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Feature: Brian Lobel’s ‘Purge’ – a space for dialogue

Posted on 05 November 2013 by Devawn Wilkinson

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Would you let a panel of strangers choose your outfit in the morning? Or perhaps select your date for the evening? How about letting them make the call on whether to keep or delete your Facebook friends based on a one minute pitch? Depending on your viewpoint, it’s either a harmless social experiment, a rather useful administrative tool, or an intolerable invasion of privacy. Performance maker Brian Lobel did exactly that, offering up his Facebook friendships to a jury of audience members, until, after 800 emails (“a lot of happy emails, some engaged emails, very angry emails…”) 64 retaliatory deletions and 2,000 comments on the live stream of the installation, he tells me, half-laughing, “I realised I couldn’t do that to my friends any more!”, and Purge the stage show was born.

Lobel, an American-born performance maker and also a senior lecturer at the University of Chichester, describes Purge, the show, as “a reflective talk for an audience on what that process was for me, and giving them the a chance to talk about their own experience with ‘deleting’ and ‘adding’, and what this all might actually mean..”. It’s a fascinating topic, and yet, we agree, one that has not been subject to enough interrogation. When an Italian performer performed her own initial Purge (Lobel is keen for his work to “live on after [him], to find new contexts..”) he recalls a German critic declaring disgustedly, “Urgh! Art about Facebook…” He laughs and then asserts, “See, my response to that is… yes! It’s art about the things that we surround ourselves with. Because Facebook is the place where I learn the most about politics, about fads, about my family! It’s not a space that’s unworthy of consideration.” He cites Chris Thorpe and Hannah Jane Walker’s I Wish I was Lonely as a work with similar concerns, a prompt to really “look at these objects that we have around as all the time, because we do completely dismiss them.”

Social media in all its forms is, of course, now such an ubiquitous presence in our lives that it seems necessary for artists to begin properly considering its significance. How and why, I ask, did Lobel’s own response to it come about? “Purge began by discovering my first boyfriend had deleted me from Friendster (a pre-facebook social networking site) but I only found out that he had once deleted me after he died. I was very upset to learn that, even though we were best friends in real life… so why should [that deletion] have mattered? That is what frames the show, the consideration of what these connections mean – for me and the audience that’s there.”

I take the opportunity to ask him about the much-discussed distinction or overlap between theatre and performance art – where might Purge fall on that spectrum? He is keen to clarify, “I consider myself primarily a performance-maker, but I am very interested in narrative structure and other theatrical elements – because I love telling a story, a story that has guides an audience along with it. At the same time, there’s no ‘suspension of disbelief’, and I call my work just ‘performance’ – yes, part of that may well be wanting to escape that misconception about ‘art’, because for me, it’s always about performance. I’m performing in front of you all the time – when I put on clothes in the morning and I say certain things – so my work is no different to that.”

“I’ve always had a problem with people thinking that my work is not intense enough in the sense that much of performance art is very ‘hardcore’ in its approach to the body, but, although I don’t bleed, I don’t physically hurt myself – this is a project that two years on I still have lasting effects from… I have genuinely lost friends through Purge.” If Purge has underlined anything, then, might it be that social media isn’t just a strange and distanced dislocation of usual social interactions, but an entire functioning social sphere in itself, crossing over to ‘reality’ without hesitation? “It’s almost immature to suggest there’s a difference between the ‘real’ and the ‘digital’ anymore,” Lobel agrees.

Has Purge shaped Lobel into either a champion or a critic of the social networks it investigates?“I think I have a very ambiguous and complex relationship with social media, so I certainly don’t believe in purists one way or another. What I want to do is deepen our relationship with social media. We’re really babies in this world of social technology – only 13 years into understanding digital social media – societally, we still think that countries are new if they’re under 20 or religions are new if they’re under 800 years old – so what does that mean for our response to and relationship with social media?”

