Indoor-Outdoor Landscape Theatre
Or What Would Bill Do?
The very essence of landscape theatre is that of adapting. It’s about being flexible and imaginative with the cards you’re dealt. How can you embrace the landscape to it’s most dramatic potential?
Making publicly engaged art in this new Covid world seems remarkably similar. Adapting and embracing is the mantra of the day.
I recently found myself in a high stress, rapidly changing position of artistic leadership, wondering what would Bill do?
I knew then, without a doubt, that he would make a feature out of the roller door. Here’s why.
There’s a lot to say about this past year, possibly too much. The very beginning saw a small team and I piloting a new, experimental, mostly improvised show around Cornish village halls and social clubs.
I wanted to make a tacky game show.
I wanted to explore ancient Cornish folklore, identity and rituals.
I also wanted to bridge the gap between these two seemingly very different ends of the cultural spectrum, to prove that perhaps TV game shows are just modern rites of passage in disguise. Maybe this combination isn’t so strange after all?
The idea mostly worked. We performed free, well attended, work in progress shows and spontaneous madness ensued. Yet admittedly, I was still searching for ‘The Why’ throughout.
Soon a global pandemic seized the world and the presence of theatrical entertainment swiftly fell like a badly piled up tower of pizza boxes.
So like most people, I found myself sat at home (in my shed in Camborne) with a lot of time on my hands.
During the first lockdown of 2020, I had time to scheme. By sheer chance and luck I started reading the enormously inspiring books of Welfare State International – Engineers of The Imagination (1983) and Eyes On Stalks (2002). It’s undeniable that John Fox and Sue Gill are the grand master wizards of UK outdoor theatre. Wildworks is in their debt, as is early (pre Emma Rice ) Kneehigh.
WSI’s work was about spectacle, risk, fire, community, the outdoors and rituals. In these two books they make the 70’s & 80’s sound like a time when the ideas were BIG and anything could happen. Honestly, if you find yourself feeling disillusioned about the future of the arts, I recommend that you read these books.
Soon enough I wanted to make something BIG, outdoor, chaotic, relevant, for the community and with fire, stunts & procession. I had just the thing.
I planned to adapt Pagan Pandemonium into an outdoor, Olympics style event. Suddenly the show had a new meaning, I had finally found ‘the why’; to celebrate the festivals, rituals and rites of passage that were lost this year. Every town and village has suffered. We’ve all missed birthday parties, weddings and family get-togethers. Social distancing means far more than just keeping two meters apart in the shops, it’s a broader description for what’s happening to communities across the world. We’re becoming isolated from each other in more ways than one. This year we have a lost a sense of ‘collective effervesce’.
Driven by a reaction against the outpour of online content from many arts based companies (and embarrassing celebrities) as well as the sudden abundance of one-person shows popping up, I wanted to safely create an ambitious, large scale, interactive event which encouraged a sense of communal joy. And ironically, not online.
Firstly we needed a venue. We spent many afternoons driving around Cornwall looking for ancient playing places, community parks and sports pitches. This is when I first wondered what would Bill do? He must have spent entire days of his life walking around old disused quarries and postindustrial sites, trying to imagine the logistics of a show happening there.
Eventually we whittled down the list. The perfect venues were big, centrally located within a community and usually public spaces where old people walk their dogs and teenagers get stoned. Doing it in less conventional venues such as these, would therefore extract any preconception of ‘going to the theatre’. I’m a strong believer that the word THEATRE has too many connotations (mostly posh, well scented, middle aged, white people stroking their chins) so if you can trick the public into watching theatre without having to use the word, even better.
That’s why we called it a game show. Everyone knows what that is, good old family fun. The brilliant designer Rebecca McDonald came up with a sports-day style design and Alex Heane (superb musical director) began casting a fun, loud and highly accessible band. I felt very strongly that the shows had to be free of charge. Collective joy is harder to achieve, once a transaction has taken place. And besides, what else is public funding arts for?
