Where is offstage when, according to Shakespeare ‘[a]ll the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’? This question jumped out at me, bouncing on its dot, following the opening night performance of The World Outside, a story of family and folklore – both that of the New Forest and that of the tales we tell ourselves as we grapple with our sense of identity and roots, our position in a place and the notion of home. All those ideas and queries we ask ourselves at some point in our lives, whether sat in the audience or washing the dishes at the kitchen sink.
My friend and I sat in the audience in a small village hall, deep in the New Forest. The World Outside – commissioned by Forest Forge, directed by Kirstie Davis and written by David Lane – is set in the New Forest is rich with its stories and history. Forest Forge tours throughout Hampshire and Dorset, bringing theatre to towns and conventional theatre spaces as well as taking it to village halls and rural communities. The play explores what it means to live in the forest, to have roots, to run from your roots, to feel lost and to search for connection with – and freedom from – place and people. The superb cast (Isobel Arnett, Michael Cole, Verity Hewlett and Andrew Wheaton) were a joy to observe and work with in rehearsal, as was Kirstie Davis for whom I was assistant director. The highly skilled cast created characters full of life and truth. The actors searched out their truths in each moment, following the scent within each sentence, silence, action and stillness. They had researched, unearthed these truths over the preceding three and a half-weeks of rehearsal. During rehearsals it seemed to me that the actors were exceptional archeologists, finding motivation behind each motion, sifting through dialogue to detect every shift and subtlety, every clue to the character and their past, in order to accurately convey them in the present. At the end of the performance my friend turned to me. Impressed, he said quietly 'It's like life isn't it? We're humans watching humans playing humans: “Now, you be a woman and I'll pretend to be your brother and…”’ And so it is we humans examine what it is to be, to exist alone and alongside others, through theatre. Theatre helps us understand the world within and without.
Notions of identity are also unravelled and reshaped in Born, the companion piece to The World Outside. Born is delivered by Forest Forge's excellent youth theatre, directed in a distinctly physical way and innovative style by David Haworth and Lucy Phillips, performed by a dynamic young cast. I recommend seeing both performances if possible as David Lane has expertly crafted the pieces so that each holds secrets that belong to the other play. The shows are on tour until the 29th of October 2011 for full details and more information about the show and Forest Forge’s work, please click on this link:
The Grand Grotesque Parade also explored the issues of identity of place and people, in an experimental processional performance involving local artists and public participants. On the 24th September 2011 as part of Bournemouth Arts by the Sea Festival, hundreds of costumed characters (and the odd dressed-up dog) floated through the eras whilst moving from the pier through the gardens to the heart of the town and back to the sea. We 3, (performers Antonia Beck, Felicity Crabb and myself), were associate directors for this project, one created specifically with Bournemouth past and present in mind. Prior to this year’s event, the parade last happened in the town in 1910. Artistic directors The Girls (Zoe Sinclair and Andrea Blood) set out to re-invent this tradition by blending symbols, characters and cultural issues of the present-day seaside town with those of its past. We 3 were lucky enough to explore these ideas with an energetic, creatively generous team of local actors and dancers, devising the final performance piece working with over eleven extraordinary women in response to The Girls’ ideas, imagery and focus. Collaboration was the key to the success of the parade, with The Girls bringing in artists from all disciplines including Ali Sharpe who led the haunting, feral choir and filmmaker John Holman who captured our all-female troupe of artists on camera in a surreal short film, also directed by The Girls, that flickered on loop throughout the parade. In his essay Carnivalesque and the British Seaside, writer Bevis Fenner speaks of the Grand Grotesque Parade and The Girls work, highlighting the links between cultural events that offer release and a chance to invert social norms and the way in which ‘[…] the environment of the seaside resort facilitates a kind of alter reality’ where we adopt different behaviours and, arguably, other identities for a single night or an entire holiday. And, on the 24th September, that is exactly what we performers did.
As the sun slid from the sky and into the sea, a strange hybrid creature was birthed and she slithered through the streets: suffragettes in pink regency dresses and painted faces seemingly ‘swept their way to the future’ according to one on-looker, whilst a ghostly choir, sepia-stained, sang a strained and melancholic ode to the seaside. A luscious mermaid was served up on a deckchair, mistaken for an ice-cream by unthinking consumers, she was devoured before the crowds. Suffragettes transformed into zombie-hens on a riotous night out. Underground steampunks came out to play – as did other groups of public participants – their presence reaffirming the town’s creative identity and the importance of community involvement in such processional performances. Equally important is the desire to engage the public, to connect with them. Theatre is not theatre without an audience. The audience, as it is with the actors, also has its part to play. Perhaps during a processional performance, the lines between public and artist/participant become exceptionally blurred, particularly when the parade’s creative source and soul is the very town in which it is being performed. Where then, is offstage and onstage?
We all take on roles within our families and relationships, we perform niceties every day, we sometimes talk through a mask of grinning, gritted teeth, we put on a telephone voice, we act the fool, we entertain a fantasy in the private auditorium of our mind. We are all actors and audience at once. Acting and observing. From a yogic perspective, the whole of life is a huge play – Lila – the Divine Play. And through observing this, we need not get fully caught up in any drama. Yogic philosophy suggests we are all here for a reason, all performing our roles as best we can. Someone’s role is to be an astronaut, another’s role is to be a film star, another’s: a fish. Someone’s role is to act the ‘bad’ person in order that somebody else can fulfill their role as the ‘good’ person. Everyone plays their part. Arguably, these are all roles which we will drop come curtain call. In fact, it is often the passing of someone – a fellow player – that reminds us the oft-quoted truth that ‘life is not a dress rehearsal’. Perhaps like actors, those archeological experts who uncover the motivation and meaning behind a character’s thoughts and actions, we too can dig deeper in our art and in our daily lives. How would it be if, as humans and creatives, we were to act from this position of awareness? Whether onstage or offstage, there is fun and freedom to be found in realising we’re all simply playing a part, in order that we can focus on what is really important: connecting with the heart of others as well as unearthing, and then acting from, our core values and truths as we explore our role within this drama, seeing how the story unfolds.
For more information on Bournemouth Arts by the Sea Festival and a whole range of artistic treats happening right up until Saturday 15th October:
For images of the Grand Grotesque Parade 2011, the following Flickr accounts of Fraser Donachie and WheelzWheeler capture some striking shots:
Eerie live footage from Many Chef’s Broth:
Soundscape from the parade, composed by DJ Bacon: http://www.archive.org/details/GrandGrotesqueParadeBournemouthSept2011
Joseph Kent’s article about the parade via Bhbeat.com:
For Bevis Fenner’s essay Carnivalesque and the British Seaside:
For further details about The Girls, artistic directors of the Grand Grotesque Parade, see:
And, last but certainly not least, for a full list of the amazing array of generous and talented people who also made the event possible: