Features Published 19 October 2016

Vespertine: “We’re allowing heritage and arts organisations to test out new ideas”

York's snickleways are coming to digital life thanks to Vespertine, which holds a series of night-time experiences. Louise Jones interviews the company's creative producer, Yvonne Carmichael, to discover how they mix theatre and tech to breathe new life into the city tour.
Louise Jones

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York is one of those cities which has clearly been conquered God knows how many times over the last couple of millennia. It’s a place where you can admire one of the largest pieces of Gothic architecture in northern Europe stood next to a statue of a Roman Emperor (Constantine, if anyone was wondering), before heading down the 14th century streets to the site of the old Viking settlement. Tonight though, we’re focusing solely on the Georgian era- which I love, because that’s the period we owe the city’s Theatre Royal and Assembly Rooms to. (And a whole lot of new attitudes to theatre besides- for a straight-laced bunch they really loved their adultery comedies.)

It’s not often you think of your local theatre in its original state from 1744, but following a young lady in society through the streets of York it’s easy to find yourself indulging in the transformative power of a good historical promenade. Here we’re treated to choral performances telling of world famous pork pies (spoiler: a lot of pigs go into the pastry) but as soon as the cheery musical number is over, the choir steps aside to reveal newspaper headlines revealing the seedier stories taking place in York’s Georgian streets. This is Georgian Bizarre, where all is not how it seems- a phrase which could well sum up Vespertine’s series of themed evenings- and I am loving it.

Vespertine is a company which has been around in York for a while now- since May 2015, to be precise- but there’s still that hazy, hard to pin down quality surrounding the company. That’s intentional: basing their name around the concept of blooming come evening, Vespertine’s monthly events take a fresh look at the monuments and snickleways of York.

Creative producer Yvonne Camichael outlines the programme’s mission statement is to “enable residents and tourists alike see their surroundings in a new way” through the transformative power that new artists, new technology and a change in sunlight can bring to this historic city. Approaching them between September and October’s events (Vespertine runs until December this year, making it quite apt to talk with the company in the twilight of their event planner), I talked with Carmichael about the benefits of taking a chance on such an eclectic project.

Georgian Bizarre was Vespertine’s most recent night in September, and marrying the ideas of polite society and barely-concealed sin is definitely a salacious enough premise to draw in the crowds- I found myself among history fans and those who had come to the event “cold”. I wondered what exactly drew Carmichael to this project.

“Vespertine is very much about allowing heritage and arts organisations to test out new ideas and be experimental. Fairfax House have recently opened an exhibition called ‘In Pursuit of Pleasure: The Polite and Impolite World of Georgian Entertainment’ so this was very much the starting point when thinking about the event, it was an opportunity to take some of the stories told in the exhibition out of the house and into public places in York.”

Collaboration is key for Vespertine’s events to go ahead: just looking at the list of contributors for each evening it’s clear that there are no vanity projects in place. Georgian Bizarre is a prime example of Vespertine’s ability to straddle several art forms and media. The extent of the performance is decided by the collaborators: “In the case of the last Georgian Bizarre event the partners were Fairfax House and York Theatre Royal, so it made sense to devise a trail between Fairfax and the De Grey Rooms, both super impressive spaces. The circular space in the Assembly Rooms (also ASK Italian Restaurant) seemed perfect as it is also 18th Century and we thought the acoustics of the space would be great for one of the York Theatre Royal’s Resident choir performances. It’s great to take audiences into spaces that they wouldn’t ordinarily have access to, to see something a bit different, there are so many heritages spaces to choose from in York!”

The downside to such a vast range of heritage spots is that a performance must either fit in entirely with its surroundings, or completely upturn expectations. Never ones to accept merely fitting in, Vespertine frequently weaves modern technology into its evenings- our guide sets down her lantern and whips out an iPad at each stop we visit. Maybe it’s several years of watching Doctor Who that’s desensitised me to such an anachronistic combination, but the evening’s confidence in mixing the modern and traditional just fits. This is all the more apt considering York’s status at the first UNESCO City of Media Arts, as assigned in 2014.

“York has a strong tradition of heritage trails so we thought it would be good to use this as a format whilst also testing out using an app and smart phones. The short videos en route told the story but they also had some very practical benefits as it meant that we could have the same character/actress pop up in numerous different locations (making the most of the budget for the event [the Vespertine events are all free of charge]).”

Using a series of QR codes and the Zappar app, Georgian Bizarre introduces audience interaction without ever having actress Edith Kirkwood turn up along the trail (minus an in-person appearance at Fairfax House). Her character, Mary Tempest, invites the audience to follow her through the streets of York to a ball at the De Grey (or in our case, a dancing lesson- daunting to some but I’ve never felt more like Lizzy Bennet). Tempest’s plot arc is full of twists sure to be found in epistolary novels of the era: instead of letter writing, we receive the latest gossip through our phones. True, it bursts the immersive bubble somewhat to grapple with your smartphone or tablet midway through a contemporary choral number by the Theatre Royal’s resident choir, and you can let the veil slide down to spot the Disney Store in your peripheries. However, the more I think about placing the QR codes on newspaper stands adorned with scandalous stories and tidbits of family drama, the more I appreciate how Vespertine has connected our constant sense of curiosity across the centuries. Tempest’s tale is a trending topic like the best of them, and you can bet that being stuck inside those stately homes all day would give 18th-century society excellent Snapchat game.

The technique is a little halting to a smoothly flowing promenade, but despite taking its lead from touring tradition the event never sets out to be like its predecessors. In the last two years working with co-creative producer Lucy Barker, Carmichael has found that “there is a real thirst in York for events which are more contemporary…it’s an exciting time for the city to try out and experiment with new ways of working and developing technologies.”

It’s fantastic to find companies seeking out the experimental, especially when it comes to the oft- overlooked pool of regional theatre. By being deliberately different, there’s a real encouragement that nothing is off-limits: their next event is another project incorporating VR whilst putting the spotlight on new artists. The risk with these events, as Carmichael explains, is that it “make[s] the overall project quite hard to pin down, pigeonhole or explain.”

“The Georgian Bizarre event did seem to attract two very distinct audiences, some were keen to see the choir performances and others liked the idea of the virtual reality part of the trail. It’s always exciting to have a mix of people of different ages and different interests together, it makes for much more interesting conversations and learning.”

Whilst it’s hard to predict the precise audience, there is an excellently intangible quality when it comes to each Vespertine event. The mystery of what each evening holds proves pretty irresistible- the time-slots for the last event were packed proving a universal appeal for the unknown. Carmichael’s found this curiosity really works in their favour: “I think residents in particular have really enjoyed going along to something new and not necessarily quite knowing what to expect.”

October’s event, Zoom Through, promises installation and digital exploration complete with a family workshop session. If that isn’t inviting accessibility into the arts, the free admission definitely is. The event is billed to appeal to “enthusiasts of architecture, archaeology, technology, music and art”- immediately we see again Vespertine’s eagerness to combine different worlds when it comes to expanding their audiences. Here, the idea of “Virtual Reality experience drawn from the stunning architecture of St Margaret’s Church on Walmgate” is more exploratory than didactic, a way of bridging the worlds between the medieval era (in which the church was built) and our current pioneering work of developing VR. Then again, the workshop encouraging children to control light and sound in the church using an Xbox controller is an excellent sign of the exciting potential for artistic change right on our doorsteps.

Vespertine’s efforts to revitalise one of the oldest cities in the country mark a bold entry into the annals of York’s heritage: here’s hoping they stick.

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Louise Jones is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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