• Edinburgh Festivals 2015: Performing, Seeing and Being

    I’m writing this on the train back from Edinburgh to London. It’s only been two and half weeks since I set off for the festivals, but I’m struggling at the moment to remember anything before landing on the cobbled streets and attempting to trundle along them with a cartload of luggage. Looking out from one side of the train the sun is beginning to set, from the other the full moon is rising over the dusky sea. In between the two, I’m just starting to realise how immense this experience has been.

    My luggage included a blue wig, a preppy outfit, a boho outfit, an ornate floral headdress and a lot of grey netting. But more on those later. Edinburgh is, of course, stunning right out of the station. I always forget just what a handsome city it is, and how the particular light plays on the architectural features of the old city and the gold and granite tinged landscapes that surround it. This was to be my longest stretch in Edinburgh, and it had been looming large in my mind for months. I arrived in Edinburgh to be part of the excellent Forest Fringe programme, with two performance pieces, I Show You A Mirror and Be My Friend. Both about to be journeys of discovery.

    I Show You A Mirror is a totally new piece, an experiment. This is uncharted territory for me, I have generally avoided experimenting with performance outside of the protection of the studio. Also, I usually start with a crafted text and build a performance around that, for this piece I started with performance questions and took it from there. But, somehow for this piece at this point it felt right to bring an audience in and try it out. The questions, the explorations in the piece feel urgent and there’s an exciting challenge in creating something with spontaneity in mind, a liberation too. So, I fought my tendency to plan and rehearse everything to the most minute degree, and allowed myself to trust the process and the moment. So here’s one of the reasons I’m so delighted to have been part of Forest Fringe, it’s pretty much the only space for genuine experiment during the Edinburgh festivals. Of course, there’s experimental performance in other places, but Forest Fringe allows and enables artists to experiment without the pressures inherent in the adjacent festivals, and gives audiences the chance to see and experience theatre and performance at its most raw and elemental within a programme of fully developed work. It’s a dream opportunity, so I ran with it.

    I Show You A Mirror is about bodies and the denial of expression of self through them; denial from without, and subsequently from within. It starts hidden and personal, veiled and whispered. Then, it becomes a question, and a kind of dance class. Can we, myself and the audience, reclaim and defy those moments where we’ve been told we can’t be fully ourselves in our societal bodies through the medium of vogueing? That beautiful, glorious and utterly defiant dance form created in the queer dance halls of 1970’s Harlem by people who were so determined to be themselves together, despite everything set against them, they changed the world. Should we give that a go?

    There was so much discovery in doing this piece in this context. People did jump at the chance to try out vogueing as an act of defiance, perhaps informed and inspired by my journey to discover the origins and soul of the dance form, or they didn’t and they just watched. Both of which felt like good outcomes in different ways. I had insightful and engaged conversations about the piece afterwards, which I really valued. By the third and last showing I felt ready to think about this piece beyond the experiment. I got a bit teary on a street in Leath leaving the Forest Fringe venue, Out of the Blue, after the third show. I felt very fortunate.

    Some performance reflections from the Edinburgh festivals. I saw Anna Calvi with her band and an orchestra at the International Festival, and it was slickly gorgeous. I also saw the Robert LaPage piece, my first LaPage experience. People around me clearly flipped out over it, and it looked great, in a way that didn’t appeal to me particularly, but objectively it looked great. But I have a thing about over-tech in theatre, and I always think if the tech collapsed the piece should still work, and I don’t think this would. I’m also a dealer in life story, and this was the story of a life, but nostalgia is something I’m wary of, and this felt nostalgic in places. In others it was indeed inventive and irreverent and when the ideas meshed it was insightful, but too often the ideas were more like distant cousins than close sisters. Plus, if I can predict your rhyming couplets correctly before you say them, despite all your flashy tech, I’m essentially at a bad poetry slam. And that happened unforgivably often.

