As artist Ellie Harrison recognises, there’s a lot to be angry about right now. On the morning of my journey to Leeds for the Transform festival, Maria Miller delivered her first keynote speech as culture secretary, in which she insisted on the need for artists to make the argument for their economic value. I avoided reading the speech in full, mainly for my sanity and the sake of my fellow train passengers, but the news stories emerging from it and the stream of rage bursting from my Twitter feed were enough to get me riled. So it’s with this sense of political anger – a simmering background frustration that keeps erupting in response to more and more outrageous policies – that I enter Harrison’s installation The Rage Receptacle.
The piece, housed in a compact black box up the road from the West Yorkshire Playhouse on Eastgate, is a lightly playful exploration of the things that make us angry and how we might deal with them. Almost mimicking the automated phone systems that are themselves a regular cause of wrath, recordings offer each participant a series of options and choices, gently prodding at the causes of our everyday frustration. Harrison, who I catch up with in the foyer of the Playhouse, describes The Rage Receptacle as a piece made for “accidental audiences”, those who might wander in off the street with a bit of spare time and curiosity. She speaks of the value of work that offers participants a pause, that gives us the opportunity to step out of our increasingly hectic lives and take a moment for contemplation.
At first glance, The Rage Receptacle seems like a fairly shallow investigation of a complex, knotty emotion, but in fact its unassuming simplicity is one of its greatest strengths. It’s more of an invitation than anything else, providing the questions and leaving the answers up to its audience. How often do we pause to consider our emotions, the stimulus they respond to, and how we choose to cope with them? The Rage Receptacle forms part of Harrison’s longer sequence of work The Grief Series, each of the seven segments exploring a different facet of bereavement in collaboration with different artists, but as much as all of those emotions are ever relevant, anger feels particularly timely. Still only in R&D at the festival, at an embryonic stage in its lifecycle, this particular piece offers up the promise of an intriguing evolution in response to its site and its “accidental audiences”.
One thing that Harrison draws my attention to during our conversation is the prevalence of site-based work in Leeds. This is a city where art happens on the street, where performances aren’t necessarily confined to theatres. Much of this is pragmatic; since the closure of the Leeds Met Gallery and Studio Theatre, artists making work that falls outside the traditional remit of the city’s other theatres have found their projects essentially homeless. With what I’m told is a typical Leeds attitude of “let’s just bloody do it” – another woman I speak to has mounted projects including an underwater exhibition in a swimming pool, while Slung Low characterise their driving force as a “can do” approach – the work has embraced its enforced nomadic status, finding new temporary habitats around the city.
It’s from this large body of site-based work that Transform seems to take its cue. As festival producer Amy Letman explains to me on my first day, another of the areas that the Playhouse identified as a location they wanted to make work with and for was Burmantofts, a community just across the bridge from the theatre but one that the building has previously had little connection with. The piece emerging from this, Burmantofts Stories, takes place in the heart of this community, relating its narratives from within its own space. Drawn entirely from residents, the show is pieced together from the conversations and workshops initiated by theatremaker Pauline Mayers with people in the local area and is performed by seven of the participants.
Burmantofts is a community “mapped with voices” and held together by ritual. Hinting at ancient pagan ceremony and the age-old practice of telling stories around the campfire, the show’s arrangement seats audience members on benches forming a ring around the outdoor performance space, encircled by a string of fairy lights. In the piece itself, repeated, oddly graceful movements gesture to the reiteration of everyday activities, while the drinking of coffee – of particular importance to one of the men involved – is a core ritual bringing members of the community together. Through a careful use of sound, stories and songs drift in and out, sometimes overlapping, sometimes isolated. It can be messy, but no more so than life.
Alongside the narratives Mayers has gently teased out of participants – “I just love people,” she smiles as she describes the process of tirelessly hitting the streets and speaking to residents – her own story is quite extraordinary. With no real prior connection to the theatre, she first encountered Transform in the festival’s first year, when she won a free wristband on Twitter and dropped into Chris Goode’s Open House. By the end of the first day she was deeply embroiled in the process; two years later, Mayers is now an associate artist of Chris Goode & Company. Her interest, similarly to Goode, is in people and their stories; she describes this project as a way of “reframing the human condition”, reminding us that we all have stories worth telling.
Mirroring Mayers’ journey, Transform itself has seen a clear progression since its inception. Letman explains that in the first year the focus was on simply finding work to programme, while a year on the intention was to work more closely and collaboratively with the artists involved; now the circle of collaboration has widened even further, encompassing audiences and the city itself. One of the major impacts of this third festival is the possibility of those itinerant artists mentioned by Harrison finding a longer term home in the Playhouse, as new artistic director James Brining looks to bring various strands together into a varied but connected programme. The festival as an event is naturally exciting, its context inviting an intoxicating, transitory buzz. The real challenge is incorporating that ephemeral sense of artistic community into something wider and more permanent.
Read part one of Catherine’s commentary on the Transform festival.
West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Transform 2013 run from 16 April 2013 to 27 April 2013.