I’m half an hour early for the opening of WATCH OUT, a yearly theatre festival at Cambridge Junction. The walls are dressed in shimmer curtains, and the DJs are already playing tunes. It’s like I’m about to attend a party that I wasn’t aware was happening. Here, festival is essentially another word for a convivial theatre party, with a schedule packed from 12:00 til late with shows, one on one performances, VR experiences and a food truck to keep us going until dark. The festival aims to bring together dangerous theatre in various forms with work that is provocative, contemporary and sometimes, still in progress.
While I didn’t feel much danger, the work did provoke a satisfying amount of thought and conversation throughout the day. Thanks to serendipity (or great curation), imagery reverberated through the shows. Where some festivals can feel like distant planets brought into temporary contact, these artistic echoes tied the whole festival together and made it feel like a mini world of theatre conjured into being for a day.
Don’t touch my hair
In Anna Brownsted’s My Vinyl Ate Your MP3s, we’re using reasoned debate to plan part of an intergalactic mission. For the next hour the task is to suggest, argue for and against and choose a shortlist of 5 songs that would go on a sequel to the golden record launched into space in 1977. What do we value in music? What does it mean for the selection to be diverse? What image of ourselves do we want to show to aliens? Solange’s Don’t Touch My Hair is suggested for its message and its cultural significance. No one disagrees, but it doesn’t make the final selection.
And this is what’s fascinating: the process revealed how democracy can paint over our political and representational intentions. Our concerns initially reflect our demographic, but despite the debate and discussion about including non-Anglophone music, including world music, not only including music by men, and some convincing argument against the *ahem* chrono-patriarchal origins of the 9 to 5 working day (sorry Dolly Parton), the final five ultimately had little to do with what we, politically, wanted to create when we started. I suggest to my friend we could have guaranteed a match by implementing quotas. But I’m always saying that, *sigh*.
A line gets drawn in my head between the pin stuck by the earlier mention of Solange, and an image of braids being tugged, which is among many precise and cutting images in the text of Rachael Young’s Nightclubbing, which has come from a run at Camden People’s Theatre. The show is much more than its vivid text – the physicality, sound and set design create space for mesmerising transformation, and these intensely compliment its interweaving stories (black women refused entry to a nightclub and the genesis of Grace Jones, from Jamaica to NYC queer culture). It’s powerful, loud, vulnerable and beautiful. We’re properly standing up like it’s a gig for this one, which is a welcome novelty after a long day of being seated. It feels too brief when it’s over, and all I wanted to do was experience it again.
The opening moments of Black Holes include a remark about not touching a black woman’s hair too – coming somewhere between the spontaneous burst of the universe into existence and the universe’s hot implosive end across which the show spans. In Seke Chimutengwende and Alexandrina Hemsely’s piece, the universe actually ends in an Escher-like image of the plug being pulled on a bath, and the entire bath emptying out through the plughole, which itself is the entire universe, ad infinutum, or until the universe ends, I guess. The physical and dance elements of this show are spellbinding, expressive and strange as the performance’s theme, drawing from science fiction and afro-futurism. They are talented performers and I’d love to see the varied pace and levels of energy evident in the physical portions of the show mirrored more in the delivery of the text, as the different eras of the universe ebb and flow seem to beg for a wider range of emotional states.
The bathtub image was actually planted at beginning of the day, with Quote Unquote Collective / Why Not Theatre’s Mouthpiece. The whole show is a piece of music – I wrote down, underlined and exclamation-marked this when it had ended. All its elements, song, text and physical theatre, satisfyingly speak the same language. The only prop is a white freestanding bath. It’s clever, funny and relentless. Both performers play the same character, Cassandra, who’s struggling with organising her mother’s funeral, writing a eulogy that’s sufficiently emotional without being too truthful, and navigating her own mental health– and she’s woken up without a voice, to make matters even more overwhelming. Feminism is an implicit theme of this festival, although it comes through in many guises throughout the day. A series of catcallers try to get Cassandra’s attention, and the two embodiments of herself react in opposite ways. The two-performer form is a perfect fit for exploring the mental dichotomies associated with adhering to socialised conventions and trying to break out of them, and it does so successfully. Mouthpiece makes me wonder, too, what the implications are of considering ‘whiteness and privilege’ through having characters simply be briefly aware of them. It’s a tiny part of the show, but the part that made me stop and think the most. Which is something to think about in itself.
The artist is at home on her sofa asking you for some time and some space (and some money)
Made In China’s Super Duper Close Up and Roxanne Carney’s I’m The Hero Of This Story are both autobiographical pieces exploring an artist trying to be an artist and coming up against the very real issues that many in this audience will recognise as artists. Carney’s show is daring in its extreme consumption, of food and of materials, required to make the piece work. She uses these moments to illustrate what experiences of the 21st century have been like since she moved back home after university. Mostly, they’ve not been fun. When a list of Tinder messages she’s been sent is read out by a member of the audience, there’s an ambiguity as to how many should be read aloud. In the end, the reader decides to stop, with Carney agreeing – an effective recreation a passive recipient of such appalling messages. The whole thing makes for a visceral experience that’s more about destruction than about hope. There’s scope to make this a more tightly structured performance, and maybe the spoken word sections could fit more harmoniously with the whole, but there’s a charming vulnerability to the show as it is.
In Super Duper Close Up we’re also considering struggles of the 21st century artist. The narrative is framed as a story about a meeting with a venue producer and the artist, to which the artist has arrived early and to which the producer is very late. It evolves into an exploration of memory loss and powerlessness. As a piece of text it brought together many interesting ideas, not all of which got space to fully be inhabited. However, the filmed element to this work in progress (what would be the Close Up) wasn’t cooperating, so it’ll be interesting to see what parts of the text technology might bring new meaning to as the work develops.
Figs In Wigs’ Little Wimmin was another work in progress. Already a polished preview of the first few scenes, it promises to be a hilarious, clever adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classics. Beth, one of the sisters, sits on the sofa and complains about not being able to play her piano. Each sister is quickly distinguished in their archetypal role, but with a meta-layer of awareness of the story and its place as a feminist(?) classic. After a summary of what is yet to be made into play form, the piece ended with a dance, which was both humorous and also quite moving. The parts that weren’t yet complete, given as a powerpoint-style presentation were just as entertaining, and that’s all down to a company that’s in touch with their style and rightly confident in their ability to use theatre to tell a complex story which exists on many levels.
I also need to mention our host and timekeeper, Timberlina, the bearded drag performer who as well as keeping the day on track, provided a welcome rousing of spirits with a shortened version of her Big Bingo Show in the middle of the day. Fittingly for the way the festival became far more seamless than I’d anticipated, I’ve just noticed, now home, that there was a password for the wifi on the programme. Not that there was much time for a scrolling break. WATCH OUT delivered an engaging celebration of new theatre, providing the kind of generous space and time for sharing work and provoking thought that we could do with a lot more of.
Watch Out was on at Cambridge Junction on Saturday 26th May. For more on the venue’s line-up, visit its website.