Sensory Labyrinth Theatre in relation to the individual, the audience member and performer, as part of a community.
By the end of this paper the reader should have an understanding of what Sensory Labyrinth Theatre is and how it is devised and realised. They should be able to gage its importance, if it has any, to the community and individuals within that community.
It is necessary, first of all, to explain what Sensory Labyrinth Theatre is. Sensory in that it engages all the senses by working with smells, sounds, touch, taste, kinaesthesia and sight. Of course all theatre is sensory to some extent but there is a greater emphasis on the less utilized senses here. It is a Labyrinth because the audience travel along a path inspired by the idea encapsulated in the single path of the classical labyrinth shape. As for Theatre, despite the performances not taking part in a conventional theatre building it is still considered in terms of dramatic quality. The director of a company who practice Sensory Labyrinth Theatre defines theatre as ‘a shared moment in space and time’ (Brioc 2005:9) rather than what may be conventionally associated with the term.
The concept was first explored by Columbian theatre anthropologist Enriqe Vargas as director of the theatre company Taller Investigacion de la Imagen Dramatica. His research explores sensory art and theatre in relation to myth, ritual and game. He devised and realized a trilogy of labyrinths, El Hildo de Arianna, Feria Del Tiempo Vivi and Oraculoos. El Hildo de Arianna (translates to Ariande’s Thread), based on the myth of the Minatour’s lair in Greek mythology, toured Wales at the request of the Centre for Performance Research (CPR) in 1996. Baz Kershaw describes his experience of this particular performance in Chapter 6 of his The radical in Performance titled ‘The sight of the blind’. The description of his experience is a juxtaposition of fascinated exhilaration, fear and inner calm.
Iwan Brioc, artistic director of Welsh theatre company Cynefin (translates to habitat), saw the same production. He was inspired to explore the form further. The company (Artistic Director Brioc and Associate Director Mike Hotson) have been using Sensory Labyrinth Theatre as a device for community theatre since 2000. They have developed their own methods and ideals whilst working on several projects. In 2005 they created the first permanent outdoor labyrinth on a forested hillside in North Wales on the outskirts of Snowdonia as a stage for annual community performances. The first of these performances took place in July of that year. This performance was called Caerdroia (translates to ‘castle of turns’).
For the performance a path is created. They have been constructed from black cloth suspended from the roof of a building, and in Caerdroia cut through a forested area with vegetation surrounding the path often above eye level. These are examples of performances so far, the path might be created in other ways in future. Along this path the audience member journeys alone. They encounter a series of designed environments intended to be experienced by the all senses. These ‘environments’ have varied from a pitch black spiral to a doorway in the forest covered in moss. The paths are usually dark at some point. This is a vital requirement for at least a part of the labyrinth, a key tool of which is to take away sight thus shifting the individuals focus from visual perception, the pre-eminent sense of western culture, to their other senses-hearing, touch and smell (Kershaw 2003; 209). The displacement of the visual sense might also be achieved through blindfolding or, as in parts of Ceardroia, the hedges obstructed the sight of anything beyond the path. In doing so it subjects the audience member to an unfamiliar situation, demanding ‘that the spectator should become increasingly aware of his/her perceptions as well as of the triggers of these perceptions’ (Di Benedetto 2001:273). This results in heightened awareness making the experiences seem more intense.
In the same chapter as mentioned earlier Kershaw proposes that the labyrinth he experienced, Ariande’s Thread, fulfils what Howard Barker describes in his search for a ‘catastrophic theatre’ (Kershaw 2003: 208). In the introduction, by David Ian Rabey, to the first edition of Barkers Arguments for a Theatre (1989) this is outlined as a theatre in which the audience feel free to express their feelings. They should not react as they think society expects them to nor as a result of how others around them are reacting. Each individual should be independent and treated so, not as part of a single entity such as is implied by terms such as ‘the audience’ or ‘the public’ (Barker 1989: 2). This is something I will explore further throughout the following chapters asking if Sensory Labyrinth Theatre does indeed achieve the desires Barker had for his ‘catastrophic theatre’?
By looking at three aspects of Sensory Labyrinth Theatre performance, audience and site an analysis of the form, how it functions and whether it achieves its aims or not will be discussed. The stated creative aim of Cynefin is
‘To dream to life shared moments in space and time where fear and mediocrity are transformed into awe and wonder and the inner and the outer become one’.
