AI PROFILE Where walls are words
Tristan Sharps, founder and artistic director of dreamthinkspeak
Tristan Sharps is the man who gave us modern site specific theatre, work in which the building it happens in is a major actor in the drama, often with the help of video and film installations, so it comes as a surprise to hear from him that his starting point was Shakespeare, and that the play that fascinates him more than any other is Hamlet.
“It’s radical, like The Cherry Orchard or Waiting for Godot, in which the most interesting parts are where nothing seems to be happening”. He’s had two goes at it now, the latest on a co-commission from the RSC and LIFT for the Shakespeare Festival and Cultural Olympiad in 2012, and he hasn’t given up on it.
His own work seems a million miles from classics, but it has added a whole new dimension to theatre. Dreamthinkspeak, the company Sharps founded in 1999 to be the vehicle for his vision, has somehow avoided what he dreads and which it came close to being a couple of times, an institution. He would prefer it to remain the underground entity it started as.
But much of dreamthinkspeak’s work has hinged on the classics. Don’t Look Back, developed over five years and adapted for 12 sites including the old Treasury building in Perth, Western Australia, Somerset House in London and the Register House in Edinburgh, is inspired by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. The 2008 One Step Forward, One Step Back in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral came from Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The only child of a single mum, Sharps spent his childhood in bedsits and one-bed flats, tiny domestic boxes in which his imagination would create mansions and forests for him to run free in, and even armies to march, bivouac and fight in. As a teenager he discovered art galleries and a with the help of video and lm installations, so love of architecture - “I didn’t understand what I was looking at, but I just loved the freedom of it” - but at school he was caught by the acting bug.
Convention was of little interest, however, and when he attended a workshop in London with Jacques Lecoq, France’s high priest of physical theatre, he went to Paris to study with him, giving Sharps the praxis to work as a director that he still uses.
Nevertheless, he got several years’ work as an actor, and in 1994 he found himself at The Hawth in Crawley where, with a Dutch collaborator, he was invited to create some- thing. The studio, though, had little inspiration for him, but other elements of the building, like a Japanese garden, did and he made his first site specific piece there. It was a deconstruction of Hamlet in which the audience followed the narrative through corridors, galleries, basements and the garden. In 1995 he transformed the Union Chapel in London into a casino for 2000, drawn from Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, in which the audience was even given chips to help it enter into the spirit.
He makes a comparison between his dreamthinkspeak with dance companies like Matthew Bourne’s, a company built around the choreographer. He starts with the idea, but the realisation of it is a collaboration with the performers and designers. Sharps keeps his company simple, just him and his general manager, and when a production is under way it mushrooms with freelances, set designers and especially carpenters, whose craft he believes is an art in the context of the transformations they perform for him. Not all dreamthinkspeak’s productions are based on
the classics. Two years ago Sharps turned the labyrinthine basements of Shoreditch Town Hall into a hotel for Absent, a narrative based on the notorious Duchess of Argyll who became destitute and lived for years on credit in a hotel room without leaving it.
Now Sharps is in Hull, working in an office block whose identity is still secret but which is in the UK City of Culture’s Old Town. He is recreating a piece he made in South Korea in 2011, One Day, Maybe, inspired by the Gwangjo Uprising of 1980 in which as many as 600 may have died, no-one knows for sure and many are still un- accounted for, but which led to the democratisation of South Korea.
One Day, Maybe, which opens on September 1 and runs for a month, has a cast of 38 Koreans, mostly ac- tors and dancers, half of whom have been brought from South Korea. The symbiosis with Hull is piquant: the office block is within sight of the home of William Wilberforce who is indivisibly associated with freedom through his anti-slavery campaigns, echoing South Korea’s hard- won freedom; Hull is hoping to reinvent itself through the digital industries; and one of the newest South Korean new technology corporations, Kasang, has just opened its UK headquarters in Hull.
The anonymous building’s interior becomes a futuristic Samsung lookalike in which virtual reality and data collection guide our lives, a Korean phenomenon that could not have happened without the martyrs of Gwangjo. “But how free are we?” says Sharps. “I don’t know, but that’s the question the audience will be asked to confront”.
Dreamthinkspeak’s influence in the last 20 years has been profound. The very notion that an audience is made to feel at home while watching drama is owed to Tristan Sharps’s philosophy, that the very constructions in which we live and work are not only part of our lives but part of our fantasies.
And his success makes him uncomfortable. What is known now as “immersive theatre”, he says, has become a gimmick in which large productions using huge publicity to take audiences on a kind of “murder weekend” experience. “It’s become a marketing tag” he says. “I prefer to differentiate work we do from those big commercial projects. Our work tries to burrow deep down into little areas that are not always obvious”.
What comes first, the play or the venue, is hard to say. Sometimes there is an idea looking for a home, some- times a fascinating building is yearning to tell a story. His favourite buildings are not necessarily the most beautiful: The Brighton Co-op, anonymous but with nooks and crannies; the Moscow paper factory seemed to have infinite volume; the Register House in Edinburgh which he chose against the grander Royal Register House, had fascinating small spaces. And there are those that have got away, most notably the great Paris department store La Samaritaine, opened in the 1860s and closed in 2005, whose owners were unsympathetic to Sharps’s blandishments.
The ideas bound forward, but Shakespeare almost looms. Where Sharps can use walls to create his drama, Shakespeare had nothing but words. “There was the empty stage and the sky, and in between just his language to create the pictures for the audience” he says. “I work on deconstructing the text without changing any words but undercutting lines where words would occur.
“I feel I know that play so well, but it’s the most elusive and difficult one to explore. I’m not finished with Hamlet yet.”
Dreamthinkspeak, www.dreamthinkspeak.com, is an associate artist of the Brighton Festival and LIFT
1988-90 Trained Jacques Lecoq
1996 Co-created 2000, hotel casino installation inspired by The Gambler, Union Chapel London
1999 Formed dreamthinkspeak
2002 Who Goes There? inspired by Hamlet, takes over Battersea Arts Centre
2003 Don’t Look Back, inspired by the Orpheus myth, opens at Brighton Festival
2006-8 Don’t Look Back re-created across six countries
2008 One Step Forward, One Step Back for Liverpool European City of Culture
2010-11 Before I Sleep, inspired by The Cherry Orchard, sells out at Brighton and Holland Festivals. Biggest selling indoor production in history of Brighton Festival
2013 The Rest is Silence co-commissioned by RSC, LIFT and Brighton Festival
2015 Absent becomes biggest selling indoor production in history of LIFT
2017 One Day Maybe, inspired by May 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea, commissioned by Hull UK City of Culture