Transform Festival 2013

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Originally written for Exeunt.

I’m folded into a striped deckchair, grass at my feet and a glass of wine in my hand, watching a performer in a bear costume drag a tied-up man onto a bandstand decked with fairy lights. At the end of my first day in Leeds, this is the unlikely scene in which I find myself in the buzzing foyer of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, suitably reimagined for the theatre’s third annual Transform Festival. I’m in the Park, a slice of the English summer transplanted into the Tardis-like building. The brief for designer-in-residence Hannah Sibai, I’m told, was to bring a bit of Leeds into the Playhouse, creating a welcoming space where visitors can relax, drink, stumble upon some art.

It’s a dialogue with the city that characterises Transform, which this year carries the strapline “my Leeds, my city”. Distinctive among other theatre and performance festivals in a similar mould, many of which host the same nomadic work and artists, Transform is injected with the unique flavour of Leeds as a place. Sites are important, as are people. When I grab coffee, cake and a quick chat with festival producer Amy Letman, she tells me that the programme grew from a scribbled map of the city, a neater version of which now appears in the Transform brochure that sits open on the table between us. Tracing her hands over the different areas of Leeds as she discusses the work, Letman talks me through the connection of each piece and each artist to the city, explaining the desire to take work out of the Playhouse and into unexpected locations.

One of these unexpected locations is the Royal Armouries Tiltyard, an impressive outdoor space situated in the middle of an over-developed ghost town – all sleek apartment blocks and yawning open spaces. Audiences are led here from the West Yorkshire Playhouse – the connecting “hub” of the sprawling festival – via a meandering audio walk through the city’s streets. Navigators, a piece created by Leeds University students following workshops with artists Invisible Flock, is well meaning but hindered by the disruptions and limitations of its physical surroundings, less in dialogue with its site than tussling with it. The evocative collage of voices pumped into our ears has to compete with traffic and early evening urban bustle, its delicate spell too easily broken by the intrusion of today’s city into the mental images it conjures of Leeds’ history.

The piece of theatre that occupies the outdoor space we eventually arrive at, situated at a dynamic nexus between Leeds old and new, is Slung Low’s The Johnny Eck and Dave Toole Show. A show that is mostly about trying to make a show, Dave Toole’s achievements as a dancer and performer are contained within a meta-theatrical structure that attempts to sidestep Toole’s own gruff modesty, while Toole himself just wants to tell the story of American freak show performer Johnny Eck; a show within a show within a show. The strange spectacle of the freak show in this circus-like space is also central to the conceit, complicating the gaze of the audience and the deliberate naivety of the humour. There’s always a slight jagged sense of unease.

With the afterglow of the Paralympics now faded to the stony cold reality of slashes to disability benefits, Slung Low are necessarily unflinching about the reality of ongoing prejudice faced by the disabled community. As well as being playful and celebratory – and, ultimately, uplifting – the piece unleashes an accusatory sting, sneering at the supposed “changing of perceptions” that was achieved by the Paralympics in London. By demonstrating the parallels with Eck’s prejudice-tainted experiences back in the 1930s, the piece suggests that not so much has changed after all. But the show is also about Leeds, about its inhabitants’ own particular brand of self-deprecation and eschewal of “fuss”, about the landscape of past and present that forms the show’s twilit backdrop. It’s a celebration for a city that doesn’t like to shout about its achievements.

Back in the Park space for that night’s Live Art Bistro, what’s striking – other than the heartening numbers turning out for performance art on a weekday evening – is the mix of people in the room. There are students, Playhouse staff, audiences who have wandered in after another show, and a wide range of artists, many of whom are involved with the festival in some way. As several of the individuals I speak to note, the transformation (forgive the pun) of this space has turned it into a place where artists want to linger and chat, immediately forming a relationship with the building through simple proximity. As Letman puts it, Transform has “ignited the enthusiasm of artists in the city”, forging links with the wider artistic community that might not otherwise exist.

The benefits of these links for both artists and theatre are immediately evident in the events taking place around the edges of the festival, including last week’s scratch programme and Emerge night and the playful live art interventions that now dance around the groups drinking and chatting on the surrounding deckchairs and picnic tables. Alongside the bear, there’s a story archive collecting narratives of Leeds; a witty, knowing take on food and gender stereotypes from The Souvenirs; a series of statements about the world punctuated by the knocking back of drinks. Just before I reluctantly leave this indoor bubble of summertime to make my way back to my hotel, one of the lightly swaying performers on the bandstand stage gulps down another shot. One for the road.

