It’s hard to imagine a better festival venue than Z-arts. A labyrinth of corridors and rooms, it seems to twist off in every direction, promising still more stairs and spaces. Just inside the entrance, a walkway curves around a wide atrium – an open auditorium, flooded with light. This is a place for play, too: usually a theatre for children and families, the corners are stuffed with toys and games and small humans in search of adventure.
Emergency, a free day of non-stop performance, occupies the building with an apt sense of playfulness. The shows and installations might not be for kids, but still there are stories, games, a spirit of exploration. As I walk in, the atrium is temporarily home to a group of men moving in ever-tightening patterns, stuck in a repeating loop of constriction and collision. Peter Jacobs’ performance installation No Man Is An Island is suggestive of the restrictions of patriarchal society, which hems in men as much as it does women. But it also looks a lot like a game – one whose rules, perhaps, we can change.
There’s another twist on a familiar form in Maelstrom Theatre’s Land of the Giants, the first of the afternoon’s sit-down shows. The short piece, created and performed by Anthony Briggs, is littered with juggling balls. Dozens of the things, scattered across the floor and flying through the air. Briggs himself, in clown-face, shirt and boxer shorts, looks like something out of a bad dream – one of those dreams where you find yourself, half dressed, required to give a speech you haven’t prepared for. Or a performance you haven’t rehearsed.
There’s a familiar – perhaps too familiar – vocabulary of failure to Briggs’ performance. Balls are juggled, dropped, gathered up, dropped again. Briggs shoots embarrassed, apologetic glances at us, while a pre-recorded voiceover haltingly relates his everyday struggles. Yet the show’s potent evocation of awkwardness and unease lifts it out of a well-worn performance idiom. Briggs looks genuinely uncomfortable in his own skin, his squirming movements suggesting an effort to shrug it right off. And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such an affecting representation of social anxiety as Briggs’ frozen form, sweating under the harsh stage lights, juggling balls clutched precariously in his arms as a buzz of voices rises louder and louder and louder.
The movement and visual storytelling of Land of the Giants is immediately contrasted with the table-bound simplicity of Transfigurations. Company Ding & sich takes its name from Kantian philosophy: ding an sich refers to the impossibility of knowing a thing-in-itself. One of the preoccupations of Transfigurations is thingness, including the thingness (or otherwise) of human beings. The show – delivered by Annie Lord and Simon Bowes from behind a table, lit by angled lamps – is many things at once, even in its short twenty minutes. It’s a story of a couple; it’s a meditation on what it means to be human; it’s an exploration of language and metaphor; it’s a composition of rhythm, syllables, sounds and silence.
Implicit in Ding & sich’s delicate, precise bit of storytelling are the questions – about who we are, what we are, what happens to us – that hover somewhere between two people with different views of life and death. Similarly searching questions are asked in much more direct and playful form in Paper People Theatre’s brilliantly titled Do Geese See God? Posing the conundrum of how we really distinguish fact from fiction in a world where facts are always being changed or replaced (the cannily selected example offered by the company is the downgrading of Pluto from planet to not-quite-planet), it’s a scattershot but consistently engaging exploration of what we know – or don’t know – and how we explain the world to ourselves. And while the tone is light and teasing, the show’s interrogation of our attitude towards facts has a dark undertow in the wake of the EU referendum and the “facts” thrown about during the campaign.
Language is again under investigation in Sync., Ryan O’Shea’s strange mix of lip-sync, pop music and verbal acrobatics. Teasing at the edges of words, O’Shea – looking like an intergalactic backing dancer in his foil hotpants, metallic make-up and conspicuous headset – somehow moves throughout the course of the twenty-minute performance from Teletubbies and phonics to sex and violence. It’s often baffling but always oddly fascinating. I’m also reminded, as a young member of the audience giggles unselfconsciously at O’Shea’s deliberate struggles to form his mouth around syllables, of how strange and funny our attempts to communicate can be.
Dotted throughout the building, away from the more formal and separated spaces of the theatre and the studio, are various more intimate encounters. Audiences can get in bed with one performer and interview another; they can talk about how they feel or join in with a vocal installation. I spend some time in the music room, feeling a little like an intruder among the silent, black-clad women recreating the lost hand gestures once performed by the workers in Lancashire cotton mills in I have never been anywhere so long. It’s history as muscle memory; ghosts intriguingly and perhaps problematically embodied by present day performers.
There’s plenty more designed to be dipped in and out of, hiding in various nooks and crannies of Z-arts’ sprawling complex. While initially overwhelming, the bursting-at-the-seams programme offers audiences a variety of routes through the day. It is, if you like, a Choose Your Own Adventure storybook of performance.
My own, self-curated festival ends in a tiny, cupboard-like space with Jamil E-R Keating’s Asteroid RK1. Intimate and informal, it’s a gentle piece of storytelling that crashes together rough sleeping and interplanetary objects. Looking up at the night sky and down at the city streets, Keating shares a narrative that’s both deeply personal and deeply political – especially at a time when homelessness is on the rise. Like the day as a whole, it asks us to look and listen with just that bit more care.
Emergency Festival was on at Z-Arts, Manchester, on 1st October 2016. More info here.