What lights your flame? A week with Walk The Plank

I feel its only ever appropriate to start my blogs with the obligatory apology, mainly to justin, for being so absent from blog writing entries. Its one of those things, a bit like a diary that you kind of need to get into the swing of but inevitably by january 16th and onward the pages remain blank. 

Tin Shed have been busy since the start of the year and have produced 2 tours in the space of 3 months which have travelled the country, hence why if you see either myself or Justin we seem to have a relatively blank and drained look about us. Not to mention most recently taking part in NIA's project 'Beneath the Surface' which saw us share stories and experiences in a performance-esque promenade fashion in the project space in Newport. 

After arriving back from the tour on friday night and bidding the cast a fond fair-well at a service station in bristol, I became increasingly aware that I had neither packed, prepared nor given much thought to the week ahead. On monday I was due to head off to rural mid wales and attend a weeks worth of training with Walk The Plank.

Sunday evening arrived incredibly quickly and I spent day and night pulling together all the relevant camping gear that, since last years festival season, required serious de-mould attention. The other major task prior to my departure was to write lists and leave apologetic voicemail messages stating that I would be out of signal until the following sunday, I realised that I had not prized myself away from the digital realm for the duration of my professional career. 

6am monday morning and with the car packed I bid Newport's concrete jungle farewell and set off towards destination unknown. The beauty of the landscape that began to surround me was astounding and after a quick pitt stop to take in the mountain I had found myself atop, I pressed on. Apprehensions were beginning to build as I thought to myself what it would be like immersing myself in an environment full of artists I had never met, nor worked with in the past. What if we didnt get on? What if I felt out of my depth? all these questions rushed through my head as I approached the site. 

Out of the landscape popped a series of colourful tents speckled with gatherings of sheep. 

Tent pitched, we began our day with introductions from Walk The Plank founders Liz and John then our introductions as the creative practitioners. I quickly realised that the performer heavy cohort I had expected had become this wonderful mixture of multi platform artists; Arial performers, Dancers, storytellers, puppeteers, Architects and many more. This was such a welcome surprise as I tend to spend most of my time either working with other theatre makers or performance artists that this eclectic mix was such an interesting dynamic, and obviously a very deliberate intention of Walk The Plank. 

Our first site visit came that night, rain coats and torches in hand we climbed the steep inclining, cobbled path to the top, around a corner past a little stone hut, a bit more path, up some wooden steps and then... the sky opened up above us and we were no longer shaded by the trees that hung over the path but surrounded by hills, mountains and from that hillside grew the castle, Castell-y-Bere. A hushed tone covered the group as we split and explored the nooks and levels of the surrounding stonework. People sang into the rocks, danced along the walls and smelt the warm coconut scented Gorse flowers that lit the walls with its bright yellow glow. 

"Remember" Liz said, "Remember this feeling, because this is what your audience will feel when they come up here on friday night". By this point we had very little information of what would take place on friday and saturday night but a sense of excitement and apprehension bubbled amongst the group. We then listened to a story told by Peter Stevenson. As we perched upon the worn down walls and listened to tales of mystery and welsh folklore it was then I became immersed, with each word peter spoke the worries and stress of the day to day seemed to pick themselves up and dance away over the mountains like a fiendish imp. 

Over the next 48 hours we had a jam packed time table of presentations and hands on sessions involving learning to fire draw with Rob Hill, an Introduction into Lighting installation with Johnny Easterby, Storytelling with Peter Stevenson, Low voltage outdoor lighting with Rob, Site Decor with Cordi Ashwell and Shadow Play with Eilidh Bryan. 

It was a whistle stop tour of frantic note taking, question asking, brain cramming, wrapping and unwrapping our cold then hot then cold bodies as we attempted to thaw out from the what the papers had coined 'Arctic Spring'. Relationships began, conversations, blankets and hugs were exchanged as we all rejoiced the arrival of a hot shower and lovingly made food from the catering staff. 

By the third day we had all become accustomed to living in a wind tunnel and had embraced the outdoor chic attire of multiple layers. That afternoon, festooned with notebooks and excitement we assembled in the main tent to hear the pitch, we had our tools and now we were ready to get to work. The pitch was given with more insight into the overall purpose of the Awen training schools and the final spectacular event at Wales Millennium Centre in September.

