Total Theatre: A User's Guide 2001
When shunt’s artistic
director was invited to join the panellists at the Role of the Creative Producer
symposium, there was a certain amount of scuffling from the benches, as the
company does not have one of these. As a theatre collective formed two years
ago by ten diverse artists, shunt aim to work without any single individual
taking sole responsibility for the company’s artistic policy. Instead,
all ten members of the collective share this responsibility.
This inevitably has ramifications foe the production policy of the company. When shunt formed, we could not afford an administrator and we also felt that we wanted time in which to define ourselves before employing someone whose role it would be to promote our work. This absence of an administrator meant that each individuals’ function within the collective had to become broader, as we took responsibility for various aspects of production with the company, redefining and expanding these roles as necessary.
At the symposium, we had spoken a little about how shunt has grown over the last two years and about how we function without a producer, when one of the delegates asked how we make our money. The answer to that question is simple – we don’t. This ins not to say that we don’t intend to do in the long term, but in our first tow years generating an income has not been a priority. Indeed, at the point of shunt’s formation, we made some decisions that would pretty much rule out the possibility of earning an income for a while. The foremost of these was our decision to find shunt a permanent base. We trolled around various venues searching for a place that we could call home. Eventually, in Dec. 98 we took a lease on a railway arch in Bethnal Green. Each member of the company contributed £65 per month to the rent and upkeep of this space.
This decision has been vital to the way the company has grown. The arch has captured peoples’ imaginations and helped us to establish a core audience for our work. Other artists can also use the space for their own work and this had been formative to a number of collaborations. For example, costume designer Sarah Kant housed an installation of her work there for a week in September 2000 and is now working with us on The Tennis Show- a commission for The Museum Of.
It was just a bare arch when we moved in. We evacuated slugs and leaves, scrubbed and painted the concrete floor, and covered some of it in varnished wood. We put in more wiring, rigged some lights, and opened it for the first time to the public on December 16th 1998, for the debut shunt cabaret.
The cabaret is indicative of the way that we have about setting up the company. It was conceived as a bi-monthly event where we and other artists could try things out. Typically, the work produced has never been seen before. We hope for feedback both from company members and from our audience, so that the work can progress. Shunt’s experimentation and growth- which for other companies would tend to take place in the rehearsal room – had largely been shared with an audience. Working in this way has enable each member of the collective to share their background and interest with the rest of the company, and it is here on the floor that shunt’s artistic policy has been forged. Having the archway has provided an invaluable environment for shunts development.
We do not intend to make money from the shunt cabaret, which are staged as free events. Instead they provide us with a forum in which to develop our ideas before and audience. However, as the cabaret’s have become increasingly popular, they have provided us with an audience for our other work. This audience has followed our development from the producers of small cabaret acts to full length show. Sometimes travelling as far as BAC or Riverside to see us. We have built up a considerable mailing list and this is in constant growth. There is always a shunt event that we can invite people to which helps us to retain a dialogue with our audience.
These first two years have been based on the idea of company growth through out the constant production of work. This growth can be charted through our first major production, The Ballad of Bobby Francois, which began in spring 1999. Each member proposed a subject for a site-specific show for the arch and then, in discussion, we agreed on using the details of and airline disaster from the early 70’s, in which a plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes – for the basis of the show. We produced the show in the arch as a work in progress in May. Again, this was a free event and we tempted our audience to stay behind and give feedback with offering of free beer, Over the run, the show progressed – often thanks to this feedback and by the end we felt in a position to plan for further performances in October.
This time, we stepped up the production. We collaborated with other artists, particularly sound designers and aerialists. We had a budget of £1000 as opposed to £300 in May; we invited press, we advertised in listings and we asked for donations. We were very happy with result. We made £1700 in donations, received good notices that we could use in our publicity, and were invited top perform at the Pleasance during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2000. On the back of this success, an application for funding for our next performance project, The Tennis Show, was also successful. We received £11,000 from London Arts.
For Edinburgh, the production values of The Ballad of Bobby Francois rose again. We were given massive support from other artist with whom we had worked in cabarets and with their help, we transferred the show to a different site Obviously, for Edinburgh, we needed to devise an effective press and publicity campaign and we spent considerable time on the press pack for the show, making sure that its design was cohesive with our performance style.
The production of the press pack fed back into the show and vice versa. For example, clothes made for publicising our airline ( shunt air) on the streets, were used in the beginning of the show. In devised theatre there is often space for this dialogue – sometimes ideas written on an initial press release, before the show is formed, can be vital in influencing the way the performance is created. The creation and production of work is in circular motion.
In the event, the press came, but later than we had hoped, and despite word of mouth helping us to some degree, it was not unit we were reviewed by The Guardian and The Scotsman that our audience increased dramatically (by a factor of 10). However, although the production did not shower us with pennies, we received a Herald Angel and a Total Theatre Award and we have now been invited to perform at the London International Mime Festival in January 2001.
For an audience or for the press, the publicity and outdoor production is the first contact that they will have with our work. It is the beginning, in some senses, of the performance. The word production itself is so ambiguous, since it is used to mean the work created both within and outside of the traditional theatre or performance space. For shunt, sometimes by necessity but fundamentally though design, there is little space between these two ideas of production and our creativity is applied to both.