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Extreme Experiences at Edinburgh Fringe

Posted on 12 August 2012 Written by

Any theatre lover who finds themselves in Edinburgh this summer is seriously spoilt for choice. From adaptations of classic literature to shows where the audience decide the content via Facebook, Edinburgh 2012 will satisfy every taste. It is certainly not unusual to come across something slightly out of the ordinary; many will seek out the most cutting edge theatre in town.

Hearts on Fire has been in preparation since July 2011,” explains producer Callum Cheatle, who came across the James Arthur Ray story in a copy of the Guardian. A production of Peculius Stage, Hearts on Fire is based on a true story; 60 devotees of Ray, a motivational speaker, voluntarily follow him on a spiritual retreat in a sweat lodge. Their loyalty never wavered, despite being dangerously close to death and the experience costing them $10,000. This article was the catalyst for Cheatle’s idea. “I saw the potential for a cracking piece of theatre that was emotionally and physically uncomfortable and that carried an urgent message, in a new age of dangerously plausible versions of faith.”  The innovative nature of this show is not unlike Peculius Stage’s past work; they have been awarded ‘Best New Writing’ at the Durham Drama Festival in 2010 and have enjoyed critical acclaim for previous Edinburgh seasons.

Cheatle and the Peculius Stage creative team were clearly intent on presenting a piece of work that forces the audience to question what they would have done differently if they were there. Director Alastair Boag describes how they intended the audience to become part of the historical event. “The audience, like those who signed up for James Arthur Ray’s ‘Spiritual Warrior’ courses, have paid money to experience his message and to be a part of the disaster that occurred in the sweat lodge. In that sense the line between audience and the characters is blurred as they are one group.”  The setting of the claustrophobic sweat lodge strongly influences audience engagement, therefore the construction of the set was integral to the success of this production. Boag, set designer Alex Kennedy and Technical Director Hannah Gregory had a very specific brief to fill when designing the sweat lodge installation. “We needed to create a hugely intense and totally realistic recreation of the actual sweat lodge used in 2009,” explains Alistair. “However it was nice that there was a parallel between our audience size and the devotees involved in the disaster.”

The physical representation of the story is important if the audience are to leave with questions about a previously accepted reality. This is exactly what Annie Tatton has aimed to do with Milk and Mucus, a show which subverts mainstream fashion. “I’ve tried to bring the catwalk down to earth as it were. Instead of exclusive entry and tiered rows of seating the catwalk is accessible, messy and inclusive.” Tatton explains how she wants the audience to react to Catwalk Performance Fashion’s show: “I’d like people to think about the accepted practices of fashion and the catwalk show and to how could it be different? I’d like them to feel slightly disturbed by what they saw, perhaps not quite comfortable, and to wonder why they feel this way.”

The conservatism of the fashion world was a major source of inspiration for Milk and Mucus. “I became interested in whether there could be a different expression of fashion on the catwalk, for example, how do models’ bodies move when asymmetric conditions are imposed when cutting the heel of one shoe off?” Annie also reveals the significance of the milk bottles which line the stage: ‘This suggests a different relationship with the surface of a typical catwalk. The significance is that this difference translates into a larger expression of women’s work away from the glamour of the beautiful, thin, young model.” Fashion seems to have been eclipsed by the symbolism in this performance, however Tatton says it’s still important. “All the garments are on trend but the fashion has been necessarily altered to create tension as a departure from a normal catwalk show”, illustrating how Catwalk Fashion Performance has evolved from Tatton’s own fashion design catwalks and work in film costume.

Both of these productions are evidently research intensive; without the realism, the impact upon the audience would be significantly less. Writer of Hearts on Fire Adam Usden used a variety of different sources when writing this original piece, as he explains. “The project required a huge amount of research, ranging from eye-witness testimonies of the tragedy, to Ray’s self-help books, to footage of Ray’s on-stage performances, to a woman’s fascinating and slightly disturbing account of being part of Ray’s inner circle, condemning him, while still, very obviously, in thrall to him. But the events of the tragedy were always going to be a jumping-off point – we had to find the drama in the narrative, the play within the story.”

Peculius Stage has enjoyed great success at the Edinburgh festival. “It suits our playing style, which never allows an audience a moment of boredom, and we love the intensity of the fringe,” explains Cheatle. Their work isn’t restricted to a fringe audience, though: “We are currently in discussions regarding touring and transferring the show – so watch this space!” Unlike Peculius Stage, Catwalk Fashion Performance is debuting at Edinburgh this year. Tatton’s production may have been created with the fringe in mind, but “it is not specific to an Edinburgh audience as the essentials of the show can be adapted as required”.

Hearts on Fire and Milk and Mucus are not for the faint hearted, but describing these productions as “extreme”, immersive or innovative barely scrapes the surface. They stand out from the crowd because their content gives their audiences a new perspective and prompts questions about previously accepted truths. Ultimately the unique atmosphere of Edinburgh has enabled these ambitious projects to become reality; it seems that Peculius Stage’s aim of “turning heads, thoughts and voices” will be fulfilled.

Milk and Mucus was at C eca, C venues and Hearts on Fire plays at C nova, C venues, until 27th August. For more information or to book tickets, visit www.edfringe.com or www.cthefestival.com. For more information about the show, visit www.heartsonfire2012.com.

Image credit: Peculius Stage

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