When I join Engineer Collective on a cold and cloudy January morning, they are busy troubleshooting a movement sequence. Inside a disused open plan office overlooking west London, they are busy fine-tuning a choreographed routine for their latest piece, Missing. The company have begun the final leg of rehearsals and the atmosphere in the room is one of composed concentration. As I observe them work, each of the performers demonstrate a variation on the same physical manoeuvre – before joining together in order to road test a change to the overall arrangement. They move with a fluid yet controlled grace, layering each swift gesture until they culminate in a seamless display. When the sequence is finished, Simon Lyshon turns to the rest of the team: “I think we should break the rules for the big one.”
This is characteristic of the way in which Engineer Collective work as a team. They fuel their rehearsal with a rigorous attention to detail, mixed with a willingness to change direction and explore new ideas. They appear to share a deep level of collective intuition while remaining in constant dialogue throughout. The term ‘collaboration’ is invoked with remarkable frequency when discussing theatre. Mostly, it’s used in order to convey a sense of collective ownership, yet it can often serve to disguise fixed hierarchies of decision making. What makes observing Engineer Collective so exciting, is the extent to which they have fully embraced the ‘togetherness’ that this particular level of collaboration can achieve.
Missing’s combination of verbatim storytelling and daring physicality captured the imaginations of audiences and critics when it debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013. A sense of unfinished business means that the company are now hard at work developing the production for The Vault Festival and New Diorama. Missing examines the subject of missing people in today’s society by taking the personal testimonies of those involved and recreating their ‘voices’ in performance. Upon reading an article published by a journalist friend, the team became fascinated by this murky subject. They began by conducting first-hand research; this included carrying out interviews with families and professionals caught up in incidents of missing people. These discussions became the essential bedrock of the piece and many of the accounts have found their way into the production.
Lyshon explains how they became interested in the ripple effect such disappearances had on families and loved ones: “They never talk about it. It’s an ambiguous loss. The loss never finishes.” This idea of ‘ambiguous loss’ is a recurring theme throughout Missing. The people giving these accounts appear trapped in a kind of limbo; caught between submitting to grief and holding onto a vague hope. The monologues are haunted by repeated attempts to come to grips with the void left behind by a vanished loved one. Missing takes us beyond a direct investigation of why individuals disappear and instead hones in on the emotional fallout of those actions: “We don’t have the voices of missing people in the show. The focus has moved away from missing people, and become about the families”, explains Jesse Fox, who carried out many of the initial interviews. “We’re trying to give an insight into these experiences through very specific cases.” The team channel a diverse and competing range of ‘experiences’ in the course of the performance. We pay witness to a homeless man living on the margins of society, a police detective embroiled in a missing person case and a grieving father whose son has vanished without a trace. The emotional intensity of these accounts can be shattering, while others adopt a matter of fact and conversational tone.
Theatre makers engaging with verbatim performance encounter specific challenges. A lot of the current discussion surrounding the form centres on the knotty questions of ‘authenticity’; the extent to which it allows its subjects ‘to speak in their own words’ and its ability to present audiences with the ‘truth’ behind a particular subject. There continues to be significant debate on the advantages and limitations of the form, but what remains certain is verbatim theatre’s ability to resonate on a profoundly personal (and often political) level with audiences. Of course, many other forms of theatre can also achieve this, but verbatim theatre’s ability to enlighten and inspire discord in the viewer is unique to its form. It’s no wonder that performers and directors feel a certain weight of responsibility in translating this material for performance. How have Engineer Collective chosen to engage with such material? “We try and capture the essence of that person”, explains Fox. “Our job is more like editing, distilling and thinking about how to stay true to this person”. However, George Evans, another member of the collective, is quick to explain that this doesn’t mean it is simply a matter of ventriloquising these people: “Every decision is made for you, including the pattern of speech. But we still had to make decisions and choose what we took from them. It’s not about copying.” The company clearly feel a sincere level of personal responsibility towards these people. There is a determination to do justice to their words. Indeed, despite the disquieting nature of its subject matter, Missing resonates with compassion and even, sometimes, humour.
Missing fuses this form of verbatim storytelling with elements of dance and physical theatre. These sequences take everyday gestures and weave them into a ritualised pattern of fluid images. This combination infuses Missing with a unique atmosphere; its world is concrete yet ethereal, tangible yet dreamlike. Evans explains to me that Beatrice Scirocchi – another of Engineer’s core collaborators – wanted to avoid the verbatim elements of the performance becoming “static”. Experimenting with the physical dimension in order to convey the abstracted and indefinable sense of loss that exists at the heart of their story.
Before leaving, I return again to the subject of Engineer Collective’s creative method. After sharing my own observations on the integrated nature of their ensemble work, I ask Lyshon to shed some light on how the team approach the collaborative process: “We’re just lucky to work with some cooperative, collaborative people who happen to be excited by the same things we are,” he replies. Perhaps, in the end, that is enough.
Missing was at the VAULT Festival, and will be at New Diorama Theatre on 16 and 17 February. For more information, visit Engineer Collective’s website.