This weekend marks the culmination of a four month programme of site-specific installations by Play on Words in collaboration with Loop Dance Company, in the form of the final installment of Encounter: Light and Shadow, an atmospheric promenade performance set against the authentic backdrop of Temple Manor in Strood, Kent.
“It’s so surreal,” says Mary Paterson, who has been at the helm as creative producer of the project since July, “that this thirteenth century manor house is now stuck in the middle of an industrial estate – you walk past Morrisons and through Staples’ car park, and you get to this incredible medieval building – it looks like you’ve just walked into a film about the knights of the round table.”
Indeed the location itself is every bit as central a character as the actors and dancers who lurk in the shadows of its creepy interiors. Whereas the companies’ previous work this season has seen all kinds of unusual things performed in stark contrast to the everyday settings they inhabit, Light and Shadow has come together rather differently.
Paterson explains: “With some artists we have an idea, then think about working with people and discover where would be the right place to put it, but with this commission we had the site first, and it’s very much inspired by the location. Thousands of people go to Morrisons every Saturday, but nobody would ever notice Temple Manor unless they were taken there. The aim of the project is to give people a different relationship with those familiar places, to make them see their home town in a different light.”
The building was renovated in the 1960s and is now maintained by English Heritage, and a lot of research into the building’s different uses over the intervening years was undertaken before the companies began devising the piece in earnest. It was important for the creative team to work in a truly collaborative sense across all mediums from a very early stage, and artists, performers, and lighting and sound designers came together from the off. As Paterson says, this was “so we knew what was possible. Right at the beginning we wanted to have people emerging out of walls, it was just a question of how can we make that happen? The answer is with a lot of complicated projection and live feed video, so it was important to work with a lighting designer right from the beginning.”
All of these recorded and live elements come together in an experience which is entirely immersing for the audience, in the way promenade theatre should be. “The audience themselves are given torches so they are involved in lighting the space, and the atmosphere really changes depending on who’s in the audience and how they’re feeling about it. Last week we had a group of six quite young girls and they were really really scared, that affects the whole thing – any promenade piece is just really different because you have to think about every sense, not just sight but sound and touch. The physicality of the building is a character in itself and you are constantly responding to what the building throws up.”
But for all its spooky atmospheric allure, surely the location with its lack of heating or toilets and very little electricity, provided them with some challenges? “When you’re working in a place like Temple Manor, which wasn’t built to contemporary accessible standards you do have to be really careful about keeping the audience safe, and the challenge is how to do that within the creative process, without having to put up massive fire escape signs and bright lights so no one trips over. We have stewards who lead the audience round in character, explaining everything that is going on to people who might be scared or confused, so the audience can feel safe but still within the atmosphere of the show.”
Loop, and Play on Words, both Kent-based ensembles, are certainly to be commended for their community focus; as well as having worked with the company through professional networks, all of the performers have been involved with the company’s local youth and adult drama groups. Furthermore, Flow, a group for adults with learning disabilities, has developed some sound work for the performance, so it’s good to hear that such an interesting and clearly non-commercial venture has been well-attended and well-received by the community.
Of course in today’s funding climate, regardless of how successful your project is, it is difficult to guarantee it further life, and decisions are yet to be made as to whether to continue with such a large-scale venture. I asked Paterson if she had found it harder to secure funding as a producer in recent times. “It’s always been difficult. It’s only in retrospect that we look back and think that those were the happy days where we had loads of money and lots of opportunities. I think it’s getting harder because there’s much less money around and much less optimism, but on the other hand, people are resilient and collaborative, and will always find interesting ways to make work. If there is a silver lining to the fact that everything is changing, it’s that we can rewrite the rules, and say that in the future the work has to be more artist led, and that artists must be paid in a certain way. In a way, change is good, the scary thing is where the change is coming from and whether the people who are instrumental in making these decisions at the top level really care. In an ideal world, good work should become the norm, the expectation, instead of Shakespeare on Ice or whatever might sell that week.”
At A Younger Theatre, we couldn’t agree more. It’s certainly encouraging to hear young producers and creatives embracing challenges in this way. In the meantime, while Play on Words has a Christmas show in the pipeline in association with Brook Creative Companies, and Loop’s educational department, LoopEd, continues to provide contemporary dance training for people of all ages and backgrounds, it’s hard to feel too glum about the next four years of Conservative-Lib Dem government (unless you have just had a child, are unemployed, or for about a million different other reasons). Great art always needs limitations to work against in order to flourish.
Encounter: Light and Shadow runs at Temple Manor, Knight Road, Strood, Rochester, Kent, ME2 2AH until Sunday 30th of October at 7.30pm. Admission is free, but must be booked via the box office on 01634 831531 or via its website.
Tristan Pate writes a regular blog for A Younger Theatre here.
Image by Jacob Perlmutter.