On SHUNT and “Money”

This interview was originally published in the now defunct London Theatre Blog on 3 November 2009. An archive of London Theatre Blog can be found here.

For the past decade the 10 core members of the Shunt Collective, working closely with associate artists and an expanding network of collaborators from the Lounge Project, have pioneered large-scale, shared theatre experiences in a series of uniquely crafted environments. Their latest creation, Money, partly inspired by Emile Zola’s novel of the same name, involves a Victorian-era machine, a behemoth whose innards house satirical tales of economic risk, rivalry and greed.

The company’s ten-year story has not been without difficulty or probing from its critics, but as Shunt prepares to leave behind the much-loved Vaults, closing the door on that Carrollian hole at London Bridge station, I caught up with artist, academic and Shunt lighting designer, Mischa Twitchin, to take stock of Shunt’s achievements, to talk Money, and to ask what the future may hold.

Please note: in editing the interview transcript and dividing it up into ‘bite-size’ sections, I made several alterations to the chronological order of the original discussion. Any incongruencies in the text are therefore my doing. All photographs used in this article belong to Shunt and must not be reused without prior permission.

1. Origins

(Two SHUNT Cabaret flyers from September 1999)

Andrew: How did Shunt begin?

Mischa: Shunt is a collective of ten artists – we met on a one-year postgraduate course at Central School of Speech and Drama ten years ago. That course then was about fostering companies. You worked in different groups throughout the year and then the last term was given over for each company to make a show. The task we set ourselves was to explore medieval representations of torture. On the whole, the company for that project was self-selecting and before the course was over we had agreed to rent a space to continue working together. So, being a member of Shunt in the first few years meant paying £50 a month cash to rent a railway arch in Bethnal Green!

We made The Ballad of Bobby Francois there and Dance Bear Dance, and we also did bi-monthly cabarets. Dance Bear Dance came at the end of a five-year period by which time we’d taken over the arch next door and the performance explored the relation between these two, parallel spaces. As it turned out, it had some big theatrical coups in it. It also happened to coincide with the change of Artistic Director at the National Theatre (NT). Part of Nicholas Hytner’s new strategy was to open up what counted as “theatre” for his audience at the NT.

Several people from the NT saw that show, including then Nick Starr and Nick Hytner. After five years, we were looking to move – having exhausted the arch spaces – and they invited us to do something in one of the non-theatre spaces on the Southbank. We thought what could we possibly do there? But all credit to them, they acknowledged that, and when we found this space [Shunt Vaults] Nick Starr hosted the negotiations with Railtrack in his office. It took about a year to get into this space. They also supported us with a couple of fundraising evenings – obviously, we had no money – and, then, crucially the tickets for our first show here, Tropicana, were sold through their box office, so there could be credit card bookings in advance.

However, that also meant, in contrast to our experience in Bethnal Green, that we opened the show with 200 people outside – which rather pre-empted our usual practice of working on the show with an audience in previews. We had this whole choreographed beginning, for example, and it was obvious on the first night that it wasn’t going to work. It took a couple of months of really learning what it meant to have an audience in this space for that show to come to fruition.

The tie-in with the NT also meant we were committed to a press night, which we’d never had before. So, there was one evening with a raft of critics who’d never seen any of our previous work and had no particular interest in our way of working. Indeed, why should they? They were waiting for the show to start, with no real sense that they might already be part of it when they came in. So, the main press record is not so good for Tropicana – but then it ran for nine months! In a way, that scenario had changed a bit by the time of Amato Saltone, and it helped open the door for work off-site associated with the NT.

2. Money

(Scene from the SHUNT event Money)

Andrew: Shunt is launching a new show in September 2009 in a new space close to the Shunt Lounge at London Bridge. It’s your first show since Amato Saltone in 2006. What’s the basic premise behind Money?

Mischa: Conversations started over a year ago about what might be the material or the starting point for a new show. We have used a common text source – not necessarily literary – as a point of departure before. With The Ballad of Bobby Francois, our first show, it was a book called Alive; and then the handbook of rules for lawn tennis for The Tennis Show; or for Dance Bear Dance there was material around the Gun Powder Plot. It’s about coming to an agreement around a shared source that’s accessible through that reading. That’s not to say that the book is the source of the work; it’s just one element together with the people and the space. Then the key question will always be what is the journey of the audience that we’re constructing with these elements?

