Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Our Carnal Dramaturgy: Rachel Mars @ Edfringe 2017

Our Carnal Hearts
Live choral surround singing, storytelling and physical theatre merge in this hilarious, incendiary show about the hidden workings of envy and the dark side of human nature.

Devised and performed by Rachel Mars | Original music by Louise Mothersole (Sh!t Theatre) 
The Dissection Room, Summerhall, 1 Summerhall, EH9 1PL, 16 - 26 August 2017, 11:00 (12:00), 14+  

“Envy is a directed emotion. Without a target, it cannot occur.” Sociologist Helmet Schoeck 
Four belting singers create a wall of sound in this thrilling, energetic and ritualistic celebration of desire, competition and how we screw each other. 

What was the inspiration for this performance?

The show interrogates envy, competition and the way we relate to each other when we are in a society that promotes both. Going back, I think it was first triggered by the London riots in 2011. I was interested in how people's genuine anger tipped into looting and the accumulation of 'stuff'. That led me to think about the drivers we have to own things. Plus, I'm very interested in feelings that are taboo. 

Envy is something people don't feel comfortable talking about because you are often envious of people very close to you. I wanted to make a public space to explore these very personal,
 shameful feelings and unravel them from capitalist doctrine about envy. 

I also remember listening to the language around David Cameron's 'Big Society' period, 'we are all in this together', all of that. It was at the time when joining choirs suddenly became more fashionable again, and I wanted to think about the tension of singing together about shameful, solo things. 

I was also feeling that an artist, I am constantly pitted against other artists who are peers, friends. We're competing for funding, for slots at festivals. As we are fed this culture of scarcity, we can double-down on that competition. I am interested in how we can remain a community in these circumstances.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

Yes, I definitely think so. I think, when it's working best, the liveness means audiences really feel invited to hold their own ideas up against the ones in the shows. With this show, people stay around afterwards, or email to say the ideas in it were provocative or comforting. 

We were performing it in Boston and opening the night after the US election. When we got booked, no-one thought the result would go the way it did. The nights following, you could really feel there was so much desire to be in a place where other people were and the show space became one of assembly. The show could be viewed through those turbulent recent events and it gave people a focus to express their ideas and worries for the future.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I come from a small but loud family, where joke telling and story telling always happened around the table. If you wanted to be heard you had to have a good story. So, I think I've always been interested in the performer/audience relationship and who is which, when. 

I watched a lot of stand up and comedy on TV growing up - French and Saunders, Billy Connolly, Richard Pryor - and I got really into the rhythms of it, the surprises - what gets an audience response and what doesn't.  Then, after university, I started encountering the performance art world and all the possibilities of that form and began testing small ideas at underground London nights.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

I worked on the show on my own for a long time, creating a core of writing and visual ideas that I brought to the rehearsal room. I always knew I wanted a choral score in the piece, so then I worked with Louise Mothesole (composer) in quite a rapid way, bouncing around ideas for the sound of that - pop, classical influences. 

She came back with some brilliant music and we headed into a first draft performance. The real make of the show happened  when all the singers, myself, Louise and director Wendy Hubbard got in a room and stared pulling the work together. 

It was important that that space was open, honest and collaborative. Especially for a show about envy, competition, capitalism and F*cking each other over - the all female, generous, and loving space of rehearsals felt quite radical, like a resistance.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

It's a much bigger beast! Usually I've worked in solo or duo performance. This is also the first time I've worked with live music - this show is performed by me and four brilliant female singers, performing a surround sound choral score.  It's also the first time I've worked in the round, - it has very deliberate staging and design choices that are different from my other work.

Our Carnal Hearts has the direct address, the edgy humour of my previous work, but it's also much darker, perhaps responding to the uncertainty of politics at the moment. I do think all of my work is researched across politics, sociology, psychology and then spun through wicked entertainment. This show is powered by a political or social question -  and asks how that political question plays out personally for people, so in that way it fits with other shows.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

It is a collective experience but also a personal one. I think the show invites you to think about your place in your community, about some of the grubby feelings we aren't normally allowed to express. 

I also hope that it is funny and entertaining. The shape of the show moves towards a potentially cathartic but also energising finale, but one that is deliberately murky. So I think it is an invitation to be in that complexity of feelings, all while people are brandishing rubber chickens and singing Spandau Ballet.

