Marking Time: Performance, Archaeology and the City

Marking Time: Performance, Archaeology and the City

by Mike Pearson


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Marking Time: Performance, archaeology and the city charts a genealogy of alternative practices of theatre-making since the 1960s in one particular city - Cardiff. In a series of five itineraries, it visits fifty sites where significant events occurred, setting performances within local topographical and social contexts, and in relation to a specific architecture and polity. These sites - from disused factories to scenes of crime, from auditoria to film sets - it regards as landmarks in the conception of a history of performance. Marking Time uses performance and places as a means to reflect on the character of the city itself - its history, its fabric and make-up, its cultural ecology and its changing nature. Weaving together personal recollections, dramatic scripts, archival records and documentary photographs, it suggests a new model for studying and for making performance...for other artistic practices...for other cities. Marking Time is an urban companion to the rural themes and fieldwork approaches considered in 'In Comes I': Performance, Memory and Landscape (University of Exeter Press, 2006).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780859898768
Publisher: University of Exeter Press
Publication date: 11/06/2013
Series: Exeter Performance Studies Series
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 11.90(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Mike Pearson is Leverhulme Research Fellow and Professor of Performance Studies at Aberystwyth University. He is co-author with Michal Shanks of Theatre/ Archaeology (2001) and author of 'In Comes I': Performance, Memory and Landscape (2006); Site-Specific Performance (2010); and Mickery Theater: An Imperfect Archaeology(2011). He has made theatre professionally for over forty years, notably with Brith Gof (1981-97) and Pearson/Brookes (1997-present). With Mike Brookes, he co-conceived and co-directed The Persians (2010) and Coriolanus for National Theatre Wales, the latter in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company as a contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival/London 2012

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Marking Time

Performance, Archaeology and the City

By Mike Pearson

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2013 Mike Pearson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-986-4



1. University Arts Building

It fits the northern apex of the university site: a V-shaped, snub-nosed building by Cardiff architect Percy Thomas faced with vertical, fluted Portland stone, opened as the Faculty of Arts in 1962. The main lecture theatre appears unchanged: a small semi-circular dais with two risers faces tiered rows of fixed desks, though the entrances to toilets at front left and right that expedited entrances and exits in student drama productions are gone.

Here English lecturer Terry Hawkes rehearsed ideas towards his scholarly monographs Metaphor (1972) and Shakespeare's Talking Animals (1973): that human communication involves complex sets of inter-related non-verbal signalling 'systems' including gesture, paralanguage, noise, spatial and temporal relationships; that 'nobody just talks' (p.15). Inadvertently, he provided intellectual licence for a theatre based on physical expression, interaction and imagery, within which metonym and synechdoche might be key functions, and for which, after Claude Levi-Strauss, ritual and bricolage might inform both dramaturgical structures and approaches to improvisation and scenography.

Here in 1969, I played Captain Cat and Eli Jenkins in Dylan Thomas'sUnder Milk Wood (1954): one group in masks silently miming the action on the dais, the others reading the play behind the audience as in the original radio play. Visual and aural frames coming apart.

And here in on 24 October 1970, we presented the Pip Simmons Theatre Group in Superman – 'a comic strip play', a combination of fast-moving cartoon-style acting, live rock band and papier-mâché carnival heads. 'Simmons is speaking to a generation in England which has grown up on a diet of American films, TV, pop music, writers, comic books and coke. Americana' (Ansorge 1975: 31). Standing on the dais today is to appreciate the conditions facing the new touring companies and the need for flexibility in their stagings. And as Jimmy Olsen received messages from Superman through his electric guitar, the hired amplification repeatedly relayed the voices of passing Cardiff taxi drivers.

The script for Superman is published (Simmons 1972), though Simmons's disclaimers evince its devised origins: 'It is probably more useful to consider it as a scenario – written after the play was performed' (p.89). It includes extensive sections in parenthesis that describe non-verbal scenes, characterizations and musical atmospheres, in order to manifest emergent facets of theatre production: 'It was not our intention to provide a working script but to suggest possibilities to a group with five months spare time' (ibid.).

