The first in a series of interviews with Artists creating work for the Outdoors. Two Artists sitting in a Bar and one of them says to the other…
Two Outdoor Artists in a Bar and one of them says to Paschale Straiton…
(Paschale Straiton is the Artistic Director of Red Herring Productions, and Chair of NASA UK )
1. Tell me about the first time you performed in or made work for the great outdoors? – Who was it with? What did you do?
It was August 1997 and I was 25 years old. After thinking for a bit that I might be an academic, I had realised that I wasn’t and I knew that really I wanted to be a performer. Drama school wasn’t for me and after a short stint I found the world of stand up too cut throat. So, I decided to have a go at doing a street show and with no idea at all, packed a suitcase full of dressing up went up to the Edinburgh Festival. I stayed in a hostel and would walk down to Princes Street Gardens to write my show. After a few days of agony, with the festival surging around me, I wondered if I could pretend to my friends and family that I’d had an amazing success and go back home without doing anything but I gritted my teeth and bought a newspaper for inspiration. This was the time when Princess Di and Dodi Al Fayed were having a holiday near St Tropez and it had hit the headlines. The papers were full of stories of previous girlfriends who had been jilted and it all smacked of sour grapes and publicity grabbing. So, I found myself a second-hand wedding dress, covered it in mud, make-up and wine. I learnt a batch of Bee Gees numbers and spent a week with mascara running down my face, waving about a bottle of Lambrusco Blush, telling strangers about my plight; that I was a club singer who worked in Monaco and was supposed to be marrying Dodi but he’d left me in the lurch. I sang songs and proposed to whoever would listen to me. I’d inadvertently started my career as a walkabout performer. In order to lend a bit more context, I eventually made a banner which said, ‘Dodi is a Tody’ which got more reaction than I’d hoped, from the politically conservative who didn’t like him and from the odd arabic individual who took offence. A week later, when they both died in the car crash, while I was baffled at the extreme reaction in the country, I did feel a bit awkward about the holiday snaps that would have been printed of me with my banner. Hmmm!
2. Who has inspired your work most, and in what way?
I saw ‘Let the Donkey Go’ by Peepolykus not that long after my rather strange encounter with outdoor theatre described above. My friend Jenny Sanderson (now David) was at Circomedia in Bristol, which I just assumed was all about sequins and flick flacks. She invited me to see the show and it was a revelation that you could train to be an idiot and be paid for doing it. Being a plonker was what I enjoyed doing and I signed up for an audition the next day! When I first got a taste of outdoor performance I was really influenced by the work that the Whalley Range Allstars were doing. They had just produced Head Quarters, where I think 10 people sat down on stools and a box descended into which they placed their heads. Inside was an otherworldly dormitory and all their heads were ‘sat’ on tiny bedsteads and a bit time ritual ensued. This was followed by Bed Cases, in which 6 people shared a giant bed and experienced a wonderful daytime dream. These were wonderful, bonkers, funny, delicate and intimate experiences that you enjoyed with strangers and opened my eyes even wider than before as to the options available. A few years later I created ‘The Seance’ with a bunch of incredible artists, which took place in a booth set.
3. What are you doing now, and what’s next?
I’ve moved to Bideford in North Devon and am planning on expanding my company Red Herring and creating some projects in rural areas, working with people who live and work in them. The first project is due to take place on the amazing Hartland Peninsular, which is part owned by the National Trust, part of the North Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the UNESCO North Devon Biosphere. As you can imagine it’s a special location with some extraordinary characters. I’m also looking to develop a more robust performing company down here but that may take a while as there’s limited theatre making around here and so it will be starting a bit from scratch. In the meantime, I’m working with some other companies to keep busy and to keep the wolf from the door. So, I’m a performer in The Miraculous Theatre Company’s ‘Romantic Botanic’, a guided tour about the secret love life of plants and I’m a performer in Avanti’s new show, ‘Full Circle’, which is currently in development.
4. What do you tell other people you do?
This is a tricky one. I tell taxi drivers that I’m an actress but that I don’t work on the telly. I tell most strangers that I’m a theatre person – sometimes I act, sometimes I direct. If I get into a longer conversation I say that I mainly make theatre for the outdoors. If I meet someone who works in the profession I might say I’m a performer, director or outdoor theatre maker, depending on the context. I used to say that I made street theatre, but more often than not I don’t work on the street these days or if I do, I’m performing as part of a festival where people are already sat down and waiting for a show by the time you arrive. It’s not the same as turning up and trying to build a show which is what I feel makes a ‘street show’. I’ve realised that what I really do is to play and try to encourage others to play with me. But there’s no word to describes it. A player? That’s a bit sexy or a bit fiddle-di-di. A playist? Too pretentious. The word Plawright is a good for someone who crafts plays. Could playsmith work or is that just crap too?
5. What is the best thing about working in outdoor theatre?
I work for the moments that Tony Lidington from the Prom Prom Productions would call WIAAs – the ‘What It’s All Abouts.’ Those moments when you, either individually or in a group have managed to create a piece of magic with a bunch of strangers that was totally unexpected. It might be funny or it might be profound but they leave everyone feeling a little changed, even for a moment. It’s difficult to encounter those kinds of experiences indoors where there are stricter relationships between those performing or doing the ‘art’ and those watching and listening. Even in immersive theatre productions, the world of the experience or the ‘theatre’ bit generally dominates the ‘us being together’ bit. When you’re outside in public space, you’re on an equal footing, in a place that belongs to us all where we all have an equal share in how we might re-imagine it. Those WIAA moments are like a kind of beautiful freedom.
6. Which gig do you still have daydreams or nightmares about?
‘The Seance’ was an important milestone for me. This was a show for 15 people in a Victorian parlour, where they encountered a medium, held a seance and suffered the consequences. It was to all intents and purposes a great success – while it was made in 2008 and only really performed a handful of times, people still mention it to me with great fondness. This was my first proper creation and the first project to be commissioned (by Hat Fair and Arts Fresco, Market Harborough) and funded by the Arts Council. I worked with a bunch of incredible artists and including Flick Ferdinando, Lucy Bradridge, James Chaplin, David Bernstein, Bernadette Russell, Charlie Camm, Graeme Gilmour, John Paul Zaccarini and Brenda Waite. It was a big deal. It was also a massive nightmare, with a set build and production schedule that was completely beyond my experience. The show was developed over 2 years. In the first year I was rather broken by it and hoped that I’d never dreamed it up in the first place. In the second I got a producer on board – the wonderful Sarah Sansom – who was to transform my working practice and professionalism immeasurably and for which I will be forever thankful. The set is still stuck in a barn being eaten by mice as I can’t bear to sell it for scrap and have had difficulty passing it on. Any takers?!