Image: Ang Kia Yee / Emergency Chorus

The Emerge Festival 2018: a review

The Emerge Festival is always an exciting opportunity to witness the work of Warwick graduates. This year saw the return of companies Barrel Organ, Emergency Chorus, Clown Funeral and Feat.Theatre, all of which brought with them thought-provoking performances.

Georgia Simcox on Barrel Organ’s Tess

Tess of the d’Urbervilles is my favourite book, so you can imagine my excitement when I heard that an adaptation was coming to Warwick Arts Centre as part of the 2018 Emerge Festival.

Barrel Organ performed a rehearsed reading of the final two thirds of their script, which will become part of a larger show. It was their first time reading the script in front of an audience – a fact that I never would have known, had I not been told.

In this reading, the entire focus of the actors and audience was on the spoken word. All stage directions were read aloud, allowing the audience to let their imagination run away with them. “Tess and Angel kiss,” the stage directions read – the audience are left to imagine the detail.

It was their first time reading the script in front of an audience – a fact that I never would have known

It was relaxing to only have the speech to focus on, without copious amounts of actions at the same time. It really showed the talent of the actors, as they used only their voice, facial expressions and body language to portray their characterisation. This was particularly important for distinction, as each actor voiced multiple roles.

The character of Tess was read by three different actresses in order to paint her as an ‘everywoman’, bringing her into the contemporary. Tess spent most of the reading stood centre stage, setting her apart from the other characters.

However, it wasn’t just visually that Tess was set apart. Whilst other characters had a West Country accent, Tess was voiced in the natural accent of each actress and her language was more colloquial. I loved this – Tess really was the ‘everywoman’ brought into the modern day. Through hearing the many accents of Tess, we can associate her with so many different women, bringing her to life in many more worlds than that of simply the West Country girl who fell in love with Angel Clare.

Ultimately, I absolutely loved this script and can’t wait to see what direction the show takes – it’s clear that it’s set to be a good one.

Marianne Steggall on Clown Funeral’s Things We Chose to Save

What if you could have access to all your memories at the click of a button? Ready to edit and view at a moment’s notice? Clown Funeral problematise this idea in their new show Things We Chose to Save.

Memories are commercialised in the play. They become a product which can be bought and sold and is now at the heart of a flourishing enterprise led by business tycoon, Vic. As a result of this, all the characters seem stuck within their own perspective of events. This is reflected in performance by the fact that for the first half of the play the actors look out straight ahead, not at each other. They then make direct eye contact in the latter half of the play, after protagonist Molly becomes aware of the other characters’ actions. Whilst, dramatically, this device helps show the distanciation between characters, it also makes it quite hard for the performers to form believable relationships on stage and connect with their audience. The effect can be somewhat disorientating when used for too long.

Memories are commercialised in the play. They become a product which can be bought and sold

One of the main themes of this play is surveillance. Everything is constantly being recorded and watched – onstage, this is conveyed effectively through lighting design. The set was made up of storage boxes which were used as the basis for different locations. Each of these had UV lights strapped to them and the actors were often lit by the light of their phone cases. This created the impression that there is no way of switching off, both literally and figuratively. Molly is very aware of how she comes across to others and this informs her interactions with the other characters. The play really emphasises this obsession with your own perception and how others perceive you – a theme directly relevant to today’s social media era.

The commercialisation of memory mirrors the 21st century phenomenon where by everything is publicised. Personal property becomes public. Whilst the play problematises this issue, I wish it had delved a little deeper and truly explored it. The social critique in operation took a backseat of sorts to Molly’s narrative. It felt as if connections were being made, but in a slightly superficial way, rather than being explored fully. Overall, I enjoyed the piece and thought it was an innovative take on the idea of public and personal memory, but its intention felt a little blurred.

Beth Rawsthorn on Emergency Chorus’ Landscape (1989)

Inspired by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Emergency Chorus’ show Landscape (1989) transported the audience to an apocalyptic – yet eerily recognisable – world in which humans are dying out and the landscape has been ’wounded’. Focusing on a motif of mushrooms, the piece explored both the beauty of nature and the destructiveness of global warming.

