Site specific performance “refers to an artist’s intervention in a specific locale, creating a work that is integrated with its surroundings” and requires a relationship to the location (Guggenheim, 2015). In this case, our performance was an audio tour which is usually a “self-guided walk made of a sound composition you listen to while it takes you through places” (Bieri, 2012). However our performance required a tour guide to lead the audience and acquire their attention when an activity involving audience interactions was to take place. Our site location was the whole of the City of Lincoln and the tour started at the bottom of Steep Hill and finished at the Museum of Lincolnshire life on Burton road. The audio track consisted of stories, monologues and information about women in Lincolnshire in 1915, focussing primarily on Amy Beechey, Florence Bonnett and a fictional woman teacher. Because our performance was a tour through the city, we were concerned about the relation between the audio and the site and so we had to think carefully about how we could order the contents of the track.
The assessment started at quarter to four in the afternoon on Thursday 7th May but we had previously opened the audio tour to the public at half past two. However before the assessment, only three people had come to our performance. We limited the audience numbers for the tour to two-three people as the tour involves audience involvement and having a larger number of people would affect the performance process regarding time and space and as we limited our performance to around twenty five minutes, timing was crucial. Our main concern was the sweet shop interaction in which we gave the audience money to buy some liquorice but because the shop was small, a bigger audience would have taken too long to individually buy the sweets. It would have also affected the shop owner and his other customers as there would be too many people forming a queue in a small space.
In the devising process, we looked at theatre companies, performances, practitioners, and readings that inspired us and initiated ideas for our performance. Although we didn’t use all of the ideas, these influences gave us a starting point which we then expanded from. We mainly focussed on companies that used audio for their performances such as Punchdrunk and Dreamthinkspeak; however we did use other influences such as Blast Theory, poems by Alice Corbin and Jessie Pope, and readings that were essential on the module. The creative process in producing an audio tour track was hard work as it required a lot of walking, exploring and researching, however the devising process needed to be well thought out in order to give the audience an “intellectual experience” (Bieri, 2012, p.5).
Analysis of Process
In his book The Art of Wandering, Merlin Coverly talks about a man who imagines that he is going on a journey in his mind. Coverly quotes Alain De Botton who states that “the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to” (De Botton, 2003, p.246). To begin the devising process of our site specific performance, we were asked to go on a “drift” with our group and see where it takes us. Starting at the University of Lincoln, we began walking up hill until we arrived at the Museum of Lincolnshire Life. Not knowing about the museum beforehand, we decided it could be beneficial to see what was inside. Our drift was successful as the museum contained the history of the First World War and the Second World War which inspired us to create a performance about the history of Lincoln during the war. Additionally, as an all-female group we agreed that focusing on women during the war would be an interesting topic. The history that captivated us the most was the heart breaking story of Amy Beechey and the loss of her sons, the William Foster munitionettes and the restricting rules for women teachers. Overall, aimlessly wandering through the city resulted in finding a strong starting point for our performance.
Two productions that are influenced by historical events are One Day, Maybe (2013) by Dreamthinkspeak and Fixing Point (2013) by Blast Theory. One Day, Maybe is a “site-responsive performance […] inspired by the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea” and Dreamthinkspeak believe that “these past events are still a key part of our present” (Dreamthinkspeak, 2015). Fixing Point “focuses on a programme of classical music in an idyllic rural setting” and is about a man named Seamus Ruddy who was killed in 1985 (Blast Theory, 2011). Both of these productions were influential because they take the audience on an audio journey focusing their performance on topics that relate to certain events in history just like we planned to do using the history we had learnt about Amy Beechey, Florence Bonnett and the rules for women teachers. However the difference between our performance and theirs is that they just focus on one story where as we focused on three. Also, Fixing Point involves connecting the headphones to a smartphone and we couldn’t do that as we wanted our performance to be available to everyone not just smartphone users. My group and I found these women inspiring and agreed that a war related performance would be a creative and excellent idea, especially if some audience members aren’t exactly interested in theatre but are interested in historical events. The story of Amy Beechey is well-known within the history of Lincoln as she was the mother who lost five sons during the First World War. Furthermore, Florence Bonnett helped build the tracks for the first tanks and this year “the Lincoln Tank Memorial has been unveiled to commemorate the city’s vital role in the production of the first tank” (Lincolnshire Echo, 2015).
