It won't surprise anyone to know that I am Creative Cow's biggest fan. After the magnificent intensity of Look Back in Anger, played in May 2011, that was it. They had me for life, whether they wanted me or not!
Sitting there last night, watching The Fair Maid of the West, it all came back to me. Why I'm delighted to give my time for free, to volunteer whatever services I can to support this company. The key word is quality. Everything they touch, everything they do, rings with glittering expertise. My mind was reeling! How can it be possible to use every single inch – horizontally and vertically of a stage? How can you create a fully-fledged ship-board battle in that limited space? Amanda Knott's direction was, as ever, superb. Dancing a delicate balance between the humour and the suspense, hard-wiring the meaning of the Elizabethan script into the audience's brains so that all we had to do was let go and sail the highs seas of epic story-telling.
“Who's the hunk?” was the clear whisper behind me when Jonathan Parish strode on in his Renaissance boots. Well who can resist a hunk in knee-length boots? With his towering height and thick wavy hair, Jonathan delivered all that my female friends came for and sent them home all a-twitter. But Jonathan always gives far more than that. A consummate actor himself, he has a way of leaving space for the other players, of complementing and supporting them, of adding to the fabric of the whole. Truly professional.
And I love it when Katherine Senior is on stage. I can't help it. To me, she's luminous with artistic presence. When she steps out I know something amazing is going to happen and, as Bess Bridges, she probed the seemingly impossible contradictions of vulnerability and resilience, subtle humour and heart-rending grief. Amazing.
Christopher Barlow's Mullisheg provided comic relief for just the right change in tempo and Toby Gaffney's fight scenes were truly spectacular and more than a little bit terrifying! Steve Bennett, Tom Hackney, Nathan Banks, Christopher Talon and Richard Warrick made up a thoroughly professional cast with great performances.
I freely admit, this is the account of a Creative Cow fan but, believe me, you'll kick yourself if you miss this show – hard – right on the shin.
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!
JoJo Spinks is a Westcountry writer deeply in love with her landscape and her life!
"Thank you very much for joining me here. Please read on to explore more about Working in the Gift and my joint passions of participatory arts and the Devonian landscape." JoJo :)