Slung Low – combining the intimate and the epic in civic space

Slung Low

Yesterday I was one of a group of people who sat in a room with Alan Lane, the artistic director of Slung Low, as part of the New Perspectives series of master classes.

Slung Low’s aim, as stated on their website (currently undergoing maintenance work) ‘is to make unlikely, ambitious and original adventures for audiences, each with powerful, moving story at its heart. Shows that re-examine how audiences go and see a piece of theatre. Our ambition has always been to transport our audience to new places and to make them see familiar places from new perspectives’. Their work is highly ambitious and very well thought of, although I have yet to witness any of it. Their Blood and Chocolate project in York looked incredibly powerful, as did Camelot: The Shining City, which took over the centre of Sheffield last summer. I will not miss their next project.

Much of the workshop was taken up with Alan explaining the impulses behind the company’s work, and the processes by which they go about creating performance that re-energises civic spaces. Describing themselves as ‘political artists in the street’ much of their work seems to be about re-calibrating the relationships that occur in most public spaces where the ‘act of being a citizen is impossible unless you agree to be a particular type of customer’. Their philosophy is that you change the world by changing the square foot of space that you currently inhabit. And their venue The Hub, in their home city of Leeds, operates on principles that absolutely bring their political ideas into practice.

There was lots that we discussed that I could go into here, but as this blog is focused on the creation of the texts I want to look at two specific things that were mentioned and which I think point to useful questions and provocations when a writer is asked to create a play or text for a specific community and (potentially) a specific community space.

(Apparently the first thing that James Phillips, one of the main writers for the company, asks Alan after a project has been pitched and accepted is ‘what have you promised?’)

The first thing that struck me was Alan’s use of the word ‘ceremony’ as a term to describe aspects of public performance. I think that what he means by ceremony is when meaning is conferred specifically by location and by who is performing whatever is being performed. And when this becomes the most important communicator of meaning – this event can only happen in this space with this group of people and the fact that it is happening in this space with these people is the most important thing about the event – then we have ‘ceremony’.

For Alan ideas can be held in ceremony. But for a piece of theatre to occur the meaning must be held within the text – visual or textual – and the audience’s direction must therefore be pointed in a specific direction at all times. For good theatre to occur, the audience must be able to see and hear the thought process of the performers. The detail is important; very important. If the work becomes lost in the vastness of the space, then the meaning becomes muddied and we begin to slip from theatre to ceremony. And this is why the company uses headsets for much (all?) of their outdoor work; because ‘you must hear every breath, not just every word’.

There is a real tension here between the bigger picture that the outdoor world offers and the need to maintain the intimacy between performer and audience member. And the way that the use of spectacle and the intimate nature of one to one communication is combined appears to be key to their work. As Alan explained ‘if you blow up nine litres of diesel you get people’s attention. And so the next thing you say better be important’.

This brings me on to the second interesting phrase that Alan used; albeit one that he has borrowed from Tassos Stevens (a director who worked with Excavate, then Hanby and Barrett, on our 2003 touring show ‘Your Village No Longer Exists’). This is the idea of What Is? and What If?

What Is? is a social and material stock take of everything that a public space is and represents; a detailed investigation both into what a space/place is and what it thinks it is. In many ways it is about digging right into the heart of its civic function and examining the relationships between individuals that are promoted, permitted, discouraged, or prohibited within these spaces/places. And this is the ‘stuff’ that cannot be changed. (So for instance if the space includes a Pizza Hut you know that there is a certain power relationship between this establishment and the space around it; a relationship defined by economics and branding).

What If? as I understand it asks two main questions. How can we explore other relational values within this space? And, more specifically in terms of creating a piece of theatre, how can we use what is here, how can we add to it, how we can flip it in some way so that this – all of this – can be co-opted into my fiction? Which is an incredibly exciting and provocative question. (So what happens, as Alan posited, if you place a fictional armed guard outside Pizza Express? How have you redefined the potential meaning of that establishment at that point by this action?)

At which point of course the question of ceremony, or at the very least context, comes back into play. For the meaning of the play, of the event, of the scene, is now absolutely connected not only to the fictional world that is created, but by the interplay between this fiction and the real world that it inhabits. It is the meaning of the non-fictional world that supports and gives meaning to the fictional world.

