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Mackenzie, NK., 2000.

Three Degrees of Frost (Performance)

Output Type:Other form of assessable output
Venue:TransEuropa2000, Hildesheim in international tour

Three Degrees of Frost was a touring theatre piece by Plane Performance, directed by Neil Mackenzie, performed by Kerry Williamson (later replaced by Heather Burton), Michael Farrimond, Russell Armstrong, Luke Dickson, Anna Wilson and Niki Woods with a soundtrack by Alex Bradley. It was performed 17 time at 14 different venues in this country, and was selected to represent new British performance at Transeuropa2000 in Hildesheim, Germany and the Split International Theatre Festival in Croatia.

The piece started with the act of reading The Cherry Orchard, both in the creative process and eventually in the performance itself, along with the (untrue) assumption that the performers knew neither the text, nor the conventions associated with its staging. Translating Sandra Kemp's dance-based observations about reading as performance into the theatrical, suggests that such an act of reading located the performer as both 'thoughtless', that is charged with following the instruction of the text, and 'thoughtful', that is in a continuous process of assessment or judgement of the text (Kemp 1996:156). How they dealt with this ambiguity at the start of the process divided the company into two groups, those with a background in naturalistic acting, and those with a background in dance and physical performance.

For the 'actors', conscious of their habitual relationship to text, the creative process became characterised by the development of a 'through line' or psychological narrative, not of a character determined by the text but a fictionally constructed notion of themselves as 'performer', as the person dealing with the task of 'staging' it. Coupled with the assessment of its qualities, questions of why the strategies employed to stage it were used, why these strategies developed, why they were then ditched and replaced, all felt to the 'actors' like they needed answers rooted in complex psychology, and so they invented one. Those not interested in psychological construction, the 'performers', who brought instead an experience of task-based performance and skills in being physically articulate and 'watchably present', performed the task of reading the text and employing strategies, confident that their own psychological complexity would be evident, that their own 'thoughtfulness' would be seen in relation to both the qualities of the text and the act of 'staging' it.

Despite these differences however, the approaches of both groups of performers acknowledged the distinction between the absent, historically conceived character and the present, contemporary performer. Indeed working outside the conventions of character-based acting, the attempt to make the absent present confronted all the performers with a logical impossibility, highlighting the distinction. Equally this can be represented as a clash of two texts, of the literary text and the body text, where the latter acknowledges the impact of contemporary, western culture on the gestural, vocal and physical body, and the clash results from the performer's inability/refusal to neutralise this in line with the demands of the play, thus locating the work as a whole closer to the conventions of task-based performance.

So Three Degrees of Frost distinguished, clearly, between the world of the narrative text and the world of the performers, and did so in several key ways:

The performers clearly indicated their individual traits and mannerisms, primarily responding to the actual situation of the stage, with little attempt to 'fit' the fictional world they were describing.
The six performers were visible throughout, and seemingly assumed that audience attention was shared equally amongst them, at all times.
There was a significant and exaggerated gestural language operating, movements that initially appeared spontaneous but were then exposed as choreographed, and thus belonging to the learnt task of the performer.
The piece was based on a fairly dated translation, with the rather old-fashioned English and relatively florid text pointed up in the performers' delivery.
And at times the performers were clearly playing games with the distribution of the lines and the allocation of 'characters'.

Thus, whether they played out these behaviours as 'tasks' or as psychologically driven responses to circumstance, the challenge of existing between two worlds, of being a self-conscious performer in front of a live theatre audience as well as at the same time being part of a narrative, set in an invented part of historical Russia, became the predicament of the performers, the 'fix' that they were in.

Through this approach we hoped to keep at least some focus on the theatrical encounter over the text, on the significance of our performance activity and decision making over the activities and psychology of the characters, and their ideological and philosophical ramifications. The intention was to keep the emphasis on the act of interpretation over any 'facts' of meaning to be communicated, the 'now' over the 'then', the theatrical over the dramatic, the medium over the message, the signifier over the signified. That the piece employed an illusionistic frame, that it claimed to be an unrehearsed encounter between some performers and a text that they didn't know, that it masked both its own process and relevant facts about the performers, left questions about the relationship between fiction and the illusion of spontaneity, which became one of the starting concerns for the next piece.