ED2018 Chris Meets ED2018 Dance & Physical Theatre ED2018 Interviews ED2018 Music ED2018 Review Edition

Patrick Eakin Young: Toujours Et Pres De Moi

By | Published on Wednesday 8 August 2018

Erratica is a London-based company that creates what it calls “diverse musical spectacles”. These are theatrical experiences that often include striking music, clever choreography and innovative uses of technology.

In ‘Toujours Et Pres De Moi’, the show the company is presenting at the Fringe this year, that technology – the Nineteenth Century illusion of Pepper’s Ghost – is pretty old but very innovatively used.

We wanted to find about more about the show and the company behind it, so sat down with Artistic Director Patrick Eakin Young and got chatting.

CC: Tell us a little about ‘Toujours Et Pres De Moi’. What can we expect?
PY: ‘Toujours Et Près De Moi’ is a piece about a man and a woman who find themselves reliving their troubled past by watching ghostly images of their younger selves romp around on a table-top stage. The show uses a Nineteenth Century illusion called a Pepper’s Ghost to create the holographic figures who move, fight, love, and tumble in and out of two wooden boxes manipulated by the performers.

CC: Where did the idea of employing the ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ illusion come from?
PY: In 2008 I read an article about a New York theatre company called 3-Legged Dog using a Pepper’s Ghost illusion in a piece. I thought: “I bet you I can make one of those”. So I taught myself how to make a Pepper’s Ghost through internet research and trial-and-error, making table-top installations before moving on to larger scale works. I was fascinated by the illusion, but also the way that it physicalises themes that I explore in a lot of my productions: presence and absence, memory, and the persistence of the past.

CC: What does it actually involve? For the uninitiated, how does it work?
PY: A Pepper’s Ghost is in theory quite a simple concept. Spoiler alert: it uses a two-way mirror! So basically, you project video onto a surface and then reflect that image off a two-way mirror. If you light behind the mirror just right, then the audience sees both the reflection and whatever is on the other side so that it looks as if the video image is actually in the space behind. Rather than masking the screen and trying to hide the source of the images, I choose to expose the entire illusion and how it is made.

CC: You have your performers interacting with the ghostly images. Does that require them to be particularly precise in their movement?
PY: Yes, they have to be incredibly precise! Because yes, the one innovation that I seem to have stumbled on in my tinkering is how to make the holograms interact with objects. In every other Peppers Ghost I’ve ever seen, the image always appears in a black space. But I discovered that if you place objects in the right place in relation to the projected image, they can look like they are touching. It gives the illusions a real sense of weight and presence, even though you know they are not really there.

But it requires the objects to be in the exact right position, otherwise it doesn’t quite work. The performers in this piece move through a very precise choreography, putting the boxes exactly where they need to be and when. When they do it right, the audience sees it as seamless, and you forget that the boxes and the holograms aren’t actually occupying the same space.

Another thing that people might not realise is that the performers can’t see the projections at all. They spend the entire show looking at an empty table. And so their gaze is also tightly choreographed. But their gaze, and their reactions to the holograms, are essential to our experience of them.

CC: It’s a wordless performance – but is there a narrative that runs throughout? If so, how is that communicated?
PY: There is a narrative, although it is quite simple: a man and a woman look back on their troubled past. Clearly they were a couple, and something traumatic and difficult passed between them. The holograms show us – and them – scenes which suggest some details: the woman has been ill, she has been unable to have a child or has had a miscarriage; there is another young woman, with whom the man has had an affair. They fight, they dance, they love, and in the end they acknowledge each other’s hurt – although I’m not sure they totally reconcile.

We don’t get the whole story, but rather snippets, images and an evocative tableaux of their experience. The two performers do not speak, although there is voice-over at one point. Rather, they communicate the narrative through their physicality and movement, through their gaze and their concentration. It’s the holograms that show us aspects of the story, but in a kind of dreaming way. It’s up to the audience to imagine the details.

CC: Tell us about the music. What music have you selected and why?
PY: Like all of Erratica’s work, this piece has music at its core. And like most of my projects, it started with a playlist. I made the piece using unaccompanied vocal music – for up to five voices – explicitly so that it could be performed with live singers where that was an option. We have done that elsewhere, though not at the Fringe. Initially I put together a long playlist of options and then started to whittle it down to the eleven musical pieces in the show.

