Tuesday 18 April 2017

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to the scarce old Father of 'Landscape Theatre' and creator of 'WildWorks', Bill Mitchell

Bill, theatre director/designer, who has died at the age of 65, recalled in 2012 that : "The name 'landscape theatre' came out of almost a joke" when he was "outside directing a piece on a cliff" and one of the participants appeared dragging "stones on a piece of corrugated iron right across this landscape on the coast of Cornwall and somebody said : "What d'you call this work ?" To which he replied : "Landscape theatre" and "it stuck."

At the same time he said of the company he had created seven years before : "The major thing that makes 'Wildworks' different is going outside. It's finding real places. I find that profoundly exciting. To find a real site that gives you all sorts of resonances. It gives you real history.but we don't tend to worry about that too much - you're trying to find the 'genius loci', the spirit of that place and that's what we delve in and that, I think, makes us different to an awful lot of other companies."

A post Second World War baby boomer, Bill was born into a working class family in Erith, Kent in 1951, the son of Ethel, a cleaner and John, an engineer. A bright lad, he passed his 11+ exam in 1961 and secured a place at Dartford Grammar School for Boys where Mick Jagger had been a pupil a few years before and where Bill he showed early promise in Art. Having left school he took a foundation course at Medway School of Art and went on to the theatre design course at Wimbledon School of Art, London.

Bill entered the world of professional theatre at the age of 24 in 1975 and served his apprenticeship acting as a freelance designer on a succession of theatre companies which included the Royal National Theatre, Donmar Theatre, Lyric Theatre Hammersmith and The Shaman Company in Budapest. Then, at the age of 36, he became a member of the 'Kneehigh Theatre Company' based in Cornwall and then their Artistic Director from 1995 until 2005.

In addition to his theatre-based projects like the Donmar Warehouse production,'The King of Prussia' in the 1996, he also worked with Sue Hill on site outdoors, where they were influenced by the work of 'Footsbarn Theatre' and 'Welfare State International.' They both felt that Kneehigh was pulling in two different directions, one based in studios and theatres and the other in the landscape and at this point he and Sue formed their own company,'WildWorks,'

Their first performance was a co-production with 'Kneehigh', 'A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,' adapted from a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was based on the story of the arrival of an ambiguous angel-like figure in the small fishing village of Maha-Le and showed how the small community respond to both his presence and the changes that followed as the figure attracted outside interest and visits by pilgrims with the money they brought having a dramatic effect upon the previously close-nit and simple community.
Initially produced at Hayle in Cornwall it travelled to Malta and Cyprus where in 2004 Bill was given permission by the UN to put on a show in a derelict taverna which had been closed due to earlier sniper fire on the 'Green Line Buffer Zone' separating north and south. Actors and audiences from either side of the line came together for performances that ended with the image of an angel flying over the divided island.

By this time his company's methodology was in place as elucidated by Bill : "WildWorks stories are always developed in the same way. First of all you find a site and you just go to the site all the time. You attend to the site and the site starts to speak to you. It starts to tell you what the dynamics are. You then start to talk to people who around, worked there, lived there and they then start to give you another dimension. They start to tell you things about the place they live and then you realise, you find the passion of those people and you find the connection with the place and those people and they are telling you more than memories. They're telling you their values - the things that are important to them and if you attend to that you can make a piece of work." 

It goes without saying that, from the start, Bill was insistent upon the importance of working with local people : "I hate the idea that we will be parachuting in and doing a show on landing on people in a really clumsy way and it always takes time for us to meet people to allow those people to introduce us to other people. To gain that trust that we can do the work. That's why partners are really important to us. It's not something we can do on our own."

In 2006 and for the next two years he undertook his first independent production, 'Souterrain' which was inspired by the grief Bill and his partner, Sue, felt when her parents died within a month of each other and drawing on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, was a meditation on letting go. Bill said at the time : "The theme of Orpheus has always interested me but I know I will need to visit, explore, talk, listen and generally feel this project before choosing a particular direction for the story." In the event, he visited and explored Stanmer Park, Brighton, La Citadelle, Amiens, 'The Minories and Keddy’s Department Store', Colchester, The Grove School, Hastings, La Chartreuse des Dames, Gosnay and finally Dolcoath Mine, Cornwall.

In the course of this he talked and listened to hundreds of people and 'Souterrain' performed for thousands and on its journey to disparate venues, the production picked up 12,000 luggage labels on which audience members had written thoughts. In addition, in each case actors, musicians and visual artists worked with a range of local artists and community groups in each location to devise and develop the performance in each site.

In 2009. he created 'The Beautiful Journey' which was performed in Devonport, Dockyard, Plymouth and Wallsend Newcastle. The story was set in the near future following an unnamed global catastrophe when sea levels have risen to such an extent that the entire community is squeezed on to a small area – perhaps the only dry land left and survive by devising new ways of propagation, working in harmony and entertaining each other and by telling stories of their history. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tK6xg0vQrIo&t=0m50s

Part of Bill's philosophy had been : "We tell stories and help people to remember their own stories. Our stories and our memories are what make us human. We mustn't lose them." That being the case the memories of Plymouth and Tyneside residents played a big role in his ambitious outdoor performances in the Dockyard and on the banks of the River Tyne. In both former shipbuilding communities Bill heard about how people felt about the decline of the industry. It wasn't difficult here, for him, to fulfil his aim of : "What we try to do is over a period of time get to the heart of a community. We try and get some sense of what their memories and values are and invite them into the show in some way."

