Features Guest Column Published 5 April 2013

Stopping, Looking and Listening

Sharing stories in the city.

Emma Gersch

In 2009 I was fortunate to do a week-long workshop with Argentinian director Vivi Tellas at the Shunt Vaults. She inspired ten directors with her pioneering new approach to framing real life and inviting audiences to view it like theatre. Vivi had become disillusioned with mainstream commercial theatre and was finding more passion, drama and truth at home with her family. So she invited her mother and aunt to “rehearse” their typical sequence of behavior and actions (arguing, laughing, dancing, baking, remembering) and prepared them for an audience to come along and watch them in a makeshift studio at the back of the garden. Vivi invited a small audience to eat dinner with the family first, then walk down to the studio and watch the show. The event, named Mi mamá y mis tías, (2003-4) created a great stir, and eventually the garage had to be enlarged to house a bigger audience. The starring mother and aunt felt like celebrities, and the nature of the performances shifted.

On hearing about this work, I was utterly captivated and felt that this tapped into some deeper questions that I had been asking myself about performance, audience and theatre for a few years. As a director, I had been mostly working on large-scale ensemble productions at venues including the Minack Theatre, which require tremendous spectacle. I had been working with Shakespearean and Greek classics, adapting and re-framing for a contemporary audience. My starting point is always the audience, asking the question “what would I like them to experience?”. I probe my given material to find opportunities to invite the audience even more deeply into the world of the play. For example, my production of Orestes Re-Examined, which toured prisons and the Southwark Playhouse in 2009, invited the audience to vote on the outcome of the trial of Orestes and determine one of two endings. Ultimately, the audience decided on the nature of justice in this story – particularly pertinent when our audience were prisoners.

My biggest fear is that of a disengaged, detached, ambivalent audience. I want to connect my audience to the thrill of the communal theatrical event, as a refreshing and necessary antidote to modern life and its growing isolations. I try to get as close to truth as possible, and to blur the boundaries between performer and audience.

So, at the end of an inspiring week with Vivi, we too were expected to put our family members on stage at Shunt. Through some economy of truth, I managed to convince my father (a professor of Educational Psychology with no real experience of performing) to agree to help me with some “research into my practice”, and before he knew it he was sharing his stories, jokes, juggling of plates and memories, to a warm and encouraging audience of around 300 people at Shunt. The experience totally shook my foundations as a theatre practitioner, and I knew I needed to further explore this beautifully simple and reimagined concept of performance.

I realised that truthful human stories are at the core of the theatrical event. At the time, I was also moving back to London, having had a few years away in the quieter and slower provinces. I was reminded of the speed at which we travel, and the often hostile interactions between our fellow city dwellers. This, coupled with the growing attachment to our technological devices, felt to me like a reason to do something humanizing. I approached the Southwark Playhouse, where I was working on another project at the time, to see if they might give me a platform to do an experiment called Moving Stories. I had an idea that a team of facilitators would travel the streets of Southwark and Borough, trying to engage people to agree to share their stories, in the setting of their work and home. We would then invite an audience to join a guide and a small group, and set off on a different kind of walking tour.

There are of course countless risks and variables that can stand in the way of this kind of work, but somehow, it worked. 14 local people agreed to engage with us, from pub landlords to cobblers, butchers to Big Issue sellers. Each storyguide focused their attention on two storytellers, and set up a series of meetings or rehearsals in their place of work. I developed a process of evoking their stories based on deep listening and observing. It became crucial that our storytellers were encouraged to be active; ideally doing their habitual jobs or tasks, such as cleaning tables, slicing cheese and serving customers. We went further and asked our storytellers to teach us their skills and tricks, and extended the interactions by asking them to bring photographs, letters and mementos from home to tell us more. These “props” allowed even more personal insight and engagement.

I was amazed by how relatively easy it seemed to convince strangers to open up to us, and indeed how in some cases there seemed to be relief that there was interest in their human story. As the stories evolved, I became further convinced of the importance of the project. The underpinning idea here is that everyone has a story, and often we are too busy to listen. In a sprawling, hectic city, we are preoccupied with our schedules and our safety and prefer to opt out of human engagement, even when one’s cheek is pressed up against a stranger’s arm on the tube in rush hour.

On Thursday March 26th 2009 at 1pm, 100 people rushed into the foyer of the Southwark Playhouse with questions about the length of the show, how far we would be walking, and other such logistics. At 2pm, 100 people returned slowly back to the foyer, in a totally different rhythm; reflective, alert and respectful. Everyone had been humbled and awoken by the stories they had heard and shared, and we invited audience members to scribble their immediate responses on post-it notes to stick to the walls: “An unexpected gem of humanity’s raw beauty; what theatre should strive for!”.

The stories moved on again, as audience members were compelled to share what they had experienced and heard: the church warden’s tale of skinny dipping with Elton John, the German deli owner flamenco dancing for the first time in ten years since his beloved wife and dance partner had been tragically killed in a car accident; the homeless woman telling us of her being on the American Olympic sailing team until she came out to her family who disowned her, which led to her downfall. The stories couldn’t be imagined or made up. In addition to the meeting of new people and hearing their stories, we also designed the promenade event to encourage audiences to look up and notice more of the view and read the landscape with a new lens: the idiosyncrasies and paradoxes in the area; the juxtaposition of old and new buildings; the quirky signage and expressive graffiti.

The project created such resonance for me and all involved that I renamed the theatre company Moving Stories and we made a commitment to keep trying to run the project wherever we toured in the world. We are delighted to have been commissioned by the Riverside Studios to run it in Hammersmith in tandem with our studio theatre piece Vanessa and Virginia. We advertised for a team of storyguides and had over 300 applications from actors passionate about this kind of work. We auditioned and workshopped and arrived at a final seven. At my time of writing, our new team has completed day one of explorations of the area, and already feel we have unearthed amazing and unpredictable stories and connections. I am already looking at Hammersmith in an entirely different way after today, and look forward to inviting our audience to stop, look and listen when they join us later this week.

Moving Stories: ‘Stop Look Listen’  runs at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios 6th-8th April. For more information and tickets, visit the Riverside Studios website. To book a two for one ticket deal on Saturday 6th April, quote the discount code “stories241”. 

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Emma Gersch is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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