I walk past where my phone says Shoreditch Town Hall is once, twice. There’s only a faintly shoddily converted hotel there. Finally, I walk cautiously up to reception and present myself in confusion to a receptionist.
The hotel is, of course, an elaborate fiction. It’s masterminded by Tristan Sharps’ company dreamthinkspeak to house a promenade installation that tells, though a meandering series of rooms, the story of Margaret de Beaumont, an aging resident turfed out in its upgrade to an identikit budget hotel. The illusion is remarkably complete, right down to the business card that takes the place of a ticket — and it’s only when I meet its creator afterwards, tucked out of sight in a dusty storage room, that I realise the dense layers of paint, effort and thought that have gone on behind the scenes of his new promenade installation piece. He explains that for audiences, “It’s like life: you can sail through life without understanding it, or you can go round hoovering up every detail and think about it later. The audience could easily sail through the show and miss it completely, or you could go through it and realise that there’s layer upon layer upon layer of detail as you’re going through.”
The name of his company, dreamthinkspeak, is a surprisingly literal description of his artistic process. He explains that after spending a lot of time in his chosen space, and pacing the streets that surround it, “I dream it all up with the same care and attention and detail that a playwright would, but I try to create a space for the audience, rather than coming up with stuff for them or telling them how to think”. He only reluctantly creates technical drawings, preferring to work organically in the space with carpenters from plans in his head.
The name of his promenade installation (he doesn’t like labels, but this is the neatest one) Absent is equally telling. Its most weighty moments of emotional power come from its absences — we see first videos, then traces, than almost nothing at all of the woman at its heart as we move through success rooms. He explains that “The art I admire the most is very silent, very still, but there’s so much going on. I’m drawn very much to the stillness and power you find in artists like Vermeer or Leonardo. Sometimes we try and be a bit too busy and we can say a lot more by dragging back a bit on stuff, on articulating things.” Absent invites us to feel the emotional power of an emptied room, and to notice the beauty of carefully lit, telling details: an empty whisky bottle, a pile of luxury cigarette ends beneath a boarded up window.
It’s an exercise in looking, quite different from the hubbub of promenade and immersive theatre. But it’s also political. “It’s kind of an interior journey with a real exterior face, looking out not just into Shoreditch but into the real world. All my work is about looking outside however cocooned you might become in the piece it never it forgets there’s a world out there.”
Through newspapers which mention the controversial Bishopsgate development, and screens that blink out messages from a kind of ur CEO figure, the piece “links itself very much with what’s happening locally, and everywhere: a lot of high rise buildings, a lot of the same old brands, a lot of retail, a lot of homogeneity. That’s one of the issues my work has dealt with a lot over the past few years: the increasing sense of sameness we’re creating for ourselves. And in that sameness, the uniqueness that makes Alice Alice and Tristan Tristan gets effaced a bit.”
Absent’s endless repetitions of identical rooms, shrunk dollshouse tiny, Alice-in-Wonderland style or blown huge, are a kind of comment on this rampant capitalism: “The demands of making stuff available means it all looks the same. The stuff I can afford is not the bespoke fancy stuff that CEOs enjoy: it’s basic and mass produced. Although without them I might not have been able to afford in a cheap hotel in Shoreditch myself! The branding and the marketing power of these corporations is huge, but we only really know about their lives through the news, which is why newspaper articles are woven into the seam of the piece.” Through scraps of paper that cling to walls, the characters of Shoreditch’s major corporate players emerge: as well as their opposite number, the fictional Margaret de Beaumont, who’s loosely inspired by the real Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, who “ran out of money, then essentially blagged her way through life at a grand hotel: she lived on credit and didn’t pay her bills. I’m not really interested in making her biopic, a soap opera of a life is not of interest to me although lots of theatre does that really well for people who want that. But as a figure, she’s kind of interesting for where we are now, not just the UK but the whole world. She was a very one-off unique person who liked one-off unique stuff until she could no longer afford it. She’s very much in opposition, as a person, to the CEO of the Shoreditch Group.”
The installation is wordless, apart from the newspapers that fill it, but Margaret’s presence still scents it like a dash of exclusive French perfume, muggy with sensuality and lingering bitterness.
