My PhD is an embodied and interdisciplinary research that investigates the concept of the ‘eerie’ in Contemporary Performance through a methodology of inhabiting abandoned spaces, where the eerie presence of an unknown agency is felt. As Fisher (2016) says, “the eerie clings to certain physical spaces or landscapes” (p.61).
I have come to realise that this research is borne out of my own childhood fascination with the eerie. The narrative of my life has been punctuated by a preoccupation with the inexplicable, and the idea that there are other worlds or realms that exist alongside this one. As a child in primary school, I filled an entire exercise book writing about what might have happened to the passengers on the disappearing ship – the Marie Celeste. Later, in my twenties, I watched the oneiric film Picnic at Hanging Rock, which inspired my imagination to awe and wonder, leaving me with so many questions:
What had happened to the young women who disappeared into the rock?
Where did they go?
Do other dimensions exist beyond the reality we know?
What lies beyond?
I am drawn to this concept of a ‘beyond’, which both Fisher and Colquhoun refer to as an ‘Outside’. Colquhoun (2020) defines it as ‘a mode of radical exteriority – philosophically understood as that which is fundamentally beyond the scope of human perception, experience, and intuition’ (p.9). This perspective of the eerie ‘Outside’ has to do with a preoccupation with the strange, allowing an access to forces which govern mundane realities that are normally obscured (Fisher, 2016). Abandoned sites are imagined to be inhabited by unknown agencies, to reveal forces governing what lies beyond the mundane. This eeriness of place offers a release from the mundane, a breaking-away or breaking-through of the limits of what is taken for reality, which as Fisher (2016) observes, goes someway to account for the eerie’s peculiar appeal. The eerie is associated with the unknown, unaccountable, and inexplicable, as soon as the eerie agency is known it disappears. In its aesthetic mode the eerie arouses feelings of unease, as if in these places there is something where there should be nothing, or nothing where there should be something – a failure of presence or a failure of absence (Fisher, 2016).
This current performance project, This Is The Land, conceives of the landscapes of the British Isles as an eerie Outside. This investigation of the ‘eerie’; the sensation of unease generated when experiencing the existence of something which logically shouldn’t be there, explores the universality of sensing the eerie, pushing to the parameters of the coexistence of the living nonliving, and nonhuman beyond ‘folk horror’. The performance attunes to issues of exclusion – through re-enchanting the land we can hear lost voices of those who remind us of a future beyond the one we have been told. The stage is imagined as a ‘wish’t place’, where the distance between the living and nonliving are blurred. These voices of the past are mediated through the materials on stage, building a polyphony of voices, stories, images, via juxtapositions and collisions of time. This story of the land transcends narrative, making space for an eerie presence of the spectral past to become momentarily accessible.
The initial stage of rehearsal is instigated through a process of defining the theatrical space as a ‘thin place’, a liminal portal to worlds that exist alongside the known world. I ask, what exists in these ‘thin’ places? What kinds of figures are encountered here? This is a provocation to the performers’ improvisations, asking them to practically explore how materials behave in this thin place? How does this affect the materiality of the stage? How can bodies become eerie? I observe how the objects, technology, sound, light, and the performers’ bodies become more mutable.
The establishment of the theatrical world prepares the rehearsal space to become a playing space, through improvisational methods figures emerge that prompt a mutability of form that shapes how these stories of the land are told. This definition of theatrical space is complemented by another process that provokes the performers’ improvisations, which is to imagine themselves as becoming shapeshifters, mutable beings who can shift between embodiments of human, non-human and animal forms. This originates from my own preoccupation with the figure of the Fox as a symbol of the British landscapes, as in Celtic mythology we see the Fox embodying a wise and subversive cunning, it is regarded as a trickster who knows the forest better than anyone else, the Fox thinks fast and strategically; a highly adaptable creature that can shapeshift, dance, and play dead to outwit its opponents. Foxes have survived through millenia, emblematic of resilience, adaptation, and survival. The Fox is also hunted for sport, with the hunt presenting a cruel image of class systems, the power of destructive social structures to control ownership of the land, and the consequences of this exploitative dominance over the natural world.
With the performers shapeshifting between the animal form in the figure of the Fox, they embody its human form in the figure of the Trickster, its mythic counterpart. For Hansen (2016), the Trickster is ‘a character type found worldwide in myth, who embodies a collection of abstract qualities, including disruption, deception, marginality, supernatural powers, transgression, and boundary crossing (Hansen as cited by Glazier in Hunter (Ed), 2019, p.102). The performers embody the Trickster’s characteristics, which brings a wildness onstage, as the Trickster with ‘its mischief, and animality’ are conveyed through figures that have ‘an agency that cannot be tamed’ (Hansen as cited by Glazier, in Hunter, (Ed), 2019, p.102). These Trickster-like figures are playful, humorous, and live by their wits, they embody the spirit of times which have been lost and are perhaps in danger of disappearing forever. This spectral presence of resistance is non-specific as there are oblique references to counter-cultures who ‘point out cracks in the system that cannot be ignored’ (Hurst as cited by Glazier, in Hunter (Ed), 2019, p.103). The arrival of these figures in this thin place suggest that ‘current paradigms’, belief systems, and ‘ways of living are outmoded and no longer work to the benefit of the individual or the collective’ (Hurst as cited by Glazier, in Hunter (Ed), 2019, p.103). The creative process is highly responsive to intuitions as I acknowledge ideas that are insistent, coming from the imaginal realm as an archetype – the Trickster draws from the land’s deep Celtic identity – a wildness that refuses to be tamed, a symbol of resistance, resilience, and renewal.
This Is The Land’s stripped back abstract expressionist style resists narrative through its ‘mash-up’ of fluid images, and textured layering of vocal texts, sounds, and songs through live-vocal looping. These eerie voices and sounds are “captured” through the technology, microphones become detectors of sounds and frequencies, objects move as if by an invisible presence, and the performers shapeshifting bodies construct multiple figures through a language of compelling movement, gestures, and dances. The performance combines lightness and humour with poetic imagery, underscored by an original atmospheric soundtrack. Through a cyclical journey of the seasons the audience experiences this atmospheric and elemental relationship with the land, with each season bringing its stories, allowing an audience to attune to their own experiences of what is resounding from the land.
This Is The Land will be performed at the Network Theatre as part of London’s VAULT Festival on February 11th-12th, 18th-19th, 4.15pm.
For more information: https://vaultfestival.com/events/this-is-the-land
Link to Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9Oz0wElf48
This Is The Land is a creative collaboration with Performers: Leeza Jessie, Alice Barton, Xavier De Santos, Samuel De La Torre, Sofia Vélez, and Composer John Baggott.
Photo credits for Dwelling, and This Is The Land – Samuel De La Torre and Xavier De Santos.
Photo credit for The Strange Geometry of Time, Stefan Beese
Colquhoun, M. (2020) Egress: on mourning, melancholy and Mark Fisher. Repeater Books
Glazier, J. W. (2019). ‘Piercing the Veil with the Trickster’, in Hunter, J, (Ed.), Greening the Paranormal: Exploring the Ecology of Extraordinary Experience, August Night Press
Fisher, M. (2016). The Weird and The Eerie. Repeater Books