Our Carnal Hearts Trailer from Rachel Mars on Vimeo.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

The staging choices are very considered, we are on a four sided stage with the audience banks facing each other. This shapes the experience of  the show at times feeling like a community, at times like a show-down. The whole look of the stage, the design choices give a semi-religious, ritualistic feeling to the space. It should feel like we all just rocked up for some off-book, semi-illegal service. 

The singing - and the occasional invitations for the audience to join in - also shape this experience of being together whilst questioning the genuineness of that being together at exactly the same time. 

Award-winning live artist, performer and comedian Rachel Mars explores what lurks in the darkness of our psyches, exposing the monsters within and without and joyfully embracing our rage at the situation our political landscape has left us in.

As collectivism moves towards individualism, inequalities deepen and the Brexit vote reveals the extent of disquiet in the UK, we are all looking at people who are like us... but a little bit better. With influences including Spandau Ballet, a Hungarian folk story and a Guatemalan tribal ritual, this is a performance exploring this great taboo. It’s about secretly choosing the bigger slice, even among your friends and family; imagining accidents; stealing other people's ideas and telling yourself you were just inspired by them.

Rachel Mars said of Our Carnal Hearts which comes to Summerhall following sell-out performances in the UK and US: “This show is a symphony and an exorcism, it’s a big, epic, murky and hilarious ode to our f*cked up times. It’s a place to let it all hang out and address the things that are taboo and shameful about envy and competition, with transcendent original choral music. Audiences can expect an uproarious, raucous and visually beautiful show.” 

Rachel Mars is an award winning UK based performance maker with a background in theatre, live art, and comedy. Her work often interweaves personal reflection with universal questions of politics and place, and explores the way we, as people, are just trying to figure it all out. Our Carnal Hearts is her latest show, which has been touring the UK and the US (Fusebox Festival, Austin and A.R.T Boston). Her company with nat tarrab, Mars.tarrab is the winner of the 2017 Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award for their new show ROLLER at the Barbican, London. Other solo and collaborative work includes The Way You Tell Them, Story #1 (with Greg Wohead) and The Lady’s Not For Walking Like an Egyptian, which have toured to the UK, US, Canada, and Australia. Her work has been featured at South Bank Centre, Tate Modern, Forest Fringe, and Brighton Festival.

Recent commissions include Royal Court Tottenham, Fuel Theatre, Home Live Art and Ovalhouse. She is a fellow at the Birkbeck Centre of Contemporary Theatre and has developed work with the support of organisations like the Arts Council England, The Wellcome Trust, Cambridge Junction, Playwright’s Workshop Montreal and The Orchard Project, New York. Rachel is a regular contributor on BBC Radio’s ‘Pause for Thought’ where she pretends to know things about faith. She has also written for The Guardian and The Stage.  

Louise Mothersole is a performance artist and one half of award-winning duo Sh!t Theatre. She is also a lighting designer, theatre technician and freelance composer. She has written songs and music for Stacy Makishi, Lois Weaver, Duckie at the Barbican and for a project with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Rhiannon Armstrong is an interdisciplinary artist making work with empathy and collaboration at its core. She learnt to sing from a Welsh man and play the violin from a Yugoslavian woman. 

Orla O’Flanagan is an artist, singer and co-founder of ActiveArt, which creates innovative and participatory art for egalitarian social change.

Rachel Weston is a professional freelance singer and workshop leader, with a particular interest in traditional and contemporary Eastern European Jewish folk and art song.

Co-commissioned by The Junction, Cambridge and CPT. Developed with the support of Arts Council England, South East Dance in partnership with Jerwood Charitable Trust, Orchard Project (NY), Ovalhouse, Shoreditch Town Hall, American Repertory Theatre, The Royal Court Theatre and Playwrights' Workshop Montreal.


Devised and performed by Rachel Mars 
Performers/singers Rhiannon Armstrong, Louise Mothersole, Orla O’Flanagan, and Rachel Weston
Original music composed and arranged by Louise Mothersole 
Directed by Rachel Mars and Wendy Hubbard
Lighting Designer Anna Barrett
Producer Rebecca Atkinson-Lord

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