I've got a vision for the centre of Heavitree, our very own Fore Street. Picture this:-
You stroll to the centre, the heart of our community, to meet some friends. You're going to hang out in the wide and spacious boulevard and share a lunch of home made soup and freshly baked bread. The heavenly scent of fine pastries escapes from the bakery's ovens and drifts over the pretty groups of tables with their brightly coloured umbrellas. So you decide to extend your stay, chatting to more friends as they arrive, drinking hot chocolate and enjoying freshly made delights of all kinds.
There's a band (Dakar Audio Club) playing on the corner and people are dancing. More people come to join you in the late afternoon sun. Together, you watch it settle over Livery Dole, turning the huge open sky pink and lilac. The stall holders start packing away their wares:- surplus from the local allotments, beautiful photographic prints (Fiona French Images), paintings (Kath Hadden Art) locally made jewellery and handmade soaps Soap Daze). And because Heavitree has always been the home of artisans, there are stalls with woodwork, leatherwork, basketry and needlework too. Everything a community needs, all locally made. All this, happily spread out across the grand boulevard and vast pavements of our Fore Street. That's what we could have …. without the traffic.
Compare that with how I find Fore Street now. Everyday I stand patiently, forced to breathe fumes whilst waiting endlessly with my Heavitree fellows for the right to cross our own street. There we stand like second-class citizens giving reverence and priority to the roaring traffic, to people who just want to use our centre as a rapid way through to somewhere else.
Does that first vision sound completely unattainable -
because of the traffic,
because of the weather,
because change is just too hard?
Maybe not. Just maybe, it's not as hard as you think.
We could, as a community, ask for a small, time-shared piece of our own centre. Say, for just one Sunday a month we get to shift the priority back so that Fore Street can be the kind of centre for our community that it was always meant to be. No real infrastructure change, just diverted traffic for just a small portion of time.
Ok, you say, even if that were possible, what about the great British weather? Pavement cafés and stalls are all very well on the continent but not in our unpredictable climate. Well, maybe it doesn't have to be all outside. How about this? Maybe there's room for our local craftsmen and skills-based artists to “buddy-up” with existing Fore Street businesses. Sharing floor and display space for just some of the time. Running workshops maybe, readings, presentations and events to bring people in as well as selling their own locally produced goods. Bringing custom, extra income and interest to our centre in a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship with existing retailers. How many empty units, spare back rooms and under-used spaces are there, in our main street, just because no one really likes spending time in that traffic-torn place? Looking at it that way, there's no need for things to always be outside – but we can still spread out, like the vision above, when the weather lets us!
That's all very well, you say, but how do you get people to change? That's an interesting one too because actually what I'm describing here is not so much of a change as a reversion to how things used to be. Den Perrin, in his excellent Retailing in Fore Street, Heavitree 1851-1999 quotes the Trewman's Exeter Flying Post for 1851 which describes the Heavitree Annual Fair. The Fair was held over two days and featured donkey racing in Fore Street, climbing a pole for a leg of mutton(!) “and in the evening the dance was enjoyed and entered into with great ardour”. Same place, just no traffic.
And what I'm suggesting is not a gentrification of Heavitree, with lots of little stores of over-priced knick-knacks but a return to what Fore Street always was. A centre for real artisan skills. In 1851 retail outlets in Fore Street included drapers, dairies, saddlers, blacksmiths, tailors, ironmonger, shoemakers, bakers and butchers – all with rooms and workshops at the back where things were made, mended and repaired on the spot. Things that normal, everyday people need.
We all feel it don't we? That something is missing from the heart of our place? Maybe there is something that we could do about it.
Guidance for Squilometre practitioners
As I sat down to write some guidance for artists, to explain something of the concepts that underpin the Squilometres venture, I realised it all came down to a statement of intent. Squilometres is intended to potentiate social change. Not to dictate the nature of that change but to animate a community to a state whereby positive change can happen.
And it felt good to get that out because then the guidance became clear. I even have a text, my “bible” if you like. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift - How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (2012 Canongate) has profoundly influenced the development of the Squilometre concept.
