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INTERVIEW: DAVID ROSENBERG ON SHUNT, THEIR NEW SHOW AND WHAT THEY WILL DO TO YOUR SHOES

Deep in rehearsals for The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face, a new immersive, site-specific experience, director and one of the founding artists of Shunt, David Rosenberg has little time for marketing ploys. Information on the performance may be scarce (it’s commissioned by The Jetty, takes place inside a temporary construction made out of shipping containers and opens 14th August), but that, Rosenberg readily admits, is not a result of a clever bait strategy as much as an indication of where the company is: devising and waiting for the audience to add the final piece of the puzzle to the show.

So what did we find out during our chat with Rosenberg? Well, turns out chemical toilets matter, audience rebellion is futile and street food has a major influence on five year plans. Intrigued...? Read on and all will be revealed.

Run Riot: Performance space is instrumental to Shunt’s work. Can you tell us more about the relationship between your projects and the spaces they inhabit? How do you go about finding the right environment? What do you bring into the space, and how does it shape the devising?

David Rosenberg: When we started making work together (16 years ago - it is increasingly painful to write that number) we found a rough railway arch for rent in Bethnal Green for £100 a week. Our first performance at Arch 12a: The Ballad of Bobby Francois (based on the Uruguay rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes in 1972), was completely inspired by the space and all the rubbish that was piled up in it when we moved in.

Disorientation plays a huge part in how we attempt to encourage (coerce) the audience to be present in the moment of a show; to forget the outside world and its comforting logic.

In Tropicana - our first show in the Vaults under London Bridge Station (soon to become an enormous Cornish pasty outlet) - which was a huge and unexpected network of railway arches - we wanted to delay the point when the audience discovered its dimensions and we did this by building a series of believable environments that the audience passed through.

The audience entered through a tiny anonymous door within the station itself into a kind of porters tearoom, then through a metal locker into a wood paneled institute and then into a lift and only when the lift doors opened, after an illusion of descending downwards, the audience got a view of the incredible 100 meter long vaulted corridor.

Unfortunately we couldn’t get any plumbing up at the entrance so we had a couple of chemical toilets - the kind you use in caravans. Each day we (me and Nigel Barrett) had to carry the overflowing holding tanks down the incredible 100-meter long vaulted corridor to empty them in the real toilets.

It has been said that Civilisation is the distance that man has placed between himself and his own shit...

I mention this just to highlight one of the challenges of occupying non-theatre spaces for theatrical use. You want to be whopping out a load of art but most of the time you have to concern yourself with crowd control, pipes and cables.

Run Riot: Speaking of space, The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face is Shunt’s first outdoor performance - did this this new factor bring with it new creative influences and considerations?

David Rosenberg: We are building this temporary performance space on a slab of concrete surrounded by water. It’s amazing to have the backdrop of the river and this massive chunk of sky and the risk that everything will blow away or flood. I remember a particularly frightening poster on the tube when I was a kid that had a picture of a wet doll with matted hair and a line about the whole of London ending up under water which I guess won’t happen now that the Thames Barrier is there - and I can confirm it is there because we can see it from the jetty.
 We are outside and not hidden away in a building, we are part of the view. The fresh air might be good for us and no one has fallen in yet.

Run Riot: You’re not giving a lot away about The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face. Why so secretive?

David Rosenberg: I would like to be able to confirm that this ‘secrecy’ is due to a well thought-through marketing campaign of teasing mystery. However it is mainly because, as I write this, we are in rehearsals - which is where the performance gets written.

In fact we rarely know what we are really doing until the audience appears and suddenly everything means something a bit different to what we imagined.

Run Riot: What we do know is that the show is inspired by Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that, while very different, both reflect on aspects of inequality. What place do these texts have in the performance? What prompted your choice?

David Rosenberg: We began the project looking at the Heart of Darkness which begins on a sailing ship on the Thames which ‘...also, said Marlow suddenly, has been one of the dark places of the earth’. 
Then we decided to make this project a summer holiday children's show. This decision brought up the question of whether the Heart of Darkness was the best choice of source material.

The Water-Babies seemed like a much better choice - a lovely fairytale remembered fondly from our childhoods. However The Water-Babies is actually far more terrifying, much stranger and just as racist. We ditched the kids show - and began working with a mash up of both books. The Boy Who Climbed Out Of His Face is like neither.

Run Riot: The project is pitched as a ‘disorientating multi-sensory event’. What kind of experience are you building for the audience? Are you hoping for trust, as you ask the spectators to go in barefoot before being ‘spat out’ at the end, or is there some space for audience rebellion?

David Rosenberg: We are working with these confined spaces and trying to make them feel bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. But it will still be a crush, everyone will be too close, it will be too hot (which is better than too cold as we found out in the Architects - where you could hear the deep rumble of collective shivering) it will also hopefully be too loud - too much of everything. There is only one way to go - there is no time to explore - nothing is done in your own time. If you miss the woman shitting on a table - it won’t happen again (we cannot guarantee that there will even be a woman shitting on a table). The Thames smells intense - it is supposed to be clean but it doesn’t

smell clean. These are all sensations; pain is a sensation although this one we will keep to an absolute minimum.

We are always hoping for trust; all relationships are built on trust; we should probably work on being a bit more trustworthy. We will definitely look after your shoes, if we have time we will give them a bit of a shine.

The audience always rebel, that’s ok, although I’m not sure what good it will do.

Run Riot: Shunt is famous for big-scale site-specific and immersive projects, which inevitably take longer to produce. As a result we only get to see the company working together once every couple of years. How do you sustain your relationship with the audience - is maintaining it different when compared to the experience of artists who are inclined towards smaller, more intimate work that’s perhaps easier to tour, fund and put on frequently?

David Rosenberg: I have no idea what kind of loyalty we have with all the people who have seen our various projects. There is definitely a hard core group that will routinely suffer the immense discomfort of our opening nights (that is OUR discomfort and humiliation). We hope that this show will still feel intimate, we always strive for intimacy and for the necessary presence of the audience to complete the image.

Most of Shunt’s work starts with how an audience might occupy and move around a space and what unique physical perspectives they might be offered of an image or action.
 Who the audience are is also important - what role they are playing in the fiction of the show.
They might be passengers of an aircraft that is about to crash, co-conspirators at an underground conference or unwilling participants at a sex party. 
These roles allow the performers to be able to directly address the audience and more importantly provide a reason for the rest of the audience to be there so the mass of people doesn’t become an obstruction but is a legitimate part of the environment.

Run Riot: London Bridge Vaults and later Bermondsey Street Warehouse saw the company engage in curating - the two spaces became safe houses for emerging and experimental artists. Any chance we might see Shunt re-visit this part of the practice?

David Rosenberg: We’ve run spaces since 1998, and we are always looking for potential buildings that we could occupy for enough time to initiate a long term curating project such as the Shunt lounge. Over the last couple of years there have been a few potential sites that didn’t quite work out for one reason or another (often due to a deep and justified suspicion of the amount of mess we would make). The company tends to move in a relatively unstructured way - we are opportunists - any discussion of where we would like to be in 5 years finishes 5 minutes after it starts because someone is hungry and there happens to be street stall round the corner that does great ribs.

The Boy Who Climbed Out Of His Face

14 August  - 28 September

The Jetty, Greenwich