The synagogue Catherine street, photo by Simon Gomery
So, I can reveal that my chosen space for my site-specific performance is the vestry of Plymouth’s synagogue, the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue, in continuous use, in the English-speaking world. Hidden away, even from the pavement (you can just see the roof of the building behind the synagogue above), many people don’t even know the building the vestry is housed in exists. If you’ve read previous posts you will know that I am very interested in the hiddenness of places and I have tried to explain one of my reasons for choosing it below; I can’t deny that my theatre background has had a hand in that.
If, according to Victor Turner (1992), a theatre and dance hall is where liminal behaviour takes place, then a dressing room must surely be an example of a liminal space. The performer enters the theatre from their everyday life, they divest the garments of that everyday world and put on the costume of the character they will play within the theatre. The dressing room acts as an in-between place where one performance ends and another is about to begin. In the vestry of a church, chapel or synagogue the priest or rabbi comes into the space just as the actor enters the dressing room. They enter as themselves but put on the garments of the ritual performance of the service. The vestry therefore acts as their dressing room, the place in-between the outside everyday life and that of the performance of the service they are facilitating. In its previous life as a Hebrew school the vestry of the Plymouth synagogue also had a liminality – the place where childhood met adulthood, where the boy is tutored for his coming of age bar mitzvah. This act is liminal in the ritualistic performativity of tutoring children into the ways of adulthood. Therefore, the space has remained a liminal space throughout its two hundred year existence from school to vestry.
The building itself was built at a time when planning in the relatively small town included a green area at the front of the synagogue. When these plans didn’t materialise and other buildings were built around it, the school building became hidden away becoming liminal in its place within the mapping of the city. Only accessed by people who were using the building, the place, never noted by passers-by because there was no visibility from the pavements, was therefore never in the psyche of the gentiles in Plymouth. Therefore in its architecture, it’s usage and its place within the culture of the city, the entire life of this space has been mainly forgotten by all but one group of the city’s inhabitants.
Turner, Victor (1987) The Anthropology of Performance, New York: PAJ Publications.