Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Being a Small Part of Summer - Working with Quarantine at this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival

One thing that you learn as you get older is that time is limited, and life should not be taken for granted. As a friend once advised me, 'Live every day as if it is your last, because one day it will be'.

As anyone who has lost a partner will know, their passing can act as a watershed moment in terms of what you decide to do with the rest of your own life. Personally, I just kept working to pay the bills, and for seven years adopted the role of single parent, just long enough to see my two children complete their education and leave home. And then, finally, came the chance for a bit of me-time. I was off!

I walked out of my job, a good ten years before any sniff of a pension was due, fortunate in having a modest nest-egg tucked away - enough to eke out a frugal existence, and decided to spend the rest of my days only doing things that I really love. More important to live life now, I thought, than to worry about the future.

And I guess that was one of the salient messages that came out of Quarantine Theatre Company's epic quartet 'Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring', the seven-hour performance piece that dominated the opening weekend of this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival programme. Quarantine are based in Manchester, and specialise in creating works that explore the here and now. 'Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring' does that. But it also seizes the chance to check back as well as look forward.

Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring - A Quartet Performance by Quarantine Theatre Company
'Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring' is inspired by the story of Mandy. Mandy was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and in the moving film 'Winter' Mandy is asked a variety of questions about her day. She talks more about the importance of the present than about time she has left, but in so doing reveals concerns about her dogs and her children, and the state of her back garden, rather than about herself. It is an unselfishness brought into focus by the realisation and acceptance that she might not be around next summer, or the summer after that.  As, albeit in a more unpredictable and indeterminate manner, neither might any one of us.

So, let me now take you back two seasons, and also a couple of months, to April of this year, my first introduction to 'Summer'.

Becoming involved in 'Summer'

I have been a part of the volunteer team at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival for the last four years now. It was one of the first activities that I signed up for after walking out of that treadmill job at the end of 2013 - it was an attempt to engage myself with the local arts scene, make the acquaintance of like-minded souls, and also stretch out my savings by perhaps getting to see performances for nothing.

Back in March of this year an e-mail went out to last year's volunteers inviting us to apply be a part of 'Summer', the opening section of Quarantine's performance for this year's Festival. 'No previous experience required', read the message, 'You merely need to follow instructions, and be yourselves. We are looking for a complete cross-section of ages and backgrounds'.

I registered my interest, and soon after received a telephone call from Quarantine's Artistic Director, Richard Gregory, who explains a little more about the show, and asks a few details about my own back story. Next, a meeting is arranged for the second weekend in April to give members of the company a chance to meet the newly assembled volunteer cast of 'Summer' for the very first time.

Ironically, this falls on the anniversary of my own wife's death in 2007, and my children had already suggested that the family gather on the pier at Cromer where, ten years previously, we had sprinkled La Maman's ashes into the sea. I therefore do not get a chance to make everybody's acquaintance until the first rehearsal proper, on April 22nd, exactly three weeks before our first scheduled performance.

Rehearsals for 'Summer'

Rehearsals are held in a large empty retail unit on the first floor of Castle Mall Shopping Centre in Norwich. To fit around those who work full-time, or are at school or college, these are arranged for weekday evenings or weekends, and generally last around three hours. They generally start with a shared meal, either a hot vegan lunch or dinner, or a delicious range of cereals, fruit and pastries for the mornings. It gives us all a chance to sit down together, chat informally and share stories prompted from questions written on cards and distributed across the tables.

The serious work always starts with a gentle work-out led by our choreographer Jane. We are coached in the art of 'exploring the space', 'feeling the presence' and 'sharing the moment'. She also gets our blood circulating with some more energetic dance moves, during which we do our best to keep up, with varying (not always age-determined) degrees of success.

'Summer' rehearsals - photo by Sharon Hulbert 

Over the next couple of weeks this motley crew of 30 gradually bonds, becoming a cohesive band of friends as well as performers, whilst we are coached in the techniques of standing alone in front of an audience, being comfortable and relaxed when using a microphone, and in performing and moving together as a group within the space.

There are questions thrown at us, often with recurring themes, the significance of which gradually become clearer to us as we approach the final performances. We are asked to bring in a book, or a piece of writing, that has changed our lives, and to assemble a box of objects, items that, to us, hold personal relevance and significance. We have to nominate a song that reminds us of Summer. I choose 'Light My Fire', by The Doors.

