Getting Out Of The Studio! - Parades and Street Spectacles
At first glance, parades may seem a little akin to Shakespeare In The Park in the sense that they look like they’ve been conceived elsewhere and plonked in situ along a street. However, look closely and you’ll find this isn’t the case. Firstly, they are smashing their way through our old friend Augé’s ‘Non-Places’ and turning the transitory ‘space’ that is a street into an anthropologically engaging ‘place’, (whoohoo!). Now we’ve looked closely, we need to zoom out in order to understand how parades relate to the site they inhabit. If you look on a street level, you may not get the direct connection between the two. However, consider things from a city-wide perspective and things start to fall into place. A great example is the annual Nottingham Caribbean Carnival: a huge colourful and exciting spectacle celebrating the thriving Caribbean community and culture within the city.
This particular carnival makes sense in the social and historical context of this particular city, and may not have the same impact or meaning if taken to another city, especially one that doesn’t have such a flourishing Caribbean demographic. Stepping away from demographical contexts now to an example of how parades can make inhabitants reconsider the connection with their city in the wake of recent historical events. In 2006, Royal De Luxe, a French theatre company, in association with Artichoke Productions (London), brought ‘The Sultan’s Elephant’ to the streets of the capital. The only way, myself and others can describe it, is simply magical. This was a large-scale puppet spectacle that occurred on the May bank holiday weekend of 2006. It involved a 4-day parade of two huge puppets - a 25m long elephant, and a 20-foot high girl. The back-story behind the event that helped to generate the magic it instilled is as follows:
100 years ago there was a Sultan who kept having dreams of a little girl travelling through time. He was sure this girl was real and she intrigued him so much that he commissioned his most talented engineer to build a time travelling elephant, on which they could find the little girl. Their search took them westward and eventually they found the little girl in central London, 100 years on (2006) from the time in which the Sultan had come from. The four days over May bank holiday unfolded at first with the abrupt landing of a wooden rocket in the middle of a road, seemingly overnight. The effects made it look very convincing as the rocket was embedded nose down in the concrete, which had been made to look like the rocket had hit the ground with enough force to reduce the surrounding concrete to rubble. There was even smoke rising from the impact crater throughout the next day. People began to gather around it with shared puzzlement and wonder. For a while, some are fooled into thinking it’s a real occurrence with rumours that British intelligence knew it was coming. As expected, a huge crowd gathered for the opening of the rocket and the astonishing release of the little girl giant. It is clear to see on everyone’s transfixed faces that they are delighted by the surprise. The girl begins searching for the elephant; seemingly drawn to it until eventually they find each other. The sheer size and majesty of the elephant astounds everyone in the crowd. For the next four days they would continue parading together, doing various captivating things. After four days, an enormous crowd witnesses the girl’s goodbye on Horse Guards Parade. ‘All good things come to an end. Time travelers never stay in one place for long.’ (The Sultan’s Elephant, 2006). She gets back in her rocket, it is lit, and after the pyrotechnics do their job, the nose is lifted again to reveal the girl has disappeared. The crowd is stuck with awe and wonder at her vanishing act. The elephant and the children in the crowd are sad to say goodbye.
Back to why a French theatre company bringing such a spectacle to London has any significant and meaningful context. Why was that spectacle so important in that place and that time? Well, it took place a year after the 7/7 bombings, and many reports and testimonials from the crowd suggested that there was a fear of London felt by its inhabitants.
"I've never known London to be so unfriendly on the street [...] The awful, dreadful bombings of the last year typified, really, the nightmare scenario of what can happen in the lunatic world we seem to be living in at the moment." (Glen from Stepney, The Sultan's Elephant, BBC 4, 2006)
The people who live there have described this spectacle as a mass ‘reclamation’ of the cities streets. It made the city something wonderful again, rather than something to fear. "Since Sept. 11, American Artists (especially those who work in New York) have been talking obsessively about how to make art that matters." (Jefferson, 2002). Despite being 5 years in the planning and in now way originally meant as a reaction to the 7/7 bombings, 'The Sultan's Elephant' cam about at just the right time in order to repair the sense of lost community within central London and allow people to feel comfortable on the streets again.
Personally, my favourite thing about parades and street spectacles, is their ability to being people out onto the street and give them a sense of commonality and affiliation. They allow for individual ambition to be broken down temporarily, and is replaced by a mentality centred on togetherness.
So there are many different ways performance can collaborate with a site, but we must also allow performance to collaborate with human-kind. I promise, this is a great way of getting out the studio and must be given a try. Don't have a 20-foot puppet? That's ok! A conga line is just as aesthetically striking and attention grabbing. Try anything!