Sheffield Hallam University in South Yorkshire, England, recently presented a student performance produced by Doppelgangster, a company that has become infamous for their avant-garde theatrical interventions into climate complacency. I went along, intrigued to see how this collaboration was going to work, particularly in relation to the community uprising against Sheffield’s tree cull led by Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG), which the show was responding to.
The acronym’s irony, combined with the arboreal loss, was not lost on me; with my own sci/art protagonist, The King of the Sea Trees, murmuring encouragement from West Wales as I trudged through Northern rain. The King of the Sea Trees is a mythical being who takes the form of a stag and speaks through poetry about environmental change, pollution and eco-responsibility. He haunts a submerged forest along the Welsh coastline, tending to the fallen and forgotten trees. His image, that of disembodied antlers, is plastered all around this city, as if watching from the sidelines.
The Performance Lab entrance was hidden away on the side of the building too. The approach wasn’t quite like a Brith Gof bus ride into a darkening forest, which was how my first experience of a site-specific production began back in the early 1990’s, but it did disrupt assumptions about where access to a theatre should be. In this, it showcased the work in an official building whilst simultaneously breaking up our route to expectation. Inside, the foyer was lined with related propaganda and computer screens playing loops of scene snippets: young people in masks, felling an invisible array of trunks.
The tech standard was big, yet the view of it was otherwise: these were just every day screens, lined up like miniature versions of Pearson and Brooke’s gods in a recent production of The Iliad by National Theatre Wales. A row of computers as if in a college study hall. The audience seemed to bypass them warily, engaging only from a distance despite being within easy reach, interacting more comfortably with the traditionally-styled political statements plastered over unstable benches.
Some attendees were clearly locals, clad with matching logos in defense of the 17,500 trees on Sheffield Council’s death row. Others, such as the representative from National Theatre Wales (and myself), had come from further afield. Undergraduate shows tend not to be out there in the “real” world, let alone in response to a £2.2 billion street project, or invite review, so this experiment held intricate layers of both professional and personal risk. Such risk is essential if the practice of theatre is to develop with the experienced and the emerging side by side. To create a performance with young people, both for them and a diverse city demographic, was a bold move for all concerned.
The value here is perhaps in giving alternative voices some control over their own platform. Encouraging political eloquence may seem frightening to those who wish to maintain the status quo, but for those who take the long view, educating all sides can lead to a more robust democracy. This is becoming an ever more pertinent demand as climate change debate rises in line with the seas.
All at the Lab seemed unified in our uncertainty about how to approach this show, with parents eyeing the direct challenge to sensibilities that the few visible flyers for Treefxxxers blatantly advertised.
Once the stage was set, Dr. Tom Payne, lecturer of Performance Studies at the university and co-director of Doppelgangster, took control, suggesting that we read up on the show via social media, which was the preferred medium for the students involved. This was instead of using up paper for printed programs. It’s solid advice – and I urge you to follow the link and do the same.
Thus contextualized, he ushered us inside…
…where we filed quietly around the edge of a floor level stage, beneath huge photographs of the cast under which they each sat; art refocusing reality.
We edged along to a raised seating area, supervised at the decks by Doppelgangster’s other co-director, Tobias Manderson-Galvin . There was a friendly air of anticipation, not the usual theatre-going “must play this cool” attitude anywhere in sight. Yet it was a fragile space, the acting out of a Proof of Concept regarding what happens if… What happens if an established company puts young performers in the driving seat? What happens if students are encouraged to politicize themselves? What happens if site-specific theatre is inside an actual theatre, designed and acted by people who are only transient residents? What happens if the narrative is still being formed right up to Beginners Please…
The precarious nature of this collaboration was perhaps not on everyone’s minds, but the vulnerability of being on a stage with no wings was surely more than enough. Particularly when the front row was also the apron. All were exposed. Responsibility weighed heavy in the dry iced air.
The students on stage tried not to fidget. So did we.
Once the show began, any concern I may have had that this might require a large dose of tolerance, was soon expelled. My experience of academically-centered theatre is a mixed bag. This though, was certainly different.
We were immediately engaged by two hosts: a badger on the brink of death and the ghost of a wolf. Faded and fading inhabitants of woodland, figures of both public fear and public support. The exchange between these two was a strong opening – albeit somewhat bewilderingly abstract.
“Bewilderingly abstract” could describe much of what followed. However, a willingness to do away with ideas of chronology and scene cohesion allowed for the authentic randomness to speak for itself. It reflected notions of fragmentary unification, taking us back again to the work of performer Mike Pearson as we were partially submersed into a flurry of meta-stories; all held together with a score by Jules Pascoe that kept momentum fresh and unflinchingly loud.
The set was similarly direct, costumes were second skins to their wearers which gave the ambiance of a documentary, albeit a color-coordinated one. All movement was punchily choreographed by Sarah Lamb; not too smooth though, each person’s style shone through despite a general synchronization. Initially I found this annoying; but it rapidly won me around, resulting in my appreciating the original quirks and mis-timings as points of heightened interest rather than deviance from some polished visage.
The overall style was somewhat burlesque, a contemporary vaudeville embodying a political claim. For my taste, there was perhaps a little over indulgence regarding the subjects of Sex and Death, with an obvious satisfaction being gained from mocking up intercourse, and salacious verbal profanity. Whilst in some respects this detracted from my engagement, it still managed to relay an honesty that was effective. I’m still not entirely sure how they did that. Maybe it was that this was genuinely who and how their generation were in that moment; youth caught between procreation and destruction. The provocations were not superficial but a statement about human fragility paired with the mortality of nature at the hands of Big Brother. A fight led mainly by the city’s older inhabitants, to whom they were speaking out in solidarity. It was an accurate (re)presentation of collective frustration – offset with some beautifully poignant moments and splashes of inciteful humor (especially the song, where a dogged determination to fail made the whole thing a total success).
It’s rare to get an audience this supportive, so when a person was called out to participate directly by marrying an apple tree-that-wasn’t-actually-a-tree (and was already dead), this was met with cheers. Treehugga, the gentleman in question, did rather steal the limelight from that moment on. A big burly chap with quick wit, he was able to quip and banter as a bridge between watchers and players. This could easily have intimidated the actors, but instead, they bounced off his presence like true professionals. It was also extraordinarily funny – even it didn’t make much actual sense.
Perhaps sense-making is overrated. Perhaps we need more opportunities to let the abstract silent screams from our psyches take character and reach out – antlered and dancing. Throughout, the soundtrack held this space, even when the speakers and microphones briefly went mute… because the performers just paused, transforming it into a deliberate hiatus. It’s moments like that which make one realize that audience, actors and crew are breathing together to create a shared world; and that for me, is the true magic of theatre.
Meanwhile, the STAG campaign continues to try and protect Sheffield’s trees; habitats are being fought for flora, fauna and the folk who live amongst them. Unlawful arrests, investigations and inspections, a disease resistant Elm. The fight for unpolluted air is more than an aesthetic desire to see leafy terraces; it’s a collective call to breathe. Who knows if the students from Treefxxxers will continue to add their voices to this battle cry but by taking to the stage, they’ve had an opportunity to begin.
Erin Kavanagh is a poet and Creative Archaeologist who specializes in Sci/Art collaboration, deep-mapping and site-specific communication. With a background in philosophy, theatre and geoscience, her work is inherently interdisciplinary, with a particular focus on lost and submerged narratives. She is also currently a PhD Candidate at Sheffield Hallam University in English and Performance, funded by NECAH.