May 3, 2012
I awake early to birdsong on the cliff top at Eype, the ‘steep place’, where I spent the night in a campsite overlooking the sea. Rabbits run in the long grass, woodpeckers knock and a crabbing boat pulls its pots offshore, just visible in the mist. My camp sits some 70 metres above sea level, on a cliff of Middle Lias and Bridport Sandstone; at the junction of the Jurassic Eype Mouth and Mangerton Fault Lines. It abuts the slowly eroding Frome Clay and Forest Marble of the West Cliff, lying east of the iconic dome of the Golden Cap and perched precipitously above a grey, pebbled beach of Upper Greensand Chert, which sighs and crackles with each new wave.
I pack up my camp and head to the Lyric Theatre in Bridport to meet with the Dorset performers for Battle for the Winds. I have arranged to camp in Niki McCretton’s back garden and to be part of the team responsible for developing the Dorset episode of the BFTW performance at Weymouth in July.We are also embarking on a trip to the Fossil Festival in Lyme Regis to support the combined launch of the 2012 Earth Festival and Doldrum’s Emergence, the beginning of the BFTW performance narrative by Desperate Men.
At the Lyric, Marc is painting our pedal -powered Battle for the Winds vehicle, a seven-seater, circular, conference bike framed around a radiating star of chains and fixed gears. The vehicle has its own radical history: built by artists in Holland, once-owned by Emergency Exit Arts and a veteran of the Reclaim The Streets and Critical Mass cycle protests of the 1990s. It will tow our Strongbox of Winds, which has been made by a young team of 1st year model making students at Arts University College Bournemouth, a fantasy machine which is part-Victorian Jules Verne diving bell, part-Trinity House light buoy; complete with portholes, pipes, pressure gauges and a crow’s nest.
Herbie Treehead and Rob Lee arrive. Herbie, street performer and anarchic festival veteran, is our Windmaster, the mad captain of our fictive crew. I know him from Glastonbury. Rob Lee is our musician and composer. We spend the evening assembling the vehicle, dressing the crow’s nest, gangplank and ropes under theatrical floodlights set up in the alley behind the theatre. We un-pack suitcases of musical instruments, wire up speakers and order in Chinese food. Friends stop by. Dog walkers pause and admire the weird machine. We try the pedal cycle, up the narrow lane and back in the gathering dark. There is little time for preparation. Tomorrow we will have to improvise, think on our feet and get the hang of the vehicle in performance mode on the street itself.
May 4, 2012
We pack the van and make the short journey to Lyme Regis, where we pitch up near the clock tower and begin assembling our vehicle. We have costumes from AUCB – red and white garb bedecked with fishing net, twine barnacles and seaweed; skirts striped and coloured like seaside life-rings; the knitted scarves of fishermen. Our aesthetic sits well on the Lyme Regis sea front, with the sea at our backs, the Cob stretching out like a crab claw, the long Jurassic coastline towering away to the East.We build the trailer and practice riding the vehicle around the roundabout, Herbie perched in the crow’s nest like a mad Napoleon of the circus. Niki tries on her roller skates. Rob rigs musical devices, wires and speakers. The sea front is busy, filling up with day-trippers, families and couples.
The Fossil Festival is part of the regeneration of Lyme Regis, a festivity designed to reinforce its newly-minted place identity as the ‘birthplace of geology’. The event features educational partnerships between Lyme Regis Development Trust, the Natural History Museum and the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. This year, the festival coincides with the launch of the 2012 Earth Festival and the beginning of the BFTW narrative which will culminate at Weymouth for the Olympic sailing in July.
A long tent has been erected on the beach, full of fossil-related activities for children, stands and information from a range of geological, archaeological and environmental organisations, trusts and charities. There are fossils on display everywhere, and the programme includes talks, theatre and music. Sarah Butterworth’s Pliosaur cinema is also on-site: a 35ft Pliosaur puppet which houses a small caravan cinema in which youngsters can learn about the ancient marine reptile and its Jurassic environment. A walkabout character dressed as Lyme Regis’ own pioneer fossil hunter Mary Anning is interacting with passers-by.
