Alan Lane is the artistic director of the Leeds-based company Slung Low, currently performing They Only Come Out at Night: Visions in the Barbican Theatre’s car park. The company is formed of 7 artists from a wide range of disciplines including prose, movement, video, sound and theatre. In this interview, theatre crtic and academic, Mika Eglinton, talks to Alan Lane about aspects of the company’s history, artistic practice and the conceptual background to this current cycle of work.
Mika Eglinton: You performed [slider title=”Resurrection“]
Slung Low promotional video for They Only Come Out at Night: Resurrection
[/slider] in Bradford earlier this year and you’ve just opened [slider title=”Visions “]
Slung Low promotional video for They Only Come Out at Night: Visions
[/slider] at the Barbican in London, both pieces are part of a trilogy of works called They Only Come at Night, could you talk a bit about where the idea came from?
Alan Lane: It started a long time ago. We all live quite close to each other in Leeds and there’s a petrol station round the corner from us where a man was beaten to death one night. It was a horrible and disturbing incident, but by the end of the week the local papers and people had come up with different ideas as to why it had happened. No one knew the truth, but everyone was willing to speculate. Some people were saying the man was definitely from Eastern Europe, and others were saying he was into drugs, but what became increasingly clear was that people were happier with the idea that this was just a piece of mindless violence, a horrible accident. It was quite strange that a community presented with something so horrific should start to create myths – stories based on very little truth.
Then a few years ago we spent some time in the Balkans, in Bosnia. A woman was telling me one day that after some of the massacres, in which all the older men had been removed, they would tell their younger children that vampires had come for their fathers, because it was easier to believe that vampires had killed your dad than it was to believe that the man down the road had done it.
We started to think about vampire myths and how we tell stories to shield ourselves but also as a means of understanding the extremes of life without having to be horrified by our fellow man. The world is a mad place at the minute, so we thought the most comfortable way for us to talk about it was to make up a massive, new vampire myth with different rules so that we could have a look at the world, because it’s a bit too scary to look at head on.
Image © Tim Smith
Mika: Could you talk about why you’re interested in subjects that are often related to traumatic histories or memories?
Alan: It’s to do with how we turn our own personal histories into a set of stories, and then we turn our collective history into a set of stories too, so to an extent we’re defined by and made up of stories. We tend to look at what we call the ‘macro myth’ in traumatic events; so for example what is the place of Dresden or Srebrenica in a shared national history and how does that end up filtering down and affecting a single person? It’s to do with how ideas at the level of nation, culture or community affect the individual in that tiny moment when it’s just a man and woman having a cup of coffee. All that pressure of history that we feel all the time but we ignore, sometimes it just explodes into a personal story and that’s really fascinating to us.
Mika: Did this interest begin when you were still students at Sheffield?
Alan: Yes it did. The company is made up of 8 people and 5 of us were at the University of Sheffield together ten years ago. We developed an interest in how theatre could reflect the pace and style at which we live our lives, how we read information, how computer screens are used and so on. That’s grown over ten years into creating immersive environments.
Mika: What do you mean by an immersive environment?
Alan: It’s where we put the audience into the middle of a film, except that it’s real, it’s 3D, you can touch it, and if there’s water you’ll get wet, because water is wet. It’s where you can look behind you, in front of you, above you and below you and there will be the world we create, and the world might only be 6” x 6”, or it could be the whole building, but until you actually decide to leave the world it will completely surround you. It will smell like we want it to smell and it will feel like we want it to feel. So it is a lot like being in a film that we’ve made for you; you’re the hero in your own film, but you just don’t have to do anything.
Mika: How much ‘free will’ does the audience have or in what way, if at all, do you control the environment?
Alan: We try and make the audience feel like they’ve got total free will and then we try and make sure they go where we want them to go. So in Resurrection for example, the audience can walk anywhere they like in a huge studio space, but they can’t leave the room. In the Barbican car park, they have to follow a path and if they leave that path then the show will stop working, because they won’t be where we want them to be; but hopefully when we take you around, it feels like you’re in complete control of your own experience. In reality of course, it’s a piece of theatre, it’s rehearsed and it’s timed. So I think that’s always a big challenge for us to try and constantly make the audience feel like they’re in control, but also for the show to feel like it’s got a discipline to it.
