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Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 12: Looking after the audience

Lines And Ladders is a micro-audience performance. I came across this term when producing The Museum Full Of Things for the second Wrought Festival in 2016. Wrought had started as a festival of of 1:1 performance in 2014, but broadened its scope a little in its second incarnation. 1:1 performance is literally one audience member and one performer. Micro-audience allows for a little more flexibility.

My pieces for Wrought expanded with this definition. The first piece Just Playing! was a 1:1 experience that invited the audience to make time to play. Audiences pre-booked as art of a menu of performances offered. The Museum Full Of Things was an imagined journey around collections of exhibits gathered from my memory and could be experienced by one person or more. It was something people could drop into in between other performances. I don’t recall ever taking more than 3 people on a tour around the museum at any one time. I like the playful potential of micro-audience work and I know that audiences can be apprehensive about participatory work – I often am myself – so I try to make sure that they feel looked after and secure in their role as audience-participants.

Last weekend I visited 133 Sidney Grove in Newcastle. A student house transformed into Bobby Baker’s Great & Tiny War. This is micro-audience work; a guided tour reflecting on the impact of conflict through art spaces tinged with domesticity. I experienced the piece with two other audience members and two hosts. The hosts put us at ease. They explain the parameters of the performance and are on hand to answer questions throughout. Baker is the master in looking after her audience, even when physically absent. Throughout the piece she is a ghostly presence, her movement through the building is audible and chattily she observes details that we can reach and touch. The work resonates with echoes from her back catalogue, but is something altogether new. The familiarity of the space, the stories, the voice, the images and the work are disrupted throughout. Bobby Baker’s Great & Tiny War picks at the complexity of wartime experiences in a way that makes you think, but does not pick on you as an audience member. I’m trying very hard not to say too much as the work has another month to run and is well worth a visit if you can! There is a family history connection in the piece too – so I am certain I will be writing more about it sometime.

I hope to be able to adopt some of Baker’s care for the audience in my own micro-audience work. In Lines And Ladders the familiarity of the board game provides a frame for telling personal spaces in public spaces. As with both The Museum Full Of Things and Just Playing!, there is an unofficial audience of people around. Surprisingly, those who have played Lines And Ladders suggest this encourages them to be more intimate rather than less and I am comforted by the fact that most people who have played the game comment on how they enjoyed playing afterwards.

 

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Photograph from Bobby Baker’s Great + Tiny War 

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 11: Photographs

At the start of every game, I ask the audience-participants if they are happy to be photographed. Most people have said yes. 29 out of 37 players were happy to be photographed. Yet, I have only managed to take photos of 3 participants on 2 occasions.

These photographs from the Edinburgh games were both taken after playing.  The left one is from the first day, taken in The Forest Café of myself, Carolyn Appelbe and Zoe King and on the right, from the final day, is a photograph of Margaret Maguire in The Little Shop of Memory. 

More photos of players in different places and locations would be very helpful. They might help me to recall specifics of the conversation. Photographs might help to convey to you the sense of the location and event. And frankly, this performance diary looks better with pictures.

It is silly that I have taken so few, because photographs are important in the game. They are often the source of stories told. Their significance to my research project is far more than as a pretty adornment.

Photographs are often important sources in family histories. They may provide a stimulus for research or for stories to be told in family settings. Like personal letters and diaries, they can reveal a more intimate connection to the past than the publicly maintained records. A family resemblance may be observed or a sentiment perceived. Such things may be works of the imagination, but can still manifest a powerful visceral emotion.

One of the chapters of my thesis will be called ‘presenting’, this will deal with the use of photographic imagery within family history performance. I know that photographs matter.

So why haven’t I taken more?

The taking of photographs during the game is awkward. The first day was easier, Shane was around after the game had finished to take photographs, but in an attempt to avoid being intrusive, these don’t capture the play, but the reflections afterwards.

If I have to take the photographs myself, when should I take them? At the start, before we have played…? but the beginning is already weighted with necessary procedure. During the game, when we’re playing…? standing up to take photographs at this moment would pull all of us away from the play, interrupt the process, spoil the game. As most famously observed by Peggy Phelan, the documenting of the live moment would irrevocably alter it. So the best time is at the end, after the play. The game is done and the players relax, yet often the stories continue. There are still moments to be spoiled.

