Same town, different stories

by Maddy Costa

In all the years I worked on newspapers (two with the Evening Standard, six at the Guardian, another eight of freelance time), I knew I wasn’t much of a journalist. My impulse wasn’t to sniff out stories, expose the truth, uncover lies; I wanted to draw people’s attention to things, but that meant pop music and theatre: not much in the way of “hard news” there. I still want to draw attention to theatre, but my sense of myself as a story-gatherer has changed. I want to draw attention to people under the radar, to stories unheard, people unseen. It’s why I’m getting so much joy out of working on NTiYN: it takes me to places too easily dismissed.

Stockton-on-Tees is one of those places. We all know this story: a former manufacturing town now slumped without purpose or hope. Its high street blighted with dust from sluggish building sites, discount stores and dereliction. It has an arts centre, sure, but that’s five doors down from the pub where a pint costs only a pound. Addiction, prostitution, unemployment, the lot. Except. Those aren’t the only things I see when I visit Stockton. And there are other ways this story might be told. I’ve written about this on this blog before: a sense that what separates this high street from my own apparently more chi-chi high street in London is snobbery and narrative. Just because the drinks are five, eight, ten times more expensive in my local cocktail bars, doesn’t make their buyers superior to anyone else getting drunk.

I’ve wanted to tell another story about Stockton for a long time now, a story about community, a neighbourhood coming together in shared space. I was there in August last year for the Stockton International Riverside Festival, on an NTiYN job, inviting people to chat after seeing The Roof. When I first reached the High Street I was astounded: I’d never seen it so full. People of all ages, gathered between the buildings sites, spending the whole day watching outdoor performances. There was something that involved huge plastic flowers protruding from the upper windows of a shop building; a march of Mexican puppets banging drums; a silent dance piece by two men dressed as soldiers, one in a wheelchair, and a woman in a floaty silk gown. I couldn’t imagine any of those people choosing to see that dance piece if it had been staged at the ARC.

Watching The Roof in this context was blissful: so much more fun than when I’d seen it in London. The show hadn’t changed but the afternoon sunlight (in London it hadn’t started until 9pm or so), the open space (in London it was overshadowed by imposing concrete buildings), the presence of young children (despite a 12+ age recommendation), changed the atmosphere for the better. A few people walked out – it was free, they weren’t beholden – but others were clearly entertained, and I enjoyed watching two boys in particular, both aged maybe eight or at most 10, grinning, singing along to the soundtrack and copying the computer-game hero’s dance moves. I could picture them going home and re-enacting his leaps across the simulated rooftop, from sofa to rug to armchair; turning to each other in a year, two years, and saying: “Remember that thing we saw with the guy and the rubber ducks and the monsters with broccoli heads? That was COOOOL.”

Theatre makes memories, makes fun, makes new stories. This is what I love about it. It also, given the chance, gives a community impetus. I went to SIRF around the same time as seeing a couple of shows in London that thought about this incisively. Mr Burns at the Almeida was set after some kind of energy apocalypse; survivors, strangers, gathered in makeshift shacks and consoled themselves by retelling the story of a particular episode of the Simpsons. Fast forward a few years and entire communities have formed, fuelled by amateur dramatics: there is an alternative economy in Simpsons scripts and people have found new meaning in their lives through re-enactments. Fast forward again and those re-enactments are full-scale rituals: there is a new energy charge in these lives now. Those communities survived through storytelling, thrived through storytelling. They found meaning and a way of articulating their own predicament through art.

Mr Burns anticipated the enduring value of pop culture; Idomeneus at the Gate breathed with the ancients. A Greek myth retold by German playwright Roland Schmimmelpfennig, Idomeneus is the story of a Cretan king who promises to sacrifice the first living being he encounters to the gods in return for a safe journey home from Troy; but in this version it becomes multiple stories, a chorus of narrator-characters rehearsing several possible versions of events, each one casting Idomeneus and themselves in a different light. The slipperiness of their storytelling becomes revealing, too, of how history is rewritten by successive generations, and how truth is malleable depending on the purpose to which it’s being put. If that makes it sound dry, it wasn’t: directed by Ellen McDougall, it was pacy and funny and made you gasp with its surprises. And because it was impossible to tell what the “real” story was, you in the audience watching had the opportunity to decide for yourself.

