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I Can’t Juggle

This July as part of the European-funded Open Out Arts project , of which Theatre Bristol is a partner member, two Bristol companies, Pangottic Circus Theatre and Search Party, had the opportunity to present shows at Les Tonnerres de Brest, in Brittany, France.

So there’s this man… Immo. He’s from Germany. He’s really funny. He can juggle five ping pong balls in his mouth (into a head wind), memorize a list of twenty words almost instantly, make us think he’s smashed an unsuspecting Frenchman’s watch into tiny pieces, juggle with fire atop of a six foot unicycle, all whilst being utterly charming, funny, likable, witty, and spontaneous. And he’s next to this other man who has built a life-size, remote controlled, fire breathing horse called ‘Rusty’ – the horse, not the man (he’s called Paka). Next to them are Tina and Ken; they can perform death-defying acts of aerial acrobatics, swinging on a trapeze, whilst cracking jokes with smiles on their muscular faces. Oh, and Tina can hula-hoop with what looks like just the fifty hoops. And of course there’s this handsome, French speaking American, dressed as a crow, who is seamlessly fired twenty feet in the air out of a cannon during an hour-long, anarchic musical extravaganza.

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I’m in Brest, performing Search Party’s durational semaphore conversation Save Me at what I’m told is the biggest maritime festival in Europe. We’ve performed outside the UK on many occasions, we’ve recently performed this show outside the UK, a task made ever so slightly more complex by the need to translate our words into other languages, but this feels different. As a result of Theatre Bristol’s participation in a European project called Open Out Arts, we’ve been curated within a ‘street arts’ context – a first for us.  We’re working with Le Fourneau, one of nine regional centres for street arts in France, and I get the impression that having artists like us is a bit new for them as well.

What do I mean ‘artists like us’? Are we so different? And if so how and why? For me, there are clues are in the language. Upon a quick re-read of our contract (written in French) I notice how our work is described. The front page of the contract reads ‘Titre du spectacle – SAVE ME’. It’s this word ‘spectacle’ that stands out. In French, I’m told it just means ‘show’ or ‘performance’ – the thing that we do that other people watch. But for me it comes loaded with uneasy connotations.

Thinking back to my new friends Immo, Paka, Tina & Ken and the crow – their acts are fundamentally and unashamedly engineered around the spectacular. They most definitely have the ‘wow’ factor – and I mean that with all sincerity; on several occasions, even on second viewing these shows make me audibly gasp with delight. To my untrained eye I feel like I am watching virtuosic performers, at the peak of their powers, display their skills for me to enjoy.

In these ‘spectacles’, the thing that I see is the virtuosic. This is where the uneasy relationship between Search Party’s work and this festival is manifested. I want to make it abundantly clear that I’m not trying to place any negative value on the virtuosity of these shows, the opposite in fact – but simply identify this key difference in approach, and what the implications of that may be for the presentation of our (and other experimental) work in these contexts. Neither am I trying to present some kind of exclusive, us and them culture, there are many similarities between our approach and that of my new friends, not least a studious attention to detail, a clarity of aesthetic and obvious care for the watcher. Clearly there is an audience for these more traditionally spectacular street performances (I’m gladly one of them), as there is for Search Party’s work - but is it the same audience and what happens when we’re on the same street?

Search Party’s work, Save Me especially, is purposefully approached with a low-key sense of virtuosity. The ‘skill’ is not the thing that you’re watching. In fact we try to down play any sense of virtuosity, a conscious strategy to bridge the gap between performer and spectator, we’re not so different from you – and that feels important. Don’t get me wrong, I think we’re good at what we do, but that skill isn’t on display, it doesn’t separate us from our audience, separating the ‘cans’ from the ‘cannots’. I can’t juggle ping-pong balls from my mouth, I can’t dangle precariously from a trapeze, I can’t ride a motorized fire-breathing horse and I most definitely cannot fly out of a cannon dressed as a crow. But therein lies the joy in witnessing these feats of excellence. So, extra-daily are these feats that they come with either an implicit or often explicit ‘don’t try this at home’ caveat. Whereas, for us the whole premise of Save Me is structured around a ‘do try this at home’, in fact try it here, try it now, here’s a semaphore alphabet, it only takes a little bit of practice and while you’re at it, why don’t you write the text for the show as well, here’s a little yellow tag and a biro. So it seems as if we’re asking for something very different from our audience, and in this context, we seem to be the only ones who are asking for something very different – which feels both exciting and a little tricky.