 It was no coincidence that storytelling had played a vital role in the sessions leading up to the weekend and this was to continue as a thematic tool. We set to task together and made suggestions of ideas we had formed throughout the week of how the castle could be used. Any idea was taken and noted with no boundaries on creativity. Later we were given our perimeters and problems to solve and set on task in teams to brainstorm an idea for the final event that weekend in a pitch to be presented back to the panel. 

Later that day a concept was decided upon. We were to set the event within the celebration of a wedding. The audience would become the guests and they would be enticed into a world of strange characters adorning the castle walls as they explore and happen upon the storytellers sharing their tales of mystery and the land. They would then be bought together for a finale celebration of dance, song and shadow play.

Teams assembled, materials at the ready, everyone set to work. Flashes of red fabric and handfuls of gorse littered the room as everyone scrabbled together to make use of what they had, people worked late into the night rehearsing and making, not because they had to, but because they wanted to, a real sense of unity fell among the group, excitement and anticipation bubbled away like a witches cauldron.

Morning arrived quicker than anticipated and the teams were up and working. Equipment and decorations were hauled up to the castle and rehearsals began. Costumes were allocated and excitement built for the event. Sooner than we realized late afternoon was upon us and it was time to get set. The audience arrived in droves and began trekking the cobbled trail up to the castle just as we had done the first night. As they traveled up hill, characters popped out of the cracks and crevices within the castle walls for tiny interactions.

 The maid of honour, a rather ostentatious young woman set the premise of the wedding as they came to a corner where an old hunched woman, an unwanted visitor, resembled the black hen from the tale of Taliesin as she handed out grains of corn and searched for Gwion.  Once up the steps, through the archway and into the main space the castle was alive. Music resonated around the walls, voices came and colour as vibrant as the beautiful setting spring sun bought the audience into a living space, the castle was alive again and we had helped it to breath. Throughout the evening I observed as groups young and old almost skipped across to hear the next tale omitting from a hidden space as the evening drew to a close the fires were lit as we danced and sung songs of Awen to the rising full moon.

We bid audience Diolch and Nos Da as smiles radiated in the fire light as they headed back down the hill. A feeling of great contentment had come over me, a real warmth as I looked around at Jo dancing atop a turret with a lit torch, I felt as though we had given something back, something back to the land and the people that had a connection to it, as I said, we had helped the castle breath again, and for that night, it lived.  With arms around one another we arrived back in camp to hot chocolate and cheesy quesadillas, we laughed and shared our experiences of the evening and sang until late by the camp fire ready to do it all again tomorrow….or so we thought. 

I awoke at 5am, to the sound of a thousand horses stampeding through the camp and the site of my tent, 2cm above my face, meeting in the middle, I felt my feet, cold and soggy as I scrambled to pick up my belongings from the puddle that had risen from beneath me. I unzipped the front to see flashes of colour darting across the field with arms laden with bags and quilts as they made a mad dash to the main tent. The rain was torrential, coupled with a prevailing wind that bulldozed through the valley. Arriving in the main tent there were a few others whose tents had met an untimely demise as they laid out their sodden bedclothes. I walked into the catering tent to find Liz, hugging a mug of tea. ‘How’s your tent?’ she asked, ‘Not good’ I replied, ‘Well if you think yours is bad, have a look at mine’, I peered through the gap out across the field to see what resembled a large omelet flat against the grass where once a canvas bell tent had stood. I giggled ‘Oh dear, well yep you’re right, at least my tent is still standing’ she then proceeded to inform me that John was still in the flattened structure asleep. We laughed, but knew that we had a tough morning ahead of us.

We assembled the team in the main tent and huddled around the heater that Rob had managed to force back into life. We all knew what was coming as Liz stood in front of us with an A board and marker pen, ‘Right’ She exclaimed ‘What are our options?’ We discussed amongst us that any hope of replicating last nights festivities had been washed away by the rain and the danger of allowing 125 audience members up to the castle would not be a good idea. We were then faced with 2 outcomes, first to cancel the event. We knew that people had traveled far and that canceling would only result in disappointment. We settled on the second, which was to adapt the main tent that we had been working throughout the week to somewhat of an immersive, warm and inviting space to bring in the audience to listen to story and song. I felt privileged to have been part of this decision, that could very easily have been made without us but was a fantastic lesson in the great British weather and the potential options that you are faced with. Once again a feeling of ownership and excitement for a new challenge came over us, but first the de-rig.

