Theatre goes Walkabout
Published in the Guardian, 19.06.2014
When theatregoers get to their feet, it traditionally heralds one of two things: a standing ovation or a walkout. And while theatre is not the sedentary artform it once was – we’ve sprinted through Punchdrunk’s labyrinths and cycled round Blast Theory’s Rider Spoke – most audiences still remain seated through performances.
When theatre gets us walking, it’s often as a means to an end. Promenade theatre – despite its name – usually involves standing around and shuffling from scene to scene. Immersive theatre is more about exploration than ambulation. However, some shows ask audiences to walk alongside, with or in the midst of a performance, which means that walking itself becomes integral to the art.
Frédéric Gros’s new book, A Philosophy of Walking, looks at the fine art of putting one foot in front of the other. Actually, as Gros makes clear, there’s nothing fine about it: walking’s neither a skill nor a sport, but a humble and, given the path of evolution, fundamentally human activity. Many make the same claims of theatre.
Gros writes about walking for its own sake and in its own right: hiking, mostly, but also aimless wanders, epic pilgrimages and everything in between. And theatregoers can undertake a variety of walks at this year’s Greenwich & Docklands international festival in London. A laundry conga-line will wind its way through the Old Naval College and 100 dancers will stream down the Thames-side paths, while Cie Pied en Sol’s Spring leads the audience on a stroll through the seasons.
Then there’s Deblozay, a London International Festival of Theatre co-production rooted in Haiti’s festival of the dead, Guédé, and the rara music of Haitian carnivals. Rara Woulib transplant a potted version of the ritual – in Haiti, processions last for several days – into western urban environments, where death is usually kept more out of sight.
“It’s not just a walk,” insists Deblozay‘s director Julien Marchaisseau. It’s a procession: audience and performers become a single mass. “You’re sharing time with a lot of people,” he says, “just walking with friends, strangers and neighbours.” Marchaisseau also seeks to steer us towards trance. We head in the same direction, at the same pace and in the same rhythm. “You let the music sink in and let go of your daily life to just go with the music. It’s not a part of daily life. It’s like a time capsule.” Gros says something similar: that walking for its own sake is a break from routine – “suspensive freedom”, he calls it.
Walking also frees your mind. “It gives your brain something to worry about,” says Slung Low’s Alan Lane, who has created several city-wide promenades. “That leaves another part of your brain open to other stuff.” For writers, walking can bring a different mode of thinking. On foot, sentences can fall into place in a way they don’t when staring determinedly at a screen.
Gros writes a lot about this split focus and, following Karl Gottlob Schelle’s 1802 essay The Art of Walking, compares walking with sitting. Gross argues that the seated worker is, essentially, “shackled” to his task and so “in a state of nervous irritation due to forced and prolonged concentration”. You could say the same of audiences, sitting fidgeting in the stalls. Walking lets us process theatre in a different way: less concerted, perhaps, but, as a result, more receptive.
Robert Wilson’s Walking, a three-hour walk through installations, sought meditation through repetitive mechanical action. It’s quite possible to lose yourself when out on foot. That, says Lane, means the theatremaker’s “duty of care goes through the roof”. He’s seen walking audiences unwittingly step out in front of buses.
Conversely, walking can attune you to your environment, turning your focus outwards. When theatre borrows from the walking tour, as in shows like En Route or Fiona Templeton’s YOU – the City, it relies on this impulse. Walking changes your relationship to a place. You walk through, rather than simply going to; you’re enveloped by a space, not observing it from the outside. Your perception relies on different senses. You can feel its geography and, to go back to Gros, you can’t really rush: “Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.”
Theatre is similar: a chance to stop everything else and focus on one thing. Walking theatre, like slow food or slow travel, seems to suit that beautifully. One thing’s for certain: it’s beginning to find its feet.