The conversations started before Easter last year, so before Northern Rock, but after the Enron scandal. One topic in discussion was the hubris of the financial world. Then for other reasons too, we were reading various novels by Émile Zola.

Andrew: Why Zola?

Mischa: One strand of conversation at a certain point was “why not take a novel?” Thérèse Raquin seems to be used every other year! So, there was a sort of curiosity about that. Then, of course, any individual Zola novel is part of a bigger cycle, so different people were reading different books to comment on in meetings.

Andrew: Were any of these books connected to the company’s prior discussion of the global financial situation?

Mischa: Well, as the crisis unfolded then people were reading about it. A couple of us had already read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, for instance. There were other books too. Lizzie [Lizzie Clachan] brought in a book from around the 1880s I think, a sort of an encyclopedia of the future, illustrating the technology of one hundred years’ later (so, in our time) as imagined by people in 1880. Then, I think, David [David Rosenberg] came across Zola’s novel Money (L’Argent), which has in its background Zola’s diagnosis of the corruption of the Second Empire. This, of course, chimed with our own times. Indeed, it’s interesting that the preface to the English translation, which was made around 1900, references specific financial events at that time, suggesting to readers how interesting it would be for them to read Zola’s account of similar events forty years earlier. So, you don’t need to be a Marxist necessarily to recognize cyclical, structural crises within capitalism.

We kind of settled on Money as a common source in a similar way that we had settled on the works of Cornell Woolrich for Amato Saltone. And also there’s a slight theme from Zola’s La Bête Humaine, with the image of a train that’s out of control.

3. Space

(Scene from the SHUNT event The Tennis Show)

AndrewMoney is being performed in a new space, an old tobacco warehouse not far from the Shunt Vaults. I’m interested in the relationship, if there is one, between the genesis of Money and the new space; whether there’s any element of site-specificity to it, and whether artistically the space has been a source of renewal for Shunt as a company.

Mischa: We’ve been in two spaces over the past ten years: Arch 12a in Bethnal Green and the Shunt Vaults, here at London Bridge. Essentially the company has always been committed to having a space of its own.

To the degree that it’s possible, then, we have control over access to it. Like the company name, ‘Shunt’, the space doesn’t already say “theatre”. It means that the invitation to an audience can be part of the work, part of the dramaturgy, part of the scenography. The actual entrance to the space can be materially reinvented for any particular show.

One of the things that the ten members of the Collective could agree on artistically was that, even if any individual had an interest in working in theatres, there was a shared commitment to working in our own space. For the public – distinct from the critics, perhaps – the work needn’t then be prejudged in terms of “a night out at the theatre”.

Of course, there will always be those associations, particularly for Tropicana because it was marketed through the NT. But, nevertheless, having our own space meant that it was possible to build a whole journey for an audience coming out of the tube station. The first quarter of the space of that show was wholly constructed, complete with a lift! So, in that sense it’s not site-specific – we make a fictional world for the audience. In the case of Money, we’ve built a vast machine.

So, there’s a relation to a space that has atmosphere, but which is, in a sense, neutral in theatrical terms – such as a railway arch. It can be more or less atmospheric, which already gives you something, but we’re not making a show about railway arches. We’ve not made a show at the Vaults about the construction of the railway in London. We’ve made fictional worlds for an audience that nevertheless are, of course, informed by, and produced in relation to, the space that we are in.

We’ve been at the Vaults for over five years and obviously at some point we will have to leave here. We’ve had three stays of execution and we’re here now until November [2009]. The idea was to set up the new show in its own space, and there was this warehouse just round the corner. It’s an empty shell, totally uninteresting as a building, but now there’s an extraordinary machine inside it. It’s great when people ask what it used to be before!

4. The Gaze

(Scene from the SHUNT event Amato Saltone)

Andrew: I’d like to talk about the ‘gaze’ as a leitmotif in Shunt’s work.

