At the end of the week we showed a 45 minute version of the show, and had a really good conversation with the audience afterwards - who asked some useful questions, and gave some useful, surprising, encouraging answers.

Then we immediately went to spend two weeks on a new show with mala voadora, as part of Warwick Arts Centre's Triggered programme (thank you team WAC) then it was you know, Christmas and New Year, and then it was this week.

We're back at base, as it were, in the Lyceum Theatre rehearsal room (thank you team Sheffield Theatres, our co-producers). Two days in and we've been reflecting on what we've got, asking ourselves what the show is, refining the rules. Reconstructing the narrative. Better understanding what the task of the story telling is. Building on what we have - nearly all of what we showed in Bradford is still there - developed and re-ordered. Adding song and dance. And Andrew has brought in some great, specialised gubbins for the structure of the set. Look...