Features Essays Published 17 May 2011

Fire exits and other stage directions

Michael Pinchbeck is a writer and performance maker based in Nottingham. Michael was a co-founder of Metro-Boulot-Dodo theatre company in 1997. They made shows about escape. Their logo was the running man from a fire exit sign. Michael left the theatre company in 2004 to pursue a five-year live art project. His current touring show, The End, explores entrances and exits.
Michael Pinchbeck

I am interested in fire exit signs. Look around you. They are everywhere. When we go to the theatre we are always reminded of where the exits are. As if we are always wanting to leave. There is a famous stage direction in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale – ‘Exit pursued by a bear’. No one is really sure if it was a real bear or a man dressed as a bear. In Shakespeare’s day theatres were used for bear baiting as well as plays so Shakespeare was arguably giving the bear its revenge, reclaiming the theatre space for the bear. The starting point for The End was to imagine what the bear, or the man dressed as the bear, did for the rest of the play. Waiting in the wings for his entrance. And what we would do if there were no wings, nowhere to exit.

In Sartre’s play No Exit, there was no way out. In theatres today there are several. In theatres today you cannot cover up the fire exit sign so it becomes a part of the set whatever play you are performing. Sometimes the performers are aware of where the exits are too. In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Vladimir tells Estragon that the toilets are down the corridor on the left. Maybe this is where they were in the theatre in Paris where it was first performed. Contemporary performance makers such as Forced Entertainment, Reckless Sleepers, Tim Crouch are always reminding us that we are in a theatre. That they are the performers and we are the audience. This is theatre that is aware of its own architecture, its own mechanics, its own theatricality. That makes use of the conventions that haunt the theatre space, such as wings, entrances, exits, stage directions but make them visible, like fire exit signs.

Photo: Michael Pinchbeck

This fire exit sign is from a church hall where amateur dramatics take place. This fire exit sign is a stage direction. Whenever I see this sign I think of it is an invitation to leave the stage as well as telling me where the fire exits are. My experiences of amateur dramatics as a child were always shaped by the safety announcement at the beginning. One of the performers would step forwards and tell the audience where the exits were, and in later years, to switch off their mobile phones, then step back into the show as a character. I was struck by the difference made between the performer and the character, how they transgressed the fourth wall to make the announcement then rebuilt it. In that church hall, the fire exit sign was pinned to the proscenium arch.

Fire exits and other stage directions starts with reflections on my performance practice and how it often returns to notions of escape, absence and presence, memory and loss. I will also explore my ongoing collaboration with Reckless Sleepers, a company I work with as an outside eye and as a performer. Mole Wetherell, their artistic director, also worked on The End as a dramaturg. I am interested in how the ‘outside eye’ sits somewhere in the wings of a process. Reckless Sleepers are always reminding us that we are sitting in a theatre. Sometimes they leave the stage as in The Pilots. Sometimes they leave the theatre as in Spanish Train. Sometimes they build a theatre in the theatre as in Schrodinger’s Box. Sometimes they draw on the aesthetic of escape implicit in theatres and, what we might call – ‘the furniture of emergency’ – for example, a bucket full of sand and a working fire extinguisher in The Pilots.


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