Forgotten Places – our first ever immersive experience and first ever fully and completely devised interdisciplinary work closed this time last week. It was such a whirlwind, as short seasons always are, so it has taken a little time to process what happened and why it was such a fulfilling project. If you have ever dreamed of making something meaningful completely from scratch, this blog is for you.
Almost every single aspect of Forgotten Places – from the movements of the actors, to the songs and lyrics they sung, to the paintings, cocoons, sound scapes, words spoken, costume designs – just about everything was created in response to the City of Stonnington. Stu and I took walks around different parts of Stonnington, getting inspiration from public sculptures, hidden gardens, graffiti alleyways and of course, photographs submitted by locals who took part in our photographic walk. Heck, we even used the council’s strategic plan to structure the design of the performance space. Interestingly, one reviewer (who wrote us a gorgeous review) found this last stimulus (the city’s 4 pillars for a better future) “a little on the nose”. I take it a huge compliment that we were able to turn perhaps for some, rather unsexy and dry stimulus material as our starting point and turn it into an experience where “it’s impossible to not have fun” as this same reviewer noted. I believe the reason for this, aside from the overflowing talent of all the group’s collaborators, is the wonderful culture that is emerging in our group as we now enter our second year of regular training. In short, Forgotten Places was an incredibly accurate reflection of the people who created it: fun, joyous, hilarious, clever, curious, inclusive, committed and above all, generous.
Generosity even became a point of concentration and the simple act of giving and receiving fully and with sincerity a cornerstone of the Forgotten Places world. The most glorious thing about making generosity a point of concentration for the group is that it results in a beautiful economy of generosity: the audience start to give more of their attention and trust as they get more generosity of spirit from the performers. This was wonderfully summed up in another stunning review by Samsara Dunston, who said “I don't know if I have ever attended a performance which felt so genuinely like a gift for me”. If someone had said to me when we first started working with the photographs submitted by locals from our Photography Walk, that audiences would leave with such beaming smiles and genuine feelings of calmness and joy, I probably would have been worried about how we would create that. After all, how do you make a work whose starting point is a few photographs and turn it into something that is going to feel like a genuine gift, that is going to make so many people smile with uncontrollable glee? Not knowing what it was really going to be was the best gift I could’ve had and the most rewarding part of collaborating on completely devised theatre.
There is always an overarching lesson in every project for me and in this one, though there were many learnings along the way (including how to make a suspended sensory cocoon out of 2 hula hoops, a bed sheet, some calico, a staple gun, essential oils and fishing wire for under $40) the key lesson here seems to be in being reminded of the most important aspect of a director’s job: to create a space for everyone to bring their gifts to the table. The work that is created will always in some way reflect the experiences of the rehearsal room. Though I can write and love to, this time my focus wasn’t to necessarily generate every piece – rather, it was about discovering with the collaborators how they embodied and processed the stimulus material and what gifts they brought that allowed that response to be authentically and freely given to the audience (as Sondheim says, content dictates form!). It was about listening to what we met in the room. It was delightful to start the first session of each piece with nothing and then by the end of 2 hours, have a sense of a new world, concept or logic. Having said that, there were occasions where we tried to fast track, thinking we knew how to do this ‘making work’ thing. But it never worked that well. There are no shortcuts to deep and attentive listening and dealing with what you meet in the room.
One of the best parts of the process was seeing the show progressed once the audience - our final collaborators (as Sondheim calls them)- came in. There was always a point, sometimes in the opening piece, sometimes half way through the first quarter, sometimes a little later, where the room would suddenly come to life as people realised they could actually do whatever they wanted and this whole thing was a fun adventure to be explored. For some people that moment occurred when a stranger handed them a gift from the gift room, for others it was when they watched a dance piece or a song and felt transported to another universe, some were taken by the artwork or were intrigued once it was pointed out to them, some ‘arrived’ once they discovered the relationship between their maps and the space itself. For others it was simply in realising that all they had to do was be present, to simply exist in a colourful and fun space, to receive what was in the space and that was enough.
I didn’t talk a lot in the lead up about the piece having feminist or queer leanings, despite those conversations taking place in the rehearsal room almost every session. It just felt like a ‘given’; because of the people in the group, attention to those ways of working is inevitable. But I think it is quite interesting to unpack, if only briefly here, given the hugely positive response. As a collective we designed a future together where our characters could move in all kinds of ways – all were accepted and allowed space to move and sound how they desired. Their activities consisted of singing, dancing, telling stories, working to generate new life, engaging and connecting with each other, nourishing themselves and the community and enjoying the pleasure of being surrounded by art and colour (provided by the ever talented Stu Brown). I love that Aislinn Naughton’s costume design deliberately distorted the ‘female’ silhouette, in favour of unexpected bulges (or boils as they became affectionately known), bizarre hats and fringing where you wouldn’t expect fringing. We had a mostly female creative team, queer cast, we talked about issues around gender representation, racial representation, sexuality in order to make informed and deliberate choices about what we wanted to say and how that would impact on the message of the show. What we created was a world built on our own feminist and queer ideas and values. Everything was generated from the questions of “what if…?” and “what else…?” I think it was probably the best rehearsal process I have ever experienced. Looking back, it’s little wonder the show itself reflected this care, happiness and inclusivity.
One of my favourite lines from Forgotten Places (though I have lots of favourites) was from Margot’s song lyrics sung at the very end of the show with everyone in harmony, accompanied by our gorgeous composer Imogen Cygler: “Utopia is to catch the light”. I love this, there’s something about it that speaks to what we were trying to do, I think. We were trying to catch the light - creating a temporary prism that revealed the colour, joy, intensity and generosity of the best things in life. It’s not possible to actually create a utopia like this that lasts forever, but there’s no harm in trying to catch a sense of the world we want to live in, if only for a moment, to get a glimpse into what else there might be in our collective future.
I’m currently reading a most fabulous book called Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. In it, she quotes Black feminist writer Toni Cade Bambara, who says, “the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible”. I was so charged by reading this and I thought, YES! That is what we were trying to embody through the development and performances of Forgotten Places. Let’s hope we can all hold on to that vision of the future gently: one that is positive, bright, inclusive and joyous. How is all that colour not just irresistible!
We really hope to do this project again in different parts of the state, country – even the world! Our next stop is the City of Kingston in September – stay tuned! Feel free to share your thoughts on the experience below too :)
Image credit: Russell Mason @stonningtonurbs