In Eldersfield and Kings of England’s Collective Attempts at Writing a bit of History

by John Pinder

in National Conference

Post image for In Eldersfield and Kings of England’s Collective Attempts at Writing a bit of History

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.)

Since 2011, UK based theatre company Kings of England have been working on a ten-chapter cycle of performance works called In Eldersfield. In Eldersfield explores the critical heritage of the twentieth century through experimental performance. A small book that includes writings, found texts, images, composition scores and archival documents is published as accompaniment to each episode of the cycle. Faithful to the company’s previous interests in intergenerational performance, In Eldersfield has started to develop its own model for public engagement, inviting participation from younger and older groups of individuals to develop each chapter.

The first chapter, commissioned by SPILL Festival 2011, was dedicated to the eccentric figure of Paul Dirac, the 20th century quantum physicist. It is during this inaugural period of the cycle that the company started to think about In Eldersfield as a ‘community of enquiry’ (after the expression of philosophers John Dewey and Charles Saunders Peirce). This notion of ‘community of enquiry’ gave us a way into thinking how performance could become an exercise in experimental historiography. The idea of collective enquiry also opened up possibilities for public engagement integral to the ethos of the cycle. For chapter one, we developed a collaboration with pupils from a primary school in South London who devised part of the performance using tools inspired by Philosophy for Children methodologies. The writings of the children were published in the accompanying booklet and a smaller group took part in the performances, which took place at the Barbican, and for which they impersonated famous figures of 20th century physics in the recreation of the iconic 1927 Solvay conference photo.

We further explored the ‘community of enquiry’ model during chapter two ‘Monument for Charlie Chaplin’, which resulted in the creation of a 16mm film in partnership with Hull Truck. In 2013, Kings of England convened an intergenerational group around the site of the National Picture Theatre in Hull, Yorkshire. The ruin of the NPT was awarded Heritage-listed status in 2007, being amongst the last extant examples of a civilian building damaged during the Blitz.  It was bombed on the 18th March 1941 and each of the 150 people in attendance, gathered for a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, survived – no fatalities. The project was created in response to the history of the site and its uncertain future as well as to reconsider Chaplin’s legacy through the story of the NPT.

The research and development for the project included over twenty participants from Hull – local historians and trustees, construction and demolition workers and members of the Fire services. Each of these contributors offered specific insights into the bombing of the NPT and on life in Hull in the aftermath of the war. Five young performers from Hull Truck Youth Theatre starred in the 16mm film, which involved a weeklong intensive interdisciplinary process that included movement and sound work, photography and film as well as talks. The premiere and subsequent screenings of our 20-minute filmic invocation of the events at the NPT was accompanied by a screening of Chaplin’s masterpiece The Great Dictator, which enabled us to attract a cross section of people to the event, including people who would not necessarily be attracted by what could be categorized as more experimental forms of art.

Whilst the idea of the ‘community of enquiry’ has been useful, providing the company with a paradigm for engagement that is conceptually and dramaturgically central to the making of each chapter and indeed of the cycle, the current model and process shows some limits. Amongst many challenges and potential questions to be asked, the relatively short length of engagement with participants restricts the depth and modality of the enquiry to something that is still heavily directed by the ‘professional artist’ rather than being a more self directed enquiry coming from participants or groups. The questions of process (how the work is made) and project direction (what and why the project is made) raise more fundamental questions: Whose histories are being written and for whom are they being written? Undoubtedly In Eldersfield’s ‘community of enquiry’ will develop and shape itself over the eight remaining chapters. It is also very clear that the development and evolution of this model will play a big part in determining the potential significance and appeal of In Eldersfield as a longer cycle of works.

John Pinder is an artist, performance maker and educator based in London. He has worked with inter-disciplinary performance collective Present Attempt (2008-2012) and Kings of England since 2011.