It’s in that invitation to “make” the story that theatre does so much basic democratic work. Another thing I was doing at the time of visiting SIRF was reading The View From Here, a vital paper by a group of artists based in New York who call themselves the Brooklyn Commune Project, which talks about the place art and artists have in the world and the relationships they have and might have with audiences. I reread it regularly, simply because it’s so inspiring, and communicates so brilliantly that art matters not because it generates so many millions of pounds for the economy, but because it builds in people the confidence to be socially engaged. One study it quotes emphasises that art is “a contributor to sense of place and sense of belonging, a vehicle for transfer of values and ideals, and a promoter of political dialogue”. Elsewhere it describes art, and particularly performing arts like theatre, as a “meeting place, a site for the formation of a shared communal identity as ‘the public’ … a microcosm of democratic society, where individual free expression meets public space”.

Is it far-fetched to read all of that into SIRF? Maybe. But I got a completely different sense of Stockton from going to that festival, joining that community, watching disability arts and theatre-through-headphones and flamboyant noisy street processions with them, sharing that community’s curiosity, feeling invigorated by their stamina. And I wondered: who’s telling this story? Who’s framing Stockton and its public this way?

I went back to Stockton earlier this week, again with NTiYN, to give a writing workshop at the ARC connected to The Spalding Suite. Approaching the High Street, I was surprised again: the building site was gone, replaced with wide pavements, clean shop fronts and a large curved fountain that at night shines with coloured lights, bubbling emerald, ruby and sapphire. I remembered the lovely cafe I’d been to last summer, open late into the evening and bubbling with conversation; I wandered into the shopping centre and found a too-enticing sewing stall, old-fashioned bakers, and a sense of character I’d always assumed wasn’t there. (Nothing to do with Stockton, everything to do with hatred of shopping centres.) With the building machinery packed up, the ARC is visible from the High Street; it doesn’t feel disconnected any more but a window on to the town.

I’m really excited by the possibilities of this. I’m excited by the thought that one day, the teenage boys milling around the fountain at 10pm, shouting intimidation at passers-by, might one day spend an evening sitting in the ARC, and that the show they see might be like The Spalding Suite: vivid, pulsing, full of basketball and beatboxing, fiery with the hopes of young men like them. I’m excited that the people drinking in the pound-a-pint pub might encounter Hannah Nicklin, someone who’ll encourage their stories to be heard. I’m idealistic, I know, but I think back to a blog post by Daniel Bye in which he mentions making Story Hunt in Stockton, encountering “an enormous amount of inspiring history, but … a lack of hope in the present” and dream up a future in which ARC becomes the site of regenerated civic hope. I want to keep telling the story of Stockton, because it feels important. People and places shouldn’t be abandoned or sneered at. Common humanity demands better than that.

10 Things I’ve Learned About Ring … by talking to its audiences

by Maddy Costa

I don’t often go to post-show discussions at the theatre, but when I do, I wonder what might happen if their focus were shifted, from the theatre-makers as the authoritative source of information, to the audience. Instead of the audience asking how the work was made, the theatre-makers might ask: how did it make you feel? Instead of the audience asking why the work has that title, the theatre-makers could ask: what did you think it was about?

It’s hard for audiences to be honest with theatre-makers about their work: enthusiasm and confusion alike embarrass us. By talking to other audience-members instead, people can learn a great deal about a production, seeing it (and the world around it) through many different eyes.

