Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Paper and speed and death and what remains

A blue moon has risen and I have a blog on the Guardian website, a little hymn to the wonder of Forest Fringe's Paper Stages. Before writing it, I sent Forest co-director Andy Field an email asking whether he, or any of the contributors, might want to say a few words about the book as a reconsideration of how to publish the work of theatre-makers, and approaches to participation. I couldn't fit in all the replies, but there's some beautiful stuff in them, so here they are in a hodge-podge gathering. Thank you to everyone who sent a response. At the bottom is the blog with its last paragraph attached, which the Guardian quite rightly snipped off because I was failing to shut up. 

I'm now kicking myself really, really hard for forgetting even to mention Rajni Shah's Dear Stranger, I Love You in the blog. I bought it over the summer and found it totally inspiring X: must raise my game.

Andy Field
I’ve found that among the artists Forest Fringe works with there’s a real enthusiasm for publishing. Artists want people to know about their work; to be able to learn about and familiarise themselves with it. Yet amongst many of these artists there is also an understandable reticence about publishing the documentation of a performance and the misrepresentation of their work that might occur as that documentation begins to stand in for and eventually replace the performance itself. Show becomes book; experience becomes commodity; flesh and blood and breath and noise become words and pictures.

Paper Stages comes about in part from the question of how else we might think about publishing if not as a means of documenting the work we’ve already made. It comes from the thought that perhaps to think about publishing only as a clumsy vehicle for documentation is to do it an incredible disservice. That a community of artists with such enthusiasm for making performance in unlikely contexts should treat these pages as a context for performance in much the same way as the empty car parks, old warehouses and dusty church halls in which they have also made themselves at home.

Another history
One of the things I’ve been interested in the most over the last few years, are the histories that are buried like layers of sediment in the performances that I and other Forest Fringe artists make, often perhaps without us really acknowledging it. In particular I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the New York avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s and the quiet influence that they retain on a lot of contemporary performance. I wonder if artists who identify as theatremakers really see this work as part of their DNA in the same way that artists working in a gallery context regularly do. Paper Stages, with its explicit allusions to Fluxus and in particular George Brecht’s incredible body of work, is an invitation to artists to consider their relationship to this earlier period and the traces of it that might remain in their current work.

John Norton
Most of the performative work we make is transient. We spend months to create it and it passes in a matter of hours. We try to be 'in the moment'.

The invitation to make part of a book, an object which lingers, and furthermore a book which will be exchanged for a reader's time led me to think about my own relationship with time...and permanence, and paper, and speed, and death, and what remains. In the world of instant everything, what do we do with time? And how much do we have? Apparently the earth is slowing down.

Annie Rigby
One of the most fascinating things about making theatre is the unpredictability of how it unfolds for each audience member; what memories are sparked, what connections are made, what is taken away. Paper Stages makes even more space for theatre's wonderful unpredictability. I loved the challenge of creating a piece that is both practical and transporting for the reader, who by taking part, becomes the performer. I look forward to getting glimpses of how it unfolds for them.

Helen Stratford
My work focuses on making things visible; everyday apparati and structures that are hidden, overlooked or omitted from view, but which produce public spaces.

For Paper Stages the idea is to invite people to do their own deterrent survey, re-viewing the city through identifying the places where birds are deterred from settling and how this relates to human activity. The visual language is of course playing with the format of I-SPY books but spying something which would normally be categorised and desired by architects and urban planners to be hidden from view.

The work comes out of a larger body of work exploring boundaries between the rural and the urban, the domestic and the wild (see A Day With A Duck 2012) based on research for a residency in Sheffield with Birdland is Everywhere (poly-technic)

When asked to make a piece for the book I did a bit of research about the cities participating in Paper Stages and discovered that all have deterrent issues, with each city having headlines in the press about their respective birdlife, including pigeons (Newcastle, Bristol, London, Cambridge, Birmingham) and gulls (Cardiff). The piece then evolved out of rigorous on-site research combined with the idea to produce a playful take on official observation strategies, exploring how places are performed through the interaction between buildings, human activity and birdlife ….

