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Chris Grady: A must see now - and some samples for the future

By • West End
Once in a while I spend an hour in a theatre and realise at the end that I have hardly moved, hardly breathed, and would be quite content if that was the last piece of theatre I ever experienced. I had that sense last night at the New Wolsey Studio in Ipswich – and you can see what you think by seeing the same show in Bristol, Birmingham, Newcastle, Cambridge, London and Norwich plus others… more of that in a moment.

Yesterday was a five event day – four in Cambridge as part of the Sampled Festival created by Cambridge Junction “art meets life”, and one in Ipswich. Sampled is a two day smorgasbord of unfinished and unleashed work where we are invited to share in the experience of creation with 35 companies in two days.

I saw a 30-minute showing of a new piece by Louise Orwin which challenges us to see the world through the eyes of teenage girls as they post a single question on YouTube – “Am I Pretty/Ugly”. Louise explored our society through this performance and it was uncomfortable and disturbing viewing. I slipped from there to another space in Cambridge Junction to see the Sleepwalk Collective in the very early stages of development of a piece called “Karaoke”.

Here we witnessed two performers directed by the lines appearing on their karaoke machine – without song it still had a haunting, mesmeric, chanting feel where we all saw the same thing but each had time and space to create their own theatrical backstory and projections.

The point of Sampled is to allow the audience to share their reflections with the artists through feedback forms, short discussions, and bar/coffee chat. I knew nothing about Sleepwalk Collective. I was there because the show I’d travelled to see by Block Stop was sold out (congrats to them). So I was truly a random audience member, and I for one will be looking out to see how this 20 minute showing grows into a full show.

Next up, 30 Bird’s new show “Domestic Labour: A Study of Love”, which is blessed with funding and co-production support from the Bush, Cambridge Junction, New Wolsey Theatre and the Lottery. Rich inventive theatricality and autobiographical stories, kinetic installations by Chris Dobrowolski gathered for Mehrdad Seyf’s directorial exploration of man’s experience of growing up in the heyday of 70s Feminism – three women speak and embody the life of one man. This was less raw, less tentative, less unfinished.

I sense the creative team know exactly where they are going and that the show will be seen in its full form shortly in each of these major arts centres. Three shows, and it was still only 3.30pm – I was getting a sense that we were all warming up for Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We then all took an hour to share in a panel discussion on the culture of work-in-progress with speakers including David Jubb who leads Battersea Arts Centre where scratch is a part of life across their 80 room building and Fiona Baxter from Farnham Maltings where the House project is developing new work for smaller venues across Britain.

David offered a wonderous rich provocation using the letters of Scratch to explore Space, Curation, Relationships, Audience, Trust, Credit, Happenings and a number of other words on a theme. Fiona began with a very simple plea – that we and the creators should know why they are doing any form of sharing – and a warning that too often artists focus on making a showing, rather than showing what they have made.

I will leave the discussion there because I wrote a lengthy blog last week on exactly this theme. And now to my evening. A quick drive from Cambridge to Ipswich to see Dan Canham’s new piece “Ours was the Fen Country”. We had booked as soon as we heard of the work because we had been transfixed and deeply moved by his first piece and one man performance “30 Cecil Street”.

I had suggested my colleagues book it for the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds – maybe they and other theatres will still have a chance. But tonight we settled in a beautifully lit studio as a stillness settled over a packed house. We witnessed words taken from two years of interviews with the people of the Fen Country, offered to us in original recording, and through the voices of four performers, and through the embodied choreography of the company.

In the words of Dan Canham, “The people we’ve spoken with represent a shrinking presence, with a knowledge and relationship to the natural world that is likely to pass with their own passing. This evening we offer fragments of their lives by way of eulogy and celebration.” I would add also – by way of warning. Whilst wars fester in the Middle East which could destroy our planet, and politicians observe, debate, stoke the fires, cheer one side or the other, and the broadcasters repeat endless warnings of the horrors to come.

Whilst all this is happening in the glare of publicity, our island and the people of this island are quietly losing out to progress and the rising waters of a changing earth, as are so many traditional farming nations where we could, given care and less drive for FTSE profit, continue to feed the world and support our communities.

It may be too late for this or the next generation to save our planet, but it is not too late to listen to the wisdom and humour of the people of the Fen Country, and see the creative beauty of the current generation of emerging artists like Dan Chanham, Laura Dannequin, hauntingly supportive lighting by Malcolm Rippeth and the other three performers Tilly Webber, Neil Parris and Ian Morgan.

Produced and championed by www.mayk.org.uk. Thank you. Next week is HighTide Festival in Halsworth, then Pulse in Ipswich - and all the time there is new work in development and being shown across small spaces in London and throughout the land. As always I urge you to try something new - you might just see something which will move you deeply and feed your soul.

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