This is the impulse behind the Dialogue Theatre Club that I run with another critic, Jake Orr, and that I’ve been taking around the country as part of Fuel’s NTiYN project. I didn’t plan to host four separate post-show discussions on the subject of Ring, but I’m so glad I have, because each one has been illuminating. With no one present who was involved in making the piece, audiences were able to discuss their responses openly, without deferring to people “in the know”. What follows are some of my favourite things I’ve discovered about Ring, and the people I “watched” it with:

1: Ring is a great big magic trick, and most people want to know how it works.
Ring takes place in a pitch-dark room; instead of actors performing in the space with you, everything is delivered through headphones. Well, almost everything: Simon Kane plays a man called Michael (not, he says slyly, his real name), who sets the scene and makes sure we’ll all be comfortable in the oppressive blackness before we proceed. The actors’ speech, and their movements, were captured using binaural recording techniques: effectively, microphones are planted in the ears of a dummy head, picking up sound the way human ears would. It creates the extraordinary sensation that recorded sound is genuinely happening all around you: far over to the left, nearer to the right, in a whisper just behind your ear, so close it makes your muscles flinch.

At the first theatre club I discovered that 80% of the people in the room had lifted their headphones at some point, to find out if the sound were really all recorded, or if some of it were happening live. Deep inside I was appalled: whatever happened to the willing suspension of disbelief? But as more and more people told me that they, too, had lifted up their headphones to ascertain what was real, I realised that Ring is like a magic trick: people want to know how it works. And, as with a magic trick, the technical explanation is ever-so-slightly dull.

2: Several tiny illusions cohere to make that big illusion.
When we first meet Michael, he walks with a crutch and accidentally, incongruously, drops a ping-pong ball. He paces up and down, establishing a percussive rhythm: tap, step, tap, step; the ping-pong ball skitters across the floor with a pop-pop-pop. Once we’re marooned in a sea of blackness, these sounds become markers, warning us of Michael’s presence.

For most people, such illusions only fully work if the dimensions, and particularly the flooring, of the room in which the audience are sitting, correspond with their equivalent in the recording. The audiences I spoke to in Battersea Arts Centre in London weren’t alert to this, because they didn’t have to be: the room and the recording correlated. Audiences in Belfast and Margate, however, were alert to every disparity.

In Margate, the issues were largely to do with space: it was evident throughout that the room we were in was smaller, and less echoey, than the fictional room. Plus, it was carpeted: in our presence, Michael’s crutch made a muted thump that bore no resemblance to the sharp clicks in the headphones. Not everyone was troubled by this – but those who were found Ring quite hard to take seriously.

In Belfast, issues of size were exacerbated by the fact that everyone in the recording spoke with an English accent. How could audiences believe these people were in the room with them if they sounded like characters from the Archers? (Please note: EVERYONE I spoke to who commented on this used the same reference point. It was like a word association game: recorded English accents – the Archers!)

All together, it made me realise how difficult it is to tour work, and re-create the conditions under which a show was originally meant to be experienced. And it made Ring’s ability to hypnotise people in Belfast and Margate, despite these drawbacks, all the more impressive.

3: Most people think the central character is male.
Early in the show, when everyone in the room is scraping their chairs to move into a circle (at least, that’s what the recording tells you is happening), Michael unexpectedly whispers, directly in your ear, “Not you, Francis.” Or, indeed: “Not you, Frances.” The intention is that right away you will believe that you have a role to play in this piece: that of a mysterious character who, it gradually emerges, represents the worst of everyone in the room.

I didn’t really believe I was Frances – but I believed absolutely that she was a woman, a woman who made questionable choices and put herself in dangerous situations without any particular regard for other humans or the consequences of her actions. And I was astonished that almost everyone I spoke to – despite the deliberate absence of gendered pronouns, despite the androgynous name, regardless of whether or not they believed they were Francis – unequivocally believed Francis was male. It just goes to show how dominant the masculine is in our society.