By the end of this paper I would also like to answer the following questions in regards to Sensory Labyrinth Theatre. What is the involvement of community members as individuals? How are audience members affected as individuals? What are the elements in performance that cause this affect? How is site significant to the work? How do these things combine in order to be of any value to the community in which they function? Is that value greater to the individual or to the wider community? The paper is divided into three aspects of Sensory Labyrinth Theatre, the performance, the audience and site in order to answer these questions. Having done so I hope to be able to draw a conclusion as to the importance of the form and how it might be developed in the future.
Although there are other companies and artists who have explored similar concepts to Sensory Labyrinth Theatre, there is a lack of academic documentation. Therefore the main focus of this dissertation will be on the work of Cynefin, the work of Vargas and others will be drawn upon where relevant.
Chapter 1: PERFORMANCE
In this chapter the role of the actor in performance is considered and the input they have to the work. As well as this, the methodology of the company in achieving their aims through performance is analysed.
The use of the term actor in association with Sensory Labyrinth Theatre is somewhat jarring. That is, it might be seen as the opposite of what participants are doing. The term implies, by its very definition that the person is behaving in a way that is not genuine. Within Sensory Labyrinth Theatre, the actor’s main occupation is sharing a space and time, with a member of the audience. This is in keeping with Brioc’s definition of theatre outlined in the introduction. Their role is one of existing along side that audience member than acting for them. Vargas refers to his actors as inhabitants of the labyrinth (Kershaw 2003: 206) and this is the term that I choose to use in place of actor as I think it encapsulates the role of the participants more accurately.
Each inhabitant has a place within the labyrinth, an action or a task to complete or a combination of the three. These things vary from the offer to wash the audience members’ feet to playing tag with them or perhaps telling a story (Interviewee 3). Whatever they do is repeated for each member of the audience. It is important that this is done specifically for each audience member. The reaction from the audience members to the inhabitant’s actions alters form person to person and so in turn does what the inhabitant does next. This means that every journey can be slightly different. For example, one journalist who attended Caerdroia describes how each member of her family reacted to one character encountered.
‘One character we had met on our journey was an old lady all bent up under a heavy load of sticks. We had all reacted differently: I stopped and walked with her; Tybalt had helped her with her load whilst, Jane…had just rushed past giggling.’
(Douglas 23: 2005)
In this example it is possible to see the room for the inhabitant to use their intuition and improvise according to the reaction of the audience member.
Vargas describes each inhabitant as ‘the centre of a field of energy’. Through their work in the labyrinth they are seeking to find a ‘frequency wave’ with which to share this energy in alternative ways to the visual (The Slate 1994). To do so they take advantage of all the senses. Through these tangible means engagement with an intangible level is achieved. This aspect of the work has echoes of Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ that sought to make contact with ‘an inner level’ (Bennet 1997:38)
Cynefin identify this frequency wave as the creation of what they have termed ‘sensory portals’. They use sensory cues to provoke the imagination and memories of their audience. This term describes the actions undertaken by the inhabitants, the environments created within the labyrinth as well as any smells or sounds within. In order to create these portals they start with the idea of nothingness, ‘the latent emptiness of a space bereft of any sensory stimulus’ (Brioc 2004:24). This ‘emptiness’ is something considered by Peter Brook in There Are No Secrets. He states that ‘emptiness in the theatre allows the imagination to fill the gaps. Paradoxically, the less one gives the imagination the happier it is, because it is a muscle that enjoys playing games’ (Brook 119:27). From this they start to build an experience combining sensory stimulus whilst exploring this playful energy.
H.G. was a sensory installation by Robert Wilson. It took place in 1995 in tunnels beneath the Clink near London Bridge. The audience were allowed to wonder freely through a series of rooms representing different eras from 1895-1995 following a fictional time traveller, whose initials were H.G. This character left his mark in each place. It was designed to be experienced by all of the senses. In his article about H.G. Stephen Di Benedetto discusses the way in which sensory work heightens the awareness of the senses. The exposure of this heightened sensitivity to sensory stimulants such as those in H.G. and Sensory Labyrinth Theatre provides the spectator with an array of sensations with which to become conscious of the world around them. Such work can therefore change the way the perception of that person interprets their personal world or reality (Di Benedetto 2001:274). In the labyrinths this is achieved by the creation of environments ‘which excludes the common signifiers on which we depend to make sense of our world’ (Brioc 2004:23), that being mainly sight. Because the labyrinths are dark, or as in Caerdroia sight is limited by vegetation that confine the site from the surroundings. Their perceptions are altered thus shifting the impressions everyday events and actions have on them, this might be refreshing for some but quite unsettling for others.
