(Chickenshed. Photo (c) Hydar Dewechi)
Is Jim the dog worth 10 out of 10 for ‘woofability’?
Can you see the Caribbean in the V&A?
Why does the V&A have a handmade toaster? and
How could you use the grooves in the tiles of the new Sackler Courtyard as a map?
All of these questions, and more, were explored and explained by theatre companies and young people over the summer as part of ‘Performances in the Sackler Courtyard.’
The work was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) as part of the larger Exhibition Road Quarter project. Our partners were Chickenshed Theatre, Talawa Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East’s summer college, working with Frantic Assembly and young people with Group 64, working with Floods of Ink Theatre Company.
Each company was asked to respond to the new Sackler Courtyard, the history of the V&A and ‘Albertopolis’ and architecture.
The companies had similar starting points: site-visits were made, both during construction of the courtyard and after its opening. This gave them the opportunity to explore it as a potential performance space. Which areas had the best site-lines? Where could PA systems work?
Books and online material relating to the V&A were digested and groups were much taken by stories such as the changing fortunes of the mosaic staircase. Senior Archivist, Christopher Marsden, was generous with his time and knowledge and revealed some of the hidden history of the V&A. Groups took tours of the building and its galleries to gain a sense of both what and why the Museum collects what it does. Interesting and in-depth discussion between individuals sparked as groups interrogated (in very thoughtful ways!) the Museum:
‘How do you choose and who chooses (objects)?’
‘What stories are they curating because of it?’
‘How come I feel like I don’t belong here and then I suddenly feel like I do?’ (This, after spotting a Theatre Royal, Stratford East poster in the Theatre and Performance galleries…)
‘(The) Courtyard was refreshing, museums should be about more than just history and the Courtyard represented that.’
‘(The) Courtyard feels like a place you can hang around, in the main entrance you feel like you have to move.’
Groups devised, rehearsed and shaped ideas back in their respective theatres and in rehearsal venues around London. Some, like the Theatre Royal Stratford East/Frantic Assembly, put on pre-show shows to audiences to gauge impact and success. This group gained valuable early practice in the challenges of performing outside during the glorious English summer – their 14.00 show outside the Theatre Royal, Stratford East was abandoned in favour of an indoor studio show as the rain began at 14.00 precisely… and ended exactly five minutes later…
The groups’ final shows were all unique in style:
Chickenshed gave us a fast-paced, energetic overview of the Museum’s history, with a particular focus on the first Director Henry Cole. Half ’Monty Python’ half interactive Quiz Show, it ended with a character representing the ‘Performance’ collections (as a large blue puppet, of course) making it into the collections of the V&A, literally, by jumping from the Courtyard, through the walls of the Henry Cole Wing building to appear at the window of the fourth floor to wave to the cheering crowds below. (This was, of course, achieved by ‘magic’…and had nothing to do with a pre-placed performer running up four flights of stairs in a full costume, minus the head, which was jammed on at the last moment…)
Talawa presented a three-handed piece that questioned where were the cultural artefacts of the Caribbean in the V&A? One character condemned what he saw as the appropriation of his country’s art, though his companions were not so convinced and were able to show him that he actually could find his identity reflected here. To prove the point, at the end of the show audiences were invited on a tour of Caribbean object in the V&A. The performance was spirited, entertaining and thought-provoking.
Theatre Royal Stratford East summer college, working with Frantic Assembly produced an energetic piece of physical theatre. It invited audiences to consider the range of materials the V&A collects, and why objects have power and meaning for us, beyond their physical usefulness or design. An audience member later wrote: ‘I wanted to congratulate them all on an amazing performance. Do thank them all for giving us such a wonderful opportunity to see a really positive ‘picture’ of what young people are capable of.’
(Frantic Assembly/Theatre Royal, Stratford East rehearsal. Photo (c) Helen Murray)
Group 64 and Floods of Ink offered a free-flowing movement piece with an eclectic soundtrack that took full advantage of the performance opportunities of the Sackler Courtyard. The audience were encouraged to gather around small groups, open out into larger-shaped circles and, at the end, to sit on the steps facing into the Blavatnik Hall for the final scene. Words were kept to a minimum and a single large cloth sheet created picture frames, referencing the Museum’s Paintings Gallery and cloaked statuesque figures recalled the various sculptures the group (and audience) could see from the courtyard.
Each company performed three times during the day and over the 12 performances some 3,494 people engaged with the shows.
We would like to thank all the artists, theatres and young people who gave their time and such careful thought to the project and who used the ‘blank page’ of the Sackler Courtyard to reflect back, through performance, the V&A’s heritage, impact and future potential, to our audiences.
The film below gives an overview of the project and was made by Chocolate Films.