The lovely people at For the Love of It asked me to come and speak. FTLOI is a gathering of street theatre makers and similar artists who take the opportunity of it being a quiet month in January to come together and have a discussion about things. The theme was Ambition. I had a very lovely time- really great people.
Slung Low is a company that makes theatre installations. There is a great diversity in the style of show we make but the connecting strand is that all our work asks the audience to physically move through the story; sometimes that has meant audience walking across the room during the course of a show and others walking miles through a city.
A lot- increasingly all- of that work takes place outside, and most of it on the street. But I’m pretty sure that we would all agree that Slung Low isn’t a street theatre company.
Most of the current team at Slung Low, and certainly myself, are traditional theatre people. Trained and experienced in rep houses and the like. We started making work outside of the stage spaces because the size of stage people were willing to give us was much smaller than the ideas we were discussing.
The last show Slung Low made was called Anthology; a series of stories made up of images that wont fit on the size of stage that is deemed appropriate for a director of my experience. There is within the company an ambition to make big pictures, to work with epic visuals just as the music and sound we’ve incorporated has always been on a large scale. Ambition of scale was one of the factors that pushed us off the stage and out of the buildings. But there was also an ambition of impact and relevance. You see I think theatre can change the world. And over the next few minutes I want to explain why I think the best way to do that is with theatre in the street.
Slung Low is ten years old. It took at least 5 years to work out what it was, what it did and why it bothered.
One of the most important single moments or epiphanies towards that understanding happened 5years ago in Bradford. We were working on a show using material collected from Bosnia- Herzegovina.
It was called 1139 Miles and it was being devised and performed by a large group of emerging artists- at one point there was over 30 of us involved in this ridiculously large and ambitious piece. It is received wisdom that studios support this style and sort of work- and so it was with this project. But I could barely get all the performers to fit in the studio supporting us, let alone perform in it. So we obtained a large warehouse space in the city centre- a big empty cavern of a place.
Even performing outside of the theatre we were still using the language of experimental, upstream, avant-garde performance. We were still telling our message in the manner and style of the studio theatre- talking to those who knew, in a language that was shared. Experimental, innovative, collaborative, non-linear, experiential, durational performance. And- in fairness as intended- the show was seen and supported by our peers, our communities and those who we were trying to impress.
My favourite image and moment of that show was a Peter Pan pop-up book made by a company called Lost Dog Theatre. There was in this book the perfect silhouette of a fairy, TinkerBell one assumes. Or at least in my memory looking back a few years this artefact was the most perfect, handmade, magical object.
One night I was locking up after a performance and I came out of the warehouse into the main city centre square. There, high up in the sky was a woman dancing in a ball of light.
A magical creature floating above the city. Hundreds of people flocked around beneath her, opened mouthed. In the moment that I walked through the door and caught glimpse of the creature dancing in the dark sky I was in a fiction, made real.
I was in a fiction shared by all those hundreds of people- some turning out just to see the event (part of a larger festival I think), some discovering it by accident on the way to the shops, others not sure what they are sharing.
I was in a fiction that changed everything. What was possible now in this depressing, cold city centre would never be the same. The walk to the station, to the allyoucaneatChinesebuffet, across the square with its snarling dogs and quiet drunks, those journies would never be the same. Because the potential for what MIGHT happen had changed. Having seen a dancing fairy above Budgens, anything was possible- the real world had been changed, if only (and it is a mighty ?only?) in terms of what was possible. A work of art had changed my world.
The contrast between those two tinkerbells has been a real provocation for me since that moment 5 years ago. The perfect silhouette of a fairy locked away in a secret space, accessible only to those that know the language, contained within a show designed to impress fellow travellers, lauded by the press that came but with an audience I would imagine of a 100 maybe over two weeks. And the exact same image- right in the heart of a city, stopping people in their tracks, creating fictions, demanding fictions.
The moment made all the more powerful by virtue of its context and their expectations- it changed my world by virtue of being in it. Amongst the tired surrounds of a town centre such beauty, such magic and whimsy was not expected. It was the combination of what is and what might be that was so powerful. The familiar and the fantastical, the ordinary and the unex
pected. The magic and the real.
From that moment on I was increasingly aware of a changing ambition, not just as I say of scale but of relevance, of impact.
Beyond the Front Line was a show Slung Low made in 2009 in association with the Lowry Theatre and the University of Salford
The audience arrived at the Lowry theatre for a play. They were then accompanied by a young, smartly dressed soldier to a small Army briefing tent that was outside the main foyer of the building. They were told to sit down and wait. There were no windows in this tent and the outside couldn’t be seen. The lights went out.