There is no prescription of what audience reaction should be but rather stimulation for the mind is provided. This creates a platform from which to judge the environments in which they arrive during the performance and which might be applied to environments presented in daily life after leaving the performance. This achievement is in keeping with Barker’s desire to generate active thought in individual audience members (Barker 1989:5). It is tempting to describe this as liberation but channelling is a more appropriate description. The experience could be compared to the work of a good teacher: they guide you in the right direction but ultimately it is the student, or in this case audience member, who must discover things for themselves in order to learn more effectively the lesson intended.
It is the portals mentioned above that take on the role of stimulation in the labyrinth work. Cynefin have developed a methodology in order to create these sensory portals in collaboration with the communities they are working with. It should be emphasised that this methodology is not dogmatic. Although they have exercises that they use to aid the process their methods are adapted to each community. They use what they are given by the community rather than impose preconceptions upon them. In this way their process might be compared to the barter system employed by the company Odin Teatret who exchange their performances for local folk songs and stories (Duffy 1998:22). The contrast is that Cynefin’s work involves the community in the final performances as well as the research and production of material. Odin Teatret use the material generated and donated by the community in their own work.
What follows is an outline of some of the exercises used in order to create an impression of the process. Cynefin first have to communicate what it is that they mean, as it is not a straightforward request. During the workshop period of their projects they undertake various exercises to convey how the senses are integral to perception. They might isolate each sense and ask the participants their favourite memory relating to each. A favourite smell might be baking bread, this may relate to a specific event- the time that person baked bread for mothers day breakfast, or a more general experience- that persons mother may have baked bread every morning throughout childhood. This awakens awareness to the senses that are often neglected as well as demonstrating clearly the link between the senses and memories.
Participants might be asked to remember a moment in which they felt that their senses were particularly heightened. This moment is then divided into senses; the memory may not incorporate all of the senses. By dividing it in this way they can then go about constructing physical props, sounds or smells which embody this moment. Building from the concept of nothingness as described above using layers of sensory stimulation.
There are other starting points that might be used in creating these portals. They might ask the participants to chose a place within the labyrinth and record everything about it. What can be seen? Blue sky through leaf filled branches. What can be heard? The rustling of leaves. What can be smelt? Damp grass. What can be felt? Wind on bare skin. The existing elements of the space can then be used as the material for the sensory portal. The participant in the described environment chose to focus on the leaves and the feel of the wind. In order to draw the attention of the audience member to this they laid a blanket on the grass below one of the trees for them to lie on and look up at the sky through the branches. The audience’s head was laid on the knees of the inhabitant and they blew very softly on their face. So the attention of the audience member is focused on the elements chosen by the inhabitant thus condensing that environment into a sensory portal (Brioc & Hotson 2005).
The reason for calling these prompts ‘sensory portals’ is that through the sensory stimulation ‘the audience can journey to moments in space and time that have deep personal significance’ (Brioc 2004:24). This personal significance might be identified as the connection to memory. An article discussing work at DasArts, a theatre research school in Amsterdam, describes a pattern encapsulating memory is described that might provide a model for explaining this aspect of the labyrinth work.
‘Let’s imagine that each of us is individually made up of an associative construction of memory. Let’s also suppose that each personal memory we have will trigger another in a sequence of recollection, each link in a sequence directly attached to the next chain of memory which- in its turn- builds a personal reality. When links in this chain are re-forged in an act of creation, and then shared, the result is sometimes art. And sometimes it is art which inspires others- an audience- to look anew at their own chains of memory, their own vision of reality.’
(Brand & Lentjes 2000:25)
Sensory Portals are the result of the inhabitants’ memories and so the original chain which create the art. This initiates the audience member’s access to their own memory. In doing so they can explore things they don’t consider in daily life. This allows them to consider what they conceive as their own reality. This is explored further in Chapter 2. The link between their memories and the portals is what produces the shared moments referred to in Cynefin’s stated creative aim. These moments are shared between inhabitant and audience member.
The fact that the material for the sensory portals is created by the community participants and it is they who perform the task of generating them within the labyrinth means that the overall product is unique to those people and therefore that community. It is clear here that ‘theatre can never be divorced from the culture which produces it and which it, in turn, serves’ (Bennet 1997:92).
A Sensory Labyrinth Theatre performance comprises of a series of shared moments experienced by inhabitant and audience member. These shared moments are a result of sensory portals created and carried out by the inhabitants. Cynefin see it as their role to discover and deconstruct the essence of that community. They use the portals as a way of gaining an insight into the collective memory of that community through the individuals involved. This collective memory is usually what gives them a sense of belonging (Brioc 2004:24). Collaboration with members of the community is integral to the process of creating a communal sense memory to be experience by the audience.
