Jahmarley Bachelor, Sean Garratt (front standing) Annie Eddwards, Charmene Pang, Kennedy Junior Muntanga (seated) in The Global Playground Image by Tristram Kenton

Theatre-Rites has been making immersive, accessible and inclusive family theatre for 25 years, including The Welcoming Party, which premiered at MIF17, and The Global Playground, premiering at MIF21. Here, writer Eleanor Turney explores five key site-specific shows from Theatre-Rites rich history.

Since its inception in the mid-90s, Theatre-Rites has been breaking new ground in making accessible, immersive and site-specific theatre for all ages. Following on from the success of The Welcoming Party at MIF17, and as the company celebrates its 25th year, it brings a new show, The Global Playground to MIF21, exploring the importance of togetherness and play.

Director Sue Buckmaster describes the company’s site-specific pieces as the process of working out 'how do we animate a site, how do we bring it to life so it can tell us its story?' The variety of non-theatre spaces the company have occupied over the years, charted in a new book celebrating their 25th anniversary, includes abandoned houses, a former library, hospital wards, cellars, corner-shops, flour mills, a former salt factory and the chambers of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A man sits at a table in a caged room while a group of people look on from outside. An image of the man at the table is projected onto a screen behind him.

The Welcoming Party, MIF17 Image by Jonathan Keenan

Never afraid to tackle big ideas, from exploring death in a child-friendly way (Paradise, 2010), to the current refugee crisis (The Welcoming Party, 2017), Buckmaster’s site-specific work with Theatre-Rites takes each building’s spaces, history and atmosphere as key starting points for the stories the company wishes to tell. 'It’s almost as if we are doing a duet with a place,' Buckmaster says. 'I invite performers who will inhabit the environment to see it as having its own identity. By listening to it you can hear its inherent sense of direction, inferred tempo, rhythm, limitations or freedoms. Rather than just being ‘in’ it, we look to how we can dance with it.'

Buckmaster describes how her personal commitment to accessibility has influenced not only the work she makes, but also the spaces in which she tells stories. As she explains, moving people around a space means thinking about how to ensure that everyone can see what’s happening all the time – considering different access needs, the different heights of children and adults, those with sight impairments or other disabilities. By thinking about these things, though, 'you start to build a sense of community within your audiences, and I think that’s glorious.'

Houseworks, 1996

Theatre-Rites’ first show, in 1996, was Houseworks, commissioned by LIFT as part of its Out of LIFT programme. Penny Bernard and Sue Buckmaster directed the piece together, inviting children and adults to explore a house in Brixton. Every room was an installation inspired by the function of that room, created by artist Stephen Williams. Guided by a puppet called Ernie, the audience moved around the space following a map, meeting characters around the house on their way.

Puppets made from rubber gloves or pillows appeared in different settings, popping up in unexpected places to charm and delight. Buckmaster speaks of the additional issues involved in creating site-specific work for children – namely that you can’t just let kids roam around a whole building unsupervised in a the way you could with adults: 'It’s a bigger responsibility,' she says.

Hospitalworks, 2005

Another site-specific work from Theatre-Rites took place in a London hospital. Commissioned by Polka Theatre and Theater der Welt, Hospitalworks was performed in London and Stuttgart, directed by Buckmaster and David Harradine from Fevered Sleep. 'We looked at more than 15 London hospital spaces,' says Buckmaster. 'It took us a long time to find the one.' In fact, she admits that she came close to giving up on the project entirely during the search for an appropriate space.

Once a suitable space had been found, Buckmaster faced the challenge of having a small cast and needing to work out how they could populate a busy hospital with ‘patients’. Eventually, in Buckmaster’s words, 'the problem was the answer', and the hospital itself became the patient, with different parts of the building being ‘sick' and needing care in different ways. Installation artist Sophia Clist created a hospital setting where beds breathed, baby pillows were birthed, and operations were performed on lights and wires. Made in 2005, the show ended up being a 'beautiful metaphor' for how ‘sick’ the NHS was, offering a child-friendly way to explore an important political issue.

The Welcoming Party, MIF17

Politics has been a core of Theatre-Rites’ work, and nowhere is this more evident than in 2017’s The Welcoming Party. Originally performed as part of MIF17, and commissioned by MIF, Z-Arts and Ruhrtrienniale Festival, the piece was made in the context of a looming Brexit, a worsening refugee crisis, and the UK’s decision not to take in unaccompanied child refugees. 'It felt very important to create that show, then,' says Buckmaster.

At the same time, Germany was accepting Syrian refugees and finding ways to accommodate desperate people, and the show was re-made and performed in Berlin in 2018. The piece worked with refugee actors and performers, finding ways to carefully incorporate their real experiences and re-tell them to an audience. Directed by Buckmaster, the show was designed by Simon Daw, choreographed by Jamaal Burkmar, and had music by Frank Moon and lighting by Mark Doubleday.

Paradise, 2010

Not content with making politically-charged work accessible and beautiful, Theatre-Rites has also turned its attention to religion. 2010’s Paradise was commissioned by the Ruhrtriennale Festival as part of its three-year focus on religion and culture. Designed by installation artist Jeremy Herbert, Paradise worked with a cast from different religions and no religion, following a group of pilgrims searching for their own paradise.

Buckmaster remembers the first walk-through of the building: 'We were shown an industrial building… we had to work out how to use nine concrete chambers that all looked identical, to find the choreography of that space.' Her first instinct was to have different groups of audience members in different spaces simultaneously, until Herbert and composer Nick Powell noted that each space had a three-second echo, so sound would be distorted. Suddenly the show had to be imagined as a linear experience, embracing the building’s unique quirks. But, of course, this is what Theatre-Rites does: 'I think of the people as animating the space, rather than performing in it,' Buckmaster says.

The Global Playground, MIF21

For MIF21, Theatre-Rites created a new show, The Global Playground, which mixes dance, music, theatre and puppetry for children and family audiences. Starting with the site and an open mind allows Theatre-Rites to conjure whole worlds wherever they choose, but the pandemic has created an entirely new world for theatre to take place in – with implications for the types of performance that can be planned and for the practicalities of working with a global creative team.

'At an earlier stage in my career I would have found this idea terrifying,' Buckmaster says. 'The not knowing or being able to reassure funders, producers or participants. Now with experience I trust in my process and ask for faith from all those willing to go with me on the journey.'

The resulting show, scored by Ayanna Witter-Johnson, designed by Ingrid Hu and choreographed remotely via video call by Gregory Maqoma, is miraculously staged for a socially-distanced audience in the round, performed with energy and heart in Manchester's Great Northern Warehouse. A timely piece about the power of play and the importance of togetherness, the show can be experienced both in-person and online, streaming on demand via MIF Live.

Eleanor Turney is a writer and editor, and Director of Incoming Festival, based in Lancaster.

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