We had the time, but not the patience. Returning from the 15th National Union of Students Drama Festival held in Manchester over New Year 1970, Theatre in Transit created The Odyssey in two months. Making no claims to originality, we aspired to emulate the productions we had seen in Manchester – Keele University Drama Group's version of Megan Terry's Viet Rock (1966) with live band and spinning human helicopters, and Andrew Wistreich and York University Actors' Workshop's version of The Ancient Mariner, with the white bird in female form carried aloft; companies we had not seen, such as Nancy Meckler's Freehold – 'It is the body which has to bear the main burden of the theatrical expression involved: the text is often viewed as a disguised tool of repression' (Ansorge: 26); and companies we were unlikely ever to see, glimpsed in copies of The Drama Review held in the university periodicals library – the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre, the Performance Group, La Mama. And to employ exercises learned on a visit from Jane Howell of the Northcott Theatre, Exeter and those culled – though barely understood – from Grotowski's recently published Towards a Poor Theatre (1969). The beginnings of an archaeology of practice.

Following Peter Brook's prescription of 1968, our 'empty space' was the adjoining student coffee bar.

In the twelve surviving postcard-sized prints, more shades of grey than black and white, the padded leatherette benches are pushed back to form a rectangular performance area; a black sheet covers the noticeboard on the rear wall; the blinds are drawn. A transient occupation of a familiar place. Performers, barefoot either to aid purchase or after the fashion of the day, wear dark t-shirts and jeans, chosen from their own wardrobes; nothing else crosses the threshold of a theatrical scene barely set aside and marked only by degrees of rhetorical, physical activity. Without lighting, make-up, properties, scenery, costume, this is Grotowski's 'poor theatre' enacted programmatically: theatre as 'what takes place between spectator and actor' (Grotowski: 32).

Bodies pose and arms wave. We form a human boat, hands on shoulders – with Odysseus as the prow, outstretched palms together – passing between a grasping six-armed Scylla and a spinning two-woman Charybdis, knees flexing as the vessel plunges; we feel the walls of Cyclops's cave in front of the audience whilst the monster lies on his back, hands forming a circular eye before his face; Odysseus's ears are stopped as the Sirens call. Other photographs show enigmatic, blurred actions and momentary pauses as performers attend to events happening off camera. Naïve certainly but with some sense of physical and spatial composition. We turn our backs on spectators seated around; we appear three-dimensionally, but absorbed as much in the task at hand as in acknowledging their presence. We call it a 'theatrical experiment'; in the final photograph, cigarette in hand, I sit under audience interrogation.

It lasts twenty-nine minutes: the clock on the wall shows Cyclops's cave at 7.45, the boat caught in a rough sea at 8.00; and Scylla and Charybdis at 8.03. There are no negatives to indicate either the order of photographs or of the narrative trajectory, but the programme – from Odyssey II presented at the Edinburgh Festival in August 1970 – gives an inkling of the original structure: I. The Trojan War; Cyclops; The Lotus Eaters; Circe; The Court of Alcinous; II. The Book of the Dead; III. The Sirens, The Island of Calypso, Homecoming.

The first and last parts are largely simplifications of the tale told in mime drama. They demand, and deserve and reward a certain degree of concentration for the sensitive details of the mime have as much to offer as the telling of the tale. (Infringe 4, Friday 28 August 1970)

Four pages of hand-written notes record sequences of events: groping for terminology in personal shorthand and obscure notations, now largely indecipherable:

3. Circe: boat stops. Jane goes upstage as Circe, Od [...] at side, crew explore island arriving at Circe's door. Suddenly opened – TABLEAU enticed in by [...], et, degenerate into pigs, freeze as pigs.

Enter Odysseus, meets Circe; wants to go with her but can't move without the crew – this having been established by Od, is released by Circe who frees the crew, who discover themselves, go to help Od who rejects them; freeze

Od. goes off with Circe. All neutralize. Form a boat. Sail.

The Odyssey included indexical tableaux and sequences: figurations, embodiments, impersonations and illustrations of people and phenomena from Homer – including held pauses that we referred to as images – with more elusive metaphors, allusions and physical citations. A 'mime drama' lacking spoken text: the programme perhaps as essential guidebook.

Ten minutes later, the configuration of the coffee bar was restored. It has long since vanished, colonized by offices and corridors installed in the present Law Department. The photographs of The Odyssey may constitute one of its few records.