Chapter 2: AUDIENCE
It is difficult to give an accurate portrayal of who the audience is as no formal studies have been carried out. Cynefin have always asked their audiences for feed back and it seems evident that, with some exceptions, the main body of audience are relatively local to the area in which the performances occur. There is not a large capacity for the shows due to the fact that each person travels alone meaning there must be sufficient gaps between them so as to reduce the possibility that audience member’s bump into each other. The projects are therefore far from commercial. These performances are for the individuals who take part, both actors and audience members, as well as for the community as a whole.
Audience reaction varies dramatically. Some thoroughly dislike the experience of travelling alone. Most are full of praise whilst often expressing a sense of inarticulacy, with statements such as ‘it’s too hard to put into sensible words’ (Brioc 2004:20). This is in keeping with Di Benedetto’s thoughts on the response to sensory stimulation, he says that ‘academic language is not always the best way to describe the subjective experience of perception’ (2001:274). The sensory portals leave lasting impressions on peoples memories and it is this ‘inaccurate sensorial memory [that] becomes the content of the piece’ (Di Benedetto 2001:275) this emphasises the fact that the audience members experience will be in some ways of their own creation, as with H.G. It will depend on the content of their own lives and what relates this to the sensory memories of experiences during the performance. Each persons response to any given stimulus varies and the time spent anywhere is dictated by their own interest (Di Benedetto 2001:283)
Kershaw observed a contrast in audience reaction for Ariande’s Thread. Reactions varied from the deeply touched to finding it somewhat of an ordeal. He comments that ‘such contrasts, and enthusiasm, underscore the elusiveness of live performance when it comes to attempts at translation into words, images or any other discourse’ (Kershaw 2003:208). So it might be fair to say that this is a characteristic of the work- a sense that it is hard to communicate the essence of the experience.
One critic commented that he was ‘making the journey and became the protagonist as well as audience member’ (Hallett 2005) which is an interesting interpretation of the production. It demonstrates the extent of participation required by the audience member in order to experience the labyrinth. It is in audience response that we see the power of the work. For some people it might be seen as ‘a very powerful metaphor for life's journey’ (Interviewee 3). But how does this come about and why is it of any importance?
Brioc and Hotson have ideas that answer this very question. They can see two psychological phenomenons occurring in their audience members.
‘Firstly, the sensory portals induce in people an euphoric feeling of connectedness that transcends space and time, and secondly the sense making apparatus which normally informs our sense of who we are is disabled, causing intense fear. The first factor is the impetus to continue in the face of the second factor.’
The fear that is overcome is a reflection of the ‘continuous background fear generated by the ego’s project to conjure perceived threats from which it needs defending’ (Brioc 2004:24) in daily life. By first creating the courage, in the form of the ‘euphoric feeling’, to overcome the fear a sense of safety is created allowing the self to become free from the ego that protects it. This is reinforced by the presence of the inhabitants that means the audience member is never truly alone. Cynefin suggest that the experience ‘causes the ego project to collapse’ allowing the audience member to relax and form ‘an acquaintance with the ‘ground of being’…from which a reappraisal of life is often made’ (Brioc 2004:24). For some audience members this stimulates a sense of empowerment for others a sense of discomfort.
The ego is a Freudian term defined as ‘part of the mind that sense of individuality’ (Elliott 2001:238). It is part of the mind that controls the social façade, for example it prevents us from sharing emotions that might be deemed unacceptable by people around us. It also deals with sensory aspects of perception and is linked to memory (Remizovskaya 1996). It is clear, from the description of what the ego is, that it is of great importance to this work. It seems to be what links several elements of the work together.
It is interesting to observe the presenter of The Slate documentary, referred to earlier about Vargas’s Labyrinth, with the above in mind. During the program she has quite an aggressive attitude to her role as presenter. What might be described as her ego or front is clearly visible. However there is a section filmed during her journey through the labyrinth. In this section she is calm and soft, there is an obvious difference in her manner. Her words might give us a further insight into what has happened:
‘When you are here you jettison all the hardness that’s in you and it takes an instant to do it and you suddenly realise what you could be if everything out there [signifies the world outside] wasn’t so difficult.’
(The Slate 1994)
Analysing this comment we can see that the presenter, as an audience member, has been deeply affected by the experience and that has caused her to reassess her position in relation to her environment or world- life outside the performance.
