“What do performance-makers mean by ‘site’? How specific is site-specific? […] It is concerned with issues of place and the real spaces of performance” (Wilkie 2002, p. 148)
This blog entry shall essentially be a summary of our research and the development of our ideas over the past weeks. I personally feel we have made great progress both conceptually and in terms of experimenting with practice. The first element of this research was a visit to the prison at Lincoln Castle: we felt that this was a location that, although well-known, would evoke many instances of the ‘lost voices’ or ‘lost identities’ theme that we have been interested in for some time. One part of the prison that proved particularly fascinating was the Chapel.
Here we saw a recreation or demonstration of the Separate System. In the chapel, prisoners were ushered into tiny wooden cells within the pews and then locked in- unable to communicate or to see anything other than the priest in the pulpit. Much of the time prisoners’ faces were also covered and their individuality therefore completely hidden; this can be seen in the picture below. The feelings of claustrophobia, entrapment and disorientation we experienced when trying these cells out for ourselves struck us as something that could be very useful for experimenting with in performance, particularly with the involvement or participation of the audience.
We subsequently found our focus and interest significantly shifted to this specific site, and decided to visit the Lincolnshire Archives in order to research further. Here, we were able to view original documents detailing the history of the Gaol: inventories, rules and regulations, prisoner records, and surgeons’ journals. Tim Cresswell argues that “An important part of the creation of a sense of place is through a focus on particular and selective aspects of history” (2004, p. 85), and indeed we found ourselves both intrigued by the specifics of prison life and inspired to include these in our performance. For instance, the recounting in a surgeon’s journal of a prisoner who persistently would lie naked in his cell and suffered from fits linked well to our theme of lost identities. In nakedness, stripped of the material trappings (clothes) that define us and our status, we are all essentially equal. Therefore, if we as performers were to be almost naked, could the audience be somehow encouraged to respond to our behaviour and ‘assign’ us identities?
The examples of isolation and depersonalisation that we had seen at the prison itself and read about in the documents then led naturally to thoughts about confining ourselves- and the audience- for a duration over the course of our performance slot. At first we experimented with this through the creation of ‘cells’ made out of boxes, testing how our movements and behaviour would be restricted or manipulated by this type of confined environment.
However, after speaking to our tutor and to eachother we were struck by another idea: using the lift in the LPAC as a pre-existing cell. This is after all a space where one is confined, unable to significantly control their own situation for a particular amount of time, however short. In this way the audience could be made to participate even on their way to view the other installations and performances. Evoking the emotional environment of the Gaol in such an incongruous space as a lift seemed to make it even more potent, aligning our ideas with Fiona Wilkie’s claim that the use of other parts of theatre buildings apart from the main performance space “forges an intervention into cultural spaces, ‘reflecting or inverting its own habitat’ (Jude Kerr)” (Wilkie 2002, p. 144). We decided that we will defamiliarise the lift by papering it with clippings from newspaper and scattering the space with pens and items found on the prison inventories- these will hopefully be used by the audience to ‘write’ our identities, and theirs, as prisoners in the lift.
Finally, we decided to create a soundscape based on sounds one might hear in a prison: whispered prayers, footsteps, the banging of doors and coughing or retching. We then found a confined space within the LPAC (underneath a staircase backstage) and after taking two or three members of our wider group covered their eyes, led them to this space and used sensory deprivation and confinement to observe the reactions one might have to being in this situation. Whilst some technical problems meant that this did not go exactly as planned it was nevertheless useful to experiment with the ideas we had already developed in a practical context. We felt that we were able to recreate what Persighetti and Smith call “the visceral and intense narrative that somehow evokes the unspoken and unresolved contradictions” of our chosen site.
Cresswell, Tim (2004) Place: A Short Introduction, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Persighetti, Simon and Smith, Phil (2012) A Sardine Street Box of Tricks, Devon: Triarchy Press.
Wilkie, Fiona (2002) ‘Mapping the Terrain: a Survey of Site-Specific Performance in Britain’, New Theatre Quarterly, 18: 140-160.