When the lights came back on again there stood an officer, who explained the following facts; the terrorist threat had become so serious that the British Army had been deployed in strategically important positions throughout the UK- The Lowry plaza being one of those positions. Some residents had complained that the army had been a bit heavy handed about it all so this officer was keen to welcome the UN inspectors (that is to say the audience) who would investigate whether this was the case. The audience/inspectors would now be given a complete tour of the facility.
The speech lasted maybe 7 minutes. When the audience were led outside the tent the world had changed. Now spread over the plaza were 60 soldiers- armed and in full combat gear.
There was a young soldier carrying an SA80 rifle standing in front of Cafe Rouge. There was a soldier framed up in the window of Costa Coffee holding a machine gun.
Sand bag placements. Ordinary people being asked for their papers by serious looking soldiers carrying serious looking guns.
The audience were led around the plaza, each section of the defences explained to them. Just at the point when all this was really becoming a little bit too much there was an explosion.
An 11 litre diesel explosion, wonderfully performed by Doug Nicholson, went off in front of the audience. Soldiers threw themselves to the floor, others ran towards the explosion.
Just for a second- a beat of total suspension of disbelief- the world changed again. What was possible- certainly if you were used to seeing shows at the Lowry- from a piece of theatre had just been ever so slightly shifted by the willingness to blow up 11 litres of diesel in a public space.
The audience were told that they would be moved quickly to a place of safety and they were then loaded in to the back of one of four army trucks.
Inside the trucks it was pitch black, quiet and you could not see outside.
Light slowly faded up and in each of the trucks was discovered a single soldier. Different actors, speaking different words.
But they all shared the same central facts- they were a soldier, they were injured, they would die in 20 minutes, they had their own story to tell, the audience would arrive at the safety point only once it was finished.
Once the soldier was dead the back of the truck was opened up once more.
But the world had changed again, camouflage and soldiers replaced with white smoke, bright lights and nurses in scrubs.
From here you would be led to a white tent full of hospital beds, empty but for the whispering of dead soldiers? stories, you?d take part in a funeral procession, you?d hear a newly composed requiem sung by a choir [singing image] and be surprised by the nurse next to you breaking in to song, you?d write a postcard to a serving soldier. Many many things.
I was sat in a meeting the other day when someone turned to me and said ?our ambition for the next 24 months is to survive?. Which is a shit ambition for an artist.
Somehow the beginning of this year for me has been a very depressing time. I?ve slightly lost my way in this current scrabble and crisis of funding applications and as I?ve tried to bring my thinking together for this event I?ve had cause to wonder whether it?s because I?ve lost grip on my ambitions. The reason why survival is a shit ambition is because it?s a tactic not a strategy- you survive in order to achieve something- surviving isn?t the aim- it?s
the mechanism by which the aim is achieved. It can?t be the ambition of an artist. Or more usefully it can?t be an artistic ambition.
The language of the current government, the current arguments, the current negotiating and applications- cost effective regenerative processes, strategic partnerships, tactical closures- is not the language of ambition. It?s the language of survival. It?s the language of keeping your head down and hoping they don?t notice you.
I am absolutely certain that a healthy future for Slung Low does not lie in the perfectly formed image of tinkerbell, the perfect silhouette of a fairy locked away in a secret space, accessible only to those that know the language, contained within a show designed to impress fellow travelers.
I am absolutely certain that the route through and beyond survival is one that passes the magic real image of a fairy dancing high above a city centre. That the way forward for Slung Low past language borrowed from civil servants, past arguments of cost effective investment return and into a stronger more vibrant, more valued place is by not locking our stories away, but by creating moments of awe, shock and wonder in the worlds we inhabit all the time and not just on our stages. That the path to a place in our society in which theatre does not need to apologise for itself and stutter and shrink in the corner is by setting our ambition no less than to change the world with our theatre, to place our magic amongst the everyday and humdrum of the street we walk to work.
I?m not saying this latest funding and evaluation process hasn?t had to be done. I?m not saying that it isn?t a valid process or that all of us involved in it aren?t of good faith, strong heart and pure intent. But I am saying that I?ve had enough now. It?s time to get back to the language of visions and ambitions.
The images contained here are from a variety of past Slung Low productions: photos are variously by Simon Warner, Sam Heath and Tim Smith. All 3 are excellent photographers.