So there we have it, Squilometres has a statement of intent - and at this point “I” becomes “we”, because I cannot do it alone. We aspire to potentiate social transformation. And we want to do this by developing relationships of all kinds. Particularly with artists, both individuals and small companies. So, it is time to be explicit in our intent and to provide some guidelines for current and prospective associate artists. The best way to do that is to return to our original Four Cornerstones of Community Commissioned Performance, and to explain them in Lewis’ terms:-
1) Be Authentic - know your art and bow into service to it
Your creativity is a gift. It’s important to know it, acknowledge it, clear the decks to “identify with the spirit of the gift, not with its particular embodiments …” (Hyde, 2012: 151). And your Gift may not have a name. In our society creativity is sidelined, compartmentalised and commodified. It took me three years to discover that my creative label is Animateur - “a practising artist, in any art form, who uses her / his skills, talents and personality to enable others to compose, design, devise, create perform or engage with works of art of any kind”. I couldn’t find the label because there are no jobs but the fact is, it is what I am. It is my Gift and having discovered it, I feel the real work can begin.
So take time to know your true nature as an artist
and when you join us, bring your authentic, creative self.
2 ) Be Mindful of the Earth - enhance, not deplete, the world around you
Hyde refers to the artist as an “enthusiast”. When one is a creative “enthusiast” in your relationship with the real, physical and spiritual world it is an act of reconnection, or, as Hyde calls it, reunion. “When the poet is in the gifted state, the world seems generous ….”, so, with Squilometres, when we celebrate places, in reunion, we’re offered a wonderful opportunity to be mindfully creative.
Instead of stage lighting, watch the skies and seasons to see what effects they offer; instead of constructed props, consider the trees, fallen leaves, forage the hedgerows. The very places that we celebrate are the canvas, the set and the subject. The people who dwell there are our community. We encourage artists to create beautiful, unique things from what the earth provides. There is a profound link between the arts and environment. Artists have the gift and privilege to reconnect the broken.
“Natural objects - living things in particular - are like a language we only faintly remember. It is as if creation had been dismembered sometime in the past and all things are limbs we have lost that will make us whole if only we can recall them.” (Hyde, 2012:177).
As a Squilometre artist, be ready to be an agent of reunion.
3) Gift It - Find a beautiful use for money
Being paid for your art is both a political and spiritual act. It’s important.
We are not advocates of artists working for free
However, we do believe that there is a better use for money than commercial transaction. Hyde explains that when a gift is freely given, the increase in its worth stays with the ‘object’ and increases as it is passed along. Gift bestowal can create an “empty space into which new energy may flow” (Hyde 2012:148). As it works its way around a community, it grows and grows, building relationships and enabling change. In contrast when a service is exchanged for an agreed price, the transaction nullifies the relationship and any further emotional connection. We believe that is harsh, jarring world in which to create art.
So we will not charge our audience a fixed price up front but will ask them to pay-it-forward for the next show, after they’ve seen the performance. And it will be some while before we can guarantee a fixed rate for artists. So, in the meantime, we’ll keep our productions and our casts small, minimising the individual commitment. And,
we will welcome you into a community in which gift flows
There will be remuneration in cash. There will also be unlooked for returns, taking many forms. If you’ll dwell for a while within our community, rather than closing the transaction down after the performance, then we believe you will be amazed at what an increase in worth means.
4) Connect - love and cherish all
This seems like a big ask but, in fact, becomes much simpler when seen in terms of community. Any performance happens at the centre of a community - all of the individuals that have contributed, in any way, to the happening. Whilst, holding the broader aim of loving all in your heart, the people of your community should be the focus of your attention and care. Be particularly grateful for those who arrive with fixed views, ulterior motives or challenged minds. They present the best opportunities for growth and change and “where we stumble, often treasure lies” (Bayo Akomolafe).
It is particularly important to identify your community and by that we mean know them as people, not contact details. Know their views and interests so that you can facilitate the passing on of the gift. For gift to grow in worth and potentiate change it must be passed on and those in receipt of the gift must be in a position to do so. The mechanisms for this need to be clear.
This is why we operate within one square kilometre (Squilometre) of landscape
So that the members of that community can see for themselves the benefits of passing the gift between them.