I ask Lobel if, whilst Purge comes from an incredibly personal place, it is his intention to extend it into a tool for wider consideration? He is hesitant to define Purge so succinctly: “The show is ever-changing, even if my thinking doesn’t so much – I never came in with a particular agenda, it was more of a research project for me,” and he’s quick to emphasise that he doesn’t intend to make overarching, declarative statements. “It’s always been important to me to only talk about myself – I can’t talk about other people. If the work is good, then it will allow other people to come and access it. For me, it is about opening up a space for dialogue. At the beginning of the show I ask the audience to shout out who they would delete and they call out ‘my brother! My ex! Racists! Casual homophobes!’ and we talk about that. I like to create that space and then I like to return to my story, the story that I can tell.” An audience can expect to be something far more than simply spectators of Purge, then. “I want you to be an active participant, because this is not a movie! I want you to be active and engaged with the work. I want to create a safe space for audiences to actually think about difficult, and often very sad, things – people will end up talking about really personal stories in front of a large number of people. What I always want to be suggesting is, ‘you’re very welcome, here, to be frail – like I am’.”

The original impetus for Purge, Lobel emphasises, was personal, and it remains a deeply personal project, but he considers, “I suppose now it’s a show much more about sharing”. His hopes for an audience are touchingly and laudably simple: “I would like that when audience members come home from the show and turn on their computer, when they leave the show and they turn their phone back on, they’ll think about it a little more deeply – think about things with a little more of a pause, to reconsider, together, how we live our everyday life.”

Brian Lobel’s Purge was at JCC London on 2 November and will be at Canada Water Culture Space on 8 November. For more information and tickets please see Brian Lobel’s website.

Photo (c) Aaron Reeves.

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn is a London-based writer, performance poet and aspiring theatre-maker. As a reviewer, she has written for A Younger Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East and Exeunt Magazine.

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Brighton Fringe Review: How A Man Crumbled

Posted on 27 May 2013 by Ellen Carr

How A Man CrumbledSometimes you see a piece of theatre and it reminds you why – as a theatre maker – you want to make theatre. Clout Theatre’s How a Man Crumbled is one such show. It is, for the most part, an utterly ridiculous pile of nonsense but for some reason this is brilliant. The show is inspired by Russian poet Daniil Kharms who was writing in the 1920s and 30s Soviet Russia; the programme notes offer this fact: “He often stated that it was only the absurd, awkward or incomprehensible things that interested him in life”, and this helps to make some sense of the exquisitely executed chaos that is How a Man Crumbled.

Clout is an international physical theatre company, trained at the Lecoq school in Paris and with all the noticeable Lecoq trademarks. In the opening moments of the show I did wonder whether this was going to be an hour of gratuitous devised work, making no sense to the audience and an excuse for performers to mess around on stage. These concerns were soon dispelled. No, it doesn’t make much sense but well-timed silent movie-esque projected intertitles help carry a semblance of narrative along just enough. The performers do mess around on stage but with such physical skill, intense energy and focus that it’s okay. Clout Theatre are adults who can play like children, letting their imaginations fill the room, which surely is what all theatre should be like?

The performance is so highly energised that somewhere near the end I notice I can smell the sweat of those on stage and I love it. Experiencing a story told by a group of people so engaged and in the moment, who can carry you up in their enthusiastic nonsense, is one of the magical things about theatre. The ensemble’s control of tone and energy throughout is superb; I found myself laughing at some absurd play with a dead body in a suitcase one moment, and feeling I was trapped in a grotesque nightmare the next as we are told the disturbing story of a man with no body parts. Lighting and sound are also both expertly manipulated to enhance this work.

At one point a character proffers “Would you like me to tell you a story? Ah yes, finally you say, a story”, and I think we may be getting to a stronger narrative here. We don’t, he’s being a playful tease, but it’s okay because the audience has been transported to a bizarre reality. A conglomeration of styles; at times it has a hint of Hitchcock’s darkness, it often looks and feels like a Dali painting come alive and has more than an essence of Alfred Jarry. There are also moments where I feel the Monty Python team have come onstage.

If what you look for in theatre is an eloquent and clean telling of a story that makes sense then this production isn’t for you. If what you seek is something you can get wrapped up in the feeling of, work that will make you feel alive and like you want to absorb it with all of your sense then I recommend you see this show.

How a Man Crumbled is playing at The Nightingale until 27 May. For more information and tickets, see the Nightingale Theatre website.

Ellen Carr

Ellen Carr

Ellen is Artistic Director of Witness Theatre, a company she established after graduating from the University of Sussex in 2011. Ellen writes, directs and produces for Witness Theatre and spends the rest of her time doing more writing. She is currently writing her own blog witnesstoexperience daily, contributes regular features to One Stop Arts and can also be found writing the occasional screenplay.

