Hatch: Scratch (Part One): From Chaos and Participation to Nuts, Cowboys and Farewells

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

No sooner had the first double bill of the new Hatch series taken place in Nottingham than it was time for HATCH: Scratch at Leicester’s Embrace Arts, an event that encompassed an epic programme of excerpts and short works in progress designed to showcase (and generate feedback for) a variety of individual artists, performers and emerging companies from the East Midlands and beyond: often, a very long way beyond, with participants on the night hailing from France, Liverpool, Manchester and Texas, among other places. With thirteen performances to get through (three durational works and ten shorts presented in five paired episodes through the night) HATCH: Scratch certainly couldn’t be said to lack ambition, so much so that it seems to make more sense to try and look at the various threads of the event in a thematic necklace of fragments rather than a single through-written analysis: a kind of ‘scratch’ recollection to match the ‘scratch’ form of the night itself. This is Part One, looking at the first five of those thirteen performances…

Priya Mistry: “All the actions have an arrangement but I can’t say where everything will land…”

The first pairing of the night placed Priya Mistry‘s self-declared ‘performance experiment’ Ping Pong Crash and Other Sounds side by side with an extract from Chris. Dugrenier‘s work in progress, Elan Vital, a pairing that seemed to have been grounded in the contrast of order and chaos it evoked. As Mistry’s deliberately unpredictable choreography threw human bodies into a stage layout created by random scatterings of ping pong balls, inflatables and other unruly inanimate objects, and there obliged them to work through sets of prescribed patterns of movement, her deliberate attempt to undermine her own choreography offered a striking counterpoint to Dugrenier’s attempt to discipline her body in preparation for the execution of a standard gymnastic manouvre: the ‘back-walkover’. A delayed train meant I’d missed the beginning of Mistry’s piece, but entering the performance in its final stages certainly communicated a strong sense of order emerging – or trying to emerge – from the chaos generated on the floor of the gymnasium-style hall. As I came in, a man seemed to be climbing a wall backwards and a woman was struggling, absurdly but with every appearance of absolute concentration, with an inflatable swim-ring: both were trying to avoid the orange ping-pong balls that were everywhere underfoot. The scene looked like an exploded children’s playroom in which the performers tried to maintain some sense of dignity and poise. In that sense, and in the ‘banana skin’ threat posed by the ping pong balls themselves, Ping Pong Crash and Other Sounds felt rather like a cartoon version of life in general.

Chris.Dugrenier: “Stretch yourself, but know your limits…”

Chris. Dugrenier, by contrast, presented herself in Elan Vital as a woman in search of a self-control that the random factors of Mistry’s piece suggested might always remain slightly out of human reach. Having failed to execute the gymnastic ‘back walkover’ in her supple youth, Dugrenier is now set on training her body to achieve it at an age when it might already be beyond her capabilities. With this knowledge and determination she exercises herself and her audience, implores us to believe in her and works to inspire herself, before, ultimately, leaving us on the cliffhanger of ‘to be continued…’ just as she prepares – and assumes her posture – to attempt the feat. It’s an exercise in control and controlling, though it’s never clear whether Dugrenier’s character is working to satirise and expose some of the more egregious strains of ‘life’s what you make it’ and ‘it’s never too late’ circulating in contemporary Western Culture, by deliberately flirting with failure, or willing herself to believe in them, and persuade her audiences that they, too, could reach for their dreams and make them real. It’s a key ambiguity that suggests Elan Vital could develop as both a touchingly inspirational personal story and an analysis of the language of social control and sporting propaganda.

Sean Burn: “I assume people with nut allergies will select themselves out of my audience…”

Elsewhere in the building, Sean Burn was spending two hours breaking walnuts with his bare hand then feeding their contents to his continually changing audience. One of the night’s three durational performances, cracking up made its point succinctly. As Burn said himself, in one of his many asides, cracking up was designed as a ritual he could use to “reclaim the language of mental health”: at this point, he raised a walnut, contemplated it like Hamlet with Yorick’s skull, then set it on a table to be broken with the flat palm of his bare hand. Each time, the invocation of “nuts…cracking up” was repeated, then followed by an interlude of discussion with the audience: “yes, the walnut was chosen for its particular resemblance to a human brain, but it helps that it’s a nut that can be cracked open in this way – I wouldn’t be doing it with Brazils”, he’d explain, before holding up his swollen hand to show the physical demands this apparently capricious action made on him physically. A performance grounded in language became one that left stigmata, and while never directly invoked, perhaps there is an awareness that the idea of traditional Sainthood – with its obsessions, hysterias and visions – was often linked to what the modern age redefined as mental illness. Burn packed a lot of allusions and layers into what had initially seemed a straightforward test of personal endurance.

Greg Wohead: “Now we’re going to try and do a thing called the Texas Thunderstorm…”

Greg Wohead‘s approach in The Many Apologies of Pecos Bill had a madness of its own, specifically that of the tall stories making up the defining mythologies of many national and regional identities, but in a pairing with Lowri Evans’ Live Letter the piece – a highly accomplished slice of traditional storytelling in which a personal narrative, from Wohead’s own Texas childhood, was woven into the story of the eponymous Texas legend Pecos Bill – became an exercise in the manipulation of storytelling styles and techniques as much as a straightforward contrast between heroic and defiantly everyday material. The coup de theatre here lay in the opening bit of audience participation, as Wohead instructed the audience to first rub hands together, then snap fingers, then clap, then stamp feet, and finally reverse the order of these actions, at ascending and descending volume, in order to first invoke, and later play back from a recording, the convincing sound of a coming and departing thunderstorm. With shadow projections, tales from the scout hut and school canteen (shades of Wes Anderson, perhaps?) and the central thread of Pecos Bill himself, who “was raised by wolves, used a rattlesnake for a lassoo and rode a demonic horse nobody else could tame” this was such a neatly shaped and perfectly executed short that it’s hard to see how it could be developed into something longer without diluting it.

Lowri Evans: “My hair was so bored it was leaving my head…”

One reason why the storytelling styles seemed accentuated in Wohead’s performance perhaps lay in its pairing with Lowri EvansLive Letter, whose own concerns seemed to be with the techniques of communication, in Evans’ case the ‘final letter’, the last word and some low-key but dramatic personal sense of achieving narrative and emotional closure in the flow of an uncooperatively fluid life. She arrives onstage with a suitcase, in a black feathered dress, and begins to take her leave without ever quite seeming prepared to let go. She draws the outlines of a kitchen (“I’m not sure I’ll visit your house again. I creep around it in my head…while you’re at work”), unscrolls an absurdly long piece of paper, on which she’s written her final testament to a relationship, a place, some past version of herself…a farewell to something, or nothing, or everything. There’s a sense in Live Letter of the everyday being cast into some peculiar light, as though – given just the right circumstance – nothing could possibly be more poetic than, say, a group of saucepans on a kitchen stove or a municipal park in the rain. Evans’ piece feels like a sketch (quite literally, as she spends a long section of her performance tracing the outlines of an utterly mundane but – for her, or her character, at least – highly charged image in black marker pen onto an illuminated sheet of paper) but Live Letter clearly has the potential to draw its audience ever further into the neurotic and obsessive world her onstage persona seems bent on creating.

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