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As artist Ellie Harrison recognises, there’s a lot to be angry about right now. On the morning of my journey to Leeds for the Transform festival, Maria Miller delivered her first keynote speech as culture secretary, in which she insisted on the need for artists to make the argument for their economic value. I avoided reading the speech in full, mainly for my sanity and the sake of my fellow train passengers, but the news stories emerging from it and the stream of rage bursting from my Twitter feed were enough to get me riled. So it’s with this sense of political anger – a simmering background frustration that keeps erupting in response to more and more outrageous policies – that I enter Harrison’s installation The Rage Receptacle.

The piece, housed in a compact black box up the road from the West Yorkshire Playhouse on Eastgate, is a lightly playful exploration of the things that make us angry and how we might deal with them. Almost mimicking the automated phone systems that are themselves a regular cause of wrath, recordings offer each participant a series of options and choices, gently prodding at the causes of our everyday frustration. Harrison, who I catch up with in the foyer of the Playhouse, describes The Rage Receptacle as a piece made for “accidental audiences”, those who might wander in off the street with a bit of spare time and curiosity. She speaks of the value of work that offers participants a pause, that gives us the opportunity to step out of our increasingly hectic lives and take a moment for contemplation.

At first glance, The Rage Receptacle seems like a fairly shallow investigation of a complex, knotty emotion, but in fact its unassuming simplicity is one of its greatest strengths. It’s more of an invitation than anything else, providing the questions and leaving the answers up to its audience. How often do we pause to consider our emotions, the stimulus they respond to, and how we choose to cope with them? The Rage Receptacle forms part of Harrison’s longer sequence of work The Grief Series, each of the seven segments exploring a different facet of bereavement in collaboration with different artists, but as much as all of those emotions are ever relevant, anger feels particularly timely. Still only in R&D at the festival, at an embryonic stage in its lifecycle, this particular piece offers up the promise of an intriguing evolution in response to its site and its “accidental audiences”.

One thing that Harrison draws my attention to during our conversation is the prevalence of site-based work in Leeds. This is a city where art happens on the street, where performances aren’t necessarily confined to theatres. Much of this is pragmatic; since the closure of the Leeds Met Gallery and Studio Theatre, artists making work that falls outside the traditional remit of the city’s other theatres have found their projects essentially homeless. With what I’m told is a typical Leeds attitude of “let’s just bloody do it” – another woman I speak to has mounted projects including an underwater exhibition in a swimming pool, while Slung Low characterise their driving force as a “can do” approach – the work has embraced its enforced nomadic status, finding new temporary habitats around the city.

It’s from this large body of site-based work that Transform seems to take its cue. As festival producer Amy Letman explains to me on my first day, another of the areas that the Playhouse identified as a location they wanted to make work with and for was Burmantofts, a community just across the bridge from the theatre but one that the building has previously had little connection with. The piece emerging from this, Burmantofts Stories, takes place in the heart of this community, relating its narratives from within its own space. Drawn entirely from residents, the show is pieced together from the conversations and workshops initiated by theatremaker Pauline Mayers with people in the local area and is performed by seven of the participants.

Burmantofts is a community “mapped with voices” and held together by ritual. Hinting at ancient pagan ceremony and the age-old practice of telling stories around the campfire, the show’s arrangement seats audience members on benches forming a ring around the outdoor performance space, encircled by a string of fairy lights. In the piece itself, repeated, oddly graceful movements gesture to the reiteration of everyday activities, while the drinking of coffee – of particular importance to one of the men involved – is a core ritual bringing members of the community together. Through a careful use of sound, stories and songs drift in and out, sometimes overlapping, sometimes isolated. It can be messy, but no more so than life.

Alongside the narratives Mayers has gently teased out of participants – “I just love people,” she smiles as she describes the process of tirelessly hitting the streets and speaking to residents – her own story is quite extraordinary. With no real prior connection to the theatre, she first encountered Transform in the festival’s first year, when she won a free wristband on Twitter and dropped into Chris Goode’s Open House. By the end of the first day she was deeply embroiled in the process; two years later, Mayers is now an associate artist of Chris Goode & Company. Her interest, similarly to Goode, is in people and their stories; she describes this project as a way of “reframing the human condition”, reminding us that we all have stories worth telling.

Mirroring Mayers’ journey, Transform itself has seen a clear progression since its inception. Letman explains that in the first year the focus was on simply finding work to programme, while a year on the intention was to work more closely and collaboratively with the artists involved; now the circle of collaboration has widened even further, encompassing audiences and the city itself. One of the major impacts of this third festival is the possibility of those itinerant artists mentioned by Harrison finding a longer term home in the Playhouse, as new artistic director James Brining looks to bring various strands together into a varied but connected programme. The festival as an event is naturally exciting, its context inviting an intoxicating, transitory buzz. The real challenge is incorporating that ephemeral sense of artistic community into something wider and more permanent.

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