Without Walls TALKS: The Site as Collaborator – Peaceophobia

25 July 2022

Common Wealth makes site-specific theatre events that encompass electronic sound, new writing, visual design, and verbatim. Their work is political and contemporary – based in the present day – looking at current issues and life now. They aim to make work that is relevant and addresses ongoing concerns.

Without Walls supported Peaceophobia from early R&D support through Blueprint to now tour to festivals for 2022 and beyond. Evie Manning, writer and co-director of Peaceophobia, talks about the project and its role in outdoor art.

Peaceophobia is our new performance from Common Wealth, co-produced with Fuel, exploring Islamophobia through the lens of modified car culture and a celebration of Islam. 

Peaceophobia could, of course, only be in a car park the stars of the show are Ali, Casper, and Sohail and also the VW Golf Edition 32, the Toyota Supra, and the classic Vauxhall Nova – now a collectible car in its own right. Common Wealth has always worked site-specifically mainly because one of our founding goals as a company was to engage working-class audiences and we know theatre buildings are a massive turn-off from the start. Staging a show in a car park is neutral ground, it symbolically and physically doesn’t belong to any one group of people.

Theatre buildings can be imposing and unwelcoming, most people feel like they’re on edge when they enter, like there’s an unsaid etiquette that you don’t know about. In outdoor spaces, this coding of behaviour dissolves. At Common Wealth we’ve always been actively aware of welcoming audiences in a way that doesn’t make them feel like they’re being policed. Peaceophobia is about the policing of communities and the last thing we want to do is police our audiences. At our performances we encourage people to feel relaxed, to sit or stand wherever they like, to use phones to take photos and videos (within reason) and to enjoy themselves. It’s ‘The Good Night Out’ principle of British playwright and theatre theorist John McGrath which is about the art of creating an event and how every element contributes to making people feel welcomed.

"Peaceophobia and all of Common Wealth’s work are political in nature, we want it to spark something in people’s heads, to get them talking and debating, to make people feel challenged, moved, and – entertained"

Peaceophobia and all of Common Wealth’s work are political in nature, we want it to spark something in people’s heads, to get them talking and debating, to make people feel challenged, moved, and – entertained. It’s a lot easier to be entertained if you’re relaxed and feel like you belong and are supposed to be there. 

Whilst on tour we’ve had some great surprises; the son of our security guard Tracy in Norwich ran the Section 59 Car Club and we were able to arrange an impromptu car meet with members from the Norwich Car Club and the support of our festival partners at Norwich and Norfolk International Festival. This – to us – is how theatre should be, flexible enough to respond to the people we meet and open enough to welcome them in.

The other beauty of being in an outdoor space is how the site frames and informs the piece, the site becomes a character in its own right, allowing people time to soak in and appreciate a space that we otherwise don’t pay much attention to, especially when it’s illuminated by Andy Purves’ inventive lighting design.

And the outside world bleeds in, complementing and creating a backdrop for the piece. At our first shows in Bradford, everyone was struck by how the open-sided car park let in incredible views of the city, the mosques, and the areas that the performers speak of in the play. And the sounds of police sirens and car engines, sometimes at powerfully synchronistic times. The outside world becomes the set and sound design in a way that creates a different kind of space to reflect outwards – about how the messages of the show relate to the world around you.

The outdoor show also bleeds out beyond its boundaries and we became really aware of how the sounds of our show from Wojtek Rusin’s powerful score to Ali’s rap to Casper reciting the Azaan echo out across the cities we tour to creating a soundscape for the everyday.

Touring outdoor work represents lots of challenges – the site changes each time and needs a new fit-up and new logistical thinking which our Production Team rises to exceptionally well. It also presents lots of opportunities. Meeting with new audiences, new cities, and the unexpected. At Common Wealth we resist fixing things down and are always excited by things that we never could have imagined, that’s how touring outdoor site-specific work feels ten-fold. It’s like the process of making theatre, of co-creation with lots of people and lots of influences remain open and un-done, the site becomes a collaborator shaping and informing the experience in all kinds of ways. 

Written by Evie Manning, co-director of Peaceophobia with Mariyah Kayat, Iram Rehman, Madeyah Khan, Maleehah Hussain, Rosema Nawaz, and Sajidah Shabir.

Image credits: Ian Hodgson, Karol Wyszynski

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