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Spotlight On: Lab Collective

Posted on 11 April 2013 by Joe Raynor

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In February 2013, The Lab Collective created a new theatrical experience designed to address the economic crisis and the world of trade like never before. Entitled The Pinstripe Trilogy, these three individual but connected performances were designed to make audiences think twice about our economic situation. Joe Raynor found out more from the company.

The Lab Collective is made up of Joseph Thorpe, Natalie Scott and Neil Connolly, who met while studying at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance. As Thorpe explains, they “wanted to get lots of graduates with different skills together to work on new practices”. The trio are focused on creating innovative site-specific theatre and site-inspired work, with a highly visceral and intimate environment. On their website, the company states: “We tread the line between theatre, installation and art”. Thorpe describes how they first brought their “work to pubs, cafes and market places, providing free theatre… It was all about exposing people to new experimental work in a really unconventional space.” The Lab Collective is continually trying to create accessible and exciting theatre for people who have never experienced theatrical works before.

The Collective is proud that it performs in nontheatrical spaces. Connolly admits that if anything they try to avoid the conventional theatre space, instead searching for new pastures right in the heart of the community. It is no surprise, then, that one of Scott’s “favourite pieces was in Chester castle, in this tenth century tower. The local people of Chester don’t often get to use the tower, it really was a great experience for not only the local community but also for us to provide work for them.”

Pinstripe Trilogy, The Lab Collective’s site-specific production performed in a suite of offices in London, grabbed the economic crisis by the scruff of its neck and gave it a hearty shake. Pinstripe Trilogy is certainly not just raising the issues around the economic downturn, it is revealing the past, present and potential future of our economic situation with a frightfully realistic conclusion. Scott describes how “first comes the banker, Matador, at the beginning of the crisis, then it moves to trying to save what we have by making cuts and taxes, The Bean Counter, and, finally, Trust Fund, reveals the new capitalism which is where we could be heading: privatising childhood.”

The Lab Collective is certainly not shy about taking on highly charged topics, but what is it that makes it different? Connolly says “we’re not trying to provide an answer to what happened, rather to get people thinking, to challenge them on what it is they want and what it is they need”. This manifested itself through the interactive nature of Pinstripe Trilogy, which allows the audience a dialogue with the actors; it forces you to think for yourself on an issue that has given birth to endless scapegoats and slander. The Collective has become a master of playing with its audience, adapting characters so to have maximum impact on their spectators.

Thorpe explains how Matador, first performed in 2010, “changes a lot depending on the audience, I’ve had people say to me afterwards I didn’t realise you were so heavily capitalist and then others will say I didn’t realise you were so heavily liberal”. In all of the three pieces the actors have to be prepared to effectively change their script according to the discussions with the audience, each performance is unique. This is evidence of how well The Lab Collective has come to know its characters: they display great faith in their own, and each other’s, ability to truly become the chosen character on stage.

Pinstripe Trilogy tackles some deep issues. However, Scott says “it is not our job to place the blame on anyone, instead that is the job of the audience”.  They are trying to get people thinking not just about what happened to cause the recession but what the future may hold if we allow big companies to dictate our economic desires. Connolly explains how Matador has given him a complete mix of the good, the bad and the ugly in his two years playing the role: 98 performances, a nomination for Off-West End Award, an audience member attempting to punch him in the head, and a whole pint of beer thrown over him while performing.

Connolly’s Matador, the failed banker, challenges his audience to such a level that some, probably feeling guilty themselves or jealous of Matador’s figure of material success, feel compelled to vent their anger directly at him. Matador, just like The Bean Counter and Trust Fund, is so immersive because The Collective is not just putting on a performance, it is drawing on the audience, removing the spectator/actor barrier and talking with people about issues that matter. It sounds horribly refreshing and what theatre desperately needs.

Find out more about The Lab Collective and the company’s forthcoming work at http://thelabcollective.co.uk/.

Image credit: The Lab Collective

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Guest blog: Public art for what it’s worth

Posted on 29 March 2013 by Kate Kelsall

Bristol map

Kate Kelsell was one of five Emerging Writers selected by the In Between Time Festival to engage in critical writing about contemporary performance in new ways.

