Thinking outside the black box: Greenwich and Docklands Festival

From 21 to 30 June, the Greenwich and Docklands area will become a theatrical playground. Expect crows, alien invasions, large-scale puppetry, new writing and much more.

Describing the programme in one word, Artistic Director Bradley Hemmings chooses “extraordinary”. It is certainly a festival that celebrates the transformative nature of theatre without boundaries, an event to which Peter Brook’s famous words have never seemed more applicable: “A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged”. The outdoor festivities of the Greenwich and Docklands Festival are the perfect medium through which to consider issues of engagement with theatre, the nature of the arts festival and the space it creates, and the pros and cons of outdoor performance. Hemmings is very aware of these issues, and exhibits a desire to present theatre that transcends boundaries and alters opinions.

He calls the programme “surprising, visceral and perception shifting” with the diverse range of companies involved sharing a “desire to awaken senses and awareness and to develop the way you look at the world”. In particular, Hemmings notes the festival’s use of everyday spaces that may forever be transformed in the eyes of those who witness events there. It’s a statement that speaks of the perception-shifting power present in all theatre but especially in outdoor work. It’s hard to think of audiences at the award-winning Motor Show from Requardt and Rosenberg ever seeing West Parkside at Greenwhich Peninsula in the same way again.

Outdoor work has to hold the audience at its heart and work towards audience engagement, be that in a very direct participatory way or in the way the content of the work is designed to affect its audience. Perhaps this may be viewed by some as a brutal environment in which to work, with audiences unconstrained by social rules of attending building-based work, able to leave or more actively express unfavourable opinions. But this atmosphere and this type of work demonstrates the ability of theatre to generate a sense of community, or create a stronger one in pre-existing communities. The Greenwich Fair event is a perfect example of this. Happening over the weekend of the 23 and 24 June it takes its influence from the original “uproarious” nineteenth century fair in the area and is “an outpouring of street performance”.

This year also sees Hemmings and Associate Director Nathan Curry (Co-Artistic Director of Tangled Feet) moving the festival in a number of exciting new directions, whilst maintaining previous structures that have endured over the years. One new development initiated by Curry is a new writing section, Word on the Street, which brings new writing out of its safe black box arena and into the public domain. New writing, of course, isn’t normally associated with outdoor theatre, but when one considers the innovation, imaginative scope and boundary-shifting excitement exhibited by both, you begin to wonder why not. Events to look forward to in this part of the programme include Bryony Lavery’s audio theatre experience taking place on a train from Charing Cross, Mean Between Times; Nabokov’s Symphony; and Rash Dash’s Set Fire to Everything. Other participants here include Les Enfants Terribles, Fuel-produced Inua Ellams, Curious Directive and Tangled Feet. If you’re thinking this is starting to read like a list of up and coming theatre companies then you’d be right; Hemmings mentions the festival’s move this year to connect with other areas of the theatre world, namely companies who are usually building-based but make work that “confounds normal expectations of what happens in a theatre”.

Confounding normal expectations is exactly what the festival itself is doing this year; for the first time it is taking the spirit of open-air theatre indoors with Handspring Puppet Company’s adaptation of Crow by Ted Hughes (the artistic team behind the Warhorse puppets). It’s a poem that Hemmings reminds us is “profoundly about the outdoors” and upholds the viscera aesthetic of the festival itself. What will be interesting is to see how this production fits with the rest of the programme. Is moving into a building giving in to the more conventional types of theatre space eschewed by the rest of the festival? It is a move, Hemmings admits, done with the intention of putting the festival’s events more on the national cultural map. It is particularly hard, he observes, to generate critical theory about the world of outdoor theatre, primarily due to its intensified ephemeral nature. It is much more “of the moment” than more traditional theatre: theatre that can run for extended periods of time and perhaps be documented in a more concrete way. The space, at least, within which conventional theatre exists remains the same after a performance finishes rather than returning to a normal everyday space where, for a brief moment, a portal to a theatrical world existed.

But the memory of these extraordinary outdoor events can’t be forgotten, and it is precisely this transformation of everyday space that makes outdoor theatre so special. Hemmings notes that Greenwich has some “remarkable public spaces”. He is particularly keen on the Woolwich area, with its history as an industrial centre for numerous trades and its subsequent legacy of socio-economic disadvantage . The famous festival finale Le Voyage des Aquareves  by Compagnie Malabar where “everybody has a wonderful time with pyrotechnics” will be taking place in Woolwich and this is an area into which Hemmings would like to expand future festivals. Alive with diverse attractions and a whole host of free events, there are unsurprisingly many strands in putting the festival together, but Hemmings states the programmers are always in touch with the “particular ideas and stories we want to tell” as well as being aware of “reasons why people may not be able to go to a free and accessible event”. Such thinking has led to the inclusion this year of the spectacular Prometheus Awakes by La Fura dels Baus in collaboration with Graeae the disabled-led theatre company.

From regular feature Dancing City profiling an exciting array of new dance to Crow, Word on the Street or the plethora of street performances taking place everyday, there surely must be something for everyone and this is precisely the festival’s intention; Hemmings refers to that constant need to “think outside the box”. A phrase oft cited perhaps but not always heeded, Greenwich and Docklands Festival is a rare delight, genuinely pushing boundaries of space, accessibility and convention. Thinking outside the black box of theatre space and pushing into the wider world, this is a festival for anyone and everyone who likes to play, question and explore the future of theatre.

Events run from 21 to 30 June. Full details including ticket prices and box offices can be found on the festival’s website here or follow this link to view an online version of the festival programme.

Image credit: Handspring Puppet Company’s Crow

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *