Valerie Kaneko Lucas

Hosts and Ghosts explores how the concept of authenticity is negotiated in site-specific performance in England via analysis of two productions: Deep End (2005) by Corridor and directed by Geraldine Pilgrim, in collaboration with the Wimbledon School of Art, and The Sunflower Plot (2005) by Cartoon de Salvo.1 It analyses the symbiotic relationship between the local history of a site and the site-specific performance mapped onto it. For such performances, one may argue that the site itself is the “authentic” and therefore occupies a privileged position as the source-text for theatre-makers creating the performance. However, I would like to argue that site-specific performances are contested spaces which problematize this notion of authenticity. The relationship between the site and the theatre-maker is akin to that of host and parasite: the theatre-maker draws upon the site’s histories, memories, and perceived social values. These elements are reconfigured by the theatre-maker into a “reading” of the site which problematizes the status of such space as privileged and authentic. My analysis draws upon Clifford McLucas’s paradigm of “host and ghost” discussed by Cathy Turner. Turner speaks of the site as the “host”: “. . .the already layered ‘space’ formed by lived experience, so that the givens of site-specific performance compose not only the machinery of ‘place, but the patina it has acquired with past use”.2 The site’s claim to its privileged position arises from its status as a real space which has extant layers of meaning. Moreover, a second claim to the site’s authenticity is that its histories, memories and perceived social values can be and are recorded, for example, via

  • documentation of its previous functions: e.g., its original function and purpose, its maker”s intentions re: the reading” of the architecture
  • site usage (past, present and/or possible future): how have the meanings attributed to the site changed?
  • extant features of the site (line, shape, mass form, architecture, texture etc.): what potential do these existing elements have for site-specific performance?
  • documentation of human use of the site

For example, Deep End is set in the abandoned Marshall Street Baths in central London, once a splendid and ornate public building. The building itself is in a district which has differing historical associations from the seventeenth century onwards. The production uses not only the spaces within the site, but artefacts such as admission tickets and letters. As well, the production draws upon differing views of the site”s usage and its perceived value as a type of social control, philanthropy, public recreation, or ruin.

Let us look more closely at this issue of site usage and its associations. The Marshall Street site has long been associated with poverty and disease. During the Great Plague of 1665, the street had a pesthouse to contain plague victims and was used as a burial ground. During the Victorian period, the present Baths site was a workhouse for the poor, mentally ill and homeless. The Poor Law Amendment of 1834 castigated the poor as idle and in need of punishment, so living conditions were deliberately harsh and constrained. In 1854, the area was identified as the source of a London cholera epidemic.3 At the same time, the site has been associated with philanthropy, for the first public baths were built on the site by the Vestry of St. James in 1850. In fact, this date coincides with the campaigns for public reform of the Poor Law by philosopher Jeremy Bentham and novelist Charles Dickens, who wrote against the prevalent workhouse conditions in his Household Words. The present building, then known as The Westminster Public Baths, was started in 1928 and completed in 1931. Its early twentieth-century association is with public works initiatives undertaken during the Great Depressions: the baths were built with public funds for the health and well-being of local people. The complex also included a child welfare center, two swimming pools, a public laundry and bathing facilities.4 In 1997, the Marshall Street Baths were closed, and at the time of the performance in 2005, the building was damp and badly in need of restoration.

If the host is the pre-existing site, the ghost is the creation of the theatre-maker – that is, the site-specific performance itself. In Clifford McLucas”s view, “The host site is haunted for a time by a ghost that the theatre-makers create. Like all ghosts it is transparent and the host can be seen through the ghost.”5 As Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks observe, the theatre-makers work in a manner not dissimilar to the archaeologist, mining the host for “layering and authenticity of depth – digging deep, detective work looking to the significant detail, cleaning and restoring damaged pasts, reading signs in traces of things that have gone before, collecting items we value”6 In the case of Deep End, particular emphasis was placed first upon artefacts collected from members of the communities associated with the site from the 1920s through the 1950s, then anecdotes and personal associations from the site’s users (via interviews, documents, oral histories). While spectators wait by the old ticket booth for the swimming baths, they can peruse a display of artefacts, including a letter from woman now in her 60s who remembers swimming in its pools and the fun she had. Another respondent, Noreen Kent, who was twelve in 1944, remembers that American troops held swimming galas in the first-class pool, while she was among the children in the second-class facility: “We were allowed in the water for half an hour as there might be people waiting.”7

Deep End serves as homage to the multi-faceted history of Marshall Street Baths across 150 years, and in this respect may be seen as bringing its past into embodied life. Yet the use of period-costumed actors brings into question the very notion of what is meant by authenticity: as we travel through the site, we are aware that we are seeing a recreation of Marshall Street Baths’ historic past. Through its use of artefacts, anecdotes and histories, Deep End stakes a claim for the social value of this site, presenting an authentic-looking social history of a working-class community in Soho, which stands in opposition to the commercial interests that threaten to take it over. The performance itself was part of a successful campaign to restore the baths as a social and leisure centre for the locality, and served as a persuasive argument for why Marshall Street Baths should be saved rather than demolished. Westminster City Council (the borough where the Baths are located) has proposed to renovate the site and re-open it in 2010.

Another issue which this production raises is that of the relationship between the theatre-makers and the community members they work with. Do people re­shape their stories to fit in with what they think the theatre-makers want? And when theatre-makers edit the material they have been given, they are actually write their own history of the site, a version which reshapes the authentic into a simulacrum of the authentic.

Yet the power of Deep End lies, I believe, in encouraging the spectator to negotiate this double-consciousness: we know we are witnessing a simulacrum, but nonetheless it holds the power to evoke an authentic emotional response from many of its spectators. Kaye notes the tangible relationship between the viewer and the material s/he interacts with: “Site specificity occurs in a displacement of the viewer’s attention toward the room which both she and the object occupy, forcing a self-conscious perception in which the viewer confronts her own effort to locate, to place her own acting outs.”8 Reviewing Deep End, the critic Lyn Gardner notes how the performance:

. . .invokes the history of Soho from then until now, from the Windmill girls to drag queens, but it also allows the building to breathe and come to life again. There is an eloquence that emanates from these abandoned spaces, and Pilgrim cleverly allows them to speak for themselves, to reveal more than she imposes. So although the vast Sicilian marble swimming pool is empty, it brims over with memories. Move along into “the second-class bath” and it is as if the whole building is crying out to protect its faded haughty grandeur, as nature invades and branches of trees insinuate themselves through walls. In half an hour it is all over, and as you are sent out again into the bustle of Soho”s streets, you wonder if you imagined it.9

To some extent, the symbiotic interaction between host and ghost emerges from the relationship between host and theatrical parasite. In creating the ghost, the theatre-makers, like a parasite, enter the body of the host and feed off the history, memory and architecture of the site for inspiration. The action of the ghost upon the host will results in material alterations to the host (via installations on the site; arrangement of changing of the space; use of actors; lighting, projection and other scenographic elements), resulting in a change in how the site (and its attendant meanings) may be perceived by an audience.

To illustrate this, I now wish to turn to the devising process of Cartoon De Salvo”s The Sunflower Plot. The production considers the perceived social role of allotments; these are plots of land usually on the outskirts of a town, where people rent a space to grow their own flowers, fruit and vegetables. Director Alex Murdoch found that the town councils who owned the land were increasingly starting to sell them off to more profitable businesses such as real-estate development. The company spent one year trying to search out an “authentic” oral history of the allotments in two parts of England: Farnham (in Surrey, Southern England) and Newark (in Nottinghamshire, the Midlands); the performances were co-produced by Nottinghamshire County Council STAGES, Third Space  and the Arts Council of England. For their preliminary research, Cartoon De Salvo rented an allotment in each of their performance sites; there, the first-time gardeners tilled and planted barren ground, made countless gardening errors and, in the process, got to know other allotment users. On 10 September 2004, company member Brian Logan notes his early theories about the social function of the allotment: “we’re becoming interested in how expressive conversations about gardening can be; how much of a life can be revealed through plant chat.”10 The company began to develop a story about the threats to allotment life, styling the allotment gardeners as brave mavericks who “set their own course in defiance of pressure to do otherwise - from consumerism, from supermarkets, from the temptation to sit at home and watch telly. They should be celebrated.”11 From this emerged the story of smarmy Cameron Couch, a brash Scot who is determined to turn the allotments into a shopping centre and yuppie flats. After nearly running over the waiting spectators with his yellow sports car, he takes them on a tour of the allotments and tries to convince them to invest in his property development scheme. Resisting him are a hippyish group: an inventor dad and his son Icke (who are building a flying machine in their allotment shed) and Icke”s disgruntled wife Rosie, who consoles herself with energetic love-making in a neighbouring garden shed with Tom, Icke’s best friend.

But by 24 June 2005, Logan notes some ethical issues arising in creating the production:

Today, we sat under a tree, bored holes in some carrots and played them as flutes. But it’s not just the instruments that are taking shape. So, too, is our story, in which the nefarious properly developers Twitch and Couch plan to build a supermarket on the allotment site, while a hapless gardener called Ike [later Icke] spearheads the resistance.

Back in the real world, a barrel-chested gardener close to the car park threatens to hit us with a spade if we walk past his plot. Are we just as bad as property developers - unwelcome outsiders shattering the tranquillity of allotment life? Not as far as the Brigadier is concerned. He”s appointed himself our mentor, and keeps interrupting rehearsals to donate more celery and pronounce on water-butt etiquette.

Logan’s idealistic reference to the “tranquillity of allotment life” is itself telling. Unlike Deep End, which was committed to presenting a simulacrum of the lost life of its site, the Marshall Street Baths, The Sunflower Plot uses its field research on allotments as a springboard for its own agenda. Although these theatre-makers also began with the site – in this case, two allotments replete with dirt, earthworms and weeds -  from as early as September 2004, Logan had arrived at a decision that “allotments, it seems to us, are epic places, where people come for escape, or community, or to make a connection with nature. We want to find an epic story to tell in this world, not a miniature, domestic one.”12 He decided to develop the story as a modern-day version of the flight of Icarus (via the character of Icke), but with a happy ending. The narrative that emerges is a morality tale which juxtaposes rural virtue versus urban evil; underdog father and son pitted against heartless large corporation. It embraces nostalgia for a simpler, less complicated British past, notably in the show’s ending, where Icke and their low-tech flying machine (composed of unlikely-looking bits of metal and bicycle parts) take off into the night sky, accompanied by a volley of fireworks. Costume choices reference the 1940s (the father), the 1950s (the retro-style dress of Rosie), and the 1960s (Tom’s mismatched hippy outfit). Its musical style and instruments - accordion and squeezebox – are those of the folk music revivals of the 1960s and 1970s. At the conclusion of the production in Farnham (itself a picturesque historic town), the audience are led to a green where they are invited to eat homemade cakes and dance with the company. The production aesthetics celebrate the glory of Britain’s postwar can-do spirit, but have been created by performers who are far too young to have actually experienced these epochs. In this respect, one may consider the ghost which populates this host as deeply inauthentic (or perhaps postmodernly ironic) in its nostalgia for a lost Eden of British rural eccentrics, “make do and mend” inventions, retro clothing, and wobbling garden sheds.  As has often been noted, the spectator of site-based performance becomes the “writer” of a unique narrative emerging from his/her relationship with the ghost and the site. Dependent upon one’s view, the production may be seen as “endearingly daft and its raggedness is part of its wayward charm. It sees the magic in the everyday.”13 Or, conversely, “too much eagerly grinning whimsy... [...]barely dealing intellectually or emotionally with its themes of ownership and angry, wounded love.”14

Returning to the paradigm of host and ghost, the process of creating site-specific performance transforms its host through the parasite-like action of the theatre-makers. This action ascribes certain meanings and values to the site, which the theatre-makers hope to make legible to an audience through scenographic as well as textual elements. When we “add into this a third term – the witness - i.e., the audience – we have a kind of trinity that constitutes the work.”15 In witnessing the performance, spectators are asked to reflect upon the social role of the site (its past, present, and future). The spectator creates a unique narrative, inflected by his/her own subject position, associations with the space, responses to the performers and their actions. In this respect, the concept of authenticity is undermined through the multivalent nature of the spectators’ experiences of the performance.

N o t e s

  1. The Sunflower Plot (2005) was devised by Cartoon de Salvo and performed in allotments in Farnham (Surrey) and Newark (Nottinghamshire). It was directed by Alex Murdoch, designed by Becky Hurst with original music composed by Jim Marcovitch of the international klezmer band She’Koyokh. The technical designer was Phil Eddols and pyrotechnics by The World Famous. Information from Cartoon de Salvo press release.back
  2. Turner, Cathy (2004), “Palimpset or Potential Space: Finding a Vocabulary for Site-Specific Performance,” New Theatre Quarterly, 20(4), 374.back
  3. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=41471back
  4. Ibid.back
  5. Kaye, Nick, Site Specific Art (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 128.back
  6. Pearson, Mike and Michael Shanks, Theatre/Archaeology (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 10.back
  7. Review of Deep End,http://mylondonyourlondon.com/?p=29).back
  8. Kaye, 2.back
  9. Gardner, Lyn, Review of Deep End, Guardian, 16 December 2005. http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/lyngardner Accessed 12 October 2009.back
  10. Logan, Brian. “Pass the Miracle Gro,” Guardian. 13 July 2005. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2005/jul/13/theatre2. Accessed 12 October 2009.back
  11. Ibid.back
  12. Ibid.back
  13. Review of The Sunflower Plot in The Guardian, 19 July 2005.
    http://www.scenta.co.uk/travel/technology/planes/cit/125291/the-sunflower-plot-west-street-allotments-farnham.htm Accessed 21 July 2007.back
  14. (Gardner, ibid.back
  15. McLucas, Clifford “Ten Feet and Three Quarters of an Inch of Theatre,” cited in Kaye, 128.back

Dr. Valerie Kaneko Lucas is a director and scenographer. She was the Head of Regent’s American College London and the Head of the Division of Performance Studies at the University of Northampton. She served as a Convener of the Scenography Working Group of the International Federation for Theatre Research and has published in various peer-reviewed scholarly journals and publications. Her book Domestic Rule – Dramatic Role is forthcoming.