After individually researching the history of the women, we started to consider the organisation and structure of our performance and decided on creating a linear performance, given that our performance will include moving from place to place within a set time limit. In order for the audience to stay interested in our performance, we needed to make sure that the information we provided was captivating by using detailed monologues in our track that talk about the life of the three women we have chosen. Although the monologues were fictional, they were based on real historical events and by doing this, it’s as though we were telling a story. Additionally, after undertaking further research into the William Foster factory workers, I came across Florence Bonnett, a woman who left school at the age of thirteen and signed up for war work at William Fosters. Originally, Florence left school and joined the family business that her mother and father owned, trading as fishmongers. However, she soon started working in heavy engineering which included making tracks for the first tanks. During her time at William Fosters, Florence had a lover in the Lincolnshire Regiment called Dick but unfortunately he was killed in action. This information was beneficial in a section of our performance, more importantly because Florence lived and worked in Lincoln. I think the audience would have found the history of her life and work very interesting.
Given that our piece was an audio tour, I decided to search for companies that produce this style of art and I came across Punchdrunk’s audio performance, The Borough (2013) which was inspired by George Crabbe’s poem. Walking through the streets of Aldeburgh, The Borough consists of an audio track where “past and present, fact and fiction collide” (The Guardian, 2013). We wanted most of our track to be factual given that the women in our piece were real people from Lincolnshire; however we wanted to tell the audience a story during the tour about these women of 1915 and therefore created fictional monologues based on facts. Additionally, to prevent silence between the monologues, we looked at sound effects and recorded other sounds (i.e. wild noises) as well as recording our own voices and blended them all into one track. With this intention, The Borough track contains “layers within layers” (The Guardian, 2013) of sound and therefore we wanted the sound in our track to also be layered so that we don’t lose the interest of the audience by producing a simple audio track. Our audio tour was similar to The Borough as they began with an inspirational poem just like we began with factual stories about inspirational women.
A company that I found inspiring for their art work are Lone Twin who “[turned] wooden objects donated by people from across the south east into a seaworthy archive of stories and memories” (Lone Twin, 2011) and called it The Boat Project (2011). With this intention, during the First World War, Florence Bonnett built the tracks for the first tanks and therefore we thought about building something with the audience in our performance. With this idea, we came up with building foam aeroplanes as we also mention the Ruston Proctor company who built aeroplanes during the war. Lone Twin “desire to connect with, and celebrate the individual lives, events and stories that define, a community” (British Council, 2015). However, our performance wasn’t dedicated to the building of the aeroplanes but it was interesting to include the interaction in our tour as it symbolises that we too can help build necessities for the war. More importantly, the first tanks were built in Lincoln and the Ruston Proctor company was based in Lincoln and so using this symbolism celebrates the history of Lincoln during the war and connects our performance to the site.
After a meeting with Conan Laurence about our performance, he advised us to think carefully about how audio and performance integrate. He suggested that we should focus on symbolic small moments that involve audience participation rather than just creating a grand performance alongside the audio track. Symbolic actions or words in a performance can be powerful as “symbolism implies a greater meaning” (Cash, 2006). With that in mind, we wanted to use a movement to symbolise something important in the performance and our form of symbolism was the aeroplanes. Before the interaction with the paper aeroplanes, I moved my arm in a circular motion to symbolise aeroplane wings as we were about to mention the Ruston Proctor aeroplanes after the paper aeroplanes scene. However, originally we were going to use both hands to represent the aeroplane wings but it looked like we weren’t taking it seriously and therefore we changed the movement by slowly moving one arm around and twisting it in a more stylised fashion much like physical theatre. This occurred three times before the paper aeroplane scene and four times after the scene, in sync with the jet sound. We chose the aeroplane movement because we dedicated an activity in the performance to war aeroplanes, more specifically, the Ruston Proctor aeroplanes. We agreed that this was a task for the tour guide, which was me, as I was the one that was constantly with the audience and so the audience would be able to witness the symbolic movement every time.
My group and I came up with an idea to use poems that have powerful meanings and connected them to the Amy Beechey and Florence Bonnett sections of the performance. The first poem called War Girls (1916) was written by Jessie Pope and is about the job roles that women in the First World War had to undertake when the men left for war. We were inspired by this poem because it expresses the importance of women and their efforts for the war and as we focus on Florence Bonnett and her job as a munitionette, we agreed that the poem was relevant. Furthermore, we used a poem called Fallen (1916) by Alice Corbin which is about a soldier dying at war. We introduced this poem to the audio track just after Amy Beechey’s monologue where she speaks about the loss of her son, Barnard. We found this poem inspiring because although it is about the death of a soldier, it is beautifully written and the description is powerful and because the story of the Beechey family is devastating, we thought the poem provided a powerful end to the performance.