Anyone making site specific theatre is, I would imagine, always on the lookout for how the real world can be manipulated and brought into play. Because for one thing it means that your sets are cheaper and that you can have extras that aren’t even aware that they are extras.

And the use of transmitters, receivers and headphones; of allowing performers to be wandering this space that is both a public space and a performance space at the same time, is a wonderful tool for allowing this type of interplay to happen. Because as a Director you can call the show live and communicate directly to groups of performers without the audience hearing this. (So, for instance, if something unexpected happens in the space it is possible for the Director to ask everyone to respond to it in the moment).

Both of these questions – the way that the awareness of the ‘ceremony’ of the event, and the way in which the reality of the world that surrounds the play can be brought into the text – are surely key ones for the writer of plays that occur in public civic spaces. And presumably lead to different ways of creating narrative.

There were a few other things that came up in the workshop that I’d like to briefly mention. One was Alan’s realisation that ‘hell hath no fury like middle class privilege’, and his story of how the only real problem that the company has had with non-audience members who have been inconvenienced by their work was in York, with four separate cases of people driving at an audience because they weren’t prepared to wait for between seven and fifteen minutes for a scene to occur. (Indicating perhaps how different cities with different traditions and histories of collective experience and identities understand – or not – what a civic space actually is, and their relationship to that).

Other phrases such as ‘as a company we’re often asked to solve a problem’ will be instantly recognizable for anyone who has been asked to work in a public context. And their philosophy, when recruiting performers that ‘nobody for any reason will be turned away from the gang’, goes right back to the heart of the ideals of the community theatre movement.

The notion of the audience always being present in the fiction is another key aspect of the work of the company, and again this framing of the relationship between the viewers and what is being viewed will have an impact on the construction of the script.

And finally the question of how much a writer needs to be connected to a community in order to be able to write a play was touched upon. For Slung Low I think the attitude is that the writers need to have a sympathy with the community in which they are working, and to understand the concerns of the community, but have no need to immerse themselves in research. But this is probably more to do with the nature of the plays that are created; which have a connection to issues within a community but which are also issues of national concern (‘community theatre can be parochial’). But there are, of course, certain plays which have to link the specific community stories to a wider narrative (as in Blood and Chocolate) at which point the interplay between ceremony and theatre comes into play. But – fundamentally – for Alan ‘the team need to feel that they are doing what they always wanted to do’.

Finally I’m really interested in the fact that the company have been asked to oversee the performance aspects of the commemoration of the Battle of the Somme in Manchester on July 1st. This is one of those events that is absolutely about ceremony, but is also a very interesting project for a company that ‘argue a lot about the definition of radical’ to be doing. It’s a project that is funded and led directly through the Department of Culture, Media and the Sport (apparently George Osborne wanted – and has got – Benedict Cumberbatch to be involved) and is bound to be tied up in a host of narratives, many of which the company may want to interrogate but which – in terms of the event’s civic symbolism – may just be too difficult to do so.

It’s not easy to combine spectacle and detailed narrative in public spaces. There are a great deal of companies that can amaze us with their lighting, pyrotechnics and giant puppets, but not so many that can tell the kind of stories that blend the intimate and the epic like much of the great storytelling does (War and Peace anyone?) One of Alan’s earliest statements – he appears to revels in provocation – was that ‘I will not cede the definition of theatre to an art form that has not moved forward a great deal since the fifties’. And it’s great to see a company, and an artistic director, really pushing at this to see what is possible (although tellingly the amount of speaking performers in these shows – which often have casts of up to two hundred people – is often less than twenty, with around four professional actors being a part of this; as opposed to those community plays which follow the Ann Jellicoe model and may have over one hundred characters with speaking parts).

I’m looking forward to seeing what Slung Low come up with next; and in hopefully reading the scripts of what look like incredibly exciting projects. Given the fact that so many of the NPO funded theatre buildings are having to find new ways to work with their communities as part of their funding agreements, it will be interesting to see how the company develops relationships with these whilst still maintaining what, at least in this workshop, was a pretty avowedly oppositional stance to the way that theatre is being run in the U.K today.