It’s an unconventional way of telling her story, which manages to feel theatrical despite involving only the barest trace of acting. But it’s a natural evolution of DreamThinkSpeak’s spirit of innovation. “I’ve always been interested in architecture and visual art, and although I trained in theatre I never felt very ease in the theatre world. I acted, I directed, I knew I wanted to find a way in but I didn’t see the work I wanted to do out there.”
His lightbulb moment came from a week at the Hawth Theatre in Crawley in 1995: “They gave us a tiny amount of money and use of the studio. But what really excited me was the parts of the theatre that the audience never normally see: the hidden corridors, the Japanese garden, the dressing room windows that looked onto the greenery outside, and that set me off into looking a the space in a totally different way. I made connections between all the things I really loved — architecture but I’m not an architect, art but I’m not a trained artist, visual design but I’m not a trained designer — and I suddenly thought, ‘But of course, this is what I should really be doing!’.”
He formed dreamthinkspeak in 1999, and since then has created a steady stream of works that respond to locations including a disused Clerkenwell abattoir, a Moscow paper factory, a brand new office block in Amsterdam. He’s taken on Hamlet (The Rest is Silence, 2012) and the Cherry Orchard (Before I Sleep, 2012) both of which appealed because “they’re both an exercise in a playwright allowing as little as possible to happen” (he ended the former at “To be or not to be”, long before the carnage starts). Living, recent politics too, in the case of One Day, Maybe (2013), which took place in South Korea, responding to the deaths of hundreds of people murdered by government paratroopers in 1980.
And from his beginnings in a muddied field where only a handful of companies were responding to their immediate environment in their work (experimental Welsh company Brith Gof, for example), he’s now surrounded by an unwieldy thicket of companies who tout their unorthodox venues as calling cards, or shortcuts to fresh takes. Punchdrunk is easily the most famous (and lucrative) of the crowd, but staging X play in Y location, however tangentially related the two quantities are, has become a shortcut to originality for young directors.
“We’re in a very different landscape now, and there’s a lot of companies doing immersive, site-specific, site-responsive, whatever you want to call it work, and that’s fine. It makes me smile a little bit when I see all the stuff that’s happening now, and wonder how much I’ve been a part of that. But theatre’s always been made outside of theatres.”
There’s a kind of irony that the surge of site-responsive work, often moving in ever more commercial directions with tie-in dinners or “luxury” routes for pricier tickets, coincides with an ever-increasing pressure and politicisation of space, especially in London. Sharps expresses doubt at how far most site-responsive work actually does respond to its site, to the streets that surround that beautiful space with its ready made atmosphere — much warmer than a deadening black box theatre. “Sometimes I’ll read about a new company and think ‘I don’t have a clue what that means, and I’m not sure you do either’. It’s so different to what I do. Terms like site-specific get thrown around so easily that sometimes I don’t think they mean anything. If I was a new practitioner coming through now I’d want to do something totally different! If you don’t like the landscape try and change the landscape. Don’t try and just fit in with it.”
Sharps’s process is built on love for a building, from spending time in it and pacing the streets that surround it. But there’s the faintest trace of irony — doubtless not lost on him — in the fact that his site-specific work is surprisingly portable. His reputation long outlives his fly-by-night venues, and attracts producers from around the world: Edinburgh, Perth, Moscow, Kuala Lumpur. He’s already in discussions to export Absent to other countries, and explains that “when it goes to a different space it will morph and change and develop. You might call it site-specific but it can change, and if you see it in another space for the first time, if we get it right, you won’t be able to ever imagine it being in another building. The film won’t be the same, but the homogenised side is the same whichever country you’re in: we’re all part of this global family of brands, that’s how the world is developing. Where do we as individuals fit in this increasing sameness?”
dreamthinkspeak doesn’t present answers: in essence, it’s a miniature brand of its own, tweaking its formula from country to country. But it offers the promise of something richer, deeper than a budget hotel room or a cheap whiskey. Something that scents the streets around it with a heightened version of their own aromas, a mirror, not a bubble.