4: Ring is extra disturbing if your name is Francis.
I met a lovely man in Belfast, christened Francis, who, from the very first whisper, spent the duration of the show freaking out. How did they know he was there? Was everyone hearing their own name in their headsets, too? How was that possible? That was one protective layer of fiction I was glad to have maintained.

5: It’s participatory in more ways than one.
From the moment you’re called Francis/Frances, you’re invited to participate directly with Ring – at least, within your imagination. For many people, however, this is the moment when another kind of participation begins. “You’ve got the wrong person.” “I’m not Francis!” Night after night, audience members were talking back to the recording – and I had no idea, until I spoke to them afterwards. In Belfast, whole groups of people were so enraptured by the scene in which the characters serenade Francis/Frances with a rendition of the Carpenters’ Close To You that they sang along. Isn’t that lovely?

5: It’s remarkably effective at getting people talking about fear of the dark.

As someone who was afraid of the dark for a good 30 years, sitting through Ring for the first time wasn’t easy. By the end, I thought I was going to vomit. Although rooted to my chair, I felt as though I were floating in space. It was like being trapped in a nightmare – a nightmare from which I couldn’t wake up, not even if I screamed.

This, it turned out, was a fairly extreme reaction – just a few notches down from leaving the show (which some people did, to ruinously disruptive effect). And I became curious: how many people experiencing Ring were once, or still, afraid of the dark? A good half of the people I spoke to, it turned out. Which was oddly reassuring.

I met only one other man, in Margate, who had as strong a physical reaction as me. He was so shaken I felt sorry for him – all the more so because I pounced on him as he walked out of the theatre to invite him to come and talk about it. Some experiences need a bit of digesting before they can be discussed: Ring is one of them.

7: It’s easier to contemplate the physical darkness that surrounds you during Ring, than the mental darkness it pours into you.
One of the most fascinating and thought-provoking conversations I had about Ring was in Belfast with a visually impaired man, his milky-blue irises opaque as china, who assured me he couldn’t talk with much authority about it because he hadn’t had time to think it through, yet dissected it with a philosophical acuity that had me struggling to keep up. My recollections of his torrential monologue are muddled, but one thing that has particularly stuck was his interrogation of what it means to be “in the dark”. For sighted people, that’s a physical experience within Ring: you are sitting in a dark black as oil, and the inability to see heightens the sensitivity of your other senses. This man, however, pointed out that to be “in the dark” can also mean to be in a state of ignorance – and Ring’s audiences are trapped within that state by a script that avoids explaining anything. How much do we need to know about a person to construct a personality for them? How much does anyone reveal the truth about themselves, and how much do they conceal? Ring made this man think about the public and private faces individuals present and hide from the world – and about the blurring that social media has effected between the two. We read a Facebook profile or a Twitter feed and think we know people intimately – but do we really know them? What are they keeping dark?

8: The question, “But is it theatre?” is much better answered face-to-face than online.
Across the four conversations, I encountered just one woman (Russian, as I recall, and not someone who often sees non-traditional work), who wanted to know: what makes this theatre? We’re not watching anything, there’s no one on stage: why isn’t it a radio play? And I was startled by the gentleness of the people – most of whom were studying or involved in theatre in some way – who responded to her. People who ask “but is it theatre?” in comment threads online generally get dismissed as trolls. Here we could patiently explain that being in the same room as lots of people you couldn’t see was integral to Ring’s illusion, to the experience of scrutinising each of our senses, to the mirroring of the situation within the narrative and the world around us, to Ring’s hold on our imagination, to the act of collective imagining that makes theatre great.

9: To some extent, Ring is about what we do when we go to the theatre.
We gather in a dark room to will a world, a story, several lives, into being. Why do we do this? For our own entertainment, sure. But also, to see how other people live, and develop our empathy for others and our understanding of what might influence the choices they make in their lives. And, just maybe, to imagine ways of living better, ourselves and as a society.