2. University Main Building

In the foyer of the main university building sits the first principal John Viriamu Jones – 'relaxed but contemplative' – in white marble by W. Goscombe John. From this 'delightful space', 'long, vaulted corridors tunnel away' (Newman 2004: 234): their original wood panelling and floors remain intact, virtually unchanged.

Here, one weekend early in 1971, we played hide-and-seek with Bruce Birchall: 'a student drop-out from whom the term "filthy hippy" must have originated' (Walton 2013). More challenging was his stipulation that we walk to the building by a different route each morning, as we lived on Colum Road barely two hundred metres away. Strategies intended to challenge social convention and disrupt normative routines.

At university, Birchall had produced Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade (1963): 'Apparently, they'd gone round Cambridge after performances singing the songs in the streets and then went on to more practical attacks – window smashing and graffiti' (Walton 2013); at the NUS Drama Festival in Manchester at New Year 1970, he was instrumental in the student takeover; on 8 November 1970, he was in the group that forced the live David Frost Show featuring American activist Jerry Rubin off air. With PSST! (Please Stop Screaming Theatre) he made agit-prop and political street theatre: 'For Birchall, revolutionary theatre, which uses theatre as a weapon, is autonomous of society' (Craig 1980: 36); by 1977, he was arguing that cooperating with the state through accepting Arts Council grants was undermining revolutionary ambitions (see Kershaw 1992: 145).

Birchall's ideas – a combination of Situationist, libertarian, anarchist, socialist and Yippie attitudes and polemics – are enshrined in a samizdat publication entitled Radical Arts that circulated amongst a network of university and independent groups: 'What's this you're holding in your hands? It's about a problem: bringing together Art and Politics. Which means it's about bringing together "art people" and "political people".'

It includes interviews, accounts, exercises, scripts and articles such as 'Abbie Hoffman Rapping', and Jean-Jaques Lebel's 'Notes on political street theatre, Paris 1968, 1969'. Birchall's own contributions are twofold:

'A Living 'Theatre'

Some Aims for a Living Theatre: (Find More)

– to use places imaginatively – to release their full potential ...

– to slow down the pace of city living so experience may be deeper and more intense.

– to remove the tyranny of one specific use of objects and places, of one repeated activity being associated with all that a person is capable of.

And with Chris Rawlings and James Allen:

'Street Theatre – How to do it'

How to start: First get your group.

Suggestions: Props should be big. Collect them – you can use them over and over again. Exaggerated top hats for capitalists, big hands and fists on sticks, £ sign and dollar sign, banners spelling out key slogans. Step ladders are a very good image – easy to take with you, gives several different acting levels – for capitalists to look down on workers, teachers on students etc.– and for the authority-figures to be deposed from during the action ...

In a play lasting 10–15 minutes you've inevitably got to simplify so your initial concept has to be very clear to avoid distortion ...

Try to find central image (e.g. the educational race, the exploitation machine, the building and destroying of Cabora Bossa Dam) central ideas or central characters. Then you can improvise around these. Or choose known dramatic or entertaining images e.g. circus, auction, horse race, beauty contest, fashion show, tug of war, wrestling match ... and transfer your political situation and characters to that framework. This is easiest accomplished if verbally the recognisable political clichés of the scene you're illuminating are put over simultaneously with the visual movements of the image you're transferring it to.

We too appear, in an act of confrontation:

Cardiff University group did a play in the very alienated atmosphere of students union at lunchtime: satirising the 'conversations' about work and sex which fly around in that atmosphere: one device being of two people who apparently did not know each other jumping into the automatic-kind of conversation straight away: worked best by not obviously being actors, just speaking slightly too loud, so they'd be overheard.

Inspired by contact with Birchall, Theatre in Transit created its third production as agit-prop theatre: Welcome to the degree factory was performed on 29 November 1971 in the Engineering Building Studio, and later at the 17th NUS Drama Festival in Bradford.

A schematic scenario – copied on a Gestetner duplicator with small hand-etched cartoons – was circulated to the network for comment: 'We hope this will be the first in a series of theatrical notes exchanged between universities and other groups'. It contains contemporary allusions and points of reference, not always easy to fathom: untutored 'hopes for great happenings' (Hunt 1976).