With the help of Wildworks’ own Charlie Bunker, as well as Will Greenham & Rufus Maurice (of Smugglers Festival) we booked the gigs, liaised with the venues and sorted out health and safety for the new Covid era. Inspired by Wildworks’ own technique of community engagement, and that of traditional TV game shows (such as It’s A Knockout & Family Fortunes) we sought out local families to compete in the games, hopefully giving the show a sense of realism, spontaneity and local community.
The funding application was successful, the creative team was assembled and excitement was in the air. It was now September and with just 3 weeks to go, we thought that this might actually happen.
But then things began to change. The 6-person rule arrived and although we technically could still go ahead, public opinion was shifting. Surely this was a sign of what was yet to come? Autumn had arrived, events were being canceled left, right and center (including Wildworks’ Meet Me At The Edge) and putting on a large scale outdoor event began to feel reckless. This was unrelated to how safe the event would be (it was probably safer coming to our show than it was going to the pub) but the fear was that we could potentially be canceled (by the powers that be) at any moment. This thought became stressful and exhausting. I worried that if we did get cancelled, we would have wasted pubic money and deprived many artists of a much-needed income.
What would Bill do? Simple. Adapt.
I decided to take our outdoor show, indoors. We would highlight the oddness of this, by joking about it in the script. Ultimately, it’s a good comment on what happens when you try and make an outdoor event in these days. Another event lost, another lesson learnt.
We would postpone all live performances until next year, but honor the contracts, still make the show and film it instead. We would make all our lives easier by going inside to The Miracle Theatre space on an industrial estate in Redruth. Miracle were welcoming and generous with the use of their props and sets, a great help at a time of need.
Rapidly I adapted the script to suit a TV show style performance. I re-watched the most recent Alan Partridge series and studied how he played with the TV format going wrong.
We had two rehearsal days and two days of filming. New people were brought on board, such as a camera crew, whilst other people’s (mainly the outdoor event specialists) job roles were quickly morphed into something new. Everyone was willing to adapt, to suit whatever position was needed. I laugh when thinking that only one person in the room had ever worked in TV before.
At first I was grumpy and stubborn about adapting the show for film. All those hours of research, developing the concept and finding locations felt wasted. The last thing I wanted to do was put another bit of un-asked-for content on YouTube. But Charlie Bunker changed my mind. Like the great producer that she is, she made it seem easy and reminded me that this film would act as the perfect advert for the bigger and better outdoor version next year. As always, she was right.
However, there was one final challenge.
During the early idea process, I had a long chat with Sue Hill (founding member of Wildworks) on how to devise a ritual for the finale of the show. I wanted to fill the audience with hope, as they left not only the venue, but also the past year behind. Sue and I discussed how the audience should take part in their own rite of passage, as they travel from B.C. (Before Corona) into the N.B. (New Beginning). Sue suggested a kind of gateway or threshold.
We would ask the audience two simple questions:
What was lost this year?
What do you hope for the future?
These would hopefully create an atmosphere of reflection and emotion. With Rebecca McDonald we devised a simple archway that would pop up by the exit and as the music swelled, we would ask the audience to process through the threshold singing, dancing and carrying their hopes for the future. This would have worked well at outdoor arenas and acted as a canny way to vacate the audience in an orderly fashion. However, we found ourselves in an industrial unit with no audience and no spectacular exit. Suddenly I knew what Bill would have done.
There was a large roller door usually used for industrial deliveries. Perfect.
We set up an avenue of classic Wildworks fire braziers in the car park and made a feature out of the rising door. The warm, well-lit security of the TV studio was exposed to the harsh, Cornish autumn winds. Then led by The Straw Bear and The Green Man, the entire cast & crew processed out of the door, through the avenue of fire and into the fading light. Leaving a lonely, sweeping janitor (a very touching cameo from my own dad).
As the roller door began to close again, the janitor downed his broom, squeezed under and joined his friends in the New Beginning. I found this to be the most pleasing moment from the whole project. We utilized the odd (indoor/outdoor) landscape for all its assets, and gave a whole new meaning to a roller door.
We’ve all had to adapt this year and making art is just the same. I think that the more we can embrace Bill’s ethos of finding beauty in what we’re given, the better off we’ll be.
Seamas Carey 2020