Ocean confessions

Sunset over the ocean in Hikkaduwa

It’s late in Week 4 of our Sura Medura residency. If last week was all about beats, tunes and noise; then this week’s been all about orchestral composing, performance text and the sea. Also a whole bunch of getting tangled up with wires, battery packs, live relay, headphone variants and playback devices in order to see what we can make happen with our feet in the sea.

It also means other types of thinking too, which is great for me. Although I’ve been loving the focus on sound and music-making (and learning shedloads for my sound design practice) it’s meant having to put a lid on my main practice as a director – and all the natural energy I have for that has been leaking out as anxiety dreams and edgy frustration. Over the last week I’ve had to take time out from the intense focus on being right here, in order to read plays, think about ongoing projects and exercise my staging and storytelling brain. It’s relieved some tension in me, and it feels slightly deflating to have to put the lid back on my principal practice <sadface>, so I’m taking permission to think more directorially about this piece with the sea, even though we probably won’t have time here to test many of those aspects. I’m hoping that by thinking in the most ambitious way about what this piece might become, we’ll kick something off that has the potential to really move audiences – even if we have to develop it on other shorelines and bring it back here later. I also really want to connect all this work beyond the bubble of this residency into ongoing projects and my broader theatre practice.

Documentation > interpretation

A couple of weeks ago Tim and I met with a group of around 10 people from Peraliya village, just outside Hikkaduwa, to hear about the impact on their community of the 2004 tsunami and how things have changed since. The session was facilitated by Priyanthi, who is from the village and manages the Tsunami Museum and community centre. It was as you might expect, a very moving experience to be given such personal insight into these people’s lives.

This session was part of recognising an impossible question that kept jumping up at us about the ongoing resonance of the tsunami in how we’re hearing the story of Hikkaduwa today, and if/how to acknowledge that from our position as outsiders invited to connect with what we’re discovering here.

It was also part of an exploration into what it takes to explicitly honour people’s life stories through our art – as part of the deliberate push to practice that Sura Medura encourages. This wasn’t completely opportunistic. In March 2017, I visited St Petersburg with the indomitable Sharon Clark, to interview survivors of the Siege of Leningrad as part of the research for Raucous’ new production, Ice Road. Listening to the testimony of those women (our interviewees were all women), sharing such intimate and disturbing details of the horror of that period was an extremely humbling experience.

The St Petersburg interviews came towards the end of Sharon’s Ice Road research because she didn’t want to write a documentary theatre piece that was rooted in those testimonies. But for me, as someone who was still new to the Ice Road process, the force of those testimonies felt impossible for me to sideline as an anchor. It was a useful tension that helped my role as a script development dramaturg for the show – but it also left me wondering about that negotiation between “personal” storytelling and “artistic” storytelling in a way that I’d never been that interested in digging into before.

As artists, Tim and I have never felt the call to explore documentary. In fact, I seem to spend a surprising amount of time advocating for the social and political value of imaginative fiction – especially in theatre. I’ve seen some great verbatim and autobiographical shows in my time (shout out to Tom Marshman’s Kings Cross REMIX and Katy Baird’s Workshy for starters), but I’ve seen more that have been worthy but dull, superficial or at worst, felt exploitative.

Over the last 2 weeks, Tim and I have been reflecting on the personal stories people – strangers – have so generously shared with us, and listened again to those conversations we recorded. One of the most striking things is the ongoing relationship with the sea. Much of this community still relies on the sea: via the ages old industry of fishing, or the newer one of tourism. People might be afraid of another tsunami, but they live connected to the sea nevertheless. Neil Butler (who runs Sura Medura) told us that for months after the tsunami, no-one went near the sea. A year on, he worked with the town to organise a massive carnival on the beach. Thousands of people rocked up and people have been back on the beach ever since.

All this brought us back to thinking about the sea, this shoreline, and what it means to be standing here, listening in and looking out. It brought us to thinking about the relationship between humans and the sea more broadly, through time, and also across borders.

Not sucking, outdoors

Back in March 2013, Tim and I were given a little residency up at Live Theatre in Newcastle. We wanted to begin exploring possibilities for making work outdoors (and planting the seeds for Tales from the Old World). There’s nothing like a week in the north east to give you a sense of the opportunities (belting cinematic vistas) and the challenges (ALL THE WEATHER) of making outdoor performance.

The curatorial focus of Sura Medura is art in public space. Of course “public space” doesn’t necessarily mean outdoors; but being in Hikkaduwa, right on the sea… the outside definitely calls.

The desire to make something for outdoors that’s stayed alive in me from that Newcastle residency, is in the potential for cinematic landscapes, distance and scale. These aesthetic fascinations run all through how I direct indoor shows too; but hell, there’s always a wider landscape outside; but hell, the practicalities…

I’ve seen a lot of outdoor performance in my time (including one of my all time fave shows, Back To Back’s Small Metal Objects). The stuff I’ve been most into has been the less theatrical and more interventionist work that genuinely integrates its environment as part of its aesthetic conjuring, rather than only as context or practical space. I’m thinking of pieces like circumstance’s subtlemobs, and Night Tripper by Fiksdal, Langgård & Becker. Small Metal Objects combines a brilliantly subversive theatrical statement with interventionist performance; and I’ve never looked at Broadmead the same since. None of these are site-specific as such – they’re all internationally touring projects – but they all felt so aesthetically intertwined with and amplified by the environment I experienced them in.

Ocean Confessions

I want to create an experience that meshes with and augments the environment it’s played in.

I want it to be integrally connected with the sea; and to connect – in some deep felt, uncanny way – the place and time it’s experienced in to other heres and nows.

I want it to feel modern rather than folksy – or maybe: a mash up between modern and folksy.

I want it to feel immersive and interior and cinematic.

It’s going to take a lot more time and research to get this right.

We’re only going to be able to test the earliest glimmer of this project. We’ve created some music and text to try out. We’ve been playing around with ways to hook together the tech we have so that we can heighten the experience. And we’ve got the night sky. And the horizon. And our feet in the ocean.