Rocking Out In The Pit


It was like we are a rock band trying to make a master piece, giving ideas and doing jam session.

– Satoshi Date


Photo above by John Hunter @ RULER.

saltpeter was offered a week of R&D time in the Barbican Pit as part of the PitLab series which champions interdisciplinary investigations. It is a remarkable scheme. Do look it up here and pass the word on. 

My personal thoughts (i.e. not official saltpeter statement) on our week at the Barbican are below. But first, I would like to draw your attention to fashion designer (in our project he is one of our designers and is composing some of the digital music) Satoshi Date’s blog where he talks about how, as a Japanese artist, he found the process incredibly and inspiring. Scroll down for English, enjoy also his sketches of the days, and learn more about his work and ideas on the Tonseisha blog here.


Photos above by Oda Egjar Starheim.


Photo above by John Hunter @ RULER.

More photos from the process here. Purely personal choices, not official company pics, hence Vera-heavy snaps.

I believe that the project, Tonseisha – The Man Who Abandoned the World, is special in the way it’s being built. Opera has been written into an existing play script (Erik Patterson’s wonderful, inspiring Tonseisha). It is an international, cross-arts, long term collaboration and a high proportion of the core creative team are not from a traditional theatre practice and so many theatre rules are being tested. It is also showing real signs of being transmedia, with plans for the multimedia strands e.g. short films, visual art, to exist and be shown alongside the unit of the show. The show itself will be performed within an curated space and so it could be seen as straddling the theatre/performance art worlds, whateve these labels mean.

The PitLab week was a relevation to me and key to both realising and confirming the way I would like to work not only on Tonseisha, but on all future creative projects. I am interested in making work where we:

– involve all creatives we want to work with – and we absolutely include technicians – from the start, to build a piece of art organically, so that it both comes from a place of real artistic passion and professional interest and has a more robust life as a piece of creation

– use the project in this case Tonseisha, as a jumping off point to investigate questions about our various fields and practices

Both points underline my concern for a long-term contribution to the life of the artist, the individual work and the field as a whole and support my interest in sustainability, process, and social responsibility.

As a team, what we tried to set up was a five-day tech and design R&D to bring input from lighting, sound and designers which would shape the resulting end as much as say, a choreographer or composer might. To our knowledge, no one has ever worked in this way before. To put this into context, initial R&D workshops in Feb 2012 were text-based to kick start the intricate composition stage. Where did we want opera and music? What kind? How would it use the existing text?

From summer to Oct 2012, we worked and showed two different 30 minute sections of the script, without design (basic to no lighting/sound effects/set) at three separate events, to various types of test audiences – general & literary public, a non-traditional theatre audience, and opera fans. The responses were extremely positive.

So what? Well, this is what I took from my week at PitLab. (Again a personal ramble):


Photo above by Oda Egjar Starheim.

I think that saltpeter the company would like to keep investigating how to work in this long term way (see above) in a practicable sense.

Key design aspects have been decided upon which affect where the show is staged and tours, our budget and who we apply for funding and support from, and how we implement the making of the show. We’ve identified a unifiying aesthetic taste, and the problems we need to troubleshoot at this stage. We will therefore be more efficient time and budget-wise making this happen when we enter the concerted production phase.

Another key question we asked was to do with the size of the cast. Do we want multiple men to play one character? Do we want to create overwhelming crowd scenes technically? We now roughly know the minimum number of cast we desire.

The core team has settled more into itself. We’ve established the foundations of a shared language. You know the way in which we talk about an ensemble of performers having a shared language – while most of us have worked together in some capacity, there were still new creative relationships to establish and navigate. One experiences the very real effects – a larger, magical energy? – of a tight, vibrant ensemble on stage. We have extended this formula to include the often neglected technical and creative team.

Our relationship with the text has developed. It now feels like a piece of fabric with the music and the design an integral. The piece we are making cannot exist without any of these elements. While we were not looking at the music during this week, Philippa Boyle and Ilze Ikse came in to experiment with us and when Phili sang, we (me and at least one other person, promise!) burst into tears. The space bloomed. It was such a huge piece missing from the whole.

Of course, the play, Tonseisha, is wonderful in itself, and can be done in many ways, but the piece we are making is…something else that has grown and is still growing. This is a new kind of devising, perhaps.

Supporting and inspiring artists – Performers and artists we brought in only for the R&D, and those who’ve been following our work, are excited about the project and about the way in which we’re working. This reassures our team, helps us see the wood for the trees, and spurs us all on to persevere, which is important when conditions for making work can sometimes feel a bit tough. The fact that PitLab exists at all is incredibly reassuring and inspiring to everyone we’ve talked to.

I am indebted to Gary Merry, Tonseisha director, friend and inspiring artist, and to all those involved in supporting us and making this happen.

Special thanks to David Duchin and People Show, Cat Harrison at Arts Admin, and Warren Dent at BGWMC.

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