We quickly take on the role of fools at the feast, and our presence attracts immediate interest from the public. A small boy comes over and admires Rob’s ukulele. ‘Can I play it?’ he asks. ‘Sure,’ says Rob. The boy’s face lights up. He picks up the instrument and strums a little, smiling as if he has just run away with the circus. Human curiosity is our best friend. Men in particular come over and examine the pedals, chains and gears of the vehicle, admiring its engineering and wondering how it works. ‘We don’t know,’ we say, debunking our professional status, ‘we haven’t ridden it yet!’
As we near departure, a crowd gathers. Rob is firing sounds through the PA, playing waltzes on his toy piano, making fart noises, sonar beeps and wind effects. Herbie climbs to the crow’s nest with his megaphone and we call for pedallers. I honk my car horn. Kids immediately want to get on board, but health and safety concerns mean it has to be adults only. We begin our perambulation along the sea front, pulling around the little roundabout at the town clock and holding up the traffic. Our presence disrupts the everyday spatiality of the place. Cars have to wait, the crowd throngs around us and we move slowly through the mass of people, which parts naturally in front of us without instruction. As we process down the seafront we engage with people as we go. A song emerges, a call and response which identifies us and expresses the uncertainty of the Olympic project:
What are we doing?
We’re gathering the winds!
What are we doing?
We’re gathering the winds!
Where are we taking them?
We’re taking them to Weymouth!
Why are we doing it?
We don’t know! We got a call from Sebastian Coe!
The comedy of wind allows us to indulge in street theatre which is almost medieval in quality. We stop occasionally and engage the static crowd, Herbie using his megaphone to tell people our basic function, that we are gathering wind for the Olympic sailing and that we need people to pedal, blow up balloons and fill our Strongbox of Wind. It is a beautiful, bright sunny day and the crowd is in festive mood. We play with them, and little routines develop: we get people to lick their fingers and hold them in the air to catch the wind; we ask children to blow up balloons, old ladies to puff into pipes. I use a small mop to ‘clean’ the children, tickling them behind their ears. I put the mop on the heads of passing bald men. Niki and Marc interact with the crowd, collecting ‘gusts’ and ‘breezes’ from children in particular. Rob plays beautiful, haunting music and wild crazy rhythms. I ask women if their husbands have ‘any spare wind?’ Invariably, I am told they have. We laugh together, then we jump aboard again and move on, taking our energy along the sea front, disrupting its normal patterns of movement and activity. We squeeze our improbable vehicle past parked cars, sometimes blocking the route completely.
Eventually we turn and pedal back towards the Marine Theatre, where we are expected to be part of the entertainment for the official combined launch event of the Fossil Festival, the 2012 Earth Festival, and BFTW. We struggle up the short hill towards the venue, again disrupting the traffic, arriving at its archway entrance, beyond which are gathered the expectant assembled dignitaries.
We enter the archway in full voice, only to become jammed under its low ceiling in a classic moment of civic farce. After what seems an age of comic indecision, we have to edge out backwards into the road and back down Church Street, our triumphant entrance scuppered by this unexpected height restriction. We ride around to the rear of the building and perform in the square below the Marine Theatre before winding down and returning to our parking spot, where we dismantle the vehicle for overnight storage.
May 5, 2012
The printed schedule for the second day of the festival requires us to ‘set up and muck about all day,’ so that is what we do, both to fulfil our festive function and to improvise new tricks, games and routines which might become more formalised elements of our BFTW episode in rehearsal next week.
We develop a routine for getting members of the public onto the conference bike to help us pedal up and down. Herbie calls for pedallers through his megaphone from his crow’s nest, and we check their legs for strength before they get on the bike. Once aboard, we give a spoof safety talk in the style of flight attendants, pointing out invisible exits and warning pedallers to be careful of the chains and cables by their feet. We sit facing inwards, and our mutual effort soon bonds us as a team. I am at the wheel, steering. The pedallers express pride at being ‘on board’ and enjoy being the focus of public attention. The atmosphere is usually light-hearted and supportive.
At one point, however, we stop and pick up a man who pushes the boundaries of his position. Whether it is because he is drunk or naturally aggressive is uncertain, but he uses his place on the vehicle to assert power over the crowd, shouting at them to ‘get out of the way!’ He breaks the implicit ‘rules’ of the vehicle by ordering me to release the brake when it is not safe to do so, by demanding that we go faster, by shouting aggressively at passers-by. Quickly we realise that something is amiss and we become passive, our performance muted until we can stop safely and change crew.