My reactions to art and performance tend to be instinctive, instantaneous and rarely reticent. On the train returning from the writers-in-residence programme at Bristol’s In Between Time festival, trying to think about public art made my brain feel oppressively cloudy. My impressions were smudged, my ideas vivid, consuming but unformulated. Now, many weeks later, I’m in no doubt that the experience moved and provoked me deeply, and will remain pertinent for many years, but I’ll be damned if I can explain just how and why.

How then does the (oft and fondly mentioned) ‘passer-by’ compute the kind of public art programmed by IBT? How long does it stay with us – and before that, how long does it take us to contextualise it among the rest of life’s debris? If we cannot make sense of it, do we lose its worth? With current chronic lack of funding in the arts forcing discussion about the economic worth of culture, how can we come close to quantifying the spiritual, cognitive and emotional import of outstanding projects such as IBT? Maybe public art, with its desire to open conversations, is at its most powerful when it is beyond words…

Helen Cole’s We See Fireworks is a delicate patch-work of voices recounting profoundly personal and resonant memories of performance. In a sense it can be read as a jubilant calling card for what In Between Time sets out to achieve: the creation of moments which stay with us, altering perspectives and enriching lives. For the most part they are characterised by a tie to the individual’s existence (affiliation to the performance giving it its poignancy) or the differentiation from it, with the sentiment ‘I’d never seen anything like it’ holding the memory outside the normal realm of experience. Wholly personal yet of universal appeal, they speak of our collective fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams, as crystallised in that moment when something on stage, or otherwise, makes sense of it all for a moment.

There is something quasi-mystic about listening to these disembodied voices in the womb-like darkness. An air of religion or mythology – like stories told around an open fire. The speakers recount their tales with outstanding lucidity that often ventures into a fragile lyricism. Memories become enshrined in meaning and mythology over the years. Where and when does this eloquence arise? As Cole puts it: “…they come up with the most beautiful metaphors and evocative language because they cannot think of the right word”. They struggle for details that don’t matter to us – dates and the like – but can describe the performance with poetic clarity.

Curious to know about people’s instant reactions to meditated reflections on performance, I set myself up outside the Old Commonwealth Museum to ask people what they thought of We See Fireworks. I half hoped for a collection of eloquent rhapsodies to mirror the installation itself. What I recorded, unsurprisingly I suppose, were comments on the sensory experience of the installation, rather than its emotional impact, less nuanced and altogether less confident. People expressed the literal experience of the piece (one man to my amusement had initially thought I was part of the performance, sitting and writing notes in the corner), their confusion as they entered the darkness and how they began to understand the format of the piece as their eyes adjusted to the lack of light. They expressed their admiration for the darkness, the vintage light bulbs and the intimate space allowing you to concentrate on the voices. For the most part however, they didn’t elaborate on what those voices meant to them, but preferred to reference accents or “the power of the human voice”, as one woman put it. One woman got goose bumps in time with one of the narrators describing the same sensation. A Japanese girl who spoke broken English explained that she found it difficult to engage with because of the language barrier but was mesmerised by the voices’ rhythms and intonations, and struggled to drag herself away to catch her train. Someone’s jovially delivered account sums this up: “I need longer to think about it, but I think I liked it.” Perhaps then, that deep-set identification evolves with hindsight. Art lies dormant within us until a moment in our lives when we need it – like a rolling stone, it gathers momentum and moss as it tumbles through time.

Many of IBT’s pieces were un-ticketed, finding their home in the streets or in freight containers along the docks, surrounded by the buzz of everyday urban life.  This type of art often goads contention from mainstream press; as Director of Situations Claire Doherty acknowledges, it is often portrayed “…as the uninvited guest… something that is thrust on us… imposing on our public space”. It’s easy to see why the stereotyping of non-artsy types, into a bracket who will benefit from the conversations initiated by encounters outside their familiar experience, can be viewed as patronising. Gleaning positive impressions of its impact is harder. With work that is subtle and fleeting, measuring its enhancement of an atmosphere or environment is nigh-on impossible. Just because it borders on intangibility does not make it less important. Unlike the performances reanimated in We See Fireworks‘ memories, this public art is not trying to help you make sense of anything. If anything it disrupts you, ever so gently, with the hope you will start looking for answers to questions you still have not properly formulated. A pebble that starts the avalanche will not be judged for the destruction it causes.