As an Squilometre practitioner you are invited to join that community too
... of taking time to gaze at the intricate worlds inside tiny flower heads
"Authentic marketing". It is a phrase I’ve used before. I’ve used it when I’ve been trying to convey the importance of finding the joy in what you do as performance artists and colouring your communications with rainbows of that joy. I’ve also encouraged artists, when trying to project their work, to dwell for a while on real examples of the things that have worked, because these are the clues that describe your authenticity, who and what you are. Often those clues lie in the unplanned and unexpected successes that every project reveals.
I’ve just experienced one of those – big time! And I’ve got to share …
The Squilometre concept is finding its place now on the park bench of performance arts endeavour. It’s wriggled its bum into a little space between psychogeography and ambulatory performance and found a natural partner in Placed Based Education (who knew!). All of these realisations are indeed joyful. It’s fun to find out where, or indeed if, you fit. But that’s not the particular joy I discovered.
No, I’ve found out that when you define a place, in the way that Squilometres does; that is through land and sky, trees and water … all the things that we commonly own. When you create with those ingredients, then the people who inhabit and share it, they become an integral part of the mix.
So instead of “targeting an audience” you get to meet with them.
Instead of “developing an audience” you share with them and cherish them.
Instead of “putting bums on seats” you get to talk to faces!
And the depth of this glorious revelation really became clear to me when I decided to deliver invitations to the Sweetbrier Lane performance through all of the 879 letter-boxes myself. This was partly because I didn’t like to ask anyone else to do it but mostly it was because I’d made the decision to create the first Squilometre project in my very own neighbourhood. It was so convenient, it made sense. But, yes, it was a little bit scary. These were, are, my neighbours. If they really don’t like what I’m doing, they literally know where I live!
I slowly realised though that I was completely loving it! I was braced, to tell you the truth, for brusque no thanks yous and angry scowls. At first, I skipped quickly down paths, after delivering, to avoid confrontation. But it wasn’t like that at all. Turns out that people in the big, scary, outside world are really nice. Pleasant, friendly, ordinary people who, if caught at their door, politely take an invitation with a smile.
It was more than that though. I was thoroughly enjoying the physicality of it. I was out of doors doing something useful. Normally, for me, useful is defined by a chair and a keyboard. This was different. I could feel the muscles of my legs responding to the journey and the cold of the gathering evening shrinking my ears and nose. As I watched a startling range of greens, purples and every shade of orange in the western sky I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I saw the sun set.
And the scents! Do you remember, when you used to play out, that wet pavement had a smell? I found myself, as I made my deliveries, transported suddenly back, by the sharp and herby scent of a shrub, to endless hours of just being out of doors. Of taking time to gaze at the intricate worlds inside tiny flower heads, to examine exactly how the paving stones fitted together and work out how many stones you could actually fit in that gap at the bottom of the wall. Taken right back to a time in my life when being out of doors was just what you did and you didn’t have to rush on to anything else until your mum called you in for tea.
Glorious, glorious revelation indeed. So, this was marketing was it?! What’s more, I found as the week progressed, it got easier and my legs complained a little less. The ridge of landscape I’d chosen to fashion my first Squilometre performance to was paying me back, actually rewarding me, for taking the time to walk it.
And now, when I stroll down my street, I know a few more faces. Where I used to pass without a smile, I now lift my head and nod. Where I would have smiled, I stop and talk. My Squilometre is rewarding me in all sort of unexpected ways and I can’t imagine anything more wondrously authentic than that.
I've been in the unusual and privileged position of having the time to explore not only the landscape of my beloved Devon this summer but also the theatre being performed there.
So, what have I learned about outdoor, landscape-specific performance?
Well to start with, I wasn't wrong about my gut-feeling. Tis very powerful. At its very best, and I would rate the performance of Tinside Lido by Listed right up there, the drama of the unpredictable elements sends chills right through the spine. At one point there was a rainbow dancing across the distant headland and they timed the performance to make the most of an extraordinary sky palette of sunset colours. Add the sparkling, glittery effect of glancing sunlight on a brightly painted pool and you have a natural feast for the eye and for the soul. Couple all that with a quality performance from a young (and brave – that water was cold!) cast and you have what location-specific theatre is all about. Beautiful. The images and the delicious spine tingles stayed with me for at least a week. So, powerful is the word. The physicality of being there, of breathing fresh air, it heightens the experience, hard-wiring it straight to the heart and soul. I'm just going to say it all right, when you are out-of-doors, the chi – it feeds you. Just as good performance is meant to. When you blend chi and excellent performance, like at Tinside, then the result is nothing less than magical.
