Transform 14: This Building is Full of Secrets

Originally written for Exeunt.

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A journey through a door marked “no entry”. A road trip that covers hundreds of miles without moving an inch. A game in which there are no winners. A dream. A plunge into darkness. A constellation of stories.

The statement of intent running underneath the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s fourth annual Transform festival, emblazoned on the front of its attention-stealing pink and purple brochure, is “reimagining what theatre can look like and what it can do”. The varied festival programme is true to this intent, incorporating everything from off-site interactive performance to small-scale storytelling; from intimate audio tours to late-night cabaret and live art. Some of the work is finished, some of it is embryonic. Around the edges of the festival, meanwhile, there are installations and conversations, inserting art into surprising places.

As festival producer Amy Letman explained to me last year, each event to date has had its own distinct identity. When I was in this same theatre 12 months ago, a little patch of the outdoors had been brought into the bar, suggesting the permeability of theatre and city. While last year’s festival was very much about Leeds, this year’s focus seems to be much more on Transform as a recognisable entity in itself. There’s an appealing sort of swagger, both in the bold colour scheme – volunteers in loud pink T-shirts are dotted around the Playhouse, making the festival impossible to ignore – and in the programme.

This confidence is perhaps most evident in the Playhouse’s foyer and bar, where the festival has occupied the space and become a throbbing hive of activity, drawing in curious audience members as they spill out of the Quarry Theatre. On Friday night, a band plays until late and the area around the bar is packed with bodies. It might have taken a few years, as a number of those who have been involved since the beginning admit, but Transform feels at home here now.

Play the game.

As anyone who has ever had to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance will know, the Job Centre can feel like something of a farce. It is this strand of absurdity that artist Selina Thompson has seized on, creating a new piece of interactive theatre that is as fierce as it is funny. It Burns It All Clean, commissioned by the West Yorkshire Playhouse specifically for Transform, is a silly, satirical trip through a new kind of job centre, with the grand prize of £56.80 for the players who come out on top.

Speaking about her research, Thompson tells me that what was most striking about the conversations she had with jobseekers was the number of people who talked about “playing the game”. Arriving to it from the outside, the benefits system can seem like a labyrinth of unspoken rules, which Thompson has deliberately reflected in the structure of her show. As players in a surreal, constantly shifting game, it is impossible to gain a solid footing.

While taking part in the show – which is just as entertaining as it is troubling – I was also made painfully aware of my urge to perform. This may not be a surprising reflection for a piece of interactive performance, which has a tendency to make its audiences think about their role within the work, but it also prompted me to consider the damaging ways in which the unemployment system might demand people to perform their worthiness. All too quickly, I found myself eager to please – to play the game.

I am interested to hear that Thompson hopes to develop the work further following its outing at Transform. In its current state, It Burns It All Clean feels like an intriguing starting point more than anything else; a striking initial provocation. Its power lies in the transition between contained, involving silliness and the quiet, reflective space it offers as an epilogue to its climax. This is political anger with a smiling face, slowly peeling off the mask.

It is apt that this is playing at Transform alongside Gym Party, Made in China’s anarchic critique of the competition that drives capitalist societies. The show, which I saw in various stages of development last year, enacts a similar movement to It Burns It All Clean, containing a simmering rage beneath its shiny exterior. It is also, like It Burns It All Clean, about games – and about winning. In a system that makes losers of so many of us, it would seem that we still can’t resist playing.

This building is full of secrets, whispered into cracks in the wall. Around hidden corners, dreams surge against the rocks. This building is the product of your imagination.

Backstage spaces, however tatty, always hold a strange kind of magic. It is this thrilling, intangible charge that Hannah Bruce & Company exploit in their new piece, the second of this year’s Transform commissions. The Claim is essentially an audio guide with a performance element, but with the added appeal of leading audiences out of bounds, behind “no entry” signs and through closed doors. These spaces in the bowels of the West Yorkshire Playhouse are not just hidden away; they are secret, forbidden, kept closed off to prying eyes.

While the illicit frisson of trespassing is tempered by a framework of permission – each audience member is always part of a group, accompanied by an usher – there is still an undeniable excitement that comes hand in hand with being offered access to these secret spaces. The journey, which takes place along different tracks for difference audience groups, is constructed with care. It begins in the auditorium of the Quarry Theatre, a familiar area of the Playhouse, but offers us a view of this eerily empty space from different angles. Peeking in from its thresholds, we catch glimpses of dancers moving through the sea of seats, while the stage behind is viewed in fragments.

Max Jones’ gorgeous, evocative set for current Quarry show Of Mice and Men provides a beautiful and occasionally haunting backdrop for these early sequences, its canopy of lightbulbs dimly glowing above us. It is when the piece guides us further away from the stage, however, that it becomes most compelling. Its revelatory moment arrives when we are guided into a vast, shadowy cavern beneath the theatre; it is the one moment in which a real connection with the building’s past and the housing complex that used to sit on its site is felt.

The Claim suffers a little from the usual challenges of audio works, struggling at times to integrate the instructions that guide us around the building and the enticing calls to our imagination. Distractions impede the fluid movement it seeks, never allowing an audience to get truly lost in memories and musings. There is, as with much interactive theatre, an invitation to engage that is not quite seen through.