Creating an outdoor space in a studio is not an easy task, but the delicate and atmospheric lighting and sound design (by Ciara Shrager and Nat Norland, respectively) went hand in hand to bring the outside in, with gentle sounds of the wind and warm light bringing the natural landscape to life.

Ideas of global warming and human destruction were explored powerfully through abstract imagery in the piece. In one scene, performer Clara Potter-Sweet turned on a microwave packed with mushrooms and then ‘replanted’ the cooked mushrooms onto the stage floor, directly showing the damaging role that humans play. Despite being several rows back I could smell the cooked mushrooms when they were fried later in the piece, which further increased this sense of environmental destruction and the outside world being brought into the studio.

Ideas of global warming and human destruction were explored powerfully through abstract imagery in the piece

In contrast to ideas of damage, the piece also celebrated the earth. The use of buzzing orchestral music evoked ideas of hope and regrowth, as did the movement sequences performed by Potter-Sweet and Ben Kulvichit, which featured repeated gestures echoing agriculture and plant growth in a way that seemed almost ritualistic and spiritual, worshipping the land and its precious produce.

The performances of Kulvichit and Potter-Sweet were highly impressive – they addressed the audience and interacted with each other with a natural ease and charisma which fitted perfectly with the show’s raw, organic feel.

Some of the specific historical and cultural references were lost on me (1989 was, after all, almost a decade before myself and many of my fellow students in the audience were born) and it took me a while to grasp the significance of the show’s mushroom concept, but I think this sense of growing realisation as the piece progressed tied into the show’s intentionally slow, gradual nature.

Landscape (1989) definitely achieved the bittersweet sentiments that they hoped for, particularly in the powerful closing image of two mushrooms huddled together under a spotlight singing a mournful but beautiful song, which created both a sense of sorrow at the damage already done and a determination to protect our planet.

Beth Rawsthorn on Feat.Theatre’s The Welcome Revolution

After intensely scribbling notes throughout Landscape (1989), entering the Helen Martin Studio for the second performance of the evening – Feat. Theatre’s The Welcome Revolution – was a striking contrast. Decorated with fairy lights and colourful bunting, the studio was filled with round tables in a cabaret-style set-up. Once I entered the space I was handed a cup of tea and, caught off guard by the prospect of audience participation, nervously wandered over to a table.

Whilst Landscape (1989) had taken the audience to a surreal world outside of the studio, The Welcome Revolution brought the audience into a space which encouraged us to be present and interact with each other. The piece was centred on the story of Lara’s café, which served as a hub for the local community. In an energetic performance by Stella von Koskull, Lara, the only character to appear on stage, sets out to bring people across the country together with tea and kindness, after being inspired by the stories of her customers.

The play addressed both national and global issues, such as the refugee crisis, lack of housing, the strain on public services and debates surrounding immigration, in a way that felt close to home and personal. By weaving in specific references to Coventry and Cannon Park, the performance really highlighted the local nature of these issues and the changes that can be made within the local community to help those in need. In addition to the powerful stories of homelessness, Lara also described her conversation with a member of the public who expressed concerns about overcrowding in the UK. Whilst The Welcome Revolution definitely promoted ideas of inclusivity, I think it is important that both sides of the immigration debate were given a voice, and I felt that this made the piece even more thought-provoking.

The play addressed national issues in a way that felt close to home

One of the most poignant ways that the show explored how we approach those in need was by comparing the responses of adults and children. Lara described an activity she carried out in the café in which children and adults filled in worksheets, writing down their responses to a stranger coming to the door and asking for help. Whilst the children wrote (in adorably incorrect spelling) that they would let the person in, the worksheets of the adults were crammed with anxieties about whether or not they could be trusted. This really brought to light the importance of seeing the good in people – perhaps if we all had the open mindedness and kindness of children, our world would be a more accepting, welcoming place.

Stella von Koskull was captivating as Lara and moved effortlessly between storytelling and interacting directly with the audience. The ease and warmth with which she spoke to everyone in the room really emphasised how positive it can be to reach out and connect to those around us in everyday life rather than hiding behind our phone screens. This idea really resonated with me – chatting to a fellow audience member over a cup of tea rather than sitting alone with my notepad reminded me of the importance of human connection and, as Lara proves, an act as small as a smile can start a revolution.

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