Less “location-specific” but just as outdoors was the Moretonhampstead Variety Group's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Fascinatingly imaginative design truly enhanced this piece. A kind of Gothic Monty Python. Steven Hulme's directorial vision shone. One or two moments in particular, in the church's graveyard where the audience was treated to a wide vista image of players searching their way through gravestones and smoke. Amazing use of the kind of landscape and space potential that you just don't have when confined to a theatre. So, that was the other learning point. Movement, physicality and space – the potentials are all unleashed when you are out-of-doors.
And there's good ole family entertainment and fun. With stunning fishing town Brixham as a backdrop its hard to go wrong, particularly for family holiday-makers. The South Devon Players perform historical pieces amongst ice-cream, fish and chips, replica galleons in the harbour, right there in the historic quay-side fish market. Totally open access (to the point where some passers-by become temporary bit-part players) was its strength. As I stood, I heard holiday-making dads explain to youngsters in Yorkshire, Mancunian and Liverpool accents, “it's a play, look”, “A what, dad?”. “Listen, they're telling you a story”. So there's another one, a really good reason to get theatre out there. The beautiful serendipity of just happening across of piece of story-telling, a seed of a notion in a child's mind that performance is fun and perhaps important. Even the temporary appreciation of a harried dad who is just glad of something to distract the kids. Accessibility and new audiences are really good reasons to go out-of-doors.
Last but not least I enjoyed the Common Player's Smuggler's Gold at A la Ronde, Exmouth. With stunning views out over the estuary, I sat with the happy kids, the sun on my back and gave myself up to the story-telling. Good story-telling it was too, with message and pertinence and relevance. The performance is neatly tied into other activities and learning in partnership with East Devon Museums. Relevance and learning then, good reasons to get outside but I particularly loved that the cast didn't compromise on performance.
All right, so there are moments, when the cold seeps through and distracts you, or you feel you're being asked to move on one too many times or somebody just aimlessly wanders right in front of you. Oh, a whole host of little things that make it harder to suspend the disbelief. Yes, of course, there are more of these in an outdoor piece. But the payback for the effort, the planning and design to minimise these things. The payback is as limitless as the open sky.
And I do know this. I live in one beautiful, beautiful part of the world!
How important is place? After the Arts Council Theatre in Exeter event on Saturday 23rd July 2011 I've been thinking more and more about rural and urban theatre.
I was lucky enough to have a rehearsed reading recently at the New Theatre in Exeter of my first play Unchosen. It was fascinating because the play was specially written to be played out of doors. The stage directions show that it should be seen at that special time of day when the sun disappears and each of us, if we pay it mind, gets that little tingle in the spine that registers the passing of another day. I envisaged moths getting caught in footlights and random happenings of cloud and wind that could be incorporated into the performance. The script shows that some of the players should have a personal light source that gradually becomes apparent to the audience as an aura, as the sun dips.
Yet, of course, the players and director at the reading made it work indoors, on stage with no auras because that's their business. Recreating the tingle in the spine that the natural landscape gives us, right there, through expression and performance. Beautiful.
So it's left me confused. I still believe Unchosen is an outdoor piece, deeply rooted in my love of Devon's prehistoric landscape but the truth is theatre can be created anywhere. That's its strength and its purpose. It belongs to the theatres in the city of Exeter. To Cygnet for the excellence in training, to The Bike Shed for exciting and innovative new work and it belongs to Creative Cow whose touring brand stands always for quality.
We have it all here right now in the urban and rural landscapes of the Westcountry and there is nowhere I would rather be.
(Photo - view of Peak Hill from Woodbury Iron Age Hill Fort, Devon)
The Heavitree Squilometre project and Interwoven Productions CIC now have two separate websites but JoJo has left this Fore St blog discussion here on the landing page because it continues to receive attention ... so please do feel free to comment.