Tag Archives: Hidden City Handbook

Working from home

For a decade now I’ve been trying to make work happen in my home town yet now that I’ve started to concentrate on the ‘performer’ again, rather than the facilitator and producer, I find I am leaving, yet again, to show my work. This year I shall be in Bristol, North Devon and Exeter, at least it’s the South West but, still no space (and by that I mean bricks and mortar) for an alternative theatre scene in Plymouth, my home town and, sorry Bristol, but the real South West.

When we first started to exchange ideas for ‘making something happen’ in the city in which we lived, we were influenced by our backgrounds as performers, theatre makers and culture seekers in other cities across the world. What we found to be lacking in Plymouth were opportunities for the talented emergent and established artists of the city and region to develop their work, work together (or even discover each other‘s existence), and to have their work showcased locally. How could the city’s cultural community grow and flourish if so many of its artists left, or felt the need to make work elsewhere, once it reached a certain level of development? 

The Hidden City Handbook by Rachel Aspinwall, Ruth Mitchell & Phil Smith

These words were written in 2008 and six years on it seems there is still a need to make a vibrant theatre community in Plymouth, even more so since a new generation of theatre students have arrived in the city. Frustratingly many have attempted the challenge only to give up and leave for more cultural places and communities. Up the line in Bristol there are a handful of performer collectives, working from spaces that have been given to them, possibly by a sympathetic council officer who understands their needs. Plymouth?

Regular readers, I apologize for the almost identical grumblings here, which are similar to a past post. Previously I was going on about a freelance community and slowly but surely we are coming out of our corners and making ourselves known to one another. Now we need space to make or, be visible enough so that the new Plymouth Theatre Scene are on the radar and those keyholders will offer to open the door.

BUT hope is in sight, not just because there are people who want to make this happen but a new theatre space is being built on the University campus with two studio theatres and space to experiment. I am keeping my fingers well and truly crossed that it will open its doors to the established theatre makers in Plymouth, so that we can start to be visible and create a cultural buzz but, just as importantly, so that it will make theatre and performance students stay and be part of an emerging scene. Students learn just as much, or more, by watching other work and doing. It’s taken its time but there could be a light… watch this space.

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First Steps Towards a Site-Specific Performance 1

Well my project proposal is in and in a months time I will know whether it has been excepted and I will be able to share my journey with you on this blog. Yesterday was my final day at university before Christmas and I have been given homework alongside my own reading to do. On the same day, I received through the post Site Specific Performance by Mike Pearson, and performing site specific theatre edited by Anna Birch and Joanne Tompkins. I think it’s safe to say, that if you are only reading this post, you can guess what the subject of my proposal may be from the titles of my new reading books. My homework entails taking one of my aims and devising an exercise that will help me achieve it, then showing it back on January 10th.

With my aims in mind I am going to look at Phil Smith’s first steps towards site-specific performance, I know there’s a similar exercise in the Mike Pearson book so I will be explaining the outcome in a new year post having applied both ideas.

Starting Out

Working in a non-theatre site is very different from working in a theatre. From the start it is best to assume everything will be unfamiliar. You are taking a journey that begins in the dark. “Site-specificity” means getting your inspiration from and working in and for your site. Sharp perception counts for more than past experience. Long before you get to “script”, “plot” or “character”, your site should be touched, stroked, collected from, mapped, played in, observed, framed, listened to and analysed. Maybe inhabit it for a while?

You can use the destinationless “drift” of the situationists: follow your instincts, feel out the atmospheres of places, choose your site according to its psychological (or “psychogeographical”) effect on you. This way you are more likely to find genuinely hidden places, rather than ones widely known as “unknown”.

There is a rough theatricality about places that are usually unvisited – basements, rooftops, tunnels. Just looking and discovering may provide you with material for performance.

Found a site that attracts you? Then fingertip search it like a crime-scene, diagnose it like a sick body, wander in it as if it were a dream. Speculate on how it came to be like it is. Write its creation myth. Once the site begins to respond in its own terms, adopt those terms as your own.

Smith, Phil (2010) ‘Endnotes’ in The Hidden City Festival Handbook. Ed. Roberta Mock. Plymouth: University of Plymouth Press

Hidden City Handbook

My MRes has partly come out of my involvement, over the last five years, with site specific events within the city of Plymouth. In 2008 I got together with another theatre maker, Rachel Aspinwall to create something in our joint home city, the result was a week long festival of new writing performed in buildings across the city that were either hidden away or had a hidden story behind them. As a result we were commissioned by the University of Plymouth to write a book about the process.

here is the beginning of the book explaining how we started Hidden City

Points of Departure

When we first started to exchange ideas for ‘making something happen’ in the city in which we lived, we were influenced by our backgrounds as performers, theatre makers and culture seekers in other cities across the world. What we found to be lacking in Plymouth were opportunities for the talented emergent and established artists of the city and region to develop their work, work together (or even discover each other‘s existence), and to have their work showcased locally. How could the city’s cultural community grow and flourish if so many of its artists left, or felt the need to make work elsewhere once they reached a certain level of development? We set up our company, Part Exchange Co, in direct response to what we saw as a ‘gap in the market’ in order to offer Plymouth and its regional artists (many of whom regularly travel elsewhere to develop and present their work in a professional context) the opportunity to create and network in their own city.

Deciding to embrace the opportunity that being a non-building based company gave us, we chose to focus on making site inspired work outside of conventional venues and reach non-traditional arts audiences in the process. The question was: what should our first project be?

Plymouth was – and still is – undergoing enormous re-development. Buildings and sites of interest, including many that were standing empty, were all fair game. Making a response in performance to this fast changing city seemed a way to intervene in the giant game of building and knocking down of sandcastles that was going on before our eyes. With our shared background in working in new theatre writing, we settled on the idea of a festival of site-inspired performance that would prioritise working with the city’s and region’s writers and artists, bringing them together in exciting new collaborations and in engagement with a city and  its changing landscape. As we traveled the city’s streets looking over potential sites for our festival, we found that the most intriguing places, those that spoke to us, were those that had been hidden away. These sites included both grand and gracious buildings and far less distinctive structures that also happened to house extraordinary history. Something in their desertedness left space for the imagination and, as we discovered more about how they had come to be the way they were, we learnt a tale of another city, of many other cities, different to the one that we thought we knew.

It was about at this point that the city itself started to intervene. Once it had started to speak, it was impossible to stop it, talking ten to the dozen, gathering pace, taking us on a helter-skelter ride of serendipitous meetings and revelatory moments.                                  The city of Plymouth is a fascinating entity. It is an imposing military town bristling with war ships and nuclear submarines, has a quaint medieval quarter full of cafes and antiques shops, is a post war planner’s dream of pedestrianised shopping streets and ring roads, and is an elegant seaside retreat in one of the most beautiful natural harbors in the British Isles. At the time we were developing our ideas, it also had the ward with the highest indicators of deprivation in the country. Its public image did not do justice to the complexity of its diverse identities. Blossoming under our investigative gaze, the city best known for Sir Francis Drake, the Blitz and the Pilgrim Fathers was revealing a host of other histories. This was no longer just about what we wanted; it was also about what the hidden city was demanding.

So the Hidden City Festival found its name and its aim, grounded in and inspired by Plymouth, its communities, its built and natural environment and its history and heritage.