The person performing in front of you is dying in front of your eyes, as I am dying now. That’s literally true, invisibly so. But if you are sufficiently patient, you will see it…
I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Quarantine on a quartet of work called Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring.
Besides the epic scale of the production, one early appeal of this placement was its job title: Project Assistant. This struck me as both brilliantly ambiguous and precisely what I needed, having just arrived in Manchester with some brilliantly ambiguous questions about producing theatre.
How do you mobilise a vast, conceptual idea into something people can see?
How do you steer it through different perspectives, encounters and compromises, when so many mechanisms are crucial to its realisation?
How do those mechanisms work, I wonder?
Could I keep up with it all?
I didn’t expect full answers to all these clunky, frantic questions, so I also brought the sensible intention of making myself useful and learning some practical skills.
Before each Summer. rehearsal, I helped set up the space. We’d stock up on little essentials to support the work: fruit, teabags, and enough small change to reimburse the performers’ travel. We constructed tables and heated the water. Watching people fill the room, sometimes jaded from work, sometimes invigorated by the weather, we ate together, and relaxed. We listened to each other disclose daily routines, confide fears of loneliness, and describe the sweet, unique joy of eating Jaffa Cakes in front of Grey’s Anatomy. I mopped up tea and stacked chairs, and watched natural, individual interviews unfold. Usually they’d do ‘eyes shut dancing’: some moved soulfully, focussed and introverted; some jerked wildly, chasing the chorus; some stayed rooted to the spot, occasionally peeking. It’s a beautifully intimate image. After weeks of stacking, supermarket trips and observation, I began to see that having a full fruit bowl had everything to do with the fullness of what was created on stage.
During Autumn. I was on stage myself (along with everyone else). I served homemade soup and monitored the distribution of complimentary samosas. This was no mean feat; they’re delicious and very difficult to ration. To my left was a production line, to my right a silent disco, and golden confetti would be released across the space at careful intervals. I was a voyeur once again, watching some people embrace this interactivity, and others wander, perplexed, to buy an ice cream.
For Winter. I transcribed around ten hours of audio material. This is a time-consuming and potentially monotonous activity. But the ‘material’ was a woman from my hometown discussing life, love and sickness with startling humility and frankness. I typed for hours, and listened for hours more, absorbing her inflections like I knew her. Her words triggered tears and audible laughter from beneath my headphones. Those hours of anecdotes and reflection were then distilled into just forty minutes of footage; I watched it for the first time during the final quartet performance, with Mandy in the audience.
Spring. was aesthetically lovely: nine generous, funny, heavily pregnant women surrounded by floating silver pillows. Months in advance, I’d been asked to spend the afternoon funnelling helium into novelty ‘Noddy’ balloons. How many, roughly, might fit inside that cardboard box? How, more to the point, might you make inflated helium balloons stay inside a cardboard box? Occasionally I would overinflate a ‘Noddy’, and the roomful of focused, loquacious devisers would be interrupted with a loud bang. It was a strange thing to do. However, my haphazard muddling with a collection of budget balloons would eventually contribute – in a small, incremental way – to the final aesthetic.
My 21-day placement snowballed with the demands of the project and my growing affection for the company. Tasks varied from the bizarre to the mundane, and I wouldn’t have changed them for a second.
Quarantine has a characteristic knack for achieving the improbable: my experience with them did answer some big and ambiguous questions about the creative process, as well as my little, practical ones.
It also triggered a hundred more, about the importance of risk, playfulness, and generosity.
*This quote was used on the marketing material for the quartet.