Beyond Walls: Ecologically Engaged Theatre in the UK, a dialogue with two companies
The opportunity to join others in grieving for the current monumental loss of species, which our culture so rarely acknowledges, and the transient moment of catharsis and restored balance that occurred subsequently made this improvised funeral ceremony one of my most moving theatre experiences to date. Ecological and psycho-emotional balance doubtless go hand-in-hand, and yet clearly we live in a deeply imbalanced world. Interestingly, the word ‘kilter’ is most commonly used in the context of imbalance, ‘out of kilter’ – thus it seems appropriate that the name of the theatre company engaging most consistently and imaginatively with ideas about the kind of future we’re creating is Bath-based Kilter Theatre.
I first discovered Kilter in June 2009 when I attended their ‘Roots’ show, which took me on a journey around the allotments at Bath Organic Garden. There I came face to face with three characters (literally eye-balling them at moments) as we time-travelled between the 1940s ‘Dig for Victory’ era and a post food-riot future in the 2050s. Taking their audience members beyond any expectations of what I suspect most of us believed theatre could offer, Kilter not only invited us to consider issues around food security and the responsibility of present generations for future beings, but simultaneously made it pleasurable – getting our fingers dirty as we planted out seedlings, and as a reward for our appreciation at the end of the show, eating nettle soup inside a rickety house built from local scrap,
Kilter Theatre, who are currently Caroline Garland and Oliver Langdon, believe that this direct encounter with their audience has an important role in helping people to engage with the contemporary ecological and spiritual crisis. “It really carries weight when a real person in real time looks you in the eye and tells you something that they seem to find important. The message hits home. That’s something we make a lot out of with Kilter – small audiences at close proximity often being directly addressed by a character. That said, we are acutely aware of the thin line between what I have just described and someone standing at a lectern and preaching! We always ensure that our scripts present a nuanced interpretation of the facts, especially since so much of our work anticipates the future, which holds an infinite array of possibilities. Our characters ask questions as much as they answer them.”
Asking questions, including difficult questions, rather than necessarily answering them is an approach common to both theatre companies. Feral Theatre’s Rachel Porter, Emily Laurens and Persephone Pearl agree: “The skill comes in mingling poetry and politics: polemical theatre usually fails artistically. Makers of heavy-handed theatre risk marginalizing their own work by switching audiences off, as environmentalist rhetoric often does. When we go to the theatre we do not want to be told what to think. The space of the theatre is a kind of fragile, transient dream-space for possibilities. This is a big discussion we are continually having!”
Feral Theatre also has a strong sense of the role of stories in shaping our collective unconscious for thousands of years; describing the cultural narratives of recent centuries as “toxic myth-mimics”, they see a role for contemporary artists and storytellers in making new narratives to bring about social change: “Theatre can articulate deep truths about the world: it can illuminate the most personal experience; it can help us to make sense of life as we find it and to see our own experiences as part of a larger narrative. It is a powerful tool for transformation, for practitioners and audiences alike. We believe that theatre can play an important role in articulating and inspiring a deeper ecological sensibility, in individuals and at the level of cultures.”
Despite these ambitious aims, contemporary theatre would struggle to command the level of popularity it had when The Globe was in its heyday; so in the age of mass media what impact can theatre really hope to have? Kilter is sanguine about this: “We can’t reach the size of audience that TV, radio, internet & printed press can but we definitely make a big different at a very localized level…. and maybe in the future there might be more live and direct media and entertainment than there is now – what if there was a power cut? What if there was a diesel shortage?”
Minimalism in set and props would certainly facilitate theatre engaging audiences in a post-oil world, and significantly members of both companies have been influenced by and/or trained at Jacques Lecoq in Paris, a school that advocates reliance on the actor’s physical body. Feral’s Rachel Porter emphasises the idea that the actor should be able to turn up in any space, and perform. Feral also cites Grotowski’s ‘Poor Theatre’ developed in the 1960s, which stripped the theatre of props and costumes and focused on the actor as the centre of the event; and similarly Peter Brook’s ‘Rough Theatre’, which denotes work that relies on the actor’s skills. They believe that this kind of theatre has a shamanistic quality: “In a way, this links the actor to the shaman or the indigenous storyteller who uses simply his or her body and voice. It also encourages the active involvement of the audience in the experience of the event.”
