Fevered Sleep is not a theatre company. They are not performance makers. They are artists and they also keep bees – a fact which demonstrates their connection to, and concern for, the world around them. They approach their work in a way more akin to a visual artist than a theatre maker, but they do make work for theatre buildings and for theatre audiences. Contradictory? Perhaps, but it’s these contradictions that have helped Fevered Sleep to chisel out their creative niche. As their new work Above Me the Wide Blue Sky approaches performance at the Young Vic. Laura Turner chats to Artistic Director David Harradine about the show, the role of the artist and Fevered Sleep’s interdisciplinary aesthetic.
The company was established in 1996 by Harradine and fellow Artistic Director Sam Butler. The two met studying at Middlesex University and realised that “there wasn’t really anybody making work that we were that interested in… so it seemed like the obvious thing to do to start our own company”. Upon hearing their plans a tutor frustratingly offered this advice: “don’t expect anything good to happen for ten years”. Harradine tells me he was right, almost to the year. That time, however, has been extremely useful for the company to experiment doing “weird stuff” and figure out “what our process was”.
During that time, Fevered Sleep has made a vast range of work from performance to installation to film to publications to digital art, for a wide ranging audience. Being open to working with pretty much any form is, Harradine confides, both a “really interesting and terrifying way of working”. With every new idea comes a “need to invent the process at the same time as trying to invent the project”, a way of working that places its interest in process over product and that is now coming into its own in our current creative climate. The company is profoundly interested in research and each project grows out of a question, theme or subject matter of interest to them and that they have put a vast amount of effort into researching. It is, Harradine explains, “inevitable that the form always follows on”. Is there a risk that the work may become too intellectual, academic, dry – even inaccessible? No, Harradine continues: “we are always looking for the best way of sharing research with audiences” and defines their aesthetic in the following way: “we aspire to make things which are strange, somehow familiar and very accessible but not of the everyday world”.
Their work is “very serious but playful” and it always has the experience of the audience at heart. Harradine thinks “in images and through light and sound as much as through text and performance”, and you can guarantee that a project by Fevered Sleep will be more of an environment to be in than a work to watch. A Fevered Sleep rehearsal room is “very full of loads of stuff in exciting creative chaos”. Work is carried out “intensely from the very beginning, rather than the more common model of a more relaxed period to begin with then working intensely at the end”. Light, projection, sound and any other media being used are in the rehearsal room from the start and so the process becomes a “constant dialogue” of proposals from one creative to another.
Not directors in the conventional sense, this way of working is one that embraces the times we live in and may be a way forward in the craft. “We live in a slippery time where borders are being contested and we’re interested in that as artists”, states Harradine. The role of the artist and the process of making art is “a really political act” as “artists make decisions that aren’t based on economics”. He believes the artist’s role is “to be as open, attentive, alert and as passionately connected to the world as possible and to report back about that and to offer different kinds of narratives and stories about the world in which we live”.
Above me the Wide Blue Sky offers a narrative about nature, about the world in which we live and “about the profound importance of non-human things to us humans”. It’s about the importance of landscape, geography or the physical landscapes in which we live, of other species and even the importance of weather – because even though it’s become a cliché, the weather actually does affect our character. In the research period the company spent a long time travelling around England discussing these things with people, and Harradine noted how the difference in the weather does make people’s characters very different. On their travels the company collected a huge pile of stories, “some people have told us huge, rambling stories about their entire lives and some have just said ‘oh yeah, I remember that time I fell off that cliff’.”
The collected stories have been combined with academic and theoretical research to create the text for the piece. Above me the Wide Blue Sky is – Harradine realises – “for the first time for a Fevered Sleep production, almost entirely text based. There’s only one performer and she does almost nothing but talk.” What she says is taken from the stories told to the company, but Harradine comments that it isn’t a verbatim piece as the form is entirely different. “It’s more like an extended prose poem, and the images in the poem are absolutely drawn from people’s real experiences”.
The bringing together of people, through theatre, is something Harradine sees as profoundly important. “We live in a time when the idea of community and communication is being degraded and eroded, we’ve gone back to an era of individualism and I think performance does something against this, by bringing together a group of people to communally bear witness to the world”. This, he states, is “all we’re trying to do in this project. To bring together lots of different people’s experiences and observations and to share them as widely as possibly, because we think they’re really important.”
This word “important” is one that crops up a lot in Harradine’s vocabulary, offering the comforting sense that everything he does is extremely thought through and vital. He stresses how, as a young company, you have to be “stubborn, incredibly passionate, and know why you’re doing it and be opportunistic”. He also expresses this advice, and it is obvious that this is how Fevered Sleep was born: “only do it if it’s important to you, don’t do it because you want to be a theatre maker or artist, do it because you have something to say”.
Above Me The Blue Sky plays at Live at LICA in Lancaster and Warwick Arts Centre before moving to the Young Vic from 7 to 28 March. For tickets and more information, visit http://feveredsleep.co.uk/current/above-me-the-wide-blue-sky/.