Sunday, 29 July 2018

Toujours Dramaturgy: Erratica @ Edfringe 2018

Using the 19th century ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ illusion, a man and woman uncover a story of loss, regret and unresolved trauma.

Directed by Patrick Eakin Young

Assembly Roxy: 2 – 27 Aug  (not 13 & 20), 3.00pm

Incorporating dance, physical theatre, video art and an era-spanning set of opera, Toujours et Près De Moi blurs the lines between past and present, reality and illusion, to explore a couple’s – or former couple’s – story of absence and heartbreak.

The Victorian music-hall illusion of ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, which creates moving 3D images by projecting on to a large piece of glass, is used to invoke virtual representations of the two unnamed characters’ past selves. 

The figures interact with the set, each other and the real-life actors with uncanny realism to suggest a relationship fractured by loss, absence, heartbreak and regret.


Can we start by talking about the illusion? That sounds as if it will be something unique at the Fringe. Where did you discover this trick, and why did it appeal to you for contemporary use?

I taught myself how to make a Pepper’s Ghost through internet research and trial-and-error. It’s actually a very simple technique, and has been used since the mid 19th century. The contemporary innovation, which was not my own, was to use video projection. The main issue has always been getting a mirror big enough. I started by using actual glass mirrors, then commercial window film, but now we’re using professional grade mylar. There are companies that make these illusions commercially on a big scale. It’s mostly used at trade expos, to make cars or planes or other products appear and disappear onstage. But there are some theatre companies that use it too, like 3Legged Dog in New York and Lemieux Pilon 4D in Montreal. Obviously magicians still use it. (Our current mirror was bought second hand from a magician!) They used it in Ghost the musical on the West End, and then it sometimes gets used in big stadium music acts, like when they made a hologram of Tupac for Coachella a few years ago.
The one innovation that I seem to have stumbled on in my trial-and-error tinkering is how to make the holograms seemingly interact with objects. Every other peppers ghost I’ve ever seen, the image always appears in a black space. But I discovered that if you place objects in the right place in relation to the projected image, they can look like they are touching. This is what I particularly love about the holograms in this piece, because they interact with real objects—the figures jump in and out of boxes, climbing on them, hitting them—it gives them a real sense of presence and weight. But they aren’t touching! In fact the image that you are seeing is a reflection and isn’t in the space. The two performers can’t even see the holograms at all. They spend the entire time looking at an empty space, moving objects around the table. But to the audience it is totally convincing.

You mention the operatic soundtrack: at what point in the process did the soundtrack start to be developed, and can you tell me about how it spans eras - and why opera?

I call the piece a holographic puppet opera, but technically, it is none of those things! A pepper’s ghost is an illusion, not a hologram, the video projects are not really puppets, and there isn’t any actual opera. But somehow, that does seem to convey what the piece is. 

All of ERRATICA's work has music at its core, and almost always the human voice. When I started this project I wanted to make a piece that could be performed with either recorded or live music, and specifically unaccompanied voice. I worked with a brilliant composer and conductor, James Weeks, who leads one of the UK’s top contemporary vocal ensembles, EXAUDI. He started to suggest composers and pieces that might be of interest. I had in mind Monteverdi Madgrigals, but James pointed me towards Gesualdo and from there to Sciarrino. I put together a long playlist of options and then started to whittle it down to the 11 musical pieces in the show. The works that I chose in the end span from the middle ages to the 2010s. But they all have some connection to the themes of the piece—loss, memory, and the persistence of the past. The title, Toujours et Près de Moi, comes from a piece that James wrote called Complainte, which takes up a long section in the middle of the show. It’s a setting of a poem by Mary Queen of Scots (written in French) about the death of her husband and how his memory is always close to her.

In this way, the music actually preceded the creation of the show itself. I had an idea of the subject matter of the piece, and with my playlist, I'd mapped out a kind of emotional dramaturgy. Then, with the performers, we devised what actually happened in the scenes.

It sounds as if it is pretty lucky that the dance section is also physical theatre, because this work feels very cross-genre. Would it root it in any particular tradition, and how does it relate to other works that you have made?

All of my work is cross-genre! Aside from having music at their core, ERRATICA projects regularly involve dance, puppetry, physical theatre, and technology. Our last piece, Remnants, had 4 singers, a dancer, and recorded voice-over. We did an installation opera, La Celestina, at the Metropolitan Musuem in New York, which was for polyphonic voice over a twelve-speaker array and projected shadow puppets, and we’ve even made an interactive pinball machine. So everything we do is a bit hard to categorise.

I think this piece makes sense as both physical theatre and dance. There is no text, so all the storytelling is done with the body. There is dance in the holograms, but I would say that the real choreographic feat is performed by the live actors. They have to enact complex choreography, moving boxes and placing them in the exact right place, looking and reacting to the holograms which they can’t even see. Its just not at all the kind of choreography that you associate with ‘dance’ and if everything is working properly, the audience doesn’t really see it as such, they just think the performers are reacting and interacting with the holograms.

In terms of the narrative and themes, what inspired the production, and do you have a particular process of creation (is it devised by the performers or runs to a pre-ordained script... that kind of thing...)

When I started working with Pepper’s Ghosts I was living in Johannesburg in South Africa with my wife’s family, although we weren’t married at the time. My wife had stomach cancer, and we both moved there from New York where we were living so that she could go through treatment and be close to her family and support networks. Thankfully, she made a full recovery, but it was a very scary and traumatic time. I made my first Pepper’s Ghost while I was there, a table-top installation called Corpus Sed Non Caro. After she recovered, we moved to London, and I decided I wanted to make a longer piece involving Pepper’s Ghost and live performers.

The video for the piece was created ridiculously quickly, in two weeks with three performers. As I mentioned, I had a soundtrack and a basic story in mind, but we devised the scenes together. The box choreography was created at that time as well. Most of my pieces are developed through a combination of devising, scripted work, and composition (since they’re always musical) and are always very collaborative. My new work generally develops over an extended workshop process, often taking up to two years from initial investigation to opening night. This piece is different in that it is the record of a single condensed creation process. Because the video can’t be changed, in a way, I created a kind of script that I’m having to reinterpret each time I produce the piece. With every successive production (this is the 4th iteration) I’ve changed and improved the storytelling of the live actors, but always within the constraints of the video. This time, we’ve also introduced additional sound design to conjure the world of the show more vividly.

There seems to be some kind of discussion in the work about the interface between time, memory and desire: am I right or well off beam here?

Toujours et Près de Moi is very much about that time in my life when my wife was sick and how it has continued to affect me. In that sense it is a very personal project, but it is also about memory in general, and the ways that trauma and our past can haunt us. At the centre of the piece is a couple, a Man and a Woman, who, in some kind of magical theatrical way, find themselves in a space where holographic versions of themselves romp around on a table playing out their needs, desires, fears, longings, and ultimately affection for each other. In the first version of the piece the actors on stage and in the holograms were the same, but now I use older performers in the live portion. It actually works much better, to really draw the distinction of these people looking back on their past. Pepper’s Ghost is a medium that by it’s nature is about presence and absence, and therefore about memory. Ghosts are fundamentally about traumas that persist in the present and about the ways that the past will not be forgotten. This exists both on a social level, and on a personal level. I think desire is a very important part of the piece as well: the desire to be loved, the desire to be heard, the desire to be connected, but also the desire to remember. There is a pleasure that we get from remembering, even things that upset us. It’s not only that the past will not go away, but that we refuse to let it.

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