Experience Translating Outdoor Work for the Stage, by Cecil Rowe
Date: March 2015
Location: Square d’Ajot, an open air parking lot in Port de Brest, France
It is a beautiful sunny morning. We are an excitable bunch, lined up on the parking lot, our relatively large 101’s (cardboard boxes big enough for us to clamber in and out of and also sturdy enough to double as work tables) are on the ground in front of us, having a go, at last, to run through a sequence, outdoors, that we had spent weeks rehearsing indoors.
We don’t have to wait long before the moment arrives; it’s time to push our boxes downstage, as it were, in front of us.
It’s not a pretty picture!
The somewhat pitted, gritty concrete surface of the parking lot, much to our chagrin, appears to turn our boxes into recalcitrant donkeys; some of them refusing to budge an inch, others rearing up into the air when encountering the tiniest obstruction in their path, yet others gliding along relatively smoothly for a while, only to jam to a sudden halt, sending its owner crashing into it, watching it buckle in front of our very eyes!
Time to go back to the drawing board!
Over the next few days the moves are reconfigured; boxes can only be pulled backwards! Then our grip on them is more assured and we can counter all the pitfalls that bedevil us when moving in the opposite direction.
As we withdraw, a little crestfallen, from the parking lot, little do we know that the show we are working on – BELONGING(s) – especially designed as an outdoor site-specific promenade piece of work – three years later will later evolve into Constructions of Thin Air, to be performed indoors only, on more conventional stages.
Date: October 2017
Locations: 101 Outdoor Arts Creation Space, Thatcham, England
We are beginning the process of adapting Act 1 of BELONGING(s) for the stage, and now that we are assured of a reasonably smooth dance floor in a theatre, guess what, we can finally move our boxes forward again. In fact, we can move them in almost any direction we like, much to the delight of Maresa, who promptly incorporates moves that would simply have been out of the question outdoors.
As the example above illustrates, the surface on which a scene plays out has considerable implications when a show designed for performing outdoors is adapted for the stage.
As we begin to work on Act 2 of Constructions of Thin Air, dragging bodies across the stage develops into a major feature. The same sequence performed outdoors would result in the dancers being skinned alive! As it is, an extra layer of clothing is a prerequisite now for Act 2, if we are to avoid some seriously uncomfortable skid/skin burns!
Another feature of the new Act 2, is the building and subsequent demolition of walls made out of relatively lightweight cardboard boxes. This is another exercise that we tried in the R&D process for BELONGING(s), but the first zephyr of a breeze outdoors sent our entire wall tumbling to the ground.
So, what is it like to perform a piece originally designed to be seen outdoors in a conventional theatre space?
One of the interesting things about performing outdoors is that the field of vision for the audience is almost 180 degrees. There is a huge amount of visual material behind and to either side of us, that as a performer, you are in effect, competing with.
You have to fight for attention where there is much that can distract both you and the audience: the man taking his dog for a walk, who inadvertently wanders into the scene… the kids on scooters who come whizzing past, not in the least perturbed… or, as happened at a festival in France, an individual who dashed out of the blue into a scene, determined to launch into an improvised duet with someone halfway through a particularly poignant solo!
Back in the theatre of course, with no distractions to divert the audiences attention from the stage, the focus on the performance is much more concentrated.
I have had to face up to the fact that where, outdoors, I might have managed to get away with a minor mishap not being noticed in competition with all the stuff going on around me, the leeway for getting away with a mistake on the stage is much reduced!
But perhaps the most interesting difference between performing indoors as opposed to outdoors, is that perennial favourite topic of conversation in the UK: the weather!
Outdoors, the sun is your only light source and there’s no intermediary you can appeal to to fade it up or down or move it slightly sideways! And then, in Europe especially, the ever present potential threat of rain!
At a festival in Holzminden, Germany, one afternoon, the final part of Act 3 in BELONGING(s) played out against a leaden, glowering sky; the heavens opening just as a gust of wind caused a number of our discarded cardboard boxes to skitter across the riverbank we were performing on. It was a very special moment for cast and audience alike. Quite remarkably, we never had to cancel a show because of inclement weather.
But then, just a couple of weeks ago, I sat in the auditorium and watched as our lighting director tweaked the lights that now illuminate our new indoor bound Act 2, and I was amazed at the magic that no amount of sunlight could achieve.
So, which do I prefer – collaborating and performing in a piece indoors or outdoors?
All I can say at this point is that they are different, and that those differences really become apparent when a piece makes that transition from open air parking lot to four walls and a stage. For me, the jury is still out!