Peter McMaster
I was interested in providing an experience for the audience/participant of my piece, that was about investing in the physical material of the A5 page. Rather than creating something where the art work to be engaged with required a predominantly intellectual, fictional or thought based approach, I prioritised providing a real experience, routed in real space/time action that could potentially have an impact on the awareness of the participant- even if that just meant allowing them to become more aware of their relationship with practice that it invited. As an artist I am interested in providing experiences that elucidate relationships between the self and the 'other' aspects of the world we inhabit. In keeping with these reflections and understandings about what I want(ed) to do, the idea of creating a coffin made sense as it can be made from the page of the book, and through the process that it invited, may provide space and time to connect with the idea and practice of burial and letting go, whatever that may mean to the person involved, at a time in the world where lots of things are noticeably changing and where much of this process involves leaving things behind, or perhaps metaphorically, burying them.


Theatre may be ephemeral, yet it leaves its traces everywhere. We know what Greeks who lived more than 2000 years ago watched on stage, and how they watched it, through written records, broken architecture, and a precious few play texts that have survived. We know very little about William Shakespeare, but we know his writing, because two of his friends had the wit to publish it. Modern playwrights know they've made it when their first Methuen anthology is compiled. And yet, the traces of theatre that are found in play texts are misleading, because they mutate work that pulses and breathes into literature. Our notion of what theatre is and can be has exploded over the past 50 years: have the published impressions of it kept pace?

In the creation of Paper Stages, yes. These slim, neat books – there have been two so far – represent the work of some of Britain's most exciting experimental theatre-makers: but rather than publish the scripts (where such things exist) of their shows, or descriptions of what took place, they contain ideas for actions, interventions, small performances, to be carried out by the reader. As it says in the introduction, Paper Stages isn't a book: it is “a festival waiting patiently for you to assemble it”.

The project is the brainchild of ForestFringe, the producing group led by theatre-makers Deborah Pearson and Andy Field that was founded in 2007 to create an alternative, free festival at the heart of the Edinburgh fringe. In 2012 their venue, a dilapidated church hall, was requisitioned, so the pair changed tack and commissioned everyone they had hoped to work with to contribute to a book. Available in an Edinburgh cafe, for the price of one hour of voluntary work, it offered a radically different way of engaging with theatre within the hubbub of the fringe: it was quiet, contemplative, and created its own economy expressive of non-capitalist values.

With the second book, which launched at the Arnolfini in Bristol earlier this month and can be acquired, again through voluntary work, at events to be staged around the country, Paper Stages is becoming central to the ways in which Pearson and Field are rethinking how theatre can be made and performed. As Field says, it invites “a community of artists with an enthusiasm for making performance in unlikely contexts to treat its pages as a context for performance, in much the same way as they do empty car parks, old warehouses and dusty church halls”. And it begins to answer the question of “how else we might think about publishing, if not as a means of documenting the work we’ve already made”.

Some of the works in Paper Stages offer clear instructions to the reader/performer for what to do. Action Hero's House Music, for instance, is the score for a symphony, in which you are the musician and your instruments are a Hoover, a microwave and an electric toothbrush. VictoriaMelody's untitled piece invites you to borrow a dog and spend an afternoon living by its criteria rather than your own: take a meandering walk, communicate with strangers, stop to check out the scenery. Others are more abstract: a beautiful photographic work by GeorgieGrace invites you to “Know nothing about your life” and “Forget who you are”, while Cody LeeBarbour's piece is a richly textured prose poem that contains no guidance for the reader whatsoever.

It feels, not just like a revolution in how theatre can be published, but a reconsideration of what audience participation might mean. As AnnieRigby – whose contribution is a dance piece to be performed during a washing-machine cycle – puts it: “One of the most fascinating things about making theatre is the unpredictability of how it unfolds for each audience member: what memories are sparked, what connections are made, what is taken away. Paper Stages makes even more space for theatre's wonderful unpredictability.” What's particularly touching about this is what it tells its audience about their relationship with theatre. Most participatory work reinforces, however unintentionally, the notion that theatre is something made by other people. In Paper Stages, the instructions accumulatively give the impression that theatre is something you can make, yourself, in your own front room.

And, as in all great theatre, the works in Paper Stages shift your relationship with the world around you and make you reflect on your place in it and contribution to it. Many of them are concerned with time: taking time to plant something, walk somewhere unfamiliar, do something to cheer people up. John Norton, whose collaborative piece Slow Like reclaims the language of “sharing” and “liking” prevalent in social media, says that working on Paper Stages: “led me to think about my own relationship with time, and permanence, and paper, and speed, and death, and what remains. In the world of instant everything, what do we do with time? And how much do we have?” Paper Stages attempts to give time back to you: as such, it feels like a gift.


And apropos of absolutely nothing except this is what fills my head when I say the words "blue moon", one of my very favourite Elvis recordings of all:

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