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Brief Encounter With ... Rajni Shah

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Rajni Shah has been creating and directing original performance work since 1999, with past projects including Hope (2009); Dinner with America (2008); give what you can, take what you need (2008); Altars of us all / speaking to strangers (2008) and Mr Quiver (2005).

Her work ranges from large-scale performance installations to small solo interventions in public spaces. Glorious is the third in a trilogy of works and has been commission by SPILL Festival of Performance. It will show at the Barbican before touring nationally.

I end my interview with Rajni Shah by asking a question I thought she would have been bombarded with “What’s your favourite musical, I’m sure everyone’s asked you that!" She is presently surprised “Actually they haven’t! It’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg... I’ve insisted everyone watch it, I think it’s quite brilliant in terms of the visuals and it would seem its a million miles away but it was a really early reference point.” Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised that this is the first time she has encountered such a mainstream question; as an artist Shah is anything but conventional.

To start at the end seems an apt jumping off point for an interview with Shah, whose work defies easy categorisation and constantly probes the validity of ‘beginnings’ and ‘endings’. More likely to be categorised with the live art set than MT twirlies, for such a performer to be doing a musical is an exciting development for an artform whose last great innovator is the Conservative behemoth Andrew Lloyd Webber.

In a theatrical world full of distinctive tribes it’s a brave move but Shah is quietly proud to be working in this traditionally cheesy form “I feel free to say that I’ve always loved musicals. I’ve had quite a few discussions with people about musicals and I think most people quite like them, most people who say they really hate them will say ‘oh except for this’... Mostly what they’re saying is I don’t like bad musicals. Whatever you do some people will come with a certain expectation of what a musical can be. Glorious tries to break that open”.

Whilst she is working within a traditional three act structure and with some serious musical theatre pedigree (co-composers Ben and Max Ringham were nominated for an Olivier Award for their work on Piaf) Glorious promises to be something completely new and she admits it’s been a tough journey from performance artist to musical composer. But it’s a challenge she has relished in a typically forthright fashion, indeed one of the most refreshing things about this live artist is how down to earth she seems.

So what is Glorious actually about? She has been quoted as saying “The show reminds people of the power of one person’s story, embracing the idea that if we come together and listen to each other, anything’s possible – that the future is in our hands”. By asking local participants to write letters that form the basis of each show she has opened up voices and experiences of real people in an overwhelming world, with their words forming the heart of this epic piece.

She admits it could sound cheesy but is also wonderfully open about the importance of this endeavour “Everything about Glorious sounds really trite, but it’s just that people are amazing.” She says matter of factly if a little blushingly “One guy was describing his walk to work and there was a little girl who was 8 and she read a list of everything she had, then a woman who read a letter she’d written to her son who’d walked out.”

By giving an epic voice to the minute detail of life Shah is searching to give power back to those who feel helpless; expectations in hand, I think it will be fascinating to see the results.

Glorious runs at the Barbican Centre from 19 to 21 April 2011 and will then tour nationally.

- Honour Bayes


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