One of the reasons for this might be that as an audience member of this type of performance one need not be
‘fearful of, the public expression or illumination of discrepancies between their reactions and those of their fellow audience members- and, indeed, discrepancies between their own reactions and their sense of what is commonly, socially right as a response’
This is also clear also in the example given in Chapter 1 of the journalist’s family who encounter the same character but react very differently. Separating the audience and allowing them the freedom of expression and participation is a straightforward way of achieving this possibility. It is one of the elements that create empowerment apparent in the reactions of some audience members as a result of Sensory Labyrinth Theatre performances.
Despite the experience of the labyrinth being outwardly focused on the individual and its emphasis on the personal journey there is an overall aim to reinforce a sense of community. The definition of community is something considered by Kershaw. He discusses the dislocation of community in a post-modern era in contrast to the traditional connection to security and familiarity. He identifies a distaste for the term and what it embodies at both ends of the political spectrum ‘whether the ‘traditions’ of conservative thinking or in the ‘communes’ of left wing Utopias’ (Kershaw 2003:192). He suggests that performances such as the labyrinth work might seek to reverse this view. The reason for doing so is that ‘the self is at its best when it belongs to a set of local cultural practices’ (Kershaw 2003:193). These local cultural practices are what make up a community and the more secure the individuals are within that community the more they are likely to invest. It is these cultural practices that can provide material for sensory portals and create a communal sense memory as described in Chapter 1.
In Sensory Labyrinth Theatre the audience is as involved in the performance or experience as the inhabitant. Brioc, who sees that theatre is limited only by the imagination (2005:7), suggests that by involving the audience member so integrally there is a greater capacity to be realised. The audience member’s imagination is united with that of the inhabitants to create the performance which is ‘simply the concentration of attention towards a shared moment in space and time’ (Brioc 2005:7).
It might be said that the audience member is ‘active creator of the theatrical event’ (Bennett 1997:9). They enter the performance space as a participant and the audience/actor barrier, so obvious in conventional theatre where the audience is physically separated from the actors, dissolves. A playful relationship between inhabitant and audience member is created. This brings about democratization in performance, ‘many groups working with specific community (or other) issues look at such a process as essential in a theatre of empowerment’ (Bennett 1997:10).
Chapter 3: SITE
Site is the element that links the audience and performer as part of a community. Sensory Labyrinth Theatre acknowledges ‘the complex inter-dependencies between performative action and all aspects of its environment’ (Kershaw 2003:204). Site is the environment of the work and is a symbol of the community’s existence, embodying its habitat.
In regards to site, it is important to draw a distinction between the professional labyrinth of Enrique Vargas and the Cynefin community labyrinths. Vargas’ labyrinths might be described as site-generic performances, as defined by Fiona Wilkie in her article ‘Mapping the Terrain’. A site-generic performance requires a certain type of site- for example a playground or a swimming pool, whereas site-specific performances are exclusive to one site (Wilkie 2002: 150). When Vargas’ labyrinth toured it was performed in a University building in Bangor as well as in Cardiff and can therefore be described as site-generic.
Other productions defined as site-specific have also toured for example Brith Gof’s Gododdin, first performed in a disused car factory in Cardiff, and toured Europe. Each performance was adapted to very different spaces such as an ice rink, a sand quarry and a tram station. The performances might be described as site-specific, if used as a more general term, each time even though it was the same performance at different sites (Pearson & Shanks 2001:106). These performances can work in a number of locations but not all- hence the use of the word generic as opposed to specific. As a company studied in the same article say of such work ‘obviously it loses something, but also can perhaps carry something else away with it’ (Wilkie 2002:149). Brith Gof comments that their work, indeed, took on different meanings as they toured Europe (Pearson & Shanks 2001:109-110).
The Cynefin indoor labyrinths have always used specific buildings such as the Town Hall in Oporto, Portugal, or an industrial unit in Fishguard, Wales. The company has utilized the spaces used in the making of their shows. Each show is unique to that place, engaging intimately with specific spaces. Their work is not toured as Vargas’, when they work somewhere else it is on an entirely new show with new people. The involvement of the community is integral to the production enhancing the significance of site as that community exists no-where else.
The outdoor labyrinth in North Wales, where Ceardroia was performed, is custom built for the performances. The landscape has influenced this significantly. It is fair to say that the labyrinth projects ‘are an interpretation of the found and the fabricated. They are inseparable from their sites, the only context within which they are ‘readable’’ (Pearson & Shanks 2001:211). It is performances such as this that Wilkie reserves the term site-specific for sites which are ‘central to both the creation and execution of the work’ (Wilkie 2002:150).