In Tyneside he looked to recruit beekeepers, hairdressers, singers and boat builders to help with the production and said : "We don't put them on the spot, we don't get them to act, but they are performing. We can build their skills into the show and that becomes part of the performance."
More specifically : "We talked to one couple about their relationship to the sea and the man who was in the Merchant Navy said  "I love it, it's everything to me." His wife said : "I hate it, I'm jealous of it." And that's absolutely right in the centre of the show. There will be a man making a boat and he makes one every day but at the end of the day, because he's very attached to his woman, he cuts the boat free again and he doesn't go. When you hear those things they haunt you and then you can start making a piece of work."

In the making Bill said : "We don't give people lines to learn - we give them a structure to learn. It's the structure we're looking for now " and just weeks before the production he reflected :  "We've been planning this show for two years and we're performing it in just over a month. At the moment, we still don't know where it's going. But we thrive on uncertainty. It's all about holding your nerve. The longer things remain fluid, the more interesting the outcome."

In Devonport working with the constraints of the high-security environment of the Dockyard was a challenge :  putting in a power socket required 42 days' notice and health and safety requirements meant everything had to be negotiated - including the show's finale, which involved the launching of a boat built with the help of local people and ex-shipyard workers. Bill commented wryly : "Sometimes the navy seems quite frightened of the sea."

In 2011 he produced his masterpiece 'The Passion' in Port Talbot, South Wales, 2011 in collaboration with Michael Sheen and National Theatre Wales. It involved over a thousand people in its creation with an estimated 22,000 people attending over a three-day period and staged across the beach, steelworks and the town itself.

In the process Bill :
* Accompanied Michael when they reconnoitred the streets and shopping centre :

* Introduced the soldiers in the cast to their guns : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lq2bsO_TtUE&t=17m42s

* With Michael, put groups together on the beach a few days before production :

* Helped Michael practice the cruxifiction : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lq2bsO_TtUE&t=45m21s

* Accompanied Michael in the final talk to the cast before production :

Bill would have been well satisfied by the crucifiction scene in the production : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99b9C4POEIk&t=53m14s

Michael said after his performance : "It will undoubtedly be the most significant thing in my career, I know that, but also, the most significant thing in my life probably, in terms of what I learnt about what’s possible – not just possible within theatre, but possible in terms of community when people are brought together and feel enabled and empowered and able to tell their stories."

Bill himself declared that working on the production and with Michael had been the highlight of his career : "We had to do a lot of work contacting all the participants and building a team but he was able to help with that very simply and we were given a lot of people to work with. And this really – I really enjoy this process and I really enjoy telling this story."

In 2012 he approached his London-based, 'Babel', which was performed around a Victorian clock tower opened by Prince Albert in 1855 with his usual blend of enthusiasm and optimism : "The major thing was we knew the Babel story was people gathering, people coming together as many different groups and individuals would come together to a place what that place was becomes the really important thing. So here we had a really good explore and the major thing we found not only an iconic and wonderful tower and you think, 'OK we need to do something with that. That's handy - Babel.' The woods around it are magnificent in terms of story telling. When you're in the woods you can't see the tower. So you can take the audience through one experience, then gradually you come into this other world ."

His  collaboration with 'The Lost Gardens of Heligan' culminated in a one day event on Sunday 3 August 2014 entitled '100 : The Day Our World Changed' which remembered the local men who went to fight in the Great War and the 53 who died and the stories of the people they left behind. Bill put the call out : "We need people to be stewards, to perform, sing in the chorus of 100 voices, people who can sew and help make the costumes and uniforms, even someone with drill sergeant experience, Basically, if you'd like to be involved we'll find something for you to do."
The performance started at Mevagissey Quay, when three red-sailed luggers approached the harbour as the town crier summoned local men to depart. The audience then met the main characters in the drama – the local squire, one of his gardeners Jack, and May, his love and followed the men of the Royal Naval Reserve as they marched off to war, accompanied by St Austell Town Band, as they had done 100 years ago. Later they enjoyed Edwardian fun and games at the Gardens and had a chance to hear the stories of its gardeners who joined up. Bill said : "Theatrically, what I am playing with is life in 2014 at Heligan with 'time slips' back to 1914 and glimpses of war in France" and "Fundamentally it revolves around two characters who are 'walking out together'. He signs up for war and she doesn't know. It's a very human and archetypal story of what happened to a lot of people."
In 2015 he created 'Wolf's Child' which had its genesis in 2012 : "I was invited by My Gilinskiy (Norfolk & Norwich Festival Artistic Director), to come along and make a piece here that involved local population and at that point we had a conversation : "I want to do something in the woods." So three years later we're on and we're now making the piece. We're sharing the piece to the public for the very first time around Felbrigg Hall. The journey, I think about a mile and a half, the journey that the audience are on. So the story wraps us all the way round, from outside the Hall - civilisation and then when we plunge into the woods. With our work I probably have to spend two or three visits just understanding how the route might work and then you start honing down very particular parts of the story and matching it to places in the woods. So the wood has been our inspiration really."

Donald Hutera writing in 'The Times' described it as a 'howlingly good outdoor fairytale' a show which was 'mischievous, moving and, at its best, utterly magical. Wolf’s Child is a generous and engaging act of theatrical imagination that plumbs some wrenching emotional depths.'

This year WildWorks had returned to Cornwall after and absence of ten years and this Spring, Bill had continued to work with his theatre company until his last days and had been responsible for the vision behind this summer's production of Wolf's Child at the Trelowarren Estate.

Bill once said :
“They say we all die twice. The first time when our body dies and the second time when people stop saying our names and stop telling the stories of the things we did in our lives.” 

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