Mischa: I suppose that was largely thematized in Amato Saltone.

Andrew: Yes, in Amato Saltone, but also in The Tennis Show, where you have that wonderful moment between female and male audiences who see each other on two sides of a tennis court, after having spent most of the performance in gender separation.

Mischa: Yes, in the Bargehouse. There were two points of access to the space, which already suggested the possibility of separating the audience. Then there were the rules of lawn tennis. Many games have this separation between men and women. So, you had this play with the men’s game and the women’s game. The same sort of social structure exists in dancing. So, the idea of the point of meeting was to have the two audiences facing each other across the tennis court, and once the lines of the court had all disappeared – down a hole that was there in the floor! – we had this voice-over invitation, using everyone’s names thanks to the tickets, with some schmaltzy music: “Would x like to dance with y?” Although it only actually happened once, I think.

With Amato Saltone, it was one of the initial ideas: trying to construct a scene in which the same thing could be seen by two different audiences. That was the initial idea and then the Cornell Woolrich theme was something that emerged out of other strands of our reading. As it happens, he is the author of Rear Window, which follows precisely this structure. Besides that, there is also an interest amongst most people within the company to have at least some moment in which there’s a common experience for the whole audience to share the image of something together.

Another key visual moment was in Dance Bear Dance, this point where the parallel audiences were revealed to each other. It was interesting the way in which audiences went through the process of asking whether it was a mirror or another set of performers, before acknowledging that they were part of a show that included them, in this image of the other audience. That was quite a theatrical coup, as it turned out.

5. Audience Participation

(Scene from the SHUNT event Dance Bear Dance)

Andrew: In terms of the two productions at Shunt Vaults, Tropicana and Amato Saltone, I’m curious about the extent of ‘freedom’ that you give the audience to roam, search and explore the space. Sometimes there is a given set of parameters whereby in Amato Saltone, for example, the audience was given names, keys and a party invitation message; or more loosely in the case of Tropicana, where upon exiting the lift you were able to explore the space before a narrative sequence unfolded in the operating theatre and encroached on that sense of liberty. From my perspective as an audience member, the effect this sense of freedom has is one of participation, of straddling the line between actor and spectator, and that’s exciting and exhilarating. However, more often than not in Shunt’s work, I find that sense of freedom gives way, as the shows evolve, to a more traditional, proscenium-type configuration in which the lines are more clearly defined. Could you talk about the notions of freedom and participation?

Mischa: I suspect that this “freedom” is rather spurious. It’s the way you describe the experience, but the part of the experience that you’re calling “freedom” is no less conventionalized and constructed than the part of the experience that you’re calling traditional. There are a whole set of accidents that compose these possibilities as well as the decisions, of course; but, as I said before, one of the main interests of the company is to consider the journey of the audience. The work includes “an audience”, distinct from a group of people wandering randomly. How they are included is our responsibility; we are making an experience for an audience, in an environment that we are constructing. It’s not a Happening, it’s a rehearsed show and even if it’s not apparent to anybody – even ourselves sometimes! – there is a narrative structure.

The audience doesn’t have “a role” other than that of being an audience. There’s absolutely no role-play – the audience is not invited to perform.

Andrew: Even when a telephone rings and doesn’t stop until an audience member plucks up the courage to answer it?

Mischa: It’s a contrivance. There are moments in which there’s the invitation to the audience to act in the situation, but the production isn’t putting the responsibility of the performance onto anybody doing it. But it makes a difference, of course – and that’s the fun of it. It’s exciting and interesting to keep open the sense of possibility in the present moment, but the key thing is to keep open the sense that something can be imagined, which doesn’t mean you’re going to have to do it or take on a role.

So, what is the place of an audience? How to make coming to see a particular show already part of the experience of that show? With Amato Saltone, the first week it was people coming into a surprise birthday party, but that wasn’t going anywhere; so, by the end of the first month it was people going into a swingers party, in which we were giving people the fiction of an identity, with a name and a key. Curiously, that was something that appealed to a lot of people, but all it actually meant was that you had a secret name. You didn’t have to do anything, but it made your imaginary relation to being in that environment more active. After all, it was an environment that consisted of the other people that you were with. In that sense, it wasn’t a case of: “I’m watching a swingers party over there on stage, which they’re representing for me”; rather, “I understand that I am part of a swingers party, although I know that I’m not – but that is the story of what I’m doing here, and so where’s that going to take me?”

