Fringe Memory – 1000 words and MSND

I’ve been to every single TheatreFest and there are a lot of memories.

White Hippos, the company I’m lucky to be a part of has performed at every TheatreFest except one; I have personally performed at ten of them, I managed a venue in 2019, I’ve helped create 12 original pieces of theatre to be performed at the festival and one comic book based treasure hunt.

I love the Fringe TheatreFest. 

While I’m proud of all the work I have been a part of over the years, what remains the most important to me are the people I’ve met and shared so many wonderful June weekends with. Whether it’s the volunteers and support staff who show up every year, the audience members who remember you and want to encourage what you do next, or the hundreds of fellow performers who have become a part of the TheatreFest family. The vast majority of them have made a lasting impact on me through their enthusiasm and kindness.

However I’m not here to talk about any of that, instead I’d like to talk about the two performances that changed how I think about art.

In 2013 ‘The Monday Collective’ performed an original piece called 1000 Words. As a member of the audience you sat in a venue and watched the show take place on the street outside. The original idea was by a wonderful theatre maker called Liam Gifford and the performance was brought to life by the smörgåsbord of extremely talented individuals that have made up the Monday Collective over the years. The piece blended performance and the real world, a live narration described the action of the performers but also described and contemplated what members of the public were doing and pointed out aspects of the local environment that could be seen from where the audience were sitting. Members of the audience were also occasionally given the microphone so that they could point out what they had observed and the whole thing mixed together to create a dreamy 45mins of storytelling.

We were sitting in a cafe on the bank of the River Taw, there was a large window in front of us where the action was taking place, and behind us another window through which we could see the high flowing waters of the river moving out into the estuary. The building we were sitting in, now a cafe, had in my youth been the main bus station in Barnstaple and before that it had been the railway station for a long extinct railway line that spanned North Devon.

As I sat in my seat I noticed that the columns which held up the portico on the front of the venue were reflected through the glass on the window, onto another smaller pane of glass at the side, no doubt a trick of the light at that time of day, but it gave the impression that the columns were both outside the window and inside the venue as well. I thought about how well this fit with the performance and longed for them to pass me the microphone so I could point it out to everyone.

The narrator, another incredible artist called Jessica Pearson, had at that moment been describing the interplay of action between a couple of the performers and a young family that had unknowingly stumbled into the performance area, when suddenly she turned around, looked out the window behind us and asked.

“I wonder where they got those kayaks from?”

I turned around and saw two people in kayaks casually paddling down the river.

For a second.

Just for a second, I wondered how they had managed to do it, in that tiny moment of time I concocted in my head an idea of how they had managed to pull off such an audacious piece of choreography. My theory involved another performer at the festival whose father ran a shop specialising in outdoor sports equipment, my theory didn’t go any further than that as I suddenly realised, for the first time in all my years of watching theatre, they had made me believe that the fantasy was real.

It wasn’t a trick, they hadn’t tricked me into thinking it, I had given willingly to the idea that the barrier between audience and performer so often described as a wall, was actually just a window. One that reflected me outwards just as much as the performance was projected in and in that moment, not only had they twisted everything I had ever experienced in theatre before, but they had given me the one thing I had always wanted. I had always wanted it to be real.

Throughout my secondary school drama education we had studied the work of Bertold Brecht, over and over again we looked at his techniques to distance the performer from the performance and the performance from the audience. We learned how actors would kick their props into the audience, to show them that what they were watching wasn’t real. I had always struggled with or railed against these techniques, because I had always wondered why they felt the need to remind the audience that what they were watching wasn’t real. Yet here I was, in a seat; in a cafe, having bought a ticket to watch what I was watching, wondering if it was real. It was marvellous, and just as I was grappling with this notion, my head dizzy with the idea, a man jumped into a bin.

Someone in the audience cried “OH MY GOD HE’S JUMPING IN THE BIN!” and she was right, far in the distance, right at the back of the visible performance area, a man had exited the back door of what I’m guessing must have been a restaurant, threw a load of cardboard into a large metal bin, and then, unhappy with the way his recycling was sitting on top of a pile of other cardboard boxes and suchlike. He climbed into the bin and began jumping on it, completely unaware that approximately 50 metres away, a paying audience were sitting and watching his every move.

It was hysterical, the audience burst into laughter unlike any I’ve ever heard and as you can probably tell, I have never been able to forget it.

At the previous year’s festival, but less than 365 days earlier, The Wolf and Water Theatre Company performed an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Surely it is remarkable that the two most profound artistic experiences of my life have both been at the TheatreFest, but for them both to have been within a  year of each other truly boggles the mind.

