Tag Archives: the Jewish Museum

Site generic ?

I am moving forward with my last performance, which was a site specific piece for the vestry of a synagogue, and contemplating performing it in another venue, in order to decide whether it works in a site other than the one it was made for. I have already taken it to the Jewish Museum in London where I pretty much gave the performance as a presentation complete with power point in order to allow the audience to visualize the space. I have yet to perform it as my original draft, which was as a coffee morning complete with coffee and cakes. Performing in a kosher building came with rules I had to honor and I was not allowed to take homemade cakes into the building, therefore I had to have a plan B.  I will have to be very particular about what space I use and then I will need to decide how I am going to talk about the performance. When I performed it in the vestry it was certainly site-specific but looking at the different mutations of this genre it starts to get quite complicated. In Mapping the Terrain Fiona Wilkie asked ‘What do performance makers mean by site? how specific is site-specific?’ In her questionnaire to various theatre companies she concluded that ‘the only generalisation that can be drawn from the attempts within the questionnaire to define site-specific performance is that it is concerned with issues of place and the real spaces of performance’ (New Theatre Quarterly, 70:148). Most companies would recognise that by performing site-specific work you can reach audiences who, for one reason or another, do not engage with theatrical performances within a theatre building. My reason for performing in the vestry was to not only transmit some local social history through performance, but to start a cultural conversation with the owners of the site, the people who came to see it and myself. Now, I want to see if I can keep that conversation going.

Site specific – site sensitive – site determined – site orientated – site referenced – site conscious – site responsive – site related – site inspired – site generic.

The above are all terms that have been used within the genre of sited work. For my performance in the Jewish Museum I decided on site generic, but was I right? Site generic is a term that means a performance that can be taken to a series of like sites but the Jewish Museum did not have a vestry so why did I use it? I deliberated for a long time. When I first visited the vestry I was surprised at the term vestry as I associated it with a Christian church, plus other Jews I spoke to said they did not have a vestry at their synagogue. So I researched and noted that other spaces, functioning as the vestry at the Plymouth synagogue did, were indeed called other names – community hall being one of them. I then looked at what the room was used for and, although each synagogue will have its varied uses, there will be a nucleus of similar events that are common to all. Meetings, coffee after the services, social events etc, so if you take each building and find the space that encompasses these things then we have a like space, do we not? In the museum the event space I was performing in was used for many things, readings, meetings, social events and, it was directly alongside the cafe so coffee was readily available. Some might say this is tenuous  and if I take this piece to another space it will be interesting to witness the outcome and, maybe, I will have to use another description. Of course the one thing that related the vestry and the museum was their cultural connection, so I could have used the term, site-related.  Now, in the future I may be using a non Jewish space so, even though I will be able to perform my piece as I originally intended to, I will not be in a space that has that cultural relationship. So what does that mean? Site-inspired or site-determined? or maybe a new term altogether.

Wilkie, Fiona (2002) ‘Mapping the Terrain: a Survey of Site-Specific Performance in Britain’ New Theatre Quarterly. 70, p140-60.

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Taking the specific out of Site-specific

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Vera in the Vestry at the Jewish Museum, London

Taken on a phone camera by a member of the audience we will forgo the quality and look at what the picture tells us.I was invited to perform my Plymouth University MRes practice as research piece at the Jewish Museum after performing at the Plymouth Synagogue – the site it was inspired by and intended for. So what does one do when you take the specificity out of a site-specific performance? In this instance I was performing in a room that usually housed talks and readings, it was geared up for this activity. Part of my performance involves taking family photographs out of a suitcase and placing them on a table but as I had an AV system at my disposal I thought I would take advantage and project images behind me as I related to them. I had originally thought I would just project an image of the vestry, the room I used for my Plymouth performance, behind me and imagine I was within the room and not change anything in my text. Then as I went over my script I realised that there were things I had to explain to an audience who were not actually sitting in the vestry. Things that the Plymouth audience witnessed first hand. Therefore before the ‘performance’ started I gave a brief talk to contextualise the vestry, it’s place within the city and why I had come to make the performance there. We decided to call the performance ‘a performance talk’ which seemed to fit well within the space that is set up for that. Having decided to contextualise it I then took advantage of the fact I could project larger images behind me and continued to produce images to help the audience visualise my content. Therefore, in the end I constantly referred to my performance in the vestry and didn’t try and pretend I was there. I have to say that my performance was geared up to allow those references. I had always referred to Vera in the Vestry as ‘starting a cultural conversation’ and felt that I could just interject at times without taking anything away from the text. There was even someone in the audience who had been with me at a point I refer to in the performance so I asked her if she remembered, which also highlighted the conversational aspect. The feed back was really positive, people liked the ‘talk’ aspect and the information about the Plymouth synagogue, indeed the wider context about Plymouth and where the synagogue sits within the city. I had feared that would come across as a history lesson.

In Plymouth I welcomed the audience into the vestry as if there were coming to a coffee morning and I was the host, I offered coffee and cake and introduced people to one another if I saw fit – just like a host would if people were arriving at their home and introductions were needed.

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In the museum I hadn’t any coffee or cakes but the event space was directly next to the museum cafe which worked really well. The audience arrived and I told them to get a coffee and introduced them to whoever was waiting in the cafe. This had been the interesting part in Plymouth for me, people on arrival were always questioning whether I was in character as Vera or Ruth. They couldn’t work it out, I was greeting them as Ruth but seemed to be attired as someone else. This made me question my ‘performance’ as myself and how being a host is actually a performance in our everyday life. In the museum I was replicating this part of my performance by greeting people as they arrived and keeping up the appearance of being Ruth whilst obviously about to be someone else.

And now Vera is going to Latitude and will be performing in a caravan or tent. How will I adapt for an audience of five? Well, I will remember the campsite retreat where I did a ten minute performance and take inspiration from that. I think a 1950’s flask is in order, to give my audience some coffee and I’ll have some Kit Kats handy. Watch this space and I will tell you how it goes. Oh and keep your fingers crossed for good weather, Vera doesn’t camp very well.

the Jewish Museum

Just had a few days in London with a visit to the Jewish Museum and the first night of Told By an Idiot’s My Perfect Mind at the Young Vic, which was a co-production with the Drum Theatre Plymouth. I would have taken a trip to the museum anyway, as my performance is inside an orthodox Jewish building, but finding out that the Chief executive is Abigail Morris, who directed me in the Verity Bargate award winning play Kindertransport by Diane Samuels in 1993, meant that it was even more important. What a great place, rooms of wonderful artifacts and interactive information, oral histories plus answers to questions at the push of a button. Having Abigail as a tour buddie was a great advantage with little insights and then a meeting with Elizabeth Selby – the social history curator and collections manager who found me items relating to in particular, Plymouth’s synagogue.

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property of the Jewish Museum http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/Home

this calling card above is particularly interesting as Abraham Joseph came from a family who were one of the largest and most well respected within the Hebrew congregation. Abraham was a purveyor of naval clothing and advisor to Prince William, (the third son of George III) who was captain of the frigate Pegasus. The notes attached claim that the Joseph family maintained royal connections for three generations.

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property of the Jewish Museum http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/Home

Here is a silver snuff box presented in 1837 to Aaron Nathan, the constable of East Stonehouse, which celebrates his discovery of a gang of coiners.