Mini-tour July 14 – Sep 14
As Not a Séance is a participatory performance that I want to be able to be experienced in a broad range of contexts, I decided to take it on tour to Manchester where I have strong links. I performed in a prison, and at The Red Room and The Blue Room, both part of The Men’s Room.
HMP Styal – 29th July 2014
HMP Styal is a female closed institution close to Manchester housing adult women and young offenders. It was originally an orphanage and became a prison in 1962. It has an operational capacity of 460. Between 2008 and 2011 I was the theatre/arts co-ordinator at the prison running mostly theatre and creative writing workshops and creating performances. The performance was held in the library and thirty women attended. I had only met one of them before.
This was the first time that I performed all of the elements of Not a Séance together in one piece. I was incredibly nervous and as a consequence rushed through it a bit. The performance lasted about half an hour. I also completely missed out one section. What did I learn? The group were very vocal and it was clear to see the different approaches to the performance played out. It was a challenge to simultaneously experience and respond to the following which were clearly expressed:
- Total belief in the performance, with one woman telling others to be quiet and to take it seriously if they laughed
- Playful collaboration, with women participating and also testing the boundaries of the work
- Sceptical resistance which did die down, with nearly all the women choosing to write on a potato
- Slight confusion and fear
- Total disengagement
I was also interested in which of the themes that I perceive to be present in the piece seemed to come to the forefront. Mental health was a real issue, was this performance mad? Would you get sectioned for doing the exercises I suggested? I should not perform this on a mental health ward. Of course it is unsurprising that in a female prison this issues should be near the surface. There is a long tradition of labeling female criminals as “mad” rather than “bad” as a way of coming to terms with actions that are perceived to be beyond acceptable notions of femininity.
After the show I had the opportunity to talk with a small proportion of the audience about their responses to the piece. These were all women from Fox House, which is The Recovery House in the prison and their feedback touched on the nature of belief and they made links with twelve step programmes and religion.
I felt that I held the attention of the audience well, with some initial bewilderment transformed into attention. This was backed up by education staff who expressed how surprised they were at the unusually high focus and attention of the women.
I am still processing how I feel about the one woman who was totally committed to the performance from the beginning, telling others off for being disrespectful and asking questions, shushing those who were laughing and seeking further clarification on her vegetable reading. She vehemently believed it was all true and found the experience really valuable.
The Blue Room @ The Men’s Room 29th July 2014.
Two performances in one day!. This second one at the Men’s Room session for young men with experience of sex work was very different. Firstly in audience size. There were three young men and three men’s room staff presence and I had met two of the young men and two of the staff before. Rather than a cabaret style layout, there was a large table that I sat at the head of and the others sat round. The numbers and the layout made it feel relaxed and intimate and I managed to slow down a little. Here are some photographs of the afternoon:
One of my big learning points from this afternoon was about how much we humans want to be told the answers and how seriously I need to take the idea of interpretation within the piece. I make the claim that the vegetable has a personal meaning for each person and that I am merely a channel. However I do make some suggestions as to what people might want to think about. It is interesting how much people enjoy being told stuff whatever their level of commitment and belief in the performance and it is fun to play with this.
I mentioned in my blog post on this performance that two of the three young men at the session regularly attend spiritualist churches and one of them was really into a book called the laws of attraction. I am beginning to reflect further on the value of belief systems to individuals in different circumstances. Finally, one of the staff who has family roots in Ghana wondered how this performance might play out in different cultures with varied traditions of belief.
The Red Room @ The Men’s Room 30th July 2014.
This performance was videoed and photographed and the video has been a very useful way of learning and reflecting on the performance. So before my reflections, here are some more photographs in addition to the ones on my initial blog post.
What has stayed with me from this performance were the conversations about spirituality and experiences that I had with some of the young men after the show. It seemed to unlock and give permission to share rarely told stories. I wish I had remembered to ask permission to share some of them here, but I didn’t and it would feel like a betrayal of an intimate experience to repeat them here.
One of the themes that seemed to come to the forefront at this performance was that of exclusion. There were questions about what would happen to the potato that was removed from the room and why it has to be removed which were really interesting.
The documentation element was extremely useful for me and I have been watching the video of the performance in order to further reflect.