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Brief Encounter With … Cupola Bobber

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Founded in 1999, Cupola Bobber is a collaboration between Stephen Fiehn and Tyler B. Myers. They have created four evening length performances by working slowly out of their studio on the west side of Chicago. The company have performed in multiple venues in Chicago, Austin, Portland, and New York, and toured internationally including last in the UK with the acclaimed. In 2008 the duo were International Artists in Residence at the Nuffield Theatre Lancaster. Alongside evening-length performances, they have made video, durational performance, and published writing. Their latest piece, Way Out West, and The Sea Whispered Me comes to the Northwest later this month.

The production sounds intriguing, can you tell us the premise
This show builds what we call a poetics of the particle. Focused on the sublime experience of sitting and looking at The Sea, that it is powerfully beautiful and mystifyingly brutal, we invoke a loose narrative based on the persistent eroding action of the sea’s waves. We imagine Hallsands in Devon, most of which has fallen in the sea, and the town of Dunwich in Suffolk - as told by WG Sebald in Rings of Saturn - with its perpetual rebuilding westward as the sea slowly chases it, destroying it (nine parish churches have been lost.) Dunwich’s slow, perpetual westward reinvention struck a chord with us, as a story of perseverance and as a connection to the mythic aspect of our American historical westward movement. We imagine those parish churches being ground up by the sea into tiny particles and re-circulated by nature to become dust in the dust storms over depression-era Kansas, creating in dust drifts the negative (remembered?) image of the sea and its waves. The basic unit of nature - the particle of matter - constantly circulating, never still for long, playing both victim and aggressor; functioning as a complex allusion to individual existence.

All things within the performance reflect this basic concept. We perform like Laurel and Hardy, like Gilbert and George, like Morecambe and Wise, waves of a style being reinvented. Our set is a few simple tarps, which are at turns a mountain, the sea, a cloud, a storm. Basic units being recomposed, echoing, reconfiguring.
What inspired you?
In many important ways, work on this performance started when we did the Morecambe cross bay walk. At the time, we were reading WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, an account a walk he did through Suffolk. He told the story of a town called Dunwich which had lost a series of parish churches to the sea. This town’s story really interested us, a bizarre tale of a town repeating the same tragedy compulsively as it rebuilt itself west and The Sea, through erosion, followed it. We really identified with it as story, and as metaphor. So we came to Lancashire knowing of the cross bay walk, having read Cedric Robinson’s book Queen’s Guide to the Sands, and with the 2004 cockler tragedy still on people’s minds. In Robinson’s book he told of the many things lost to the sand. Mail coaches, cars, shoes, the list went on and on. And yet, we were drawn to it, to The Sea and the walk. And the experience of the walk was incredible, both in it’s actual experience and in the imagining of all the stuff that sand had taken as we walked over it. This sort of active paradox, between magnetic awe and terrible disaster encapsulates a basic theme we wanted to make a show about.
You have walked on some of the UK's beaches. What did you think of them?
We’ve visited a few coastal sites; Hallsands, Morecambe Bay, and Blackpool. We did a bumbling two-day research walk from Morecambe to Blackpool in  2008.  Except for a small rocky beach near Hallsands and a beach that we encountered just north of Blackpool most of the shorelines that we visited were without beaches and at the time of our visits our imaginations were filled with the erosion narrative in Sebald’s novel so we were coming from a pretty specific state of mind when we looked at these places. One thing that sticks out in our first glimpse of Morecambe Bay and how far the tide was out– the water was no where to be seen.  It was really something for us to be at the ”sea side”  where there was no water.  There is also something about the aggressive wind at Hallsands that sticks in our memory,  at times it was hard to breathe and all we could hear was the rushing of the wind in and out of our ears.

You have worked here plenty of times now. How do UK audiences compare with the U.S?
 It’s tough to make a comparison on a national scale because every time we perform the audience is different and made up of a combination of individuals who all have personal responses. However, one thing we’ve noticed while showing work in the UK is the way audiences are quick to pick up on the subtler humor in our work.
You researched Morecombe and Wise's act. As a double act, what do you like about them and which other duos do you admire?
 Before our time in residence at The Nuffield Theatre in Lancaster we had never really watched much of Morecambe and Wise, but when we were researching the town Morecambe their names came up – mostly because of the Eric Morecambe statue located on the promenade.  We found one statement where they had labeled Eric and a few others from the Morecambe area “ sand born stars”. We liked this phrase. After watching a few episodes of the TV show we became really interested in the fact that they ended every episode by singing the same song ("Bring Me Sunshine") and that you could watch these in succession and see changes in the performance, their age etc... If you think of stringing all of them together it becomes this striking document of the passing of time and physical change put to a persistently sunny soundtrack. We also liked thinking that Morecambe and Wise could be located somewhere in between the duos Laurel and Hardy and Gilbert and George, both chronologically and performatively, so they begin to function for us as a bridge between the other two… a continuum.

You founded the company in 1999, what have you learned about the business since then?
It’s best to keep your head down and challenge yourself everyday by focussing on the hardest work: staying intensely engaged with what work you are making and why. At every stage we have fought the pull to spend our time on the less emotionally dismantling business side of what we do. While also challenging and emotionally exhausting, it is sometimes easier to look for applications to do or to “grow” your organization than it is to look at a blank piece of paper and ask yourself what you want to say. We have done very little to become a business because we don’t want the work of maintaining that business to become our primary activity. Generally, when the work is rigorous and strong, the business side will sort itself out.
What are your future plans?
We’ve just started a new two-year work cycle (two years being the amount of time that we intentionally give ourselves to complete a new work)and we have a couple of projects that we are pursuing. The first being our fifth performance which we have begun by taking a look at Flaubert’s unfinished novel Bouvard et Pecuchet and by attempting to to visit the 6th largest library in the US located in Illinois (we couldn’t get into it so we sat outside and imagined the library).  The second, is a massive writing and collection project titled The Dictionary of Endurative Actions which will be introduced in The Drama Review’s Spring 2010 issue. Also, we’ll be showing our work The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment at the Plateaux Festival this spring in Frankfurt and are planning to return to the UK in Fall 2010 to tour Way Out West, the Sea Whispered Me some more.
Why should Manchester audiences come and see Way Out West, and The Sea Whsipered Me?
We think our shows offer a very rich experience powerfully built on the primary power in performance; that it’s live. Audience members can expect a contemporary performance style that takes cues from Gilbert and George, Laurel and Hardy, and Morcambe and Wise as it unravels the question; “what exactly is The Sea to us?” Is it a muse for existential contemplation, or is it only nature at its most heartless; destructive and terrible? The performance is a delight in its intellectual and formal rigor, its humor, and its visceral effect.

Tyler B. Myers and Stephen Fiehn (Cupola Bobber) were speaking to Glenn Meads

Way Out West, the Sea Whispered Me
is at the Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster from 22 - 23 February and The Green Room, Manchester on 26th February.


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