Without Walls TALKS: All about Neighbourhood Touring, by Pete Gunson
21 July 2021
When waxing lyrical about Outdoor Arts I’ll recite how “there’s no rule book” – we’re free to come up with our own format and relationship with an audience. What is the point of working outdoors if you are not interested in looking for a new format? Why else would you put up with the wind, rain and dogs?
However, we are subject to creative constraints. The economics of what we do – as artists – is tied to festivals. You do the heavy lifting and provide a context, infrastructure and audience. Our life is easier if we fit into this framework – we get more gigs and reach more people.
But what happens when there are no festivals? What about all the realities we take for granted? This has been Pif-Paf’s recent journey, working out a way to get to folk when there is no context.
"The route we found is hugely rewarding - if we thought festival audiences are diverse going right up to people’s front doors is a whole other level."
Our odyssey into Neighbourhood land started with a commission for December 2020 from Stellar Projects and Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council. This commission led to quite the saga – one successful creation, an over-optimistic plan from us, a run of relentless reality checks, another creation and months later a run of the most rewarding shows I can remember.
This post is about artist-led work in neighbourhoods with no infrastructure – done legally (just…), safely and successfully (whatever that means). Though our solution to performing in neighbourhoods is ours, the problems we had to solve will be yours as well.
The commission was to make a show that could tour streets to align with an online Christmas Lights Switch-On inspired by a story – that it turned out I misunderstood – about something the fantastic Festival Of Thrift had done 3 months earlier.
in 2015 we decided to stop doing one-off commissions. We were making far from our best work – so this had to be a show that could join our repertoire – be part of us.
Moths At Work (the original version) was born with the best of intentions and a big serving of naivety (not nativity!!! (sorry )) – but it worked.
"We wanted to make something joyful, clear, distinctly “other” and that belonged on the streets."
We proposed to make and tour a tandem tricycle “electric-assist pedal vehicle“ that met regulations and housed a giant Light Bulb with a 2-foot disco ball filament crewed by two half-Moth half-Electrician DJ clowns.
Production Manager Sammi Gabb got this idea past the council and constabulary and somehow by December 4th, we were beating the winter streets in wind and rain.
The reception was hugely warm, so naturally, we thought let’s do more of this in the dark Covid winter. We drummed up enthusiastic partners in South Yorkshire and got support from Arts Council England. Only to find that … well, we’d been a bit illegal. Sure our vehicle was “road legal” but our insurers could not get us cover to perform along the road and no pavement could hold our trike.
So we had to make a whole new vehicle on a bit of R&D budget from the Arts Council Project Grant and fight a maze of attrition with 4 different councils’ policies and the unknowns of Covid – BUT – we made Moths At Work Moon (the only thing Moths love more than Light Bulbs) and toured for 15 days across the least loved parts of South Yorkshire we could find.
As you can imagine there was a complex web of decisions and factors. I am going to do a quick run-through of keywords we ended up saying a lot. If you love this (and who couldn’t?) then there will soon be an extended Neighbourhoods Toolkit from Pif-Paf in partnership with OutdoorArtsUK!!! – This will include thoughts we gathered from great artists we found who were also smashing it out in the neighbourhoods:
TRAFFIC – without a Chapter 8 qualification you must not control it, no stop, no wave, no nothing.
PROPERTY – everywhere is owned by someone and you’ll need an okay from them
DOCUMENTATION – the best bits of the show happens on someone’s property, which makes this tricky.
PAVEMENTS – we love a pavement, the Moths At Work Moon cart is 1m wide and cruises the footways. Makes for a restrictive stage though – your “images” end up long and thin, performers can’t pass, you need to be very strict in rehearsals. this is one of the biggest differences between town and neighbourhood.
PERMISSIONS – we decided to go all out and get proper permission. Some artists have got ACE money and been more under the radar – not a bad idea.
SITE VISIT – do it at the time you will perform so you see the truth of the parked cars. TALK to locals you’ll find out surprises and be happier to perform there.