Several times in August I resolved to definitely take a photograph in every game from now on. It would help me to remember the stories if I could see the faces. I made plans. Like the paperwork at the start, I would build this into the performance. A seamless transition to a photograph. Every time that I did this, in the very next game, at least one person did not want to be photographed. My resolve was quickly weakened.

For me, taking photographs is uncomfortable. I ask, can I take a photograph now? I stand up, step back, try to take a photo of you that does not include identifiably those people sitting around you. It puts you on the spot in a way that the rest of the game works hard to avoid. For this moment, when my skill-less fingers press the screen on the icon that stands in for a button, you are the star of the show. In many ways you always were, but now the focus is turned explicitly on you. And if I fail to hold the camera, the phone, the device, still, our efforts are wasted.

 

Further reading:

Phelan, Peggy, Unmarked: the Politics of Performance, transferred to Digital Printing 2006  (London: Routledge, 1996)

 

 

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 10: The To-Do List

It’s been nearly a month since I returned from Edinburgh and I have had ‘write blog’ on my to-do list for all of that time. Every day I think I will find the time and then something else gets in the way.

I went to the Theatre and Performance Research Association Conference in Aberystwyth. For the second year running, I was part of the gallery. This year the gallery was actually a produce tent, such as you might find in a country show, in acknowledgement of the rural setting of the conference.  My contribution was to the preserves. Three jam jars preserving what I took away from Go On Without Me; a creative research project undertaken at York Minster.

There is teaching to be undertaken and work that was put to be one side to be completed ‘when I get back from Edinburgh’, must now be completed. The list gets longer and the performance diary remains on it, pushed forward to the next day.

On my way back from Aberystwyth, I visited a family friend in Herefordshire and took Lines And Ladders to a temporary café that was part of h-Art. Although this only resulted in half of a game, it was a useful learning experience. People were interested in the project and happy to talk about it, but were less willing to play, mostly it seemed because of the time required.

I am in the process of finding more suitable and willing venues for Lines And Ladders, so that I can expand the audiences. I have two confirmed games on the 24th November in Sheffield at the Treehouse Board Game Café. In most cafés, the game is a curiosity that may be casually observed, I am interested to see how this space, dedicated to board games will affect the play, the participation and the storytelling. As before the places are free, but extremely limited. If you would like to play you can reserve your place here: https://being_human_lines_and_ladders.eventbrite.co.uk

This blog post fills a gap. It places me back in Sheffield. It locates me in mid-September, but it doesn’t do what I really need to do. It doesn’t tell the story of the game in Edinburgh. It doesn’t share the experience of playing in August. There is just so much to say, that I am finding it difficult to know where to start.

I shall start that tomorrow.

1.       Crosses ‘write blog’ off to-do list.

2.       Adds ‘write blog about Edinburgh experiences’ to the to-do list.

 

Go On Without Me produce in the TaPRA Gallery, with home grown Victoria plums unpreserved.

Photographs by Ffion Jones

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 09: Edinburgh, I’m done!

Planning the Edinburgh excursion from Sheffield wasn’t always easy. Sometimes it is much easier being on the ground.

I find it much easier to explain the game in person.

Being on the ground in Edinburgh for the full festival has been incredible, wearing, wet, grey, sunny, fabulous, draining, exciting, stressful and above all a massive learning curve. Arriving in the sun at the start of the month the city seemed to fizz with energy; a balloon ready to burst that never did, only gradually deflated. In the past we’ve come up for two/three days at the start of the month – before the reviews come out when tickets are cheaper. It’s normally an intense couple of days cramming in an average of 12 shows. I have done 25 this year over 3 and a half weeks, which would feel more relaxed, if I hadn’t also done my own piece 17 times.

I realize that this is nowhere near as much as many do. I really do not envy them.

Part of me feels it may have been a misjudgement to come during the festival. My piece might have found more space at a quieter time. There has been so much on in Edinburgh that my little fringe fringe micro-audience piece is up against tough opposition. I tried to make it easier for people to attend by playing in different places and at different times, but fear that may have confused people.