The action is based upon conveyor belts i.e. the mass production aspect; the boxes (sentry boxes, coffins etc.) – the selection and alienation aspects. Maybe the action could follow the journey of one individual through the mill. The whole thing is cartoon-like and taken at a fast rate. In the acting space – big shiny brightly coloured boxes. Each box represents a college building – Arts and Social Sciences, Engineering etc. and one represents the union building. Note: Faculties should not mix; movement will be by conveyor belt regulated by academic clowns. Perhaps also chessboard pattern could be used, students as pawns.

The action begins at the general station where the students are met, given a slip of paper, a mock degree and advice to take the next train home.

1. Auction by Mr F.U.C.C.A., a northern comedian (introduced by Country Joe "Fish" chant). Auction six-formers – take account of A-levels, nice legs etc.

Dim view of clearing; look down on less well-known universities ...

11. Finals. Man with watch times students – metronomic, machinelike – as if for an egg ('How do you like them sir, soft, hard boiled' etc.) At end, let them out onto production line – given cursory handshake.

12. Stage divided as a pinball machine, as in Oxford's Tommy. Shunt candidates into the degree boxes – buffers have titles, such as department, faculty etc. Test candidates for [length of] hair etc.

Once in boxes cowboys come along and brand them – BA, BSc etc.

It elicited a response – from Harrow Youth Movement Street Theatre Group:

'A suggestion. Possibly some symbolic figure representing the forces of society (economic and economo-social) slowly putting chains or blindfolds or blinkers etc. onto students to make education etc. more to society [sic].'

The production programme asserts:

It takes a look at university life from the inside and presents it in cartoon form. ... as a skeletonal [sic] structure, it may be performed in different ways to different effects. For example, to accompany a demonstration against the Thatcher proposals for the destruction of student unions ... after the show, we would welcome any concrete ideas or chat about the group and the show.

The extent to which its objectives were achieved is unattested: neither photographs nor final scenario exist.

Radical Arts stalled with us: we should have passed it on, kept it circulating. The yellow card cover is now shredding down the spine, the three staples rusty: quietly falling apart – transient in ideology and substance

John Viriamu Jones meanwhile remains institutionally secure: resilient, unchanging and unmoved.

3. University Assembly Hall

It was the largest room available for booking: a place to stage concerts – Roy Harper, Kevin Ayres and the Whole World – and mass examinations. Here too on 29 January 1972, the Keele Performance Group presented Hunchback.

The letter from director Pete Sykes:

This construct began as a fairly free-form interpretation of the dominant moods and images of Victor Hugo's novel. But as a result of the social and political climate at Keele at the time of its conception, it took on – and has retained – a far greater significance. It is an examination of the relations and interrelations of a society and an object regarded as outside that society ... the conflict that is caused by the emergence of a sub-culture and its attempts at interaction with the culture; and most important, how the establishment seeks to resolve this conflict.

Length: this construct is approx. 75 minutes in length.

Lighting: no extraordinary lighting effects are needed. In fact, it can if necessary be done with only a very few lanterns and fit within set positions.

Staging: there are no sets for this construct. However a rostrum (3 ft long 2 ft wide and 2 ft high) is necessary. It is best if this construct can be performed with audience on three sides and on a floor area of 50 X 50, into which is fitted the performing area (25 X 25 approx.) and the audience seating.


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Table of Contents

Preface Map of the book Introduction: Cardiff, Performance, Premise, City, Archaeology NORTH University Arts Building
University Main Building
University Assembly Hall
47 Park Place
Sherman Theatre
Sherman Arena Theatre
Cathays Park
National Museum Wales
Park House, 20 Park Place
University Engineering Building EAST Bridgend Street
Topaz Street
Ruby Street
Metal Street
Sanquahar Street
Moira Terrace
Adamsdown Cemetery
Howard Gardens
'The Vulcan'
'The Big Sleep' SOUTH Windsor Esplanade
44/46 James Street
Mount Stuart Square
7 James Street
Wales Millennium Centre
Senedd/Welsh Assembly Government
126 Bute Street
St Mary's Church
Callaghan Square WEST House
Llanover Hall
Chapter yard
Chapter Theatre
The Gym
Cowbridge Road
'Llwyn yr Eos' CENTRAL Queen Street East
Queen Street West
Hayes Island
Morgan Arcade
Caroline Street
Central Station
St Mary's Street
Westgate Street
Cardiff Castle
Parks Postscripts: Theatre, Archaeology, City, Cardiff

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