Features Guest Column Published 4 February 2014

Small Experiments

Christopher Harrisson and David Ralfe on No Such Thing, a new night of short-form theatre.

Christopher Harrisson and David Ralfe

Look in the notebook of any theatremaker and no doubt you’ll come across many ideas for productions, all of which have been discarded because they don’t have enough in them to make a whole show. Deemed too little, too slight, or an interesting but unsustainable experiment, these are the ideas left behind to go hunting for bigger, meatier topics.  However, some of the most exciting theatrical ideas are slight and experimental. Miniscule. They might not fill five acts; in fact, they couldn’t fill an hour.  We have novels but also short stories, short films as well as feature-length.  We also have the one-act play, skits and cabaret. But for a certain type of theatre – theatre that is physical, visual and experimental, without a script – platforms are thin on the ground.

Last year a short story writer won the Nobel Prize for Literature. YouTube and Vimeo have given people access to thousands of short films. It’s heartening to see the popularity too, of theatrical shows like plastic-bag dancing show L’Après Midi d’un Foehn at London’s Mime Festival, which runs at a nimble 40 minutes. There’s an appetite for shorter work, an increasing number of platforms on which to discover it and a huge number of people wanting to make it. The high-concept, the formal experiment, the evocative sliver of life, all are possible in short work but would become ungainly at a longer length. This is not a cop-out, or about attention spans, but choosing the form to suit the idea.

No Such Thing is a new night of short-form theatre, which we’ve made happen because we want to see more short work produced. It’ll be an eclectic night. The joy of programming a smorgasbord of short pieces is that we can create an event where all the styles of theatre we love can sit alongside each other. The inaugural event will feature Cuckoo and Co’s sharp-eyed investigation of female hysteria, Fat Content’s Rachel Lincoln as a clown giving a performance lecture on sex education, Michael L Rawstrone’s playful, physical exploration of paralysis, Old Watty’s slapstick Bunraku puppetry, and Julian Spooner’s raucous, comic creation Pierre von Straussenheim, in a new piece directed by Clout’s Jennifer Swingler.

Hot Tubs and Trampolines present Mind The Gap, telling the true story of the man who recorded this famous announcement for London Underground and his wife who, after he died, visited Embankment tube station every day to hear his voice.  Surely that’s a pitch for a full-length play?  The company’s Matt Harrison argues that the intricate three-hour play just isn’t consistent with a world of social media, YouTube clips and viral treats.  Calling short-form “a necessary evolution”, he argues that “if we want to attract and satisfy a new theatre audience we need to keep it short and create powerful, engaging, bite-size morsels of story”.  He adds, “I worked with Ken Campbell just before he died and his mantra was that ‘theatre should be as exciting as wrestling.’  I think making an entire play that lasts only 10 minutes is as close as we can get.”

The Infinite Struggle by Michael L Rawstrone.

The Infinite Struggle by Michael L Rawstrone.

Cara Verkerk of Cuckoos and Co suggests that short-form lends itself particularly well to visual theatre, explaining, “I’m enjoying letting the images carry the complexity of thought and feeling, and to pass them over to an audience to turn over in their minds.”  She adds,  “the ‘smallness’ of the form concentrates the ‘bigness’ of the thoughts and feelings we are exploring.”

This is the theatre we love and we still feel more can be done to carve out space for it in the theatrical landscape. The way programmers work often makes life difficult for theatremakers working in non-traditional ways. So we’ll never speak the words that strike dread into the hearts of devisers and visual theatre makers: end us your script.  “I don’t have a script!” might be the response of the theatre-maker whose process is largely devised.  “My play contains no text; it’s a visual and physical exploration of a topic, negating the need for spoken word!” might be that of the primarily visual theatre-maker.  A clown would add, “My performance is largely improvised,” perhaps clutching the trembling hands of a producer who thinks that sounds jolly risky. We felt the world needed a new writing night where it’s OK to be a person who doesn’t really write things down.

We want No Such Thing to be an exciting and gloriously varied night for audiences.  We also want to build a community of artists interested in making this kind of work, so that it can become a place for unexpected collaborations, surprises and one-off gems. Clown, puppetry, physical theatre – these are the styles we love, as well as the spaces between those styles, the truly genre-busting work.  No Such Thing may be small in form, but it is big in ambition.

Christopher Harrisson is co-artistic director of Rhum and Clay Theatre Company and David Ralfe is one half of On The Run. No Such Thing takes place on Monday 10th February at 8pm at the New Diorama Theatre, curated by Rhum and Clay Theatre Company and On The Run.

Main photo: Rhum and Clay’s A Strange Wild Song, Richard Davenport.

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