Later that afternoon we were again privileged to have another guest speaker, Gilly Adams who shared with us her role within Walk The Plank’s WMC spectacular and how she became a dramaturge and what it entails. It was great to listen to Gilly talk and have the opportunity to ask her questions. She made particular reference to storytelling and how within theatre we often lose sight of what is essentially very simplistic storytelling.

We arrived back on site and scrabbled together what we could out of the soggy d├ęcor from the castle and set to work dressing the tent. A few people were disheartened at the thought of downscaling so much but more for the wonderful evening we had experienced the previous night, how would audiences react? Is something really better than nothing? It was hard to tell.

We welcomed them in with open arms, into the warmth of the tent and a cup of tea served by cook – come- compare Nicky who took on the challenge of being the MC for the night. The feeling was contentment and escapism from the miserable conditions outside, audience huddled around cuddling hot drinks and loved ones as they listened to stories. Moral quickly rose, as we were thankful that we too were able to listen to the stories. I great sense of admiration came over me for the skill in which the storytellers possessed. Mair especially astounded me with her extremely animated recantation of the tale of the two young boys and the red otter that I laughed in a way that I hadn’t done since I was a child. The shadow play was beautiful and again we lit the fires. As they fizzled out and the audience faded away we sat back together and laughed again over glasses of wine as we told our own stories of the week past. We all went to bed full of joy and contentment for another truly magical and even more so memorable experience. That’s night, most of us slept in our cars.

The final day was upon us, the end was now in sight and as we packed up our remaining tents a certain lull was present. We had nothing more to challenge us, we had completed the week but in a strange way, although I had longed for a steaming hot bath and a soft bed, I was sad to leave. For the first time in my professional career I had experienced something that had truly challenged me in a way that no other project has. I had met some utterly fantastic people, people who made me think about my art and altered my preconceptions. I am still digesting the amount I learnt even now, 3 weeks later.

We assembled in the village hall for one final chat, a debrief, a way for us all to evaluate the week. As we read out our goals for the future an unexpected wave of emotion came over us,  we were sharing more than goals, it was personal. It reminded me that art – to create and be creative runs far deeper than work, although we often use the term ‘The work’  its deeper than that. It human, and an expression of who we are and what we want to say. It makes people listen, feel and grow. We as artists have a gift, a gift that often gets lost in flowery language to entice people to give you some money to make or the dumbed down talk to help the layman understand, when inside we’re jumping, screaming to get out and create. This week helped me think and re evaluate what I have always known but often found it very difficult to put into words. I am an artist. I value art, I may not always get it, or struggle to express it, but I value its place in the world and even more so in my life and in the lives of others. To have the privilege to be immersed for a week surrounded by so many wonderful artists within their own right, was an experience that no amount of money could pay for. The admiration that I have for the bravery of Liz and John is a skill that I aspire to have one day, to have control but to be strong enough to let others take the reins of the horse and run with it. A beautiful analogy was raised by Jo Shapland at the end of the session and one that had particular resonance with us all. She described the experience as a gorse flower, thorny and difficult to handle but once at the top, encased in a bright and wonderful shell of yellow petals was a beautifully sweet smelling flower, that brings warmth and happiness to the landscape and surrounding hills.

This blog is dedicated to all the practitioners who shared their wisdom with us, to Liz and John who shared their bravery and had faith with us all, to the team who bought us hot meals, hot showers and flushing toilets. Lastly to the participants, each and every one of you in your own way made the week one never to forget.  So thank you. All of you.

And lastly, as this blog began, I end this not with an apology but another thanks to Justin, for giving me this wonderful opportunity, who kept the good ship Tin Shed afloat in my absence. I promise to write more blogs, and not to have a melt down half way through the week when I stupidly write it directly into the system that crashes and I lose the entire thing, technology ay!?

Thanks for staying with it and giving up your time to read.

George x