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On our last night in France, as we’re saying goodbye, Jeremy – the charming, articulate, experienced stage manager strikes up a conversation with me (in English) questioning some aspects of our performance. He’s concerned that the audience don’t know what to do, don’t know how to behave, and don’t know how to watch. It’s a rare and welcome conversation (maybe an inherent nervousness of plagiarism in the street arts restricts these conversations), but badly timed – I’m leaving and I could talk about this all night. I want to tell him that that’s ok. That’s kind of what we want, audiences that don’t feel like audiences, audiences that don’t ‘behave’ like audiences, audiences that have to renegotiate their own relationship to this performative offer as a fundamental part of their experience of it. It’s a conversation I’ve not had to have for a long time. When we’re within Home Live Art’s alternative village fete, or Forest Fringe’s compilation of disparate experiences, or experimental festivals like Wunderbar or Mayfest these principles are taken for granted. But, my demi-conversation with Jeremy, and my experience of this festival in general, remind me of those unspoken contracts we make with ourselves about how, why and what, as artists, we choose to make. And any experience that challenges these core principles, shifts them, or brings them back into focus, is for me, extremely valuable.

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Now I’m back in England. Immo, Paka, Tina & Ken and the handsome crow are still on the busy street arts summer circuit. And I know the question that Theatre Bristol are going to ask me; does Search Party’s work feel appropriate for the street arts sector? Firstly, it’s much better for me to say ‘yes’, I (like any artist/maker) am constantly looking for new opportunities to show my work (it is a ‘job’ after all). And I think it does. The length of the work engages with the fluctuating and sprawling nature of outdoor audiences, the piece provides an interesting contrast to the high impact, high octane, spectacles also on show, you’re asked to engage with the work in a different rhythm, with a different part of yourself. But, being the only diversion from an established and accepted norm, can feel isolating and vulnerable. As is often the case, the conversation is probably the most important thing, the one between us and the festival – the ‘this is what we do, is this what you want’ conversation. And perhaps, in my limited experience, there appears to be a little bit of an ‘off the shelf’ culture in the outdoor arts – which I suppose is fine if your work is on the shelf in the first place, but if, like Le Fourneau, you’re keen to experiment with different types of performance that takes place outdoors a slightly more bespoke approach is required. We’ve always found it hard to describe what it is we do, we can do it, it takes a bit of time and a lot of talking and, hopefully, when the work is shown, it’s worth it.

And now I’d had time to think about it, I’d love to pick up my conversation with Jeremy. I’d say that actually, I think audiences do know what to do, how to watch and how to behave – they’re a pretty resourceful bunch in my experience, as long as you take the time to think about them, to care about them, to make them feel like a crucial part of this thing. We’ve performed Save Me in eight different cities, from Bristol (UK) to Almaty (Kazakhstan), in English, French and Russian, on seafronts, city streets, bridges and battleships and every time, wherever we are people leave messages, hundreds of messages. It’s just a different type of engagement.

Save Me and our other outdoor works like Search Party vs exist in public space, not in a ‘street-art’ context, but these works are for the same audience. And, I’m sure that for some of these audiences other types of engagement, perhaps smaller, more intimate, more unconventional offer new and engaging experiences, creating alternative relationships between them, the work and the place that it happens. Perhaps both types of work, our slightly unusual intimate exchanges and more traditional street art spectacles, being placed next to each other in the same street is an exciting prospect for street performers working in live art festivals and vice versa. I look forward to learning more about the street arts sector, and to meeting the festivals and programmers who are interested in re-thinking how they might engage with their audience.

By Pete Phillips

Images by Andrew Querre

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