Originally written for Exeunt.
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.”
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.