That said, the piece manages to render these backstage environments truly magical, at the same time as offering an intriguing sideways look at the world. As we are released into the cool afternoon air, I walk away thinking about everyday spaces and the hidden traces of beauty and memory that might cling to them.

“We invite into the room as much – of everything – as the room can help us to hold.”
Chris Goode

There is an intoxicating sort of calm to Chris Goode’s rehearsal rooms. On stepping over the threshold of the wide, airy third-floor space, I feel that perpetual knot of anxiety somewhere in my chest loosen a little, while the relentless ticking away of the minutes seems to temporarily pause. Melting into a chair on the edges of the action – I prefer to be a quiet, unobtrusive presence in the room – I instantly relax, settling quickly into absorbed observation.

I am here to watch Chris Goode and Company work on Albemarle, a new project about dreams, hopes and utopia. As I will be missing the sharing on Sunday, the company are offering me a snatched glimpse of rehearsals. The experience is enthralling but all too brief. The company are mostly weaving together two separately developed strands, as actors and dancers are united for the first time this week. The group share a series of prepared gestures, which are oddly captivating in themselves, before these are placed within the context of a movement sequence.

For a few minutes, with music playing in the background and later overlaid with a piece of text read aloud by Goode, the performers navigate a grid that has been outlined on the floor in tape. As they move carefully along its lines, they freely deploy the series of gestures, which range from hugging to waving to kneeling. These gestures can be either solitary or communal, but is fascinating to witness the urge to mirror and embrace; as it evolves, the sequence seems to become more and more about encounters between the individual bodies. I am reminded of Tino Sehgal’s These Associations in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, with its swirl of moving bodies and fleeting engagements.

After my peek into the rehearsal room, I have lunch with Goode, during which we talk about the project, the festival and the context of work in progress sharings. The Albemarle sharing has been framed as a “sketchbook”, which is doubly apt. More than the woolly “work in progress” tag, it suggests unfinished fragments, delicate outlines that still need to be filled in. It also hints at the presence of artist Lou Sumray in the room, whose gorgeous line drawings capture the movement and energy of rehearsals far more effectively than any usual method of documentation.

The difficulty with festivals such as Transform, as we discuss, is how to talk about the work that they encompass, as well as drawing meaningful links between the festival line-up and the rest of the theatre’s programme. It has been observed that Transform now feels much more like an integral part of the Playhouse’s life than when it began three years ago, gradually making a home for itself within the programme and feeling more closely associated with the theatre’s identity in the city. It’s all about connections.

I am also short of time for Ring, David Rosenberg and Glen Neath’s unsettling “sound journey” in the pitch black, which I experienced last year at Battersea Arts Centre. I do, however, get to take a second trip to Cape Wrath, Third Angel’s charming and intimate storytelling piece. The show, which takes place in a minibus parked up outside the Playhouse, recalls two journeys: that of Alexander Kelly’s grandfather to Scotland’s most north-westerly point and the retracing of that journey by Kelly over 20 years later. It is gentle, enchanting and absorbingly told by Kelly – everything you want from a story.With a wonderful sort of irony, I run out of time for Abigail Conway’s installation Time Lab, which invites visitors to dismantle a wristwatch and create something new from its remains, reclaiming and recycling the minutes that usually dictate our lives. The closest I get to it is a brief conversation with artist and performer Ira Brand on the way to It Burns It All Clean, during which she describes the desire to spend longer with the piece, to get absorbed in the intricate care of the activity.

Stories are also at the heart of Fast Cuts and Snapshots, the Inua Ellams rehearsed reading that is presented by Fuel on Friday evening. Ellams’ new play takes a barber shop for its static setting, positioning this space as a focal point for the many characters who revolve around it. These loquacious customers discuss everything from politics to football, often reflecting on the situation in their native African states and their experiences of living in the UK. The action is frenetic, cutting swiftly from scene to scene, while the characters’ wide-ranging ruminations occasionally feel contrived. As it settles down, however, the piece becomes quietly compelling, sketching a vivid portrait of this lively social hub.

There are other fragments of the festival that I miss in my hurried two-day visit. I never manage to sit down for a conversation with Sonia Hughes, who is inviting strangers to join her for a cuppa and a chat in the Playhouse’s foyer, though I do fall into conversations with several other festival-goers over the two days. I miss two shows about love – Love Letters Straight from Your Heart and put your sweet hand in mine – and one about death: Unlimited Theatre’s new piece Am I Dead Yet? And it is a bit of a wrench to leave before the Transform Variety Night, hosted by self-described “light artist” Scottee.

Reflecting on the festival a year ago, I noted its “intoxicating, transitory buzz”, wondering how this might extend into something more permanent. That buzz remains, as do odd traces of the festival’s spirit in the Playhouse’s main programme. Vincent Dance Theatre’sMotherland – with one of the boldest and best posters I’ve seen in a long time – is following fast on the heels of Transform, while the theatre’s Furnace strand continues to support artists such as RashDash. As artistic director James Brining puts it, “by getting more artists creating, exploring, experimenting within the building – and that doesn’t necessarily just mean the walls, it’s in the bloodstream of the theatre – we are animating the metabolism of the theatre”.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

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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.