Observership on ‘The Arrival’ at Alchemy Festival at Southbank Centre

As someone who is experimenting with visual arts, performance art & new circus crossover, I was curious about the showcase performance of Tamasha’s the Arrival at the Alchemy Festival, Southbank. I applied for the observership as I thought it could be a fantastic opportunity to witness a week of rehearsals leading to 9 performances at the Royal Festival Hall and to be a part of the creative process in such an unusual and site specific situation. The rehearsals were open to all and the staging of the production unfolded to passersby each day. It was a privilege to observe director Kristine Landon-Smith at work, leading a team of creatives, to be able to meet and engage with all the performers and the production team on a daily basis.

The daily rehearsals, which were fully open to the public, took place in the RFH foyer’s space on the 2nd floor, in front of large glass walls, surrounded by staircase, a lift and a seating area. The performance spot was rigged with circus apparatuses: 2 poles, silks, straps, rope and slack-rope all neutral in colour (black and white).These formed a part of the stage design together with a number of subtly suspended white paper birds and an enlarged sepia portrait illustrations out of Shaun Tan’s graphic novel.

The working conditions seemed quite challenging, with largely no rehearsal space privacy whatsoever. The director, choreographer, performers and production team needed to be able to block out the constant passing by and visitor interactions with the space, and the festival as a whole. One needed to be ‘in the zone’, concentrated fully on the task rather than on a flux of external stimuli ranging from frequent loud sounds of events happening in the space nearby (workshops, concerts and performances), through toddlers running into the rehearsing area, to the people ascending / descending the staircase and just general mingling of the public. What was remarkable is that Kristine as a leader kept calm, clear in her intentions and directions. She held absolute charge of the rehearsal process and schedule, assisted by production manager Tom’s attention to organisational detail.

My main focus during the observership was to see how a professional and experienced director works on a production that merges circus with theatre and visual arts. I was interested to particularly observe the following areas:

  • how a theatre director negotiates ways of rehearsing a circus / theatre performance piece and interacts with not only performers but the whole creative and technical crew
  • how  a work inspired by initial source that is purely visual, develops into a theatrical production
  •  the dramaturgical possibilities in site-specific performance
  • how one negotiates and organises timescale and the logistical needs and practicalities of such a process

A collaborative approach to creation of such a cross over genre is clearly essential. Kristine employed a talented young choreographer, Freddie Opoku-Addaie, whose role was to take care of the physical aspects of the performance – the football and a ship scene in particular. She also had Circus Space’s acrobatics lecturer, Glen Stewart, as an adviser present at a few of the rehearsal sessions. It was a joy to witness scenes being constructed and how the whole collaborative team interacted at ease, as Kristine is a very encouraging director for both her performers and collaborators.

Each circus performer devised their physical role and then fine tuned it under Kristine’s direction to suit the scene. The text, which referred to real life migrant and refugee accounts, was poetically scripted by Sita Brahmachari and beautifully delivered by the actors, Charlie Folorunsho as the lead character in particular. The role of music and sound was here crucial too as it evoked the external and inner landscape through which the characters were navigating and added a further emotional impact to the performers’ presence and movement.

It’s a shame that in this instance lighting couldn’t be employed – together with the noise pollution in my opinion, a major obstacle for working in such site-specific circumstances. As one can’t expect to have total control of one’s stagecraft as in a more conventional theatrical space, I felt that intimate and more poetic moments of the show and their dramaturgical impact got lost during some performances due to the ever present institutional light and competing festival sounds.

What I got from this week is a real insight into the complexities of working with a professional company in site-specific circumstances with the looming pressure of a deadline – which in my opinion is simultaneously limiting and enhancing. I realised what a physical toll such an intense work schedule takes on all, and especially on circus performers. In such a working environment, it is crucial to find ways of keeping the energy levels and focus up as the 3 performances were spread throughout the afternoon and the evening. The physical toll and aforementioned problems with noise and lack of control over lighting are however counterbalanced by the sheer amount of exposure this showcase gave to all involved.

Being a part of the Alchemy festival in the centre ofLondonbrought many thousands of people closer to the work and skills of Tamasha and Circus Space creatives, many of whom are probably new audiences for Tamasha, intercultural theatre and for circus/ theatre crossover in general.

Lara Ritosa Roberts – Observer

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