The significance of site specific work is the unique relationship formed between site and work. In her article ‘Palimpsest or Potential Space’, Cathy Turner discusses the effect of using an existing site on the work produced. She views sites as ‘a space still in process, whose meaning is never complete’ (Turner 2004: 374). Whatever the place has been used for in the past adds another layer to a site which resonates within it and is often apparent in performance. Referring again to Gododdin by Brith Gof, the significance of its first performance being in a disused car factory was a political statement about the industrial decline in the 1980’s in a piece exploring the history of nationalism in Wales (Pearson & Shanks 2001:103)
The aim of the Caerdroia labyrinth was to work with the community
‘So that a new appreciation of the heritage of the Welsh language [could] be appreciated by both Welsh speakers and non-Welsh speakers. In particular an appreciation of the way this heritage expressed a sense of connectedness and belonging to the natural environment through its poetic tradition’
Location and site would be essential in achieving such an aim. The place chosen was Llanrwst. The town is in a significant position in the plight of preserving the Welsh language due to its protection from external forces by the mountainous landscape that has isolated the area in many ways thus preserving traditions lost in other areas. With more than 60% of the population speaking first language Welsh there is often a feeling of division amongst locals and incoming people who move to the area for its natural beauty but have little knowledge of the language and cultural traditions of the area. By working with a wide variety of people they hoped to ‘build artistic bridges’ (Brioc 2004:8) between the different groups. The work they are doing is inseparable from the geographical position they are working in.
The labyrinth in Portugal was created to celebrate the European Year of Disability, increasing awareness in a country where mentally and physically handicapped people are still largely segregated from society. The significance of using the Town Hall in the centre of Oporto for this labyrinth had political weight. It placed this somewhat taboo issue at the forefront of the city’s attention raising the profile of the event. Key to the success of the project was the use of such a central building (Interviewee 1&2).
Site-based work can incorporate scenography and design as well as using the space as it is found. The site may even ‘allow the construction of new architecture, the ‘ghost’ within the ‘host’ (Turner 2004:374). By ‘ghost’ Pearson implies that the site is visible through the temporary architecture. This is so with the labyrinths. Although a very definite architecture is created in the space the site still resonates through the work. For example, Caerdroia is built on the site of an old farm, the ruin of which can be seen from the path. This was used as inspiration for some of the performers to create characters during the performance. In the Oporto labyrinth, the political implication of the site resonated throughout the performance, increasing the significance of the work.
The symbolism of the labyrinth shape is integral to the meaning of the work. A key property of a labyrinth, as opposed to a maze, is that there is only one path leading to the centre and back out again. Labyrinths became a symbol of the journey to salvation in early Christianity taking pride of place in the famous Chartres Cathedral in France as well as many other churches throughout the world. Throughout history they have represented the journey from birth, through life and ultimately to death. They are seen by many as a representation of journeying to your own centre and then out into the world again (Behan &Davis 2003:295).
Perhaps more importantly to Cynefin, labyrinths feature in an ancient Welsh folk tradition that was lost in the 18th century. They were part of the mayday celebrations and involved creating turf labyrinths cut into hillsides and used as a stage for community performances and known as ‘Caerdroia’ (Brioc 2004:4). It is a modern day version of this that Cynefin have created in the outdoor North Wales labyrinth.
Most of the performances have not taken on the shape of the classical labyrinth. The outdoor labyrinth in North Wales follows the layout of the shape, with seven semicircular rings but is not geometrically correct. The performance labyrinths are always paths with no choices. This is the characteristic drawn upon as it allows the mind of whoever is following, because physically they are directed, the freedom to contemplate their environment and the things they encounter (Behan &Davis 2003:293).
In relation to the subject of site, Barker criticises the layout of conventional theatre spaces. He perceives the raked seating as a symbol of the audience’s critical power over the theatrical work they are witnessing. This physical advantage causes work to become fearful of its audience. The work is then compromised and becomes sycophantic towards the notion of what the audience wants. Barker suggests, somewhat critically, that this desire is for entertainment. (Barker 1997: 80). In removing their work from the theatre building and creating site specific work, as Sensory Labyrinth Theatre does, the prospect of a new relationship between actors and audience is created opening up the prospect of new work and new thoughts.
It is vital to realise that part of the relevance of site is due to the culture in which it exists and the social situations surrounding it (Pearson & Shanks 2001:23). Especially for Cynefin as it is the people making up these communities who create the work with them and their concerns that are staged and emphasised within the labyrinth. Pearson discusses the concept that placing theatre events in unconventional but accessible places puts audiences at ease- particularly in cultures such as that found in Wales where traditions such as the Noson Lawen (translates to ‘Fun Night’) where a community gets together for an evening of singing, dancing and poetry reading, have traditionally been held in barns an other non-theatre spaces (Kaye 1996:210).