One of our main difficulties and concerns was that our site didn’t relate to our piece given that our performance was an audio tour. However, Mike Pearson states that you can “[imagine] the land not as a physical matter but as a metaphor or signifier, as concept or historical narrative” (Pearson, 2010, p.33). With this intention, we wanted to choose our route carefully and therefore we tried to find alternative routes in which would be relevant to our audio track. We decided to use Steep Hill as a starting point as it is a familiar location in the City of Lincoln and it is there that we found the sweet shop. The sweet shop wasn’t relevant to our topic but we made it relevant by using it as a place for an audience interaction in which the audience could buy some liquorice which is then mentioned in Florence Bonnett’s monologue. The reason we chose liquorice was because it was a popular sweet during the First World War. We could have introduced the sweet somewhere else in the performance, for example maybe each performer could have been eating some liquorice but we liked that the sweet shop was old fashioned and it fit in with the sweet shop sound scape in our track. Similarly, the primary school wasn’t relevant but we wanted to be walking by a school during the teacher monologue and so we used the primary school as a metaphor. Additionally, we could have searched for locations that related to the topic but by finishing at the Museum of Lincolnshire Life, we wanted to give the audience the chance to go inside and see the history that inspired our performance. Generally, site-specific performance may mean to produce performance art at a certain location, but in our case “the city [became] the location of performance” (Pearson, 2010, p.41).
In the final week before the performance, my group and I arranged rehearsals almost every day to perfect our performance. This included finishing the audio track and walking the route repeatedly. However, depending on the pace we walked depended on when the track would finish and eventually we had to re-edit the track to shorten it. Once the track had finally been completed, we frequently walked the tour through until we felt confident to perform it to an audience. This included perfecting the timing and the performative sequence. On the performance day, we had a meeting with our class and lecturer to discuss the events of the day and then we had until our assessment to keep practising. We didn’t want to over rehearse but we did invite our friends to be a guinea pig audience so that if any mistakes were made, they were made in that performance for us to correct for the assessment. The only fault in this performance was that one of the recorders stopped working for an audience member which caused a delay within the tour; however I assumed that he had accidentally pressed stop and so I wasn’t worrying about it. Overall, my group and I felt prepared and ready to be assessed.
To conclude, many aspects of the performance worked well but there could have been some improvements. Firstly, having two or three audience members worked well regarding audience interactions such as buying sweets and throwing paper aeroplanes and the fluency of the performance. The sweet shop interaction worked well because the audience members were able to buy some liquorice that they could eat throughout the tour or take home with them. The liquorice related to the performance because it was a popular sweet during the war and this is something that the audience enjoyed. As for throwing paper aeroplanes, this succeeded in the first performance because the weather was dry and the aeroplanes could move further. However during the assessment, it started to rain and so the paper aeroplanes didn’t move very far which ruined the effect we were hoping for which was too measure the distance of where the paper aeroplanes had landed and video the interaction. If we had considered the weather conditions beforehand, plastic aeroplane models would have been a wiser option.
As our site was the City of Lincoln, we thought that an interesting theme could be about the history of Lincolnshire women during the Second World War. However in our feedback, it was pointed out that our audio didn’t relate to the site. At beginning of the module, our first task was to go on a “drift” to decide on the journey of the tour and we came across the Museum of Lincolnshire life which inspired our war theme idea. Even though we considered that the site didn’t relate to the theme, we ordered the monologues so that they would play at certain locations of the tour that would make sense. For example, the teacher monologue and the school children sound scape started playing when we arrived at the school just after the classroom scene where we had written the surnames of the women in our piece on chalk boards which were then presented to the audience using a performative sequence. As for improvements, the track still hadn’t finished when we arrived at the museum meaning that I had been walking too fast. If we had finished the audio track weeks before the assessment, we could have spent the final weeks perfecting timing. Another thing was that we had mistakenly used a jet sound effect in the audio when the topic was about the First World War aeroplanes. However, as we couldn’t record the sound of a real aeroplane, we had to find the sound effect on a free sounds website and the jet sound was all that was available. Last of all, unfortunately the problem that we had with the recorder before the assessment occurred again but this was due to technical issues. If I was to alter the final performance I would have slowed the walking down especially because some of the audience members walked quite slowly and I didn’t want to rush them and I would have tested the recorders many times before the assessment so that the technical problem could have been prevented. All of these problems should have been considered beforehand.
Ultimately, my experience with site specific performance has made me realise that performance is live art that can take place at any location in any shape or form and as Mike Pearson states, “site may be transformed by the disruptive presence of performance seeking a relationship other than that of a ready-made scenic backdrop against which to place its figures.” (Pearson, p.2, 2010).
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