Yet, there is definitely something to be said for committing this time to this practice. In Sheffield there are too many distractions. There is always something else to be done. Being in Edinburgh in amongst all these other performers has given me confidence. Confidence to invite people to play the game and confidence to play in different venues. The worst anyone can say is no and even when they have, they have generally been enthusiastic about the game; now is just not a good time.

The context is important. Edinburgh in August frames the work as being performance. Even at the fringe of the fringe there is performance everywhere. As I try to explain the performance element, the  proximity of other alternative work can provide a shorthand.

Most players came across the performance in one of the venues and choose to take part on the spur of the moment. Only 40% of the participants in Edinburgh planned in advance to take part in the game and 24% of those were friends and family.

I have played the game with 33 people in Edinburgh across 4 venues. Most of them have given written feedback and many have agreed to be contacted again. They have made the whole adventure worthwhile.

My games have been split between The Forest Cafe, Miller’s Sandwich Bar, The Well Cafe and The Little Shop of Memory. The people in these venues who have allowed me to commandeer their spaces have all helped to make the project possible. 

There was a minor controversy whilst I was here about a café chain that had introduced tables where you could sit if you wanted to chat to someone. This raised some questions and some people got all excitable over this. Why should people be made to chat? Is this really necessary? Is this patronising? Would you sit at this table? Over the last 3 and a half weeks, I have been sitting at a table in the four different places. I have been smiling at people as they enter my vision, in a way that I desperately hope is friendly, not unnerving. This is Edinburgh, people aren’t surprised when they make eye contact and are rewarded by a flyer. It hasn’t always led to a game, but it has often led to friendly conversations. It’s been nice to sit and those people who took the time to have a chat at times when Edinburgh felt very lonely always made a difference.

I’m on my way home, I’m ready to leave, but Edinburgh, I am very glad that I came.

On one of those days when I was sitting in a café inviting people to play, I had with Luke Tudball about Lines And Ladders and here it is:

http://fringereview.co.uk/blogs/edinburgh-fringe/2018/the-connection-game-luke-tudball-talks-to-kirsty-surgey-about-lines-and-ladders-a-game-of-family-histories/

One glorious afternoon spent wandering in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh – a wonderful antidote to festival frazzle.

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 08: Making Notes

I made a very conscious decision when planning Lines And Ladders not to record the games. Live performance is something different when it is recorded.

This is an improvised performance in reaction to the dice throws. People – myself included – may behave differently when the camera is on them. Feedback has suggested that when people are affected by the public space, it is because it feels more relaxed. A recording device might change this.

Nevertheless, I reach the end of each game and scribble notes, trying to remember who said what and what even happened in the game, I have been regretting this decision. There are so many riches in the stories that are shared. At the end of each game, people often want to talk and as I do this I feel the game play slipping away from me, as I am treated to yet more complex and intimate tales. A fascinating and relevant detail resurfaces in my brain and I struggle to recall who said it, having not included it in my notes at the time. The game is complicated, lines are followed up and down, stories emerge in an order that might never have happened otherwise. How did I hope to keep track of this when playing the game?

I needed to step back.

To think again.

To remind myself – as I tell participants at the start – I am not a historian. This is not historical research. This is performance research, I am researching ways of performing family histories, not ways of recording them. The game is a way of providing an opportunity for oral storytelling. A pop-up performance that happens in this moment and can be repeated by participants with their own version of the game.

Recording this performance would change not only the behaviour of the participants, it would change the essence of the game. Recording would place the emphasis on the historical evidence, rather than the performance experience. Sometimes, I think I have been placing too much emphasis in my note taking on remembering others’ histories. Today is my last full day in Edinburgh, I am heading back to the Little Shop of Memory in Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre, and as I make my notes, I will be keeping in mind that although the stories are important, the research is performance.

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Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 07: Practice Runs

The game is an experiment. Playing the game I will learn what playing the game means. Tickets are free. Obviously. This is a research project. I can’t charge you to take part. Before the game starts I have a spiel that I have to deliver to ensure that the audience can give their informed consent to participate. I am still working on the best way to deliver this – the content is set. This is the first thing that audiences experience and it should engage them in the game, but also impress the legal and ethical gravitas of what the game is about. This isn’t just a game or a performance, this is performance research and it is important that participants understand this.