The fact that Sensory labyrinth Theatre is site specific has a great influence on how audience and performer interact. In her article ‘Palimpsest or Potential Space’ Cathy Turner describes what she calls ‘playing the site-specific game’ in which ‘we are flooded in our omnipotence, but make new discoveries. We embrace surprise. This applies to our encounters with other human beings in the space, as much as to our encounters with objects’ (Turner 2004: 382). It is this playful energy that Sensory Labyrinth Theatre uses in order to communicate with its audience. This increases the opportunity for the playful relationship between inhabitant and audience member, discussed at the end of Chapter 2, to develop.
It is site that unites audience and inhabitant in a place that has a strong link to community. The places where Cynefin’s labyrinths have been developed in the past have influenced the work and added another layer to what is offered in performance. This is clear with the Llanrwst labyrinth Caerdroia used as an example in Chapter 3. Although ‘unconventional use of space and re-ordering is not, of course innovatory’ (Bennet 1997:95) it does create interest and allow new relationships to be forged.
The involvement of the community members as individuals in the creation and carrying out of the sensory portals is clearly of great importance to the work. Cynefin provide the opportunity for them to use their memories and their surroundings as material. This material is translated into the inhabitant’s performance, as discussed in Chapter 1. It is important to emphasise that the work is less a performance and more a sharing of these memories and the communication of what they embody. The aim is to present an impression of what there is to appreciate within the community. By doing so a member of that community journeying through the labyrinth will value what they know exists and someone outside the community will gain an in depth impression of it.
It is the sensory stimulation so inherent to the work that sets Sensory Labyrinth Theatre apart from other projects seeking to achieve similar objectives. It is this element that leaves a lasting impression of the pieces. The unfamiliar arousal of the senses in association with being alone and in a position to react without fear of reprimand by fellow audience members that allows the ‘ego project to collapse’ as described in Chapter 2. Through this experience it is possible for the audience member to evaluate their state of being in relation to the community as well as more generally. This might affect each person in a different way, if at all. The gravity of the work is that there is the chance for this to happen, the opportunity to ask questions of one’s self without feeling self-indulgent. Nobody exists without considering their position in the world but the labyrinth seeks to channel that thought and bring about a sense of belonging to the place where the community exists. By doing this communities might find some of the strength lost through the destabilising effects globalisation and other modern issues have had (Kershaw 192).
It might be observed that the performance elements are concentrated on the individual. Each portal comes from the input of an inhabitant and is slightly altered for each audience member. The engaging of the senses increases the consciousness of the individual’s experience. The link to memory can be interpreted as highly personal- differing for everyone. Despite this there is a genuine desire to create a sense of community through targeting individuals. Perhaps by generating a common point of reference amongst a wide group of people a support network will emerge.
In Rebuilding Communities Sir George Trevelyan writes that
‘The spirit has no meaning if it is working in vacuo and detached from life. We have to transform society, each one of us starting from precisely the point we are now at. Increasingly we see that the guidance and the wisdom we need are within us; less and less do we need to search outside. Having free will, we must learn to use it not for the ego and self but for the whole’
Here it is possible to see how the knowledge gained by self-discovery can be applied to a greater cause than one’s personal life; the whole described being the community.
All of these things seem very theoretical, and although there has been no formal research into the subject Cynefin has footage of many people who have taken part. In this footage it is clear how powerful the work has been with many people in tears. This only proves further the affects on the individual. In regards to community this is harder to gage although it is certainly spoken of highly in the Llanrwst area with many people looking forward to the opportunity of taking the journey this year or getting involved in the performances. This project is the first to continue for a second year and so more research into the benefits could be carried out to establish a realistic view of its use.
In the introduction the ‘catastrophic theatre’ of Howard Barker is mentioned in association with Baz Kershaw’s article about Vargas’s labyrinth. He suggests that the labyrinth work has common ground in ‘catastrophic theatre’. Barker wanted his ‘catastrophic theatre’ to invest in the will of the individual to acquire knowledge rather than dictate what they ought to know. Such work should engage its audience on a level of equality art to be witnessed, considered and evoke active thought rather than dictate (Barker 1997). It ‘insists on the limits of tolerance as its territory [and] inhabits the area of maximum risk both to the imagination and invention of its author, and to the comfort of its audience’ (Barker 1989:53). Brioc says ‘that risk means being intimate with annihilation, letting the gravity of the present pull me into it and others with me’ (Brioc 2005:3). Brioc sees it as the theatre of choice for a generation who have grown up with the ‘apocalyptic diagnosis’ projected about our environment and ecological issues.