    Next up, was my one to one performance piece, or a performance for one, depending on how you want to dress it. I had given this a test run at Latitude Festival and it had legs, so I was really excited to see how it would unfold in the Edinburgh Festivals context. It’s a piece that explores questions of friendship in a world of fractured selves. People choose something to take me to see at the festival, entirely their choice. And they have options to choose from about what I turn up looking like, and how the conversation starts.

    This piece became a journey in a number of ways. It became a journey through the festival that was not my own, but that I was complicit in. Each performance became a journey, as all these negotiations around a burgeoning friendship emerged, as the questions in the piece began to resonate with each person who took part, as we both made discoveries about our lifelong relationship to friendship. I saw a lot of performances I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, I got taken to a hip hop circus, a lot of comedy, a drag monologue and shared a retro walkman playing a taped story over diet cokes. I loved experiencing the festival in this way, and I also loved meeting the people who booked the piece, and having such open, generous and thoughtful conversations around friendship. There’s a lot going on with that piece. I need time to let my thoughts on it shake down, but I’m hugely grateful to the people who took part for jumping so fully onboard, illuminating my thinking on the subject and engaging so whole heartedly with my questions about what friendship means and is. Oh god, I’m going to cry on the train.

    Some more performance reflections. I saw some stuff I really freaking loved. Sh!t Theatre’s Women’s Hour is a thing of glorious, anarchic rage, with a ton of genuine laughs. It made me feel dispairing, furious, horrified and entertained, which is a really interesting combination. I could watch them for hours, the genius of revoltingly mysogynistic online posts sung as stunningly beautiful close harmony, for example, hits like a truck. And I should know (but that’s another story.) I’ve had the joyous experience of spending a week in a clowning workshop with the Sh!ts, a lot of which involved weeping onto each others eyeballs (it was brilliant though) so I already knew they’re marvellous humans and wonderful performers. This was the first time I’d seen a full length show of theirs, and it will stay with me. Emma Frankland’s Rituals For Change is really quite a thing. An uneasy start with an axe and wood chopping slides into a compelling, visceral and textural journey into transformation. Emma is both entirely in charge of what is happening on stage, she builds a scaffolding tower and navigates it with magnetic fluidity, and entirely present and committed in the ritual that unfolds. It is beautiful, riveting, devastating, and astoundingly skilled. It never feels contrived, there’s a genuine urgency. One of the people taking part in Be My Friend took me to see Quizoola by Forced Entertainment, and the simplicity of the staging soon reveals the complexity of the concept. The constant questioning becomes surreal and sinister, the crudely drawn clown faces tragic, ridiculous and threatening. We both enjoyed the meta as the questions started referencing friendships while watching as part of a Be My Friend performance. I also really admired Jo Bannon’s Alba, a very concise and directional performance piece that plays with the gaze of the audience and the position of the performer, and becomes something of a visually poetic anthem of difference. I went to see the instillation by Young Vic Taking Part, Now Is The Time To Say Nothing, again I was taken there by someone as part of Be My Friend. We both loved it, it’s a really stunning piece that tackles issues of war, globalisation and depiction through the relationship of a group of young Londoners to the war in Syria. As myself and my new friend turned in unison under flutters of artificial snow, we caught each others eye and mouthed ‘wow’.

    You may have noticed that the majority of these were part of the Forest Fringe programme. This is no coincidence, it was bloody amazing. I would have been happy going and hanging out at the venue Out Of The Blue, which was like a wonderful bubble of buzzy calm in the context of a city besieged, and seeing brilliant stuff as a punter. Being part of it however, was sublime. So, thank you to the marvellous and incredibly dedicated and hard working Forest Fringe team, the delightful and committed volunteers, the supportive and friendly artists and the engaged and interested/interesting people who came to see, share and converse for making it happen.

    It’s rare, in a shifting landscape of criticism, didactic reflection and increasing commodification in theatre and performance, to have the opportunity to try stuff out and experiment in a context of acceptance that whatever the result everyone present is going to take something from it, so the result is ok. It’s enabling, it’s empowering and it refocuses on what really matters.

    The sun has now set, and the full moon has risen.

Nick Field

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