I just went and playtested a piece of immersive theatre that’s being developed by FanSHEN in collaboration with neuroscientists at King’s College London. It’s only the second time it has run but it was a very memorable experience for 12 audients.
Over the years FanSHEN have been a very positive and nurturing force in my development as an artist. It is a collective, headed up by Dan Barnard and Rachel Briscoe. I met Dan first, when I was just out of drama school. There were auditions for a season of Lorca plays at The Arcola. I was working at The Rosemary Branch, playing Oscar Wilde in a new piece of writing about his death – “The Oscar Wilde Rule”. I love Lorca – as a previous blog makes clear – so I thought it worth my time to go to the Arcola before my call and see if there were any unfilled audition slots. There weren’t, but Dan was the man with the clipboard. Rather than treating me like a pariah, he gave me the time of day, which makes a change. This was some 15 years ago. Unknown actors are often right at the bottom of the pecking order with a foot in the face to make sure they stay there. He bucked the trend, took me seriously, tried me out in a couple of staged readings, after which I was invited to some workshops. It was there that I met and began to collaborate with Rachel too, whose approach I also found extremely positive and generative. Over time Rachel and Dan started to collaborate with a group of other artists when they were building things. I was part of that community. It was always joyful.
We toured the UK developing and then sharing a totally sustainable bike generated piece of street theatre about the peak oil running out. It was told through the prism of Joseph Campbell’s blueprint for the hero’s journey. Also dancing vegetables, mad brigadiers, dogs making difficult decisions, a cross dressing loanshark who just wanted to be loved, people firing cannons at rivers to stop them flooding, boomshacka-stuff, the sustaintist, and a bird getting blatted in the head with a frying pan – which somehow never failed to make us laugh as makers, but fell on utter silence in the first playtest so was consigned to oblivion immediately thereafter. Never to blat again.
Another summer we did a formal piece of theatre in a formal theatre space, consciously implementing Mike Alfred’s “Different Every Night.” Rachel and Dan gave the actors different provocations every night. I witnessed how most of the actors mistook the provocations for notes and got the hump about it, and I understood that there’s a distance for some actors between what they say in auditions “yeah, I’m cool with that. Mike Umfred’s is my hero. I love all the things he says. How much? Where do I sign?,” and what happens in reality “I can’t fucking believe it, they’ve given us notes AGAIN just before a show. No Al, don’t go on about that Mike Alfred’s shit, this is unacceptable. It’s the last week of the run.”
They’re my friends, Dan and Rachel. We know each other now and know each other’s ways. I love and respect their work and their ethics – my tendencies towards taking vegetarianism seriously as a thing I might embrace… that started squarely with them.
They still surprise and amaze me, FanSHEN. This is a remarkable piece they’ve developed, The Justice Syndicate. The frame is an ambiguous trial by jury situation, allowing you to contemplate your own unconscious bias and witness that of others in a respectful environment. I came out feeling emotionally wrung out and knowing a lot more about myself. It’s a really deeply thought provoking piece, especially considering its not even finished yet – this was just a playtest. It works beautifully playing only with 12, (or did in our configuration.) As always when friends of mine make something good and challenging I feel inordinately proud to know them. I’m glad I took the chance all those years ago to try my hand for the Lorca at The Arcola. Subsequent experiences burnt my fingers almost to the bone. But they’ve grown back now. Over the years I’ve found some remarkable collaborators making interesting weird stuff. I’m proud of that, and I need to remember that when I can’t pay the credit card bills.