In Between Time does not survive on spectacle. Take the Fake Moon hovering above College Green, at first disappointing in its very fakeness: it takes imagination to bring its worth into perspective. Less of an intrusion, more an invitation – there only if you choose to acknowledge and indulge it. A stranger in Bristol, I roamed the streets armed with an inadequate map and my non-existent sense of direction seeking out Pete Barrett’s Pave. After mingling with crowds, being distracted by market traders and seductive wafts from various eateries, wandering up dead end alleys and watching the early evening light flutter across Bristol’s waterways, I finally stumbled across the artist at work, as though by chance, as of course is the maker’s intention. Gold leaf, with all its connotations of Renaissance grandeur, being painstakingly applied to dirty cobbles in the shadow of vivid graffiti, contains a timid plurality of possible readings.

I barked at the artist: “I almost gave up hope, I’ve been searching for you for hours” – and was momentarily outraged when he didn’t look up. A young steward pattered over, explaining – not without a tinge of embarrassment – that not interacting is part of his process. What the fuck kind of message does that give about accessibility? I wanted to chat out his intentions and understand his personal perspective on the project. In retrospect, what would this have added?  Works like Pave slip silently into the fabric of urban living. In some instances, such as Alex Bradley’s Field-Test – an otherworldly glen within St Stephen’s Churchyard created from solar powered LED lights and a steel-guitar sound-scape – they alter the space, freshening perceptions of familiar places. As you enter the churchyard the guitars’ moaning twangs sound alluringly sinister, but once inside they are inexplicably calming – you find a home in this new territory. As a passer-by there is nothing to necessarily differentiate this as ‘art’, it merely weaves its way into your path. You need not ‘consume’ or ‘experience’ it in any active sense. It infiltrates your subconscious, as with lost details of the day embellished after sleep in dreams.  I’d like to borrow a phrase from Icon Eye (writing about London’s Grey World): “by making the interaction effortless and invisible, their work is infused with a sense of magic”.

Alongside this merging with the everyday, comes the dissolution of condescending type casts surrounding those likely and unlikely to enjoy and engage with such art. It is precisely this lack of proscription that validates IBT’s claim to be, in some senses, for the city it inhabits. Where the borders between art and life blur, the conversations thus initiated can be seen to deepen our reflection on the world we live in. In We See Fireworks some of the speakers recount instances from real life, framed in a performative light. In the high-mindedness that surrounds debate around the arts, it can be forgotten that they are at base an expression of our humanity. Talk of art need not be segregated inside a different vocabulary, shrink-wrapped in the exclusive realm of those ‘in the know’, and live art like that at IBT opens up the modes of communication by placing unassertive work in city space.

Where these moments gently lapse into the city’s fabric, inside the walls of the Arnolfini, Wickham Theatre and beyond, the ticketed events were challenging and certainly not to all tastes. The vitality and rawness of this content often felt akin to holding fingers over a lacerated vein, trying to stem the flow. Here IBT balances its agendas diplomatically, with these facets serving separate purposes. Is this not also some form of public good? As it is reassuring to know there are men in white coats labouring away in labs testing god knows what, doesn’t it benefit the wider public to know there are people toiling over the questions this art presents? Any anxiety over the inclusiveness of these shows should be assuaged by the promise that the public-facing programme holds. Fake Moon extends a hand to pull you into the dance and dig deeper, if you so choose.

I left Bristol with a lot of open questions. There is a vagueness in my response that first agitated me, so used to making incisive judgements on the art which I encounter. However, I’ve come to feel that with public art, this is precisely the response needed. Fledgling as it may seem, I know it will grow, un-tethered. I see, now, why Barrett chooses not to talk about Pave with passers-by. It is not about arrogance, exclusivity or retaining an air of mystery – this art is just not a convoluted, rarefied conversation designed to lead you in any direction. It is an opening statement.

Image: Bristol to Cardiff

Kate Kelsall

Kate Kelsell was one of five Emerging Writers selected by the In Between Time Festival to engage in critical writing about contemporary performance in new ways.

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