Our writer Fe spoke to Carrieanne about CVIVArts’ latest production ‘What Are You Hungry For? and the research and development activities which led to it.
The project and the resulting performance deal with concepts related to mental health, accentuated the more so with World Mental Health Day on 10 October.
How the project’s title came about
Carrieanne explained that the project and production title ‘What Are You Hungry For?’ is derived from topics, prevalent during the pandemic, which CVIVArts was exploring, and of course includes consideration of what the Arts Council was going to find intriguing and would want to fund. The topics had to be big enough to explore in different directions as well as being relevant to everyone and about the individual. Carrieanne’s interest is very much in the individual and how people get through their daily lives; how individuals deal with desire, societal rejection and resilience, so these became the topics for the Project. This developed to include vulnerability, because this naturally became part of the discourse.
The three topics seemed to be good ones to explore. Everyone has an opinion about rejection, desire and resilience – we all deal with those, and most particularly in terms of the Project’s title, itself is seen as hunger – a strong craving. The question about hunger was asked in the community, as part of a small strand activity. There were some lighthearted responses, inevitably, but most were serious, and became an element in the devising process.
Fe asked about the process and how Carrieanne navigated her way through it.
Carrieanne didn’t know much about research and development projects before the proposal was put to the Arts Council for funding, though realised that research comes from so many different areas – what you do, others do, the surprises coming from performance practice….. “We want to develop our thinking and that of the community we’ll be working with. It’s not just a final production but a number of activities from Nov 2020 to Dec 2021. We call them wraparound activities – a public survey, workshops with actors (developing theatre skills and researching the project topics), Zoom workshops with the public, one on mental health and wellbeing, where two specialists spoke to put the workshop into context. Then my PowerPoint led the participants to look at the qualities of the methods they use to keep good mental health, and how these can be transferred to art practice.
There was good attendance, good discourse, good responses, mapping ideas and coming to conclusions.
We had live chats with specialists on resilience. I contacted people who deal with resilience and are mental health practitioners, as well as artists. These live Instagram chats are available on youtube for people to watch.”
Other activities were about devising performance, creating, and experimenting, working towards a final show, which is not necessary for a research and development project, but which CVIVArts decided to include nonetheless. The final production is a sharing of these performance experiments and it includes ideas offered from the public through the project process. A section of the production includes ideas from a physical theatre workshop Carrieanne did with her actors, in which the actors used a survey response from a member of the public who had answered the question ‘What are you hungry for?’ to explore how this could be represented through the body, questioning ‘What does this desire look like physically and what happens to the body if this desire is not achieved?
Yorkshire-based writer Neil Rathmell was commissioned for a new piece of script writing around the topics, which is the first scene in the final production, and was used as a stimulus for further devising. Carrieanne: “Interpret the words, create our own action, then create new words. It’s a complex process of experimentation. What works, keep, and what doesn’t, don’t. That process began online in Zoom format and is still happening in person. The stimuli for devising has come from various places.
Original sound work is by Leeds-based composer Duncan Evans. The performance is an hour of theatre, where the vignettes expose some of the often unseen layers under the surface of the individual – our inner complexities and contradictions as well as our hidden potential.
Carrieanne’s background – is it community theatre?
Carrieanne: “Not really. My background is solo work, devising and writing and delivering my own work, coming out of my BA, then strengthened by my MA, and I later did a PGCE. But I have worked with others in different ways – whether it be as a collaboration with select artists or playing a role for a one off production or event with a theatre group. Phil Sanger, who is a friend and superb performance maker, acted as a mentor and helped me construct this current project at the beginning. He saw my solo work one day and asked me to write a text for a performance he was staging, and we ended up doing performance work together – that was fun. But it’s recently that I decided I want to be a director.
Fe: You seem as though you have a community theatre background – you have to flex with every type of variation. You’re quite good at finding out what doesn’t work and throwing it out and embracing something new. Your approach shows how good theatre is for mental health. My background is in community theatre. It’s a perfect way to do it and the end result is just amazing because you’ve collated the events leading to the end.
Carrieanne: “There’s so much I want to say – maybe I should give myself credit. I did experiment with directing at the Carriageworks with Leeds Arts Centre, a great amateur theatre group; theatre for the community really. I staged Harold Pinter and Jean-Paul Sartre – they went well. And I have actually been involved in a few community theatre projects, and I’ve done pop ups and festivals where others are performing as well.
It’s really nice to hear I’m approaching this like we are community theatre. Though we’re exploring topics with the public, we’re fundamentally developing ourselves as practitioners. For my evaluation and learning I am to ‘deliver’ not only with actors and company members but also with new people and the community. And there’s social media, where there are lots of different community groups. So there’s that world as well. It’s necessary to expand and challenge myself.”
Devising the performance
Carrieanne: “The main methods of devising performance for the final production were: embodying and physicalising public response (movement symbolism), interpreting and performing a new text stimulus (character based) and (many) various time-based performance exercises around the themes.