The first trials of the game were played on a board that I had made. A basic grid printed onto A4 and then A3 paper with hand drawn snakes and ladders. This version enabled me to establish that the game could work. And that there was reasonable challenge, though maybe a little more risk was needed. It showed that the board game could create a intimate space for sharing stories. I played a long, unfinished version of the game with Carran Waterfield and saw the potential of the game when played with someone I knew had researched their family history. This also revealed just how long a game might take when there are lots of stories to tell.

Playing with others highlighted that the introduction to the game needed to be clear, that the audience needed to understand what was expected of them and that the storytelling needed to be shared. I needed to lead by example, but give the participant room to bring their stories to the game.

As the game design neared completion, I met with a friend in a café in Sheffield to play the game. This friend, Moe Shoji, as one of the co-producers of Wrought Festival offered valuable feedback on the performance as a micro-audience performance.

Again with someone that I know well the game was a success, but I wondered how well this will translate when played with audience members that I meet for the first time when they attend the show?

We played for more than an hour, discussing Moe’s family history and my own. Although Moe had not done much detailed, academic research into her family history, the game broadened her understanding of what this might mean. About where family history might start. Moe talked about letters that her father had sent to her mother and the insight that this gave her into their relationship. These letters, so personal, become precious documents to those of us seeking to understand our own stories.

I have recently re-read Margaret Forster’s memoir Hidden Lives, as I mentioned in the blog post ‘Privacy Matters’. In Hidden Lives, Forster attempts to write the lives of her mother and grandmother, but finds those gaps and unknowns that plague family historians even when the lives are recent. Forster feels saddened as she acknowledges her failure to account for her grandmother’s first 23 years. She values the importance of knowing what has gone before, stating ‘We are our past, especially our family past, a truism if ever there was one’.

I’m not sure that our character is directly formed by our family past, though I look forward to discussing this idea with players of Lines And Ladders. I do think that learning about our parents’ lives can be enlightening and maybe playing the game might help people to look for those stories.

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Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 06: The Laboratory

The laboratory.

Waves crashing. Ripping plastic.
Noise.
This is why I am here.
Shapes forming.
An ocean rustles into being.

This is why I am here.

 I have been fortunate throughout this process to work with Carran Waterfield. My first experience of her work was as an audience member witnessing The House. Twice. It is a significant work, devised and performed by Carran, which makes use of her own family history to explore wider societal concerns. Since then I have interviewed Carran and attended a series of performance making workshops that she has run in Cumbria, York and Salford.

There is always something of a homecoming at Heron Corn Mill in Cumbria, where this cycle of courses started. The space is offered for reflection and exploration. Nearly an hour spent discussing our work in a way that would not make sense or be helpful anywhere else.

Carran leads a warm up to start the day’s training, though the term ‘warm up’ feels inadequate. These exercises are so important. They help me to find the space to make my work. To listen to myself. They become part of my process when I work on my own.

I wrote the verse that starts this blog in the barn at Heron Corn Mill. I was writing on an ancient laptop – no internet – no temptation to drift. And yet I do. I am in the room and become conscious of what is happening around me. Four of us were present. Four who attended the first course, here again after nearly two years. Luke Crookes is experimenting with his bassoon and recordings of the sea. Another participant is creating waves with plastic and fabric. Carran is watching. In this place we are all making. In this place there is security to experiment.

My ideas have wandered in this place and have been influenced by conversations, by others’ work, by a metal staircase and by being given the time, space and structure to play.

The game that I have made is an attempt to explore family histories, but there is another story here. This working genealogy is important. The questioning, the listening, the activities all form part of the heritage of the work that is created.

I was working in a dark corner of the Mill when Carran made her observation that my plan looked like Snakes and Ladders. It was October. I was cold. I was frustrated. There was so much to include. So many issues to address. So much material to develop. Carran’s statement was a prompt from a place of understanding. A recognition of the need for direction. I toyed with the idea of making it into a board game as a distraction, but Lines And Ladders became a way of including almost everything, if not every time.

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