Pilot night

08Jul09

Last thursday, 2nd July, the latest Pilot Night was hosted at the A.E.Harris space and there was palpable excitement. The presented work was challenging, bold, varied and often entertaining. Too rarely is there a sense of collective pride about what can be achieved on the West Mids Arts scene, but here – assisted enormously by the 4-day residential get-in together with James’s lunches by all accounts – there was a real whiff about what this ‘space’ is and can be. 

From early days, Stan’s Cafe had aspired to occupy a space which could serve as a hub of creativity, with a community of artists passing through, sharing ideas and skills. Though Stan has had a number of homes since then, (including the brilliant, rough-hewn industrial fridge/oven on New Canal Street – demolished by the Council 5 years ago to make way for…. nothing), the A.E.Harris building is as close a realisation to that original idea yet.

The factory now feels animated – charged with the presence of working and playing bodies. Whilst production in the remainder of the A.E.Harris (a components pressings factory, mainly serving the motor industry) has sadly declined in recent times, there is a sense in this part of the building at least that things are still being made and that innovation is back in the heart of the manufactory. 

Nine works-in-progress were made in the preceding week and presented in different corners of the building. The site-specific brief allowed artists the opportunities to explore not only the fabric of the building itself but a dynamic interactivity with audience members. A characteristic of many younger companies in the West Midlands – including The Other Way Works, Kindle Theatre, Needless Allies, New Macho (all presenting at Pilot – not to mention the older generation of companies like Talking Birds, Stan’s Cafe or Foursight), is that active engagement between performer and audience is more often than not a given. Conventional 4th wall staging has become if not obsolete then a rarity. Consequently, the end-on configuration of the Custard Factory Theatre now feels an inadequate resource for Pilot, which has been hosted there for several years. 

It’s no accident that there’s been a growth of interest in work outside of theatre institutions. Venues have felt the pinch in terms of programming budgets; audiences for theatre have been dropping. It has become difficult to get a gig in an arts centre or a theatre, a nightmare to try to book a decent tour. Questions about ‘contextualisation’ and ‘community’ are asked where not before. In the light of this, it is logical that theatre-makers place the frames of ‘context’ and ‘community’ closely in their sights when starting the process. ie. The location and the audience have become more instrumental factors.

In a discussion at Red Shift earlier this week, I ruminated on the fact that practically every performance I’ve done in the past few years has been contextualised within a ‘Festival’ packaging. Has the age of the rolling theatre programme gone? – for independent touring companies at least.

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