The experience prompts observations about the nature of our transgression, about the spatial dominance and social power we achieve with the vehicle in public space and about notions of festive behaviour that are either ‘in-place’ or ‘out of place’ even within the free-expressive practices of carnival. The vehicle has power, uses power, but is not about exerting dominance in an aggressive way. Rather, our occupation of the street is about comic mock-dominance, a self-deluding power which satirises the nature of power itself. The ‘in-place’ conceit is that we are fools with delusions of grandeur, pranksters escaped from their restraints to ride this big, brazen vehicle, but cowards at heart, other than in the protection of the weak.
May 6, 2012
Next morning we travel back to Lyme Regis, through the coppice-lands and high chalk escarpments of the Dorset AONB, for the final day’s performance. This centres on the launch of the BFTW narrative; this afternoon on the beach, Doldrum will emerge from a rock to challenge Aeolus’ plans to gather the winds for the sailing at Weymouth. This piece of street theatre will trail the BFTW story prior to the main event in Weymouth later in the summer.
To achieve this, Desperate Men have recruited student performers from AUCB as Doldrum’s disciples, a zombie cult of stone worshippers led in character by Richard, who walk the streets proclaiming the imminent arrival of the ‘Master.’ As Windgatherers, our vehicle and its crew are in opposition to Doldrum. At the start of the day, Richard asks us to begin unsettling the crowds, telling them that ‘something is in the wind.’ We tell tall tales to children about Jurassic Coast scientists who have detected strange seismologies in the cliffs, the amplitude of which suggests a happening of some kind on the beach later this afternoon. As Windgatherers, we are worried, troubled, but also determined to gather as much wind as we can from passers-by and store it in our Strongbox.
The Jurassic and Cretaceous landscape of Lyme Regis is the perfect setting for Doldrum’s emergence. The narrative plays heavily on local geology. A large erratic has ‘appeared’ on the beach; fossils have been shaken loose from the Blue Lias. Jon Beedell is in character as the geologist Sir Charles Lyell, giving impromptu, comic lectures which reference the local rock formations, the Shales-with-Beef, Black Ven Marls and fossils. We ride up and down the beach in our vehicle, lifting the energy in advance of the main show in the afternoon.
As the Wind Vessel pedals its way along the sea front, we halt the traffic and squeeze past parked cars. By the beach huts, we stop and look in to these little, half-private worlds, asking cheekily for a cup of tea, or for permission to ‘drive through your front room’. A group of women sit in deck chairs in front of one hut, their painted toes stretched out in the sun. ‘Mind your toes ladies!’ we shout as we pass. A man reading a newspaper outside his hut pretends we do not exist. He has claimed his Sunday space and will not move for anyone, nor even acknowledge our presence. We inch by, carefully in a ridiculous attempt to be invisible.
For Doldrum’s Emergence, Desperate Men have prepared a central performance in which the character of Sir Charles Lyell leads a public expedition to examine the strange erratic that has appeared on the beach. Hitting it with his fossil hammer, he awakens Doldrum, who proclaims his hatred of wind and erosion as forces of change and renewal, casts Lyell aside, punishes the Windgatherers and sets off around the town on his mission to defeat Aeolus and silence the voices of youth, progress and celebration.
Today, our contribution is entirely improvisational, a public work-in-progress. Our creative skill lies in our ability to manage this spontaneity, to create theatre in the moment with our audience. This constitutes an act of partial co-authorship, which pulls together performativities of landscape, geology, history, civic participation, national celebration and social cohesion around the project of the Olympics.
Instructions given, we assemble at the clock tower for Sir Charles Lyell’s soapbox routine, then follow him in procession to the rock on the beach, led by Tim’s band. A crowd has gathered on the beach, encouraged by Richard’s wailing cult members. Doldrum duly emerges and Lyell is paralysed. As Windgatherers we take the role of threatened underdogs, running away but vowing to win the day, the audience on our side. The performance works well as outdoor pantomime, a familiar, popular, broad-brush approach to storytelling. The story is told, the crowd entertained, and our work here is done.
Look out for the Dorset Windgatherers in procession at Bridport on July 4, Gold Hill Fair, Shaftesbury, on July 7, Christchurch on July 10, Bournemouth and Poole Torch Relay on July 13 and Boscombe Fair on July 14. Bring us your wind!