It might be said that personal memory is a high risk area to approach. It is a place where people may get easily offended as it may bring up all sorts of personal issues for both inhabitant and audience member. By approaching this area, despite the risk, the intention to transform the fear that might initially be felt in these shared moments into awe and wonder at the fact that they are, indeed, shared despite their individuality. This is where it is possible to see how the work achieves Cynefin’s stated creative aim:
‘To dream to life shared moments in space and time where fear and mediocrity are transformed into awe and wonder and the inner and the outer become one’. (Brioc 2004:9)
The subject of site aids this process as ‘audiences attending non-traditional theatre take more of a risk’ (Bennet 1997:90) and are therefore generally more willing to invest in the performances emotionally. As for the second part of the aim that ‘the inner and the outer become one’ it is the concept of memory within the form that achieves this. The portals tap into the inner memory of the inhabitant who creates them and brings it out into a tangible prompt or object known as a sensory portal. This then instigates a connection to memory within the audience member.
One of the most essential elements in the workings of Sensory Labyrinth Theatre is memory, both on a personal level and a collective, sensual level. An associate of DasArts, Martijke Hoogenboom wrote that ‘theatre draws on a great reservoir of memory to bring what unites us to the surface. The joys, the pains, the sense of loss which characterizes our human condition’ (Brand & Lentjes 2000:2). It is this ‘reservoir’ from which Sensory Labyrinth Theatre draws its power. It provides a place where remembering can strengthen the sense of existing. This is re-enforced by a statement from the same person that ‘the most striking thing about remembering is not the fact that it means re-checking the past. We found that this remembering nourishes the future’ (Brand & Lentjes 2000:2).
Sensory Labyrinth Theatre is a form that could be used in many community projects and could be developed much further than its current position. It seems to be therapeutic for the individual in many instances. By concentrating on the individual a sense of importance is gained as well as pride, if this can be instated in the individual members of a community then the community will be stronger for longer rather than existing only to reinforce a temporary idea (Kershaw 2003:192). It is difficult to establish if the form is of more value to the individual or community as a whole as it is an experience associated with the emotional and intuitive side of human nature. It is hard to evaluate a general reaction and only opinion can be gage.
A start has been made on studying how the form works and the elements within it. The importance of site, how sensory stimulation can be used and its affects, but as Brioc says ‘to create a theory of Sensory Labyrinth Theatre is perhaps to miss the point’ (Brioc 2004:23). It is all about the experience and this is something subjective. There are many questions that can be explored further and, hopefully, many projects that will allow such exploration to be made.
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Barker, H (1997) Arguments for a Theatre Manchester University Press.
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Di Benedetto, S (2001) ‘Stumbling in the Dark: Facets of Sensory Experience in Robert Wilson’s H.G. Installation’. New Theatre Quarterly, vol 26, no. 3, August.
Douglas, A (2005) ‘If you go down to the woods today…’ Daily Post August 6
Hallet, V (2005) ‘Caerdroia’ Theatre Wales July 14 available at www.cynefin.org.uk
Turner, C (2004) ‘Palimpsest or Potential Space? Finding a Vocabulary for Site-Specific perfomance’. New Theatre Quarterly, vol 20, no. 4, November.
Wilkie, F (2002) ‘Mapping the Terrain: A Survey of Site-Specific Performance in Britain’. New Theatre Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 2, May.
Brioc, I Transforming Fear and Mediocrity into Awe and Wonder Presented at ‘Towards Tomorrow Convention’ CPR May 2005.
Brioc, I Caerdroia Feasibility Study Presented May 2004
Duffy, A Eugenio Barba: Practitioner and Theorist Presented at ‘Irish Theatre Forum 2.3’ Autumn 1998
‘Ariande’s Thread 1- The Labyrinth’ The Slate. Broadcast 27-10-1994 BBC Wales. Available at CPR Aberystwyth.
‘H.G. Robert Wilson and Hans Peter Kuhn in London 1895-1995’ produced by Afterlives Artangel and Becks. Available at CPR Aberystwyth.
1. Mike Hotson December 2005
2. Iwan Brioc December 2005
3. Medi Ashton April 2006
Brioc & Hotson (2005) Decals Training. Oporto, Portugal. September
Note on the author:
Jacqui Banks lives in Pembrokeshire on a small farm where she and her partner are setting up a tree nursery specialising in edibles and trees for craft and wildlife. She uses her training in sensory labyrinth theatre to inform her observations of the world around her. She still works in the arts with projects based around craft and drama. This paper was written as a dissertation for her BA Hons in Acting at the University of Leeds in 2006.