Mika: Moving on to methodologies, as a creative ensemble I know you spend a lot of time conducting research as well as actually building the piece, could you explain the basic creation process for one of your shows?
Alan: It always makes us laugh, because at the minute we’re working with the University of Huddersfield and the University of Salford, and we often get emails from students asking us to describe our process to which we always answer: “we come up with an idea and we sit round a table until the idea is much better than it was”. And on the one hand that’s a very flippant answer, but actually it’s quite truthful. We’re not made up of performers. There are performers in our company, but a lot of us aren’t and so as a result we tend to have quite a passive process in the sense that we don’t improvise, we don’t rehearse in that way like other companies do.
What we do is we sit down and we build the show in concept. We don’t just come up with the idea, we think exactly how much it’s going to cost to make it, how long it will take and so on. In other words we work through what would normally be called the creative process and the production process, and we keep fine honing it and asking questions of each other and that can take weeks. So we can be sat round that table for a month, and then finally when we’re ready to make something that’s worth making, we start making it.
It’s a very discursive process and it’s one in which the composer could come up with an idea for the script, and the novelist could come up with the idea for the video, we are all equals round the table, it’s just that we have specialities, but it’s basically a meeting of people with ideas and we don’t leave the table until the idea meets everybody’s satisfaction.
Image © Tim Smith
Mika: I’m sure you’re aware of other companies that are working with disused or non-purpose built performance spaces such as Shunt or Punchdrunk for example, where do you see Slung Low in the UK theatre landscape today?
Alan: I think we’re clearly part of a recent interest and enthusiasm for installations, of being put in immersive environments, but we’re also from a very traditional theatre background in the sense that we start and end with a story and everything we do, no matter how experimental it is, is to try and push the story into being clearer and more compelling. It’s vital to us that the story is clear to our audience and that we are taking them on a journey that is both a literal journey, we’re moving through a space, but also an emotional one like theatre has always been. I hope that we sit in both camps, or we take our inspiration from both camps.
Mika: Where do you think this renewed interest in ‘installations’, as you put it, comes from?
Alan: Firstly, companies have been working with installations for a long time and it’s just that we tend to forget about those people and hone in on a new person, and that’s fine, that’s the way the world works, but I think it’s also to do with the way our world is changing. You know, I have an iPhone and that phone is my bespoke phone, it makes me feel special, I go onto Amazon and there is a shopping list made just for me. You have a choice in everything now, you can go into the coffee shop and ask for your coffee to be made exactly the way you want it, and that’s something that in the last 10 – 15 years has become increasingly important; that the world is set up to deal with us en masse, but as a group of individuals.
So it’s constantly about something that makes us feel unique and bespoke and that’s what this type of work does. You go into an installation and you might be with 200 other people, but you feel like you’re the only person who had the experience you had that night, that it was special, and that in some way you chose that experience for yourself, even though obviously it’s a collective experience, shared by many others. If you can find a way to make a show so that it’s a shared experience in which everyone feels they’re unique, then I think that’s a very contemporary way of looking at the world and I think that’s why this sort of work is so popular at the minute.
Mika: So in that case is it possible to say that the trend is to a large extent influenced by technological developments?
Alan: Absolutely, if you walk into a train station now, you’re listening to your iPod, you’re reading the headlines on the BBC big screen, you’re checking which platform your train is, you’re checking your emails, your Facebook page, you’re taking in information so quickly, much faster than our parents generation did, much faster than even we did 20 years ago. Just look at the way television is edited, the scenes are shorter, the snaps between each scene more abrupt and on the bottom will be some scrolling information that you’re also taking in.
So in a similar sense the immersive installation allows us to transmit information to the audience through a number of different ways: it could be through a live performer, or you could have a soundtrack, it could be through smell, you could be watching a screen at the same time, you could be reading something while someone talks to you, all of this is possible, and I think that’s absolutely the influence of technology. Our brains are soaking up information much faster than they used to be because technology has trained us to do it.