The final result for the production is not a straight play. There are three separate and very different scenes. I’m hoping people will be able to identify all of the themes [resilience, societal rejection, desire, vulnerability]. ‘Ah, this is how people cope’; ‘I recognise the cycle of rejection here’. It’s emotive and thought-provoking. I want spectators to feel proud of themselves for what they have to go through and comfortable with how they can or have dealt with it. It’s new ways of looking at the themes – hopefully. A tutti frutti process. Difficult for my own mental health, but I’m learning.”
Fe: You’ve gained so much and expanded in ways you didn’t know you would. Working towards helping other people but everyone involved will benefit in so many ways. What do you think people watching would learn is a question I wanted to ask and you’ve answered. People read the research – how will they respond? What will it be used for? People may not be reading from a mental health or theatre background. I hope they can hold what you’ve done and not re-package it.
Carrieanne: “Unfortunately, it’s a kaleidoscopic process: Research specifically, deconstruct, analyse and type up, or ‘act’ up. There is no such document with this – it’s a patchwork quilt process. Important moments emerged as part of the research and development, such as a new type of language for me to use as a director, helping with my resilience. There are so many different types of moments, important moments, very complex and difficult to talk about. In future, I will say, ‘This is exactly the place I’m going to research, only with this topic and this group and structured’.
This project was not so straightforward and very free flow, which is actually how I am used to doing things. It’s seductive going into the unknown world, but it’s frightening. Dramatic Arts is a seductive nightmare – I’ve recently written a short article with that title. It’s dependent on others, relying on others and leaving yourself vulnerable. Self-respect is needed to enter that space and how can we nurture that self-respect.”
Fe: Continual work is something that has to continue to keep showing how it’s working. This could become lost in the complexity. I would love it if you work on the word vulnerable. I feel it’s part of who we are and not to be afraid of it. If you do continue with it, I’d vote for that.
Carrieanne: “In ‘A Director Prepares’ by Ann Bogart, one chapter is on embarrassment. She says sensitivity brings seeing yourself in new ways. There is something credible about embarrassment. A readiness to take charge of yourself. We impose negative thoughts and feelings around these words, which isn’t necessary – I use the phrase admirable vulnerability a lot. How do we objectively look at vulnerability and how do we take control of this? I did a workshop with my actors on this, different exercises. There’s a simple exercise where the organic voice comes out – lie on the floor and breathe in, pebble going down to your stomach, letting the body take the breath, then exhale. After a while an organic sound will come out which could itself be embarrassing. Any sound can come out when you exhale. Make something beautiful of it and allow people to watch you. Stillness is vulnerability. There are lots of exercises on vulnerability.”
Fe: It’s primal scream – no filters on it. The noise just comes out. Whatever you’re feeling, just let the sound come out. It’s authentic. The soul coming out. Your version is more artistic and friendly. Let out any noise, any frustrations – don’t care what it sounds like. Just express it. I think it should be taught in schools. You feel better afterwards as you’ve released something genuine.
Working with partners
“I am really pleased with the partners on this project – another of the aims of the project was to ‘get out there’ and work with different art spaces and people in Leeds – all lovely people. We’ve worked with seven established art venues in Leeds. The venues we will be showing the final production at: Slung Low at the Holbeck, Seven Arts Centre and Left Bank Leeds, which all have a uniqueness about them. Again this is a fantastic opportunity for learning. The show will have to be staged differently at each venue because they all offer something different. It will be interesting to see what works and what doesn’t when we present them in these different spaces. We’re are definitely looking for feedback after the performance from our audience – for me it’s an ongoing learning process, with questions such as ‘Where can you see the topic of desire in this?’ We want the thoughts and responses of the audience. Did it make them feel and think constructively? We want their stories.
It’s important to get multiple considerations and opinions when you are approaching health by using art and using art to make people feel good. Through the pandemic, art has proven to help people in different ways. I know you do great work developing the focus on and practice of street art. People seem to have a greater awareness of the artwork around them.”
Fe: People like you are doing a great job.
“Thank you. I want to know what you think of the subject matters in the show – please come!”
Fe: I would have come to your workshop on arts and mental health.
I enjoyed doing that. It was about finding a method you use to manage anxiety and stress, identifying the qualities of this and then reworking how these qualities can be applied to your arts practice. For example, the qualities of meditation might be: good posture, mindfulness and an open to environmental sensory input, muscle relaxation, breathing control. So how does exercising breathing control work with pottery? Or mindfulness help mime?
Fe: It makes sense. Do this all the time and this process would make it tangible. Apply your own situation to your art.
For me, before the pandemic it felt like you had to have the right to discuss mental health in the arts but now it’s okay and normalised to talk about it. You do have the right to invite people to converse about it.
Fe: Some barriers have gone now. Yorkshire folk can do this anyway, just chatting.
Chatting for me is the best type of art! In our final production, however, it’s not just about the topics we explored that are linked to mental health – there are various theatre techniques we explored too – symbolism, a play within a play, directly addressing the audience for example. It’s fun. Please come.
What are you hungry for? is Arts Council England and Leeds Inspired funded and the upcoming production will be performed at Slung Low at The Holbeck, Left Bank Leeds, and Seven Arts Centre, Chapel Allerton.
Photography: https://truenorthuk.com/ Feature photograph – rehearsals.