6. The Collective

(The 10 members of the SHUNT Collective)

Andrew: What is the organizational basis of the Shunt Collective?

Mischa: There’s no need for rose-tinted glasses, sometimes it’s fraught and difficult, but there’s an ethos. With the last two shows and, of course, the Lounge, a team of people has gravitated to the space – some really fantastic souls. There is a wider sense of individual work that is equally part of a larger project.

That spirit of collaboration is something special; it’s about the quality of the particular person, not simply their extraordinary skills, but their own ethos. Professionalism is a necessary condition but it is not sufficient. You can’t institutionalize individuals’ sense of commitment to their own work within a situation like that.

7. Cabarets

(Flyer for a SHUNT Cabaret event)

Andrew: Could you talk about the significance of Shunt cabarets in the development of the company’s work and how they fed into the creation of the Shunt Lounge?

Mischa: We did two big shows in our Bethnal Green space: The Ballad of Bobby Francois and Dance Bear Dance and we also had a bi-monthly cabaret – on a Sunday. The only condition for performing in the cabaret was that nothing could last more than ten minutes, but otherwise you could do anything you liked.

It was important in the sense that you were participating in collective projects, which were things you wouldn’t necessarily have envisaged by yourself – with the excitement of realizing something that you couldn’t do or imagine by yourself, as the creative possibility of the group. And connected to that, the cabarets provided us with the circumstance in which people could individually show to other members of the company the different kinds of work that they wanted to experiment with. I think that’s important.

With Dance Bear Dance, we did a week of cabarets trying out ideas; a series of individual responses to a particular theme that fed into the production. And certainly, individual shows have developed from things that people have tried out in various forms in cabarets for themselves.

The Lounge was in some ways a continuation of this. It is a space in which people can come in and experiment with something. It’s been a unique thing in the London theatre scene.

8. Shunt Lounge

Andrew: To what extent, both artistically and commercially, has the Lounge Project been a success?

Mischa: The Lounge has been a huge success. It has been going for three years and the number of artists who have been able to experience for themselves what their idea could be in relation to an audience is remarkable. The key thing is that we provide the space, the technical support and a diverse audience coming in and experiencing the work. If you perform here it needn’t be to a coterie audience or just your friends.

There are over 2000 people a week in here – so, in relation to other things the Arts Council support it’s an extraordinary benefit, particularly when considering the phenomenal level of work produced, consistently, forty-eight weeks a year.

It’s spectacular here every week, but not necessarily a spectacle. It’s not advertised, there are no reviews, you pay to come into the space – a fiver on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and a tenner on Fridays and Saturdays – and then you have access to everything for free. So, whether it’s Stationhouse Opera trying something out, or an opportunity to tattoo bananas, there’s no prior judgment. That’s important where artists are experimenting with an idea. Their work is part of a whole evening that includes a lot of other work, installations, maybe a band, the bar, and so on. Each week – or fortnight – is curated by a different Shunt artist, supported by Andrea [Andrea Salazar] and her team, and it will be different in its dynamic, depending on all the work that’s being shown then.

9. Working Process

(Scene from the SHUNT event Sightings)

Andrew: In the case of the collective, you don’t take on hierarchical roles so how do you actually go about creating a piece? What’s the Shunt working process, particularly given that your productions seem to be in continual evolution?

Mischa: The work is always in development with the audience. There are always company members watching the show, and then for the performers, as often as not, proximity to the audience is like ours in this interview now. If any particular moment is rubbish, you know it. Why would you want to do it again tomorrow? Of course, there are periods at which it’s exhausting and it takes a lot more effort to initiate bigger changes. But with Amato Saltone, for example, we changed the end in the last week of the run.

