Pictures At An Exhibition

Since September Bristol Old Vic Young Company has been working with John Retallack and Champloo Dance Company to devise Pictures At An Exhibition. The group of 16-25 year olds has created a show which interrogates our consumption and responses to photographs of the world today. Here, Alex Davey, one of the Young Company cast members, reveals what it’s like to be part of such a process…


When we started Pictures At An Exhibition I don’t think any of us had realised the sheer horrifying pressure of choosing twenty pictures with which to represent the world today. But we had to pick twenty pictures with which to fill this exhibition and devise a show in response to it, and all in one hundred hours.


We knew that the pictures needed to be globally significant and also personally affecting; each picture or the response we had to it needed to compel us into exploring it further with an audience. The first several rehearsals were, apart from exercises in finding a shared movement, text and music vocabulary, discussions on what pictures should or should not be included.

The driving question from our director John Retallack was what were our reactions to the pictures presented? We had dozens to choose from, some picked by the creative team, others from the cast. They varied as much in tone as they did in geography, from New York’s first married same-sex couple to pictures of the tsunami in Japan. And we were asked to write down our reactions based on nothing but the image shown. No background, beyond what we could guess.

It was surprising how often we were wrong. We made assumptions, or we just plain didn’t know. One photograph looked like a woman about to be comforted by a policeman or a sheriff after a natural disaster. It turned out her house was being repossessed. Context, we learnt, was everything. Bringing us to the question of how much context could we give to the audience?

Another surprising aspect was how serene some of the pictures from places like Syria were. We had people sat in the holes on the sides of buildings, as if things were normal. We were shown small moments of humanity and calm, like a man’s eyes being dabbed after a tear gas attack. We also dealt with the downright despairing: evictions, the aftermath of natural disasters, protests and riots and the very real side of war. A great many of them were hard to look at, even without knowing what the image was actually about. But these things happened, and we couldn’t ignore them.

On the second or third batch of images, there was one that was quite obviously the worst of the bunch. It brought a few of us to tears and created the longest discussion we had on any of the pictures. It was this discussion which crystallized the importance of press photography, but the idea of including the photo made some people edgy, outraged or disgusted. We didn’t know whether we should include it in the show or not. Would it be disrespectful? Would it be in good taste? After all that, the image, has, in a way, been included in the show, because the discussion brought up a very important question: can we feel the pain of others, especially those in a photograph?


The devisors of this project are all young individuals, aged from 16 to 25. We come from all over the South West, from Bedminster to Glastonbury. Some of us have been with the Young Company for years, and some only for a couple of months. We are in school, or we have been through school and university, or we work. We’re young directors, actors, writers, dancers and musicians. As with Young Company shows before it, we built on our strengths and supported each other, and learnt a huge amount about each other, ourselves and the devising process.

But we have our opinions, which vary in content and strength, and that bleed into our work. Would we put our opinions into what we had devised? Or the opinions of some imagined other, such as the photographer? Because there was always the question, what was going through their head when the shutter snapped, especially in moments of personal tragedy, with the subject so close to the lens? In some cases we have decided that it is far better for the audience to form their own opinions, but it is also impossible to make anything completely unbiased. The photographs themselves are not free from bias, for the act of capturing any single event has a conscious human mind behind it. And therefore other photos have, for various reasons, been brought to life by our opinions and beliefs.

Perhaps of any of the devising methods, physicality and movement were the hardest ways. We were not all professional dancers, and dance is not easily crossed with theatre, however with training form Joel Daniels (choreographer and co-director of Champloo Dance Company) we found our own way of expressing and exploring the images through out the process. That creative control handed to us, was an important part of John Retallack’s idea for the piece: the creative team was on hand there to guide and facilitate, but we were the driving force and the genesis behind every word, sound and movement in the show. As further testament to Joel, he was fully responsive to our limitations, but only so we could push against them and work beyond our boundaries.

We’ve just finished a long week of intensive rehearsals, culminating in a staggered run-through. Thanks to the efforts of everyone, from the director to the cast, we have made what is shaping up to be a playful, controversial, inspiring and outspoken show, reflecting the pictures themselves. The time of devising is over, and the next two weeks are for smoothing and refining the show, and we hope we can show our audience something which challenges, surprises and inspires them.


Pictures At An Exhibition is directed by John Retallack, choreography is by Joel Daniels and Wilkie Branson, and designed by Christopher Collier.

The show will be on in Bristol Old Vic’s Studio from the 20th-24th November (8pm, 3pm Saturday Matinee). Tickets can be booked through Bristol Old Vic’s box office on 0117 987 7877 or on the website

There will be an open rehearsal at Creative Youth Network’s first Saturday Live Stage on the 17th of November and there will also be a post show debate chaired by the elected Bristol Youth Council on Wednesday 21st November. 


Rehearsal images by Christopher Collier