SPEED – is not important, we reliably covered 0.5 miles an hour.
SAGs – The Safety Advisory Group, I think our experience was unusually bad as street performance was not at the top of councils’ lists… they are the hub where decisions are made, find them and pester them.
PARTNERS – are great and can not only give the project a bit of money but with luck can take your documents and do all the chats with the SAGS (Thankyou Howard Simpson and Mark Swanwick) saving you SO much pain.
MARKETING – because of Covid we were a surprise on the street which also gave us flexibility. We met more than enough people and would not market this sort of work in the future either.
SAFETY – by not marketing you keep numbers manageable and don’t have to live with your heart in your throat worrying about a kid running into the road quite as much. we had a “production manager” role carrying a 1st aid kit and a trained 1st aider on every show.
TIMING – the sweet spot is after school kick out and before bedtime 3-6, people are SO up for it. and this is not all about families but you can get home to help with your own kids’ bath time. By doing weekdays you can still tour at weekends!
ISOLATION – by doing this work you get to perform to very isolated people’s front windows (lots of old people in bungalows…) and you get a very warm feeling in your heart. To avoid our own ISOLATION we ran a thorough LFT schedule for the crew
TOILETS – in Redcar Sammi Gabb organised these, in South Yorkshire we had to hold it in for 3 hours because we just set up in the gutter. (Sorry to Kathleen who was 6 months pregnant, and may have nipped behind a bush)
THE SHOW – we came up with work that could be enjoyed just as a passing visual or a rolling 1-3 minute interaction. Make sure you have a strong “goodbye”. We did 2 x 50-minute slots with a break.
REHEARSALS – the show can only be completed in the doing so we kept an “Action Research” head-on, giving and receiving notes and altering the “improvisational score” for each performance.
CREW – we had 4 people trained up and a crew of 3 each day, 2 performing and 1 as a production manager/outside eye. We asked partners to send someone and got them sometimes.
COVID – So many of the factors we faced were unique to the time. Permissions were made hard by events teams being busy setting up vaccination stations and much of the wariness was about groups gathering. However, this CAUTION was also very helpful in planning to avoid the numbers that could lead to a road traffic accident. By knowing we could use very few partnership venues (thankyou to the partners that did support us) we did not tie our routes to them and spent more time on the streets.
As a team, we did have one near miss with Covid even though we had a strict lateral flow test regime.
You should try this style of work. Finding audiences at home, experiencing their joy at someone giving a damn about them and their street, crashing birthday parties and school runs, it was all very magical.
I want to return to these streets with the Moths and a new creation. We can clearly see how the high-status town and city centre festivals can sustainably send out this style of work into their communities. It is just one of the core social justice issues that we all want to grapple with – or we wouldn’t be on the streets anyway.
Pif-Paf is a wildly ambitious theatre company creating top-notch performance and sculpture and taking it to the places it doesn’t normally reach. Our work is presented outdoors and in non-traditional spaces and we are keenly involved in the development of outdoor arts. We are based in Sheffield working around the UK and beyond delivering small and mid-scale touring shows and commissions all with a unique visual, high-quality and accessible style.
The company is based around the collaboration of joint artistic directors Pete Gunson and Eleanor Hooper supported an amazing crew of freelance performers, makers and musicians.
For more about Pif-Paf visit www.pif-paf.co.uk
Photo Credits: D McNamara; Pif-Pif
About the Author:
Pete Gunson, joint artistic director, producer, engineer of Pif-Paf
Pete formed Pif-Paf in 2003 in Manchester inspired by an engineering background and the companies he had worked for (Spacecadets and I.O.U) and work that was popping up all over the city in the early 2000s as part of Streets Ahead. He has aimed to make visually arresting, joyous shows that open the doors to aspects of our lives that we take for granted, yet have the potential for effecting great change.
After graduating in ’98 from Manchester University with an MEng in Civil Engineering (with French) the next few years were spent between fine furniture making, public art, sustainability campaigning and participatory arts as well as living and travelling around the nooks and crannies of Europe and West and North Africa.