Electric Hotel, directed by David Rosenberg and choreographer Frauke Requardt, was a big hit at the 2010 Brighton Festival. This year, the pair returns to the city by the sea with the world premiere of Motor Show, an outdoor performance piece that will take place on wasteland. Speaking on the phone from a huge car-filled warehouse in Bermondsey which is doubling as the show’s rehearsal space, Rosenberg tells me why he was so keen to go back.
“It’s a fantastic arts festival with the strongest support of outdoor work. And it’s by the sea! It’s so difficult to get out of London when you live here. This is my opportunity to get a bit of sea air – and then fill it with exhaust fumes”, he laughs.
If any production needed the space afforded by being outside, the gas-guzzling Motor Show is it. As headphone-wearing audiences look on and eavesdrop, cars will approach in the distance; their occupants loving, fighting and reconciling as the sky above darkens. This is a continuation of the work Rosenberg and Requardt started with Electric Hotel, which put audiences in the Rear Window-ish position of glimpsing private lives unfold through the windows of a hotel.
“Once again, we’re interested in an audience looking into personal spaces,” he explains. “But rather than hotel rooms, these personal spaces are the interiors of cars. And although we’re working with a much greater distance, it will sound as though you are inside the vehicle. It’s exciting to try to create an intimacy that crosses such a huge physical gap.” This touches on something evident in Rosenberg’s work since he co-founded the experimental Shunt collective in 1999: his interest in challenging theatrical expectations and exploring theatre’s nascent voyeurism.
Unlike Rosenberg’s previous work, voyeurism as a subject “doesn’t really form an important part of the narrative” in Motor Show. But he concedes that the piece reflects his problem with the nearness of audience to stage in a conventional setting. “The set up of the auditorium assumes that the audience is peering into a private world, so I’m just trying to find ways that I’m comfortable with that arrangement,” he explains. His aim here – as in much of his work – is to create “a more believable separation, one where the suspension of disbelief isn’t so necessary.”
Wryly, he reflects: “There’s a point at which an acknowledgement of the audience becomes necessary. And perhaps in my immaturity, I haven’t managed to get beyond that.”
From the Hitchockian Contains Violence (2005) onwards, the use of headphones has been one of Rosenberg’s ways of grappling with the issue. And recently he participated in a podcast on ‘The Ear’ for Fuel, who produced both that show and Electric Hotel, which also utilised earpieces. So where does his fascination with the relationship between hearing and theatre originate?
“My father was a neurophysiologist and a specialist in sound,” Rosenberg reveals. “I managed to avoid having electrodes placed in my brain,” he jokes, “but the physiology of sound was definitely part of my childhood, growing up. And it’s always been one of the most important narrative layers in my work.”
What he finds compelling is the notion of inserting a performance into someone’s ear; the opportunity provided by headphones to speak directly to individual audience members. “It’s something that came up in the podcast, actually,” he says. “It’s about giving people the experience of being the subject of the performance – finding a way of using that particular sense to connect them with what they’re seeing.”
Rosenberg points to Rig, his next project with Fuel, as evidence of the effectiveness of this approach even when there’s nothing to see. “It’ll be in total darkness, but also with headphones,” he explains. “We’ve done a few development presentations and found that it’s completely necessary – even when it’s pitch-black – to be in a room full of people as you listen. The possibility that those sounds are actually happening is what makes the piece work.”
Rig will be Rosenberg’s fourth show with Fuel and Motor Show is his second with choreographer Requardt. So why, as far back as Shunt, has collaboration been so important to him? “When you work alone, you often have a certain expectation of what it is that you want to produce and the business is in trying to realise that,” he replies. “But in collaboration there’s a symbiosis of ideas. You end with something that would have been impossible to visualise with your own imagination. Especially when you find someone you work well with.”
And Rosenberg immensely enjoys collaborating with Requardt. “Framing a piece through the language of dance really encourages it to be viewed in a more abstract way,” he says enthusiastically. “So what we have spent our time doing is trying to find what is meaningful about certain movements. This could be an amorphous and difficult-to-understand idea, but Frauke is particularly good at extracting meaning from dance.”
But how does this work in Motor Show, with its mix of people and machinery? “Well, there’s the choreography of the dancers themselves,” Rosenberg points out, “but also of the cars. Our stage is a huge area, 100 metres long, so we’re trying to bring some choreographic concepts to the movement of the cars within that space as well.”
Rosenberg paints a harmonious picture of working with Requardt. But when dealing with people, a huge space and trying to get cars to dance, surely someone has to take charge? “We’re co-directors on this and have quite similar tastes, so that isn’t how our relationship is,” he insists. But he will confess to times “when I might favour one thing or I’ll go for something that I might have been squeamish about initially. But I’ll be proved wrong. That happens time and time again!”
Rosenberg’s work is about immersing an audience in a world that feels real, freed from the constraints of curtains and proscenium arches. However, doing this outside as opposed to in a studio or under a railway bridge is quite a different prospect. There’s real and then there’s the British weather. But while some directors might balk at the idea, Rosenberg believes that an outdoor site’s potential for change is what will make Motor Show so special, particularly when it tours the UK.
“In the absence of a clear narrative – which is not what we’re working with here – lots of other elements will take on more importance,” he says. “The feel of the space in Brighton is of somewhere that has been abandoned for years. But somewhere else might look like a development plot, where something is about to be built. And what effect will a different skyline have?” Rosenberg asks rhetorically.
“We’ll be using these different environments; we won’t be trying to disguise them. It’s very difficult to predict how they will affect people’s understanding of the show and the journey within the show. With each site there will be something else to explore or something new that will come out of it. And that’s very interesting.”
Motor Show will be at Black Rock as part of the Brighton Festival from 9th – 13th May. Exeunt will be reviewing Motor Show and other productions at the festival throughout May.
First published by Exeunt magazine