451 Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper ignites. Allegedly. It is also the title of a Ray Bradbury novel, published in 1953 amidst the height of Cold War paranoia and McCarthyism, when pro-Communists and pro-Communist literature were sought out in the United States and dealt with - many lost jobs in government positions, many in the creative arts were 'outed' as Communist sympathisers, and the idea of 'book burning' arose out of the seizure and censure of pro-Communist literature.
Now, in 2015, Periplum, the visual theatre company founded in Brighton in 1999, has designed a spectacular outdoor show based on Ray Bradbury's book and, after performances in Newbury and at the Brighton Festival, has taken over the development site by St James' Mill in Norwich in order to perform '451' as the free outdoor finale to thisd year's Norfolk & Norwich Festival.
It is Thursday afternoon, and along with thirteen other festival volunteers I have arrived at the site expecting to be briefed on stewarding the following evening's performance. The shift is scheduled to last from 5.30pm to 10.30pm, and is described on the volunteer rota as a 'rehearsal'. We assume that we are here to watch the rehearsal, and to learn how and where we are to be placed in order to assist and guide the audience. The site can hold up to 3500 people, and as this is a performance that occurs within and around the audience, using 360 degree sound effects, lights and pyrotechnics, health and safety is obviously going to be a paramount concern.
Some of the volunteers have received an e-mail suggesting that they wear dark-coloured clothing and sensible shoes. I have turned up in my blue festival t-shirt. Only when we are greeted by stage manager Danielle with, "Are you the volunteer performers?" does the penny drop. We are not just here to steward. We are going to be a part of the show!
We are to play the part of firemen, or 'book-burners' as they are in the storyline. We seek out, seize and set fire to all books, which have been banned completely in Bradbury's dystopian society in which '451 Fahrenheit' is set. In reality, we are really there to aid and assist in allowing the performers to move around the site safely during the performance without setting fire to, or running into, any members of the public. However, because of the layout of the action, which moves between three main locations throughout the show, we need to be dressed in black coats and balaclavas, get into character, and be rehearsed in moving with the action as the show progresses. We also get to use whistles to move the crowds back, and some of us get to actually detonate the pyrotechnics.
Danielle walks us through the script, explains the plot, and directs us through our movements and roles. By 9.45pm we need to be good enough to take part in a full dress rehearsal, with members of the press present to preview the show and take photographs. Some of us are more confident than others - some of the younger volunteers are drama students from the UEA, but some of us are considerably older. Not only do we take longer to learn the choreographed movements, but we find it more difficult to perform moves like holding a kneeling position on hard concrete for what seems like hours, but is actually only about five minutes.
We are taken up to the dressing room, which is actually a floor of the office block in St James Court directly above Barclays Bank. As we emerge, fourteen of us dressed in black with balaclavas, we hope and pray that we are not stumbled upon by a pair of passing PCSO's. After the recent Hatton Garden heist I'm not sure what they might think we are up to.
The dress rehearsal seems to go off OK, although there are are a couple of moments where we exchange worried glances with each other, and try and remember what the cue is for our next move.
Friday afternoon comes around. I have just got back from picking up a couple of Irish musicians from Stansted Airport who are performing in Norwich Cathedral tonight, got home, had a cup of coffee and now arrived back at the St James site. There is time for just a couple more run-throughs for the volunteer book-burners in order to refresh and remind what we are doing. After a meal served at the company's red double-decker bus, we get changed and get ready for showtime.
We have been asked to hand out, in character, burnt pages from 'banned books' as the audience arrive with instructions for them to keep the text safe and hidden, and to remind them that they are being watched. All part of the fun, and helping to build a sense of tension and subterfuge. The site is filling up, and audience are still streaming in as we line up ready for the start. This time it's for real!
The next forty minutes fly past. The audience gasp as the book tower goes up in flames, scatter as the giant wheeled turntables are escorted by the whistling book-burners around the site, and gaze in wonder as the character of Montag spins on the trapeze. At the show's finale the pyrotechnics are detonated, and then we can remove our balaclavas. We join the cast in exiting the site whilst reciting text from the 'banned' books, and the audience are left to reflect on the spectacle that they have just witnessed.
I am sure I speak for all the volunteers when i say how much we have enjoyed our involvement with the production. In the space of just over 48 hours we have gone from arriving for a stewarding shift rehearsal to having actually taken part in the show. The adrenaline and the buzz from us all is palpable, and we all want to do it all over again!
Thank you so much to the whole company from Periplum for making us feel so welcome as a part of the show, and especially to Danielle, and to artistic directors Claire and Damian (and, yes, I did eventually get my jacket back off Damian!), and to all the performers and crew including Milo, Florencia, and Will for all their support and encouragement. Please can we do it again soon!
Photo credit from www.edp24.co.uk
Find out more about Periplum, past and future shows at their website http://www.periplum.co.uk/content/home/ , or 'like' them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Periplum/26693955851?fref=ts