So, once there’s a sort of agreement on a common topic, there are basically a lot of improvisations and then proposals for other exercises, games, other things to explore, get sedimented out those. People also have responsibilities then in order to realise the structure of a production. So, there is a director, there is a designer, there is a lighting designer, a sound designer, and there are performers. But the work is a collective realisation. It’s not that any one of those roles has simply instrumentalized the others to realize a particular artistic vision that could otherwise have been achieved by just employing other people to do the work. What has been produced is the work of this particular group of people – both the Shunt members and our collaborators, the Shunt Associate Artists. In a sense, even if for any one person, they don’t feel they particularly “own” very much of it, it’s owned by the collective.

The tag line of “designed, directed and performed by Shunt” doesn’t necessarily refer to just the ten of us, it includes other associate artists like Nigel [Nigel Barrett], Tom [Tom Lyall] and Simon [Simon Kane], or people who have regularly worked with us like Steve [Steve Royle] with the lighting and George [George Tomlinson] with the whole scenic production – people who are also part of creating the work. So, there’s Shunt in so far as it’s the name of the collective of ten people, and then it’s the name of the event, which involves a much larger group of people.

10. Archives & Documentation

(Image taken from the SHUNT website archives)

Andrew: You mentioned earlier the idea of documenting the Lounge. If that project were to go ahead, whom would the documentation be for and what form would it take?

Mischa: There are various bits of documentation. There are two films on Youtube, with links from the website, one by Inigo [Inigo Alcaniz], who has taken photographs at the Lounge for a long time, and the other by Susa [Susanne Dietz], a video artist who is one of the Shunt “family”. She has done the video work in all the shows and also has an archive of material that goes back to the early cabarets in Bethnal Green. I think she has plans to work with that material.

The problem with a lot of the shows is that they were lit for the eyes, in the actual space – not as a picture to be looked at separately. So, there’s a lot that is too dark for the camera. For me, lighting is about the contrast between light and dark. In “professional theatre”, there’ll be a photo shoot for the press and nobody could care less. It’s just a case of “put all the lights on”, and that’s fine, of course, because it’s just some random press photo. Also, with most of our shows there hasn’t necessarily been one point of view. What would it be to film a show like Tropicana? There’s the autopsy scene, of course, but apart from that it would be fairly difficult, since the first half of the show was about the spatial distribution of the audience – in darkness! Nonetheless, there is video material, but there isn’t really any narrative documentation.

I am interested to gather stories though – I’ve set up a little postcard link on the website with Nahum [Nahum Mantra], to try to elicit testimony as to what the Lounge means to people – anecdotes, memories, things that will otherwise be unrecorded but which concern the real experience of being here. Not just for the audience but also for the amazing people working here and their contribution each week.

So, who would it be for? Well, in the first instance it would be a sort of present for all those people, to be able to say retrospectively: “Oh, that’s what I was doing!” But it would also be an historical testimony.

Like the Lounge itself, perhaps the documentation could encourage and support the development of confidence for somebody to explore ideas and a practice in relation to an audience – if that’s what they’re concerned with. Wouldn’t that be great?!

11. The Future

Andrew: What direction will the company take over the next five years?

Mischa: There’ll be the new show in September and then by sometime early next year – we trust – there’ll be a new space for the Lounge. Those two things mark a big change for the company.

Andrew: Why do you have to leave the Shunt Vaults?

Mischa: Because London Bridge station is being redeveloped. There are issues to do with access and the structure of the viaduct. I don’t know what the long term plans are for this space, but it’s part of the development of the station. But even if this space becomes sanitized and turned into a series of Starbucks, there will be a number of people who pass through to the station and think: “Oh, isn’t this the place where I saw people snogging dogs?”; “Isn’t this the place where there were two people sitting in hoops for six hours?”; “Isn’t this the place that had that strange concertina box that extended the whole length of it?”

The point is there’s the company with the wider group and its organization. Before moving here, the company was essentially the ten members. Since being here the company has grown as an organization. There needs to be another way in which the collective can develop with the shows and the Lounge – something new needs to be explored in relation to all of that experience. Let’s just hope that in another five years’ time we will still have an audience!

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