I’ve seen a fair bit of theatre over the past year that makes this argument, notably Chris Goode’s The Forest and the Field, and the A Smith/Tim Crouch collaboration what happens to the hope at the end of the evening. This is work that declares from the outset that it wants to think about the kind of society we create when we go to the theatre, and what we might be able to bring from that into the outside world. There is just one moment in Ring when it declares a similar intention: early on, when “Michael” asks, in a strident tone, why the group have gathered in the dark, and quickly answers his own question: to imagine something better.

How many people caught this? It’s mentioned in just one other review I’ve read, and I don’t recall talking about it much in theatre clubs, except with a group of theatre students at BAC. There is a craft, and a craftiness, to this piece that makes it stand up to repeat visits: I went four times in the end, and didn’t feel quite to grips with it until the third sitting.

10: A few Tunnocks tea cakes go a long way.

This has nothing to do with Ring and everything to do with after-show discussions. Usually they happen in the auditorium, with the theatre-makers on stage, right? Maybe the audience have had time to grab a drink, maybe they haven’t. This hardly creates a convivial atmosphere.

All of the discussions I’ve had about Ring have involved food and drink: wine and juice, crisps and bread sticks; at the MAC in Belfast, a tapas spread so generous and delicious it was almost distracting. But the snacks that proved most cheering were the two boxes of Tunnocks tea cakes distributed across the homely bar area of the Tom Thumb theatre in Margate. Talking about theatre doesn’t have to be a dry, intellectual activity, although that’s what it’s often deemed to be. Maybe a few Tunnocks tea cakes are all it takes to remind people that it’s fun, too.

Ring, MAC, Belfast

By Chris Caldwell

As I walk into a black room full of chairs facing each other, I am greeted by a man dressed in black with a crutch, I suddenly realise that I know very little about what is about to happen. I reach into my pocket and pull out the leaflet, I read the quoted text above. It doesn’t make me feel any better. He asks people their names as they enter and as he’s leaving he drops a ping pong ball. We all put our headphones on and they slowly dim the lights, then they dim them some more, and then blackness.It’s suffocating, almost unbearable… they suddenly come back on again. “that is how dark it will be for the next 50 minutes” our guide announces “if it is too much for you leave now” – we all look around, two people leave and we are plunged back into complete darkness.

What happens next is a 360 degree surround sound play in the dark. Characters introduce themselves in an AA style meeting. People tell their wicked stories. People walk around and suddenly I realise that some-one is talking directly to me, about 2 inches from my ear. I’m not quite sure what’s real and what’s not, there’s a loose story being told, and like a good book I have to conjure it in my mind. I’m sure it was all pre-recorded due to the English accents all around me, although at one point some-one touched me ever so lightly on my back, and I was certain I could smell perfume and aftershave, but who knows if it’s real or just my imagination!

Technically speaking the sound is terrific, it sounds real and is completely immersive, you swear there are people all around you talking, getting up and moving around, it is completely 360. The sound effects are spot on too. Any lapse in either of these and you would snap out of the fiction, like a movie with bad special effects.

The group I’m in is for very bad people, and by the way they’re talking I am the worst of the lot, the pace of the proceedings quickens as the 50 minutes race on, culminating in an unspeakable act (if for anything else so as not to spoil it for people who may go at a later date) before I know it, the lights are coming on and I’m wondering just how 50 minutes could go so fast.

I feel as if it’s a play performed entirely for me. A play for Chris. As the lights come on and I look around, not quite sure what I’ve just been a part of, I begin to file out with everyone else, like participants of an all-night slumber party. It turns out that one of the people who left was one of my party. They were allowed to sit outside the room (in the light) and listen to the show. Asking her what it was like with the lights on she answered that she was very glad that she hadn’t stayed as it was scary enough when you could see all around you!

This was a totally unique experience and one which I would be keen to re-experience. The guys from Fuel Theatre seem to be coming back here a few times this year with odd and experimental theatre and you can check out their upcoming shows here.