Emerge Festival – Day Three

Get Yourself Together and TANK

So the Emerge Festival at Warwick Arts Centre has finished and everyone is exhausted and happy and relieved. It’s been (certainly in my eyes) a success. There have heated political discussions which divided rooms of intellectual and rational people, shows of really inspirational quality, and a bubbling sense of theatre being this elusive and amazing thing which can bring us together in the best ways but also ideologically tear us apart.

The two shows last night couldn’t have been more different, I don’t think. We began with Get Yourself Together – a one man piece about depression and our attitude to mental health devised and performed by Josh Coates. Some shows about mental health can be pretty insensitive, vibing off a Sarah Kane asylum theme with a lot of screaming and hospital gowns. This one, thank god, wasn’t like that at all. It was real and felt so tangible. Josh created a space with us where he shared some pretty heart wrenching stuff and yet he wasn’t deterred from making us laugh and becoming our friends. A big thing about mental health issues is quite often it feels like it can create a barrier when it’s talked about because people will probably either offer short term solutions, like a calming tea, or back away completely. It was pretty significant that Josh formed a place where those things weren’t going to happen. He related himself to us and allowed us into his world for just a short moment. In particular, actually, men’s mental health is stigmatised to a terrifying degree and because of our gender binaries and social constructions of masculinity, men are often made to feel as if they can’t talk about feeling sad and they can’t cry. I think the great thing about Josh’s show was that he smashed through these assumptions and came out the other side and was accepted. He opened up the conversation. He even left leaflets outside and offered to chat to people if they needed but also he encouraged the conversation to continue, which it did.

TANK, created and performed by Breach Theatre, was about creating a discourse between ‘us’ and ‘the other’. Breach Theatre’s show focused on the relationship between a dolphin, named Peter, and a researcher, Margaret. She attempts, as part of an experiment that happened in the 1960s, to teach this dolphin English. This actually happened though. Some of the script was verbatim and honestly I don’t think I’ll ever really get to grips with science but the 1960s were clearly a very weird time. The conversation TANK was creating was really about the colonial mind-set within the imperialist culture forming in America at the moment. It was about how we force ourselves onto those who don’t want or need us. The metaphor used to approach this pertinent topic was, frankly, ingenious – although the audience knew they were watching a show about a dolphin in an experiment, the fact that Joe was an actual person playing a dolphin in a show where the dolphin is a metaphor for actual people made it all the more disturbing and unsettling.

Opening up the conversation then, Josh’s show was about creating a safe space to connect with those around you in order to destigmatise a rhetoric surrounding an important political topic, while TANK was about creating a metaphor for the dehumanising of the other as a way to start and inform the ongoing conversation of xenophobia in the Western world. Both were about breaking down barriers, but one was through love and the other through force. Within TANK there were also various circling communities which formed and intersected with each other, creating a dialogue which was disputed and argued over throughout, in classic Crimp style. In Josh’s show there was his individual community and then there was ours – the one with Josh and the audience. Both shows played with the idea of subjectivity, and who gets to decide what you are and how you’re supposed to be.

After the shows we had a post-show talk as well, about the move from student theatre to professional theatre making. The general consensus seemed to be that it was hard, like really very hard, but also incredibly fulfilling. It’s kind of the ultimate goal to find people who you like making theatre with and then be able to do that for a sustained period of time. It’s obviously not easy but it’s not impossible which it definitely feels like sometimes, especially when the only thing people say to someone with a theatre degree is ‘Oh that’s a hard industry to get into, maybe start looking for a back-up plan’. I also think something that isn’t addressed often enough is that by making the distinction between ‘student theatre’ and ‘professional theatre’ a binary begins to form and it feels like certain criteria have to be met. Especially when the phrase ‘it was good for student theatre’ comes into the equation. It can be damaging to both students and professionals because surely everyone’s theatre should be judged on the same level. What was so great about Emerge was that there was work created by current students with graduates and stuff performed by recent graduates and not so recent graduates, and by people who had never even been here – but it was all put on the same level. Everyone was accepted and judged equally and that worked really well. Some of the best theatre I’ve seen all year has been here in these three days. Communities formed beautifully and were catastrophically broken down in an eclectic amalgamation of exciting work and interesting, insightful people.

Bring on next year.

Also – the company that curated and ran the festival, Barrel Organ, have their show Some People Talk About Violence going on tour next week – go check it out, buy tickets, and enjoy.

The Stigma in Devising Theatre

Originally written for Noises Off

There is a pressure to be ‘edgy’ with devised theatre which results in a need to inject intensely dark, psychotic themes at the end. This pressure causes a stigma amongst some theatregoers, who assume that student devised theatre might as well be a place to throw in all the ideas you’ve ever had into one big cauldron of crazy. You make people laugh with some cheesy puns, introduce some super-speedy character development and then drastically turn the tables to reveal the stew infested with stereotypically insane connotations.

Fete juxtaposed a quintessentially British summer day with the inside of a mentally unstable man’s mind; classic A-Level devising. This world is all too familiar to the sixth formers sitting in that audience – just last year I created a GCSE devised piece which gave me unadulterated freedom to completely let rip. We created a children’s-party-turned-porno-turned-cult piece which was unbelievably fun to play with and exploit, but it wasn’t some of the best theatre in the country by any stretch of the imagination. Fete was a piece which blew people’s minds at this festival and was lapped up by a lot of distinguished theatre people such as yourselves, but from a student’s perspective it wasn’t anything drastically different from what we usually see and experience every year.

As they discussed, there was a problem in having to adhere to a mark scheme, but that wasn’t an excuse for some definite sloppiness. And it was in this discussion that I noticed the surprisingly shallow level to which these performers had delved into their work; they explained that they were exploring any and all mental illnesses and were not consciously thinking about the different ways an audience would read their play. It was at that moment that the all too familiar echo of devising theatre with a dark twist for the sake of aesthetic dawned on me. Inherently, this kind of performance is where that stigma surrounding students’ devising stems from.

There is no question that Fete had its merits, but never have I experienced something as immersive, hyper and enjoyable as The Nutcracker. From the detail in (UVA) set designs to the intensely engaging actors who fully embodied each character they played, The Nutcracker cast an unforgettable spell on its entranced audience. So overwhelming was this piece of immersive theatre that I forgot for the evening that it wasn’t Christmas and I felt transported into the intricate dreamscape of Billy. Every figment of imagination personified in the tree, cowboy, robot and ballerina beamed with life and a total joy which was infectious.

The Nutcracker is a wonderful and beautiful exception to the aforementioned rule. ‘Original’ and ‘unique’ are not credit high enough to applaud the skill that went into the structure and logistics of such a piece.  When comparingFete and The Nutcracker one is struck by their similarity in attempting to introduce the audience into a different world – the extent to which The Nutcracker reached into the livelihood of the story has been unmatched so far at NSDF. I wanted to see a company do something new and exceptional and crazy – that’s what The Nutcracker delivered. Fete, on the other hand, left something to be desired and it perpetuated the stigma attached to devising which labels it as amateur.

Read more of my theatre critique here