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Urban(e) Legends: Prodigal Theatre & The Urban Playground Team

Fourth wall on the street? Not our style at all.

urban playground

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erformance parkour has an obvious logic in a street theatre context.

A high impact mode of physical expression born from the urge to re-impose human agency onto urban landscapes which have for decades been designed primarily in the interests of business, budget and the all-devouring internal combustion engine.

Urban arstisty, be it parkour, street skating, grafitti, or guerilla gardening partly stem from the urge to relclaim our cities for the people who live in them.

In the first of a series, Trebuchet examines the phenomenon of street theatre (or popup performance, urban spectacle, however you choose to define it – the definitions are contentious) in conversation with Alister O’ Loughlin, co-founder of Prodigal Theatre and performer with The Urban Playground Team.

What’s the big idea behind your company, what do you aim to do?

The Urban Playground Team is the world’s first performance-parkour company. We bring together world-class theatre and dance artists with one of parkour’s co-creators and other ‘traceurs’. Our work blends the core movement vocabulary and values of parkour with dance, theatre, slapstick comedy and anything else that takes our fancy, in order to tell stories through movement both on the street and in theatres.

Most presentations of parkour are displays, and they say ‘look what we can do! We’re extraordinary!’. The work of the UPG Team is in saying ‘look what you can do! This is for everybody!’ so we accompany most of our performances with workshops where we invite the audiences to have a go. We also create participant-performances where locally based young people train with us ahead of a show and then make an appearance in it.

Do humans have a primal need for theatre?

Here’s a brief theory: When the hunters return to their primitive tribe, they act out the hunt as a way of teaching the whole tribe how to do it – where the food is found, which berries to pick and which to avoid, how to bag a wooly mammoth. Its a serious business. Acting out the time Dave nearly got mauled to death is important – its a warning! Until Dave gets married – and then, the hunters get together – and for the wedding feast, they act it out again, but this time as a comedy… And then Dave does get killed, and that hunt is retold as a tragedy….

In short, yes. All art comes down to telling stories, and that’s been with us forever.

Is creating a suspension of disbelief more difficult without a fourth (or any) wall?

We don’t suspend disbelief. We work with reality. You cannot act a jump from one rail to another at a height of 2 of 3 metres – either you make it or you don’t. This is what first attracted us to parkour – its a training in the real. Why you make that jump – well that’s something we can build a story around. As for the fourth wall – we’ve never used it.

Our sister-company Prodigal Theatre (from which the UPG Team grew) makes physical retellings of classic texts. And we work in the round, or site-specific, or promenade. In all cases, we acknowledge the audience, talk to them, include them, implicate them in the action. Fourth wall on the street? Not our style at all.

What can you offer an audience that a traditional theatre can’t?

Well we’ll talk to the people who are there. We’ll work with them and for them and wherever we can we’ll include them. Traditional (in the sense of classical fourth-wall theatre) doesn’t do that, but on the street that type of work is irrelevant. Outdoor performing, and particularly street performing, comes with its own set of rules, and the first one is that you have no control over how the audience will behave.

How do local authorities help or hinder what you do?

Generally they work brilliantly to support our activities. There is always an initial frisson about ‘health and safety’ when the words ‘parkour’ or ‘freerunning’ are mentioned; but once people understand how we work they’re usually very supportive.

How do you hold the attention of an audience who can wander off at any point?

You have to earn it! And that means every moment of the performance needs to be interesting enough to stop someone in their tracks. You can’t tell a long chain narrative, with a payoff that comes late on – for that you need to know the audience are going to stay. On the street, you have to work on every second as the one which might keep someone or lose them.

Are you driven mad by audiences fiddling with their phones?

Either you embrace it or you’re doomed to a headache. We encourage our audiences to share their photos, films, tweets and comments with us. We do ‘audience selfies’ with them and whack them up on Instagram. If you tell people on the street they can’t use their phones they’ll walk away.

At its purest, street theatre needs only an empty space and an actor. That said, what equipment (lighting, sound, props, etc) has the most impact on the performance?