As the week of the performances approaches we transfer to The Space, a large event and function suite to the north of the city. Tuesday's rehearsal is the 'technical set-up and rehearsal'. It is all about getting the sound and lighting levels adjusted, timing the music, synchronising the projected instructions, and sorting out our entrances and exits.

Oh, and for us to become 'comfortable within the space'. It is much larger than where we had been rehearsing, and the bank of tiered seating at the rear or the room brings home to us that this is for real, and in four days time those seats will be filled with a real live audience. Thanks to Jane's patience and hard work we seem to have become quite adept at walking and running around the floor area as a group, without colliding or tripping over each other.

Wednesday is our final gathering before the show proper. We still have not experienced any of the other three 'seasons', although by now we have been given a good idea of what to expect. Tonight is the full 'dress rehearsal' of  'Summer', a chance for us to perform in front of friends, family, festival staff and volunteers, and to really savour the experience of standing in front of a real audience for the first time. I think it is fair to say that we all loved it. There is something indescribably exhilarating that occurs when the release of adrenaline courses through the blood and, throwing caution to the wind, we submit ourselves to the mercy of a live audience. Call it thrill-seeking, the challenging of personal demons of self-consciousness or fear, or simple straightforward exhibitionism, nothing else replicates that excitement of stepping out on stage. Bring on Saturday!

Performing 'Summer'

One thing that we have learnt from our time with Richard and the Quarantine company is that, in the same way that every performance of 'Summer' is intentionally unique, no two rehearsals would ever be the same either. He was constantly changing the instructions, switching the order in which we make our entrances, swapping who is made to dance to their 'summer song', and mixing up who answers the questions thrown at us by Sonia and Leentje. There was no reason to doubt that our 'real' performances would again hold a few more surprises.

Performing 'Summer' in Norwich (photo by Quarantine)

Some elements of 'Summer' remain constant. The opening music - 'Mr Blue Sky' by the Electric Light Orchestra. The huge bank of lights that rises from behind a giant wall. The instruction to stand and look at the audience looking at us. A sequence that sees us pacing haphazardly yet purposefully around the floor before morphing into a cyclic swirl of running bodies to the accompaniment of Lucy Rose's 'Bikes'. An extended stage-fighting class taught by Leentje, in which the techniques of striking, kicking and hair-pulling are practiced, before assuming a darker more sinister significance as the strains of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas take over from our own conversations and vocal effects. The sequence in which we all carefully unpack and arrange our own personal 'box of objects', only to have them re-categorised and re-assembled elsewhere by fellow cast members. The 'closed eyes dancing', in which we all find ourselves a personal space in which to block out the light, lose ourselves and move to pop music in our own safe and secure way.

In between these set-pieces comes the 'on the spot' unpredictability of those interview questions, and a 'chaos' sequence during which we attempt to follow the projected instructions - silently arranging ourselves into rows or groups based on age, or height, or place of birth; lying on the floor; dancing inside a cardboard box; letting off a confetti cannon. Whilst much of 'Summer' might appear random and unconnected, subtle nuances in these ideas cognitively re-appear in later parts of the performance.

Engaging in 'Autumn'

'Autumn' is probably best described as a two hour interval, during which the audience is offered the chance to engage in one or more of ten activities set out amidst the performance space. As members of  'Summer' we are encouraged to mingle and interact with the audience as, together, we choose between listening to a history of the world, joining in a discussion on 'identity', boogieing to a 'silent disco', helping prepare and eat Vietnamese pancake rolls under the supervision of Jaki from Papaya Verte, or trying out any or all of another five activities. At 'The Library' table we attempted to make a list of every book that we had ever read, as well as discussing the individual texts that we, the members of 'Summer', had been asked to bring in. I contributed a volume of circular walks around Norfolk, many of which La Maman and I had taken great pleasure in completing, along with the children, during the years when they were  growing up at home. I guess that, in the same way that 'Summer' focused on the immediate and the 'now', 'Autumn' provided an interlude during which to reflect on, and to appraise, our own lives so far.

Watching and Listening to 'Winter'

The audience is back in their seats, and we are ready for 'Winter'. A giant screen is wheeled out from the wings and the lights are dimmed. Over the next 35 minutes we are in the company of Mandy in a candid and deeply moving insight into a woman who knows that she is going to die from her lung cancer. From my personal memories of around the time when La Maman was diagnosed with inoperable bowel cancer, I know that the first thing that a lot of the audience will be thinking is that Mandy does not look like she is about to die.