The works that I chose in the end span from the middle ages to the 2010s. But they all have some connection to the themes of the piece – so loss, memory and the persistence of the past – and a lot of the text in the music echoes images in the show. The title, ‘Toujours Et Près De Moi’, comes from a piece that James Weeks wrote called ‘Complainte’, which takes up a long section in the middle of the show. It’s a setting of a poem by Mary Queen Of Scots – written in French – about the death of her husband and how his memory is always close to her.

CC: Did the music inspire the movement or vice versa?
PY: The music definitely inspired the movement. I began with my eleven musical pieces, and a few alternates, and then proceeded to devise the scenes and sections in response to them with the hologram performers. I had in mind a general arc that I wanted to follow in the show, but each scene’s shape was created through a very quick workshopping process.

The video material was all created in two weeks. Because it can’t be changed – since the hologram performers have aged, if I change part of it I’ll have to change it all – it has become the actual script of the piece. Every time I remount the show – this is the fourth iteration – I alter slightly the live elements around the video, adding in more detail or highlighting certain ideas. But I’m always bound by the video.

CC: Tell us more about Erratica. How did it come into being? What does it aim to achieve?
PY: Erratica is a multi-disciplinary company based in London, making music-driven performances and installations. We believe in the capacity of music to speak to the core of human experience. I started it in Toronto – where I’m from – in 2010 as Opera Erratica. Then I was making underground baroque operas with my friend, who ran a early music ensemble. When I moved to London, Erratica’s work started to change into what I would now call ‘new music theatre’: cross-genre experiences with musical storytelling at their core.

In addition, Erratica projects regularly involve dance, puppetry, physical theatre and technology. Our last piece, ‘Remnants’, had four singers, a dancer, and recorded voice-over. We did an installation opera, ‘La Celestina’, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which was for polyphonic voice over a twelve-speaker array and projected shadow puppets. And we’ve even made an interactive pinball machine! I’m interested in work that explores human experience beyond language alone: those parts of ourselves that cannot be described. Where words fail: music, movement and image begins.

CC: What did you do before launching Erratica?
PY: I never studied theatre, but I’ve actually been working in theatre since I graduated university. I went to uni in New York, and when I came out I assisted regionally and off-Broadway. I’ve assisted and observed opera too. But mostly I’ve been producing and directing my own work.

CC: Why did you decide to bring this production to the Edinburgh Fringe?
PY: This piece was created in 2011 and shown at the Print Room Theatre and Spitalfields Music Festival in London in 2012. It’s actually one of my oldest pieces and the first thing I did in the UK. However, it never toured and I always felt that was a shame. The main reason to bring ‘Toujours’ to the Fringe was to engage with new audiences. I want to spread the word about Erratica and bang the drum about inter-disciplinary music-based work.

We brought ‘Toujours’ specifically because it’s our smallest and lightest production – despite the huge technical element! – and also it’s a very unique show and we thought it would be something that Edinburgh audiences had never seen before. This is a very bizarre and beautiful show, but I think that Fringe audiences are up for anything, so I feel like it’s a good place to be. Putting it in a Fringe context means that people who might never otherwise be exposed to a show like this can have the opportunity to take a chance and come and see it, and that is really exciting.

CC: The constraints of performing at the Fringe are well known, with so many shows using each theatre each day. Is that particularly challenging with a show of this kind, where there are some technical complexities on stage?
PY: OMG it is ridiculously challenging! I think it is fair to say that this is one of the most technically ambitious Fringe shows you will ever see. We have to move a four metre by three metre stretched-mylar screen into position, refocus lights, re-align projections, and so on, all in about fifteen minutes. It’s kind of nuts and probably shouldn’t be done. But we’re able to do it with careful planning and the support of the excellent technical team at Assembly Roxy. Despite the constraints of the Fringe, I think the show looks great, and comes close to what a more traditional production of this show would be.

CC: What else are you planning to do or see while in Edinburgh for the Festival?
PY: This is my first experience of Edinburgh during the Festival, so I’m very excited to see lots of new work and meet interesting artists. I’m particularly interested – as you can imagine – in visual work, work with music and movement, and I think this is a great opportunity to see a lot of that work in a single place. I’ve already seen a few amazing shows, including ‘In Cold Blood’ at the International Festival and Companie Flöz’s ‘Infinita’ at Assembly Grand. The former is over now, but the later is playing all month and I recommend people go see it!

‘Toujours et Près de Moi’ was performed at Assembly Roxy at Edinburgh Festival 2018.

LINKS: erratica.org