Features Performance Published 26 November 2014

Show Bird

Caroline Smith on her alter ego Rita Grebe, the captivating nature of birdwatching and metaphorical nest-making.
Caroline Smith

My alter egos are usually a response to a community or special interest group. By constructing a persona, I’m interpreting, playing off and mirroring that group. The alter egos are a gaggle that I hope blend the everyday with the weird and offbeat. They include M. Abrakadabrovic, a spiritual sister (stalker) of Marina Abramovic developed in London’s hipster zone (difficult hair, huge specs) and 50s housewife Mertle Merman who’s done a walk of shame at Tate Britain (with Avant Gardening’s Cardinal Paul Green) happily pointing out the embarrassment of riches in its collections.

Rita Grebe is the latest. She is a human that desires to be a bird to the point where she thinks she actually is one. She emerged during a residency with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on Wallasea Island, a protected site that is aimed at counteracting climate change by restoring the mudflats and salt-marshes in a project that is the largest of its kind in Europe. It’s also a breeding ground for the grebe. My residency was the outcome of an exploratory week-long workshop hosted by Metal Culture in Southend on Sea. Along with other selected artists, we were exploring comedy with stand-up comedians – focusing on similarities and differences of our different subject areas. I focused on the seagull whose status is precarious, moving between low – aggressive vermin and food pincher – and high – as the majestic emblem of Southend’s tourism campaign. I love the way most birders talk about seagulls being so at the bottom of the pecking order, they are a sub species. I made a short performance and the residency took off from there.

Birdwatching is captivating because nothing much happens and then everything happens and you have to try and take it in and then identify a moving object that is not going to stay still. It’s performative. The tool of JIZZ is widely used to classify birds, taken from the US military’s method of identifying planes in the second world war. Some of the birdwatchers I met on Wallasea Island are ex military, and RSPB sites are often desolate places; on the fringes of working or former military sites. I like this picture of human toil and order against a blank canvas of watching and waiting.

In retrospect, my alter ego Rita has emerged from this strange picture; at the time myself and some birders concocted her largely because the Great Crested Grebes is the biggest reason that the RSPB was founded in 1892. Emily Williamson, a society woman, assembled an action group, The Plumage League, which protested against the use of (mostly grebe’s) feathers in fashion. Grebes were hunted, stuffed and put whole on women’s heads as hats. There’s something absurd about that picture. Mass consumption is a theme in the show. Methods of feather extraction are publicly under the radar in comparison with, say, fur but techniques of factory farming for a profit are really no different.

On a practical level, I ran several workshops in order to build an archive on people’s inner birds. Like an anthropological dig, I located over 100 birds. I read that birders, on seeing a rare bird for the first time, briefly experience becoming the bird. The gaze that identifies becomes entangled with an embodied subjectivity. I wanted to extend this into a more performance-driven workshop where participants could experience a greater connection with their surroundings. Working with an alter ego who heads up what could be a stiff ‘workshop’ creates permission for all parties to construct fiction, dream and play from the outset. Participants (made up mostly of birders and nature enthusiasts) didn’t only stick to the birds on Wallasea Island but mined their imaginations for incredible flights of fancy.

I work site-responsively and the show / educational component has developed and is in development with each outing. I recently rolled out a workshop for the National Trust in Essex working with their volunteers that enabled them to look at a familiar environment through a new frame. The show Birdwatchers’ Wives at Chelsea Theatre featuring Rita is an update of the show I took to Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year. Rita is still an old skool show bird but the stakes for her are higher and she still has to deal with nemesis: Maggie Grebe, whom she keeps killing off. Billous Odious, famous birdwatcher and TV presenter, also crops up.

This show is about a woman who has turned away from migrating and wants to hibernate. She makes a nest but can’t quite fit: a metaphor for public and private space and the restrictions we face. Birds are forever tantalising as they represent flight and freedom. As one birder said: ‘it’s a great pastime, you can be anywhere in the world, and the likelihood is, you will see a bird”.

Birdwatchers’ Wives is at 27th November, 8.45pm, Chelsea Theatre (part of SACRED)





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