La Maman was diagnosed in July, shortly before we were about to go on a summer holiday to Bulgaria. She was tanned and, ironically, had lost a bit of weight (the pressure of the tumour on her stomach had, in effect, been having the same effect as a gastric band, unknowingly reducing her appetite by making her feel 'full' much quicker). She was told that, with chemotherapy, she could be lucky and get a life extension of anything up to two years. As with Mandy in the film, this immediately changed her entire perspective on what had always been a fairly nebulous concept - 'The Future'. Suddenly plans became obsolescent, and energies were very much transferred to 'The Present'. She assumed an appreciation of the minutiae of life, and any worries became focused on making sure that the children and I would be OK. In the same way that Mandy is shown being concerned about tidying up the back garden, Jan became obsessed about getting our hall decorated - what we now refer to as the Memorial Hall.

Mandy was the favourite aunt of Lisa, one of the co-devisers of  'Summer.Autumn.Winter.Spring'. Staring at the screen during the opening and closing sequences, with us looking into Mandy's face as she stares back at us, provides one of the most moving and poignant moments of this work, as moments from 'Summer' and 'Autumn' silently fall into place. Questions asked in 'Summer' suddenly take on a new relevance, and choices offered in 'Autumn' demand a new focus and sense of purpose.

Singing with the babies in 'Spring'
A respectful one hour interval separates the closure of 'Winter' and the opening of 'Spring'. I take myself out for a walk in the late Sunday afternoon sunshine, a stroll that takes me to the deserted car parks of a nearby retail park. The deserted spaces, and those stark empty temples of soft furnishings, bedroom furniture, fitted kitchens and bathrooms, seem to silent smirk at our collective failure to appreciate the transience of life and the inconsequentiality of material goods.

'Spring', by contrast, establishes a joyous, almost party-like atmosphere. A glitzy backdrop, and karaoke-style lyrics appear on the overhead screen. The familiar strains from Salt'n'Pepa's 'Push It' deliver a wholly appropriate introduction to this, the final season, celebrating the delivery of new life. A group of mothers and their babies, and mums-to-be, take it in turns to step up to the microphones and take us through a selection of familiar songs from Britney Spears' 'Hit Me Baby (One More Time)', to Nirvana's 'Never Mind'. And in between the songs come those interview questions from Sonia and Leentje, reminding us again that, even as new life begins, the circle of life is still peppered with memories and experiences.

The babies are, of course, absolute scene stealers, melting our hearts as they explore the stage, grabbing at balloons and microphone stands with screams of laughter and interactive abandon. And as we enjoy the music, the singing, and the babies, we are being primed for a final bombastic stream of projected questions about our own role and attitudes towards parenthood, our children, and how we will bring them up and look out for them. A mixture of the vital and the trivial, the serious and the comedic, happy and sad, personal and comparative, all relevant and pertinent to any parent, or parent-to-be.

And finally, just as we think 'Spring' is over, Leentje begins to explain how Greg from the production team is about to rig up a confetti barrel that will spill its contents over the stage floor, and describes what will happen after the last piece of confetti has touched the floor. What we will be doing one minute later, in five minutes, ten minutes, half an hour, one hour, two hours, twelve hours, next day, next week, next month and next year.

Greg primes the barrel and throws the switch. A fan engages and the barrel spins, spewing out a prolonged golden shower of metalised foil pieces. And as the foil pieces spin towards the ground we are reminded of the closing scene in 'Winter' where, as the credits roll, a sequence depicting white confetti gently falling against a black background concludes when the final piece has passed out of shot, leaving the screen in complete darkness.

We watch as the final piece of golden foil touches the ground, and we know that the cycle is complete.

The response of the audience to 'Summer. Autumn.Winter.Spring' is quite extraordinary. People come up and say how beautiful it was. How brave we were to take part in it. How we had presented ourselves so openly, exposing ourselves to the scrutiny of an audience of complete strangers? The credit for this, though, is all down to Richard and the Quarantine team for the way in which we were taken through the rehearsal process. The relationship that developed between performer and producer was achieved through trust - we knew that he would never to anything to embarrass us or make us uncomfortable on stage, and it also allowed a close bond to grow within the group. We opened up to each other in a way that rarely happens during such brief encounters. There was a mutual comfort and honesty that would have taken much longer to acquire in different circumstances. Some of us will almost certainly cross paths again in and around Norwich, others may only stay in touch via social media, and others may simply melt away. But we will never forget the time we spent together this Summer with Quarantine.

Thank you, Quarantine. From the cast of 'Summer' 2017

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