Mika: What are the company’s artistic influences?
Alan: I think the thing that influences us is just people who tell stories incredibly well, and so the last show that we all saw as a company was Robert Lepage’s Lip Sync. We don’t aspire to make work in the same way that Mr. Lepage does, but just watching someone who is that good at telling stories is inspiring. When you attempt to push form and content and try to innovate as a company, you have to be careful about inspiration, because otherwise you just end up being a version of someone else. So we tend to be inspired by great storytellers across genres rather than necessarily having a theatre company that we follow and adore.
Mika: What is Slung Low’s relationship with text?
Alan: In They Only Come at Night, we came up with an idea for a show and then we turned that idea into a graphic novel, a comic book, and then we took that comic book and we adapted it for the stage. In that sense there’s no play script, but we all have a copy of this picture book that we follow, and we work out what we’re going to say, how we’re going to act and what we’re going to make accordingly. So our first focus and priority is the story, not necessarily a play script or even a text, because we might not have one, but we would all have some form of artefact. With Helium last year at the Barbican, it was based on a short story and this year it’s a graphic novel, but we did a show earlier in the year that was a script, it was a text in a traditional sense, but it could also be a video or even a song.
Image © Tim Smith
Mika: Is there any sort of preference among types of technology you use in production?
Alan: We’ve just don’t a show that was all based online, an alternative reality game called TOCAN Live and it had no sound or moving pictures. In other shows we use a lot of video and orchestrated sound. So in a sense the media we tend to use is not film but the components that are used in film. In Visions we’re using a very cinematic soundtrack and video in an atmospheric way, so we also try to make sure that we go across media.
Mika: Does part of your work have a documentary element to it?
Alan: I think although our work is always based on some thought about the real world, like the Bosnia story I told you about or the incident at the petrol station, actually what we’re creating are massive immersive metaphors in a sense.
Mika: What is the company’s artistic policy?
Alan: The artistic policy is firstly that it doesn’t matter where the idea comes from, it just matters that it’s a good idea. So even as the ‘boss’, if I come with an idea and everyone else thinks it’s rubbish, it’s rubbish. That’s very important, because otherwise it can be very ego driven for us. And the other one is that we will learn whatever we have to learn in order to accomplish what it is we want to do. So we edit all our own video, we make all our own music, but when we started we didn’t know how to do any of that. So if we need to know how to do animation, which is something that we’ve had to do for one of our projects, then one of us goes away and sits in a room until he/she knows how to do it.
Mika: Some of the company members teach at universities. How does teaching and creating theatre fit together?
Alan: Well one of the most important, pragmatic things for us is that we have to make a living, and this year we’re creating 4 large-scale shows which is incredibly tiring, so teaching is a different type of challenge. The other thing is that we make much bigger shows than our resources perhaps allow us to, and working with students means that we can let them into our genuine process. So we don’t go in and teach conceptual work, we go in and say “right in 6 months we have to make this show and we’re going to spend the next month making it with you”. We then break it up into little bits and get to work. So in that way, the student are learning new skills as they work on the show with us.
It also means that in terms of research and development and in throwing ideas around, all of a sudden we now have many more minds throwing the idea around, and that’s a really exciting artistic feat for us. So I think we’ve found a way to both teach and make work and the two aren’t in any way exclusive of each other, they are integral to how we make work. In a really practical sense we often need an awful lot of bodies and the students have been brilliant over the last 5 years in helping with that process.
Mika: The last question is what’s on the horizon in terms of projects over the next 5 years for Slung Low?
Alan: Well, hopefully within the next 6 to 12 months, we’ll find a residence, a premises. We want to take over a warehouse and turn it into our studio. The other thing is that we’re looking to collaborate abroad. We’ve spent the last 10 years working in this country, and hopefully through our recent British Council showcase in Edinburgh and with this show at the Barbican, along with all the things we’re doing this year, we’ll have the chance to work with artists from abroad.