Our performances are based on steel scaffold sets – the skeletal frame of an office complex, or a train, or the forms of a city block. Or we work on existing architecture – this has included rooftops, street furniture, being inside moving public transport with an audience. Our work is all about that relationship with the environment so we either have to bring the environment with us – for e.g. our train – or we have to be resident in advance to create site-specific choreography. Alongside that, the work of our musician in creating soundtracks with our director is essential.

People come to towns for work, shopping, transport, etc. What’s your ideal audience?

A good mix. In Qatar we had traditionally dressed high status locals side by side with western tourists and the road crew who paused their digging up of one end of the street to watch us perform at the other.

In Thailand we performed at the main train station – on our scaffold train structure – to a mix of tourists, commuters, Buddhist monks, cops, and railway gangs. In India last year we had 78 members of a Dalit community in a rural village join us for a workshop. The youngest was 4, the oldest was 95. All joined in. I’m writing this to you whilst sitting on the plane back to Chennai, and as part of our tour we’ll be taking the full show back to that community – we know its going to be a special one.

Are certain locations always better than others?

Of course. The more unusual the better – because it adds an extra dimension for us as performers. This INDIAN STEAM tour of Tamil Nadu is going to be amazing because it involves so many layers of collaboration. In Baltimore a few years ago we brought together performers from communities that would never usually mix, and together we took over the Penn Station Plaza – a huge public square outside the main train station. The National Theatre Watch This Space in 2009 will always be a high point. It felt like the entire South Bank had come to a standstill – there were people lining the bridge and looking down on us.

What constraints are there on your work?

Well despite what I said earlier there is a level of risk. Our work is incredibly physically demanding, though we try not to ‘demonstrate’ that too much – it should always look easy. When you add in heat (we performed in over 40 degrees C in Australia, and in Botswana) then heatstroke can make things very interesting.urban playground, steam

In Naples a few years ago we almost had heart attacks playing in a theatre with no air conditioning during a long heat wave – we developed tunnel vision and unbelievable shivers that made everything very tricky. There’s also never enough time, never a rehearsal space that substitutes a street in terms of scale but has all the comforts you need for endless hours of rehearsing. Funding is tight and the team have to come together from over the south coast of England, Wales, and from Paris – so just being together can be a logistical headache… that’s theatre!

Have you ever had your work stopped by authorities? Is there a vetting process before permission to perform is given?

We had the police called on the basis that people in the street had a bomb – it was our (very obviously) fake dynamite from a James Bond themed stunt scene. As for vetting processes – there is also a process to go through to get the permissions in place for public performances but to be honest this is usually dealt with by whoever has booked us. Then its site-visits, risk assessments, child protection policies, insurance and so on. Pretty standard stuff.

What’s been your artistic high-point to date?

If you ask me one month from now I hope I’ll be saying that for all of us it will be touring Tamil Nadu in collaboration with Chennai’s Parkour Circle with our Indian Steam show for Re:Imagine India – a year of culture celebrating 70 years of Indian Independence.

Any miserable moments when you’ve felt like giving up? If so, why?

We recently talked about this at a dance event where artists shared examples of times when they had to ‘think outside of the box to survive’…. To cut a long story short we spent a year begging a prestigious Italian theatre festival to settle up what they owed us from a commission prize they had awarded to us, announced, then privately halved anyway.

After a year of begging and facing bankruptcy we decided to stop being nice. Invited by another organisation to go to the same city, we completed an online check in for a flight, then sent an email with the flight details and an attached press release with a list of 96 local journalists who covered the arts and/or corruption to whom we intended to send it. We explained we were calling a press conference the following morning at this organisation’s offices where we would expose exactly how little they regarded the artists they claimed to support.

Within two minutes our phone was ringing, and the money was in our account before we’d left for the airport. Lesson learned, but one we never wished to learn, and it did make us question a lot….

What makes you keep doing it?

As an artist you never know when people are going to stop booking you and move on to the next thing. We thought the Urban Playground would be a one-off project taking place over one week in Brighton back in 2006. We’ve just now celebrated 10 years of touring, we’ve shown our work on five continents and there are more projects in the pipeline. We keep learning from it, and we keep finding more people to teach.

There’s a process of inspiring and being inspired which never gets old. So whilst we can still jump, we will.

Image by Richard Braybutt. Not to be reproduced without permission.


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