Both companies are influenced by theatre traditions &/techniques such as mask, mime, puppetry, dance, street theatre and even pantomime, and Feral’s three co-directors/performers actively engage in clowning, aerial circus and puppet-making in addition to their theatre work, which thus naturally includes these practices. Their ‘Funeral for the Javan Tiger’, commissioned by the Southbank Centre for Death Fest 2012 blended shadow puppetry, clown and ritual with a giant tiger skeleton puppet to tell the story of its extinction. And their latest show, ‘Freaks of Nature’ directed by Marisa Carnesky, is a new circus-inspired comic sideshow about extinction and rarity value.
Devised rather than scripted theatre is a practice common to both companies. Kilter Theatre is particularly adept at what they call “site-specific & site-responsive character development & story-telling”. They explain its importance: “Working with a site helps us constantly ensure that we are reflecting a truthful mirror image back to our audience. We work as directly as possible with the site-users and in a best case scenario, they contribute very directly to the work and then come back as audiences to hear their own words, stories and ideas given status or context or interpretation.”
Sometimes a site can influence the shape of a piece. Kilter’s 2008 piece ‘Back on Track’, a cycle-show exploring the post-oil future of transport located on the Bath to Bristol Railway Path, was a case in point when they realized during the devising process that where they wanted to go was unattainable, and that the location was changing the form and content of the piece. For Feral Theatre a non-attachment to specific creative outcomes shapes them as people too: “Devising theatre as a company demands a diminution of ego from everyone involved. Sometimes, this can make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, generating a communal experience of flow state. Theatre brings you into the present moment because it involves listening closely and being alive to the moment in a state of intense presence, embodying the story, letting it flow.
They also cite the influence of Improbable, a theatre company who use devising methods which Feral sees as “an ecological approach”, encouraging participants to look at stories from many different perspectives. “The process epitomizes the values of listening, sharing, non-linearity, meditation, and intimacy. The co-directors shy away from adopting an authoritative voice. They ask a lot of questions, allowing uncomfortable feelings to arise and emerge. Their roots-up humility is invigorating and timely, resonating with ecological thinking. It also embraces the shadow, the complex reality of people and the world.”
Kilter’s Olly Langdon points to other benefits of a site-specific devising process: “Hanging alternative creative interpretations on public landmarks can leave signifiers in the landscape for our audiences to enjoy for as long as they keep revisiting any given site. Devising and rehearsing in the public realm opens up all sorts of interesting conversations that feed into our broader aims as a company as well as into the development of the production. Ambient audiences who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre sometimes pick up a surprising scene or image and follow it up later or leave it simmering in their imaginations….”
Kilter’s current touring show, ‘The Last Post’, set in a mobile sorting office van, involved rehearsals at Beaford Arts Centre in Devon, with communal vegetarian eating using seasonal vegetables and walking meetings through the fields. Bringing theatre into local communities also has ecological benefits, as Olly explains: “Our mobile theatre reduces audience car journeys and all the electrics for the show run off a collapsible wind turbine.”
A final element of my enquiry into theatre beyond the walls it traditionally inhabits, was about the relationship of Kilter and Feral Theatre to their audience. Citing Peter Brook’s idea of his task as building “… a necessary theatre, one in which there is only a practical difference between actor and audience, not a fundamental one”, I asked both theatre companies how they describe their relationship with their audience. Feral Theatre replied: “We actively search for, and try out ways, to make porous the distinction between performer, spectator and participant. Much of our work – particularly the ongoing Funeral for Lost Species project – contains elements of ritual, and we are perennially fascinated and troubled by the search for deep engagement and connection in theatre.”
My own practice as an ecopoet often makes me consider how future generations may view the work of contemporary artists, and interestingly the idea of leaving a legacy surfaced in Kilter’s response. This occurs not only through the performative role that audience members sometimes take on during their shows, and are thus shaped by, but also in the way that this can “spill on past the ‘curtain call’.” They explain: “There is always a legacy in a Kilter show, which needs the audiences to keep feeding it to keep it alive. There are trees and fruit bushes growing in allotments and community gardens all round the district – pruned, watered and harvested by audience-members of ‘Roots’.”
“Our relationship with the audience is therefore a journey. We try to keep in touch with everyone who is touched by our work, and anybody who sees more than one piece of work will notice our attitudes changing with regard to the future and our role in it. Kilter is far less fearful that it used to be. Our work now is much more about making the most of where we are, working together and facing things practically. That’s why we have increased our community outreach – to create opportunities for people to come together and share.”