I have seen and worked on performances of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ many times, I think it is probably my favourite piece by Shakespeare, but many productions of it seem to suffer from what I have dubbed ‘The Faerie Conundrum’. Several years ago I wrote a short sketch about the problem, a one joke affair in which a theatre group spend so much time arguing over how they should depict the faeries, that they never get around to rehearsing the play.

I’ve seen the play set in the 1920’s with the faeries in flapper dresses; I’ve seen it set in the 1960’s with them depicted as hippies and in the 1970’s with whatever hippies from the 1960’s turned into. Sometimes they are played by children, sometimes gymnasts or dancers. I saw one performance by the RSC, who I’m certain were as irritated by the conundrum as I was, and I couldn’t tell you what they were supposed to be. In short, I’ve seen the play a lot, the good, the bad and the baffling, and I wasn’t sure the play had anything left to surprise me with.

My wife Gemma attended the festival with me that year, trying to work out what to watch. She suggested we go and see ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. I ruled it out instantly, no. 

As is often the way though, things changed, we saw shows in a different order than we had planned and suddenly the opportunity to see it was back on the table. ‘Fine’ I said, ‘what are they doing with the faeries this time?’

The answer was the First World War, I rolled my eyes, I hadn’t seen it set in that particular time period before, so I grit my teeth and bought two tickets.    

I then watched the most incredible performance I’d ever seen, not just of this particular play, but of any play. The story I knew so well unfolded in ways I had never imagined, within just a few minutes, every other performance of the play seemed entirely without merit.

The young lovers drawn into the woods by a mixture of hormones, meddling parents and faerie magic now did so with real urgency, they weren’t just in the woods looking for love, they were hoping that love would save them from a World that was on fire.

Oberon, Puck and Titania waged their own war, one that seemed more pointless and cruel as they literally moved the other characters around the stage to carry out their bidding, constantly putting others at risk as they stayed safe behind the hidden barriers of their magical realm.

Helena and Hermia, who are so often the wet blankets of the piece and swept off stage so that Demetrius and Lysander can get all the laughs, instead strode the stage with so much confidence, energy and understanding of their predicament that they were able to steal the scenes back from the rambunctious behaviour of the boys. 

And then there was Bottom. Bottom, who in this performance was entirely mute and led around the stage like… well, a donkey. If you had told me that it was possible to have a production of the play where Bottom didn’t say anything, I would have thought it impossible, but there it was, and it was fantastic. All of the events of the play, all of the jokes, they were all still there, but they were all performed in such a remarkable yet appropriate fashion by a speechless Bottom, that on the two occasions I have had to watch the play since, I’ve been desperate for the character to shut the hell up!

I sat there on a sunny Saturday afternoon trying to take it all in, trying to hold onto every moment of the play. The wonderful performances and direction, the technical elements complete with projected footage of the war, all of it consistently upended my expectations and delighting me, and as Bottom and his fellow craftsmen finished their play and I thought there were no more surprises to be had, all of the human cast were lined up on stage, and shot.

Two couples who had done so much to prove their love for each other and had found themselves so happy were killed, a group of craftsmen who only wanted to put on a play and entertain people were killed, and why? Because of a war, because in a World dealing with an ongoing trauma, young love and entertainment was deemed unnecessary.

The young woman playing Puck appeared at the front of the stage to give her closing monologue, it was a perfect rendition of Shakespeare’s words, but the monologue now took on a very different tone, a mournful tone. It was a closing to the play that suggested grief was in fact only love attempting to deal with its oldest adversary, and that although it may ultimately fail, trying to love the way you want to be loved, will always be worth the effort.

Before the lights faded I was in tears, I turned to my wife and she was in tears, the people who were sitting in front of us were crying and as the house lights came on, it became clear that everyone in the audience had been affected in the same way.

A few years ago I managed to meet Peter Harris who had co-directed the show with Helen Venn and I think I managed to tell him how much the show had meant to me. He passed away recently and even though I didn’t know him, I still feel the loss.

When I think about the World we’re currently living in, the uncertainties that we all face and what TheatreFest will look like in the future, I think about Wolf and Water’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and it makes me happy. We will need art more than ever; to make sense of the World, to question the things that happen to us and most likely as a welcome distraction, but if we can attempt to follow in the footsteps of Wolf and Water, then the shows we make, just like the festival we create them for, will be surprising, inspiring and worthy of our love.  

Mark Ashmore

White Hippos Productions

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