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AN INTRODUCTION TO VERNACULAR THEATRE

written by Jonathan Petherbridge, November 2014.

In 2011 London Bubble started making new theatre pieces with groups of volunteer performers of all ages and backgrounds. People found the work powerful but difficult to describe - it wasn't necessarily professional or polished, but it had an authentic voice and human approach that was refreshing. In 2013 when we embarked on our second major projects we started to describe the work as Vernacular Theatre. 


We use the term Vernacular in the same way it used to describe a type of architecture. Vernacular architecture describes a style of building that is made using local materials, built by local people, often without a formal design to start from and using a local style. Sometimes specialist engineers are brought in to do specialist jobs, but most of the work is done by the people and the process is social as well as constructional. It results in quite humble buildings - houses and barns rather than cathedrals. The practice is handed down through generations. 

Vernacular Theatre is made from local materials, by local people. It is often intergenerational. It uses specialists - writer, designer, technicians, director - but the stories are gathered by local people and performed by them. The social aspect of the process - learning, generosity, joy and connection - are an important element of the making, and these values are apparent in performance and often remarked on by the audience. 

We try to value images and physical memories as much as words, and the input of specialist artists aiming to make the very best work possible, is balanced with the input of volunteers or community performers through the following process. We call this THE FORAGING PROCESS and use the analogy of cooking a meal. It goes through the following 5 stages.

1. FORAGING

This is the gathering of raw ingredients. In a meal this might be berries and grains, mushrooms and meat. In theatre our ingredients are stories, images, facts and memories. So we interview people, we research in libraries, ask people to bring in artefacts, to show us how they did things. For Grandchildren of the Blitz (GOTB) children recorded 25 interviews with people who were their age during the Blitz, others researched where bombs dropped, one person found the names and ages of families who lived in one street, many read old newspapers, some of us went on a guided walk and some learned how to do their hair and make-up the 1940's way. We were given various artefacts by local people and others sang us songs. It all made for a big basket of ingredients.

2. PREPPING

In cooking prepping is when you wash the vegetables and throw away the rotten ones. Perhaps take a sneaky taste of a berry, think about what might go with what. Experiment. When prepping a vernacular show, the director and perhaps choreographer and musician, work with large group of community performers in a series of exploratory workshops. In GOTB we listened to the interviews, made images, sang songs, created characters, took some of the testimony and acted it out - always playing and experimenting, seeing what tasted good or interesting. Everyone can make suggestions, everyone can give feedback. This usually takes about 10 sessions - lots of things don't work but we start to get an embodied knowledge of the subject matter. Towards the end, of this stage the specialist artists will come in to look at what has been prepped - to see what ingredients they have to cook with. In GOTB we found that domestic objects and their fragility was an effective way to show how the war affected people's lives. We made air-raid shelters from chairs and sugar lumps were dropped into tea cups to suggest how bombs made a mess of lives.

3. WRITING THE RECIPE

Having seen what has been prepped, the writer goes away to script, the designer to draw (and model) ideas for the set and costumes, the composer may write music at this stage. A scenography (or recipe), is then brought back to the group. The script is read, the designs are shown, music played and there is a structured feedback session. This is usually very informed and objective because everyone knows the material well. The artists then retire to make a second draft and again that is considered by the group - this may happen again, but finally the recipe is agreed. In our experience this has been a positive process and the artists have created work that extends their practise and crosses new boundaries.

4. COOKING

Once we have agreed the recipe we cook it to the highest possible standards. In theatrical terms we start the hard work of rehearsing and making the set and costumes. In previous projects there have been between 30 and 50 performers ranging in age from 10 to 80+, and most of them will have created and explored a character in the prepping stage, who will probably be included in the script. But there will be new voices, both in the text and in the rehearsal room as new people often join the project at this point, and a few drop out. The kitchen gets hot and steamy at this stage, the pressure is on, the table is being laid and invitations are going out (well tickets are being sold). This is hard and exciting work now. 

5. FEASTING

Many of the people who have helped in the foraging stage now return to the Feast. There are lots of new opportunities for people to help out - stewarding, helping set up, working front of house. 

As with any good meal, the ambience and welcome is very important. We try to find a venue that has some significance for the project (in From Docks to Desktops, a project focussing on Work, we found an old biscuit factory where many of the interviewees had once worked). We marketed the show widely and a lots of people of all ages and backgrounds came. During the show volunteers cooked biscuits and the smell pervaded the auditorium. At the end everyone was given a freshly made custard cream. 

The Feast is an act of returning the material to the community. Afterwards we talk to people who attend, gather feedback, and seek new ideas (and new foragers) for the next project. 

A WORD ON TIMING AND PEOPLE

There is no proscribed timescale for this process. Everyone has to be prepared for things to change, perhaps to take longer than expected, maybe to go faster. For the first project we started Foraging in May, then prepping started in September (but some foraging was still going on.) The writer and designer came in in November and the script was read in early January. There were 2 drafts. Cooking started in February and we Feasted in May. So the whole process took a year. 

Currently 18-22 year olds are working with Bubble to Forage for ingredients focussing on the subject of Voting. This will be a shorter timeline with the Feast happening in March. 9 months.

Some people join the project at the beginning and go all the way through. Others do one or two stages. We never turn anyone away - if you want to be in the show, you're in. Children under 10 have to be accompanied by an adults (and thus many Dads and Mums end up performing). There
are many jobs to be done, so social events are important to hold it all together and celebrate the endeavour.