Reach 07 - The Wildness of Performance

Performing Arts | Na h-Ealain Taisbeanail

For many academics, their ideas develop in academic research and their ‘impact’ on the outside world comes later. But Sarah Hopfinger takes a different approach: “I’m a practicing artist who has come into academia. Working in academia is a new way for me to understand and develop my practice”. In her practice-led PhD she worked with a theatre company and a venue to produce a work, Wild Life, exploring performance as ecology.

Catherine Wheels, a children’s theatre company in Scotland part-fund Sarah’s PhD. Their relationship was a responsive one, which Sarah thinks is vital, meaning that their wealth of professional experience and perspective could help Sarah in different ways. It works both ways, too, as Paul Fitzpatrick, former producer at Catherine Wheels, says he “found such value in working with Sarah” that challenged his own ways of thinking.

Catherine Wheels took a mentorship role, and helped Sarah to connect with a theatre venue, Platform, in order to find the best context for the project that she wanted to develop. Based in Easterhouse, one of Platform’s main aims is to collaborate with people from the local area. For Platform, working with Sarah was something of an experiment as Wild Life involved a mix of people from the local area and from further afield.

The performers of Wild Life had different levels of experience, which Sarah calls “a political choice and an aesthetic one”. This meant that there were
trained and untrained performers, as well as both adults and children. This intergenerational aspect was one of the most important things for Sarah, this kind of diverse collaboration does not happen often, either in theatre or wider society. For Gaby McCann (aged 13), meeting new people of different ages “really boosted my confidence…it was a new kind of theatre”.

Sarah treated everyone as collaborators and creative individuals in their own right, and much of the process of developing the piece was about the connections between the individuals themselves – and finding “a deeper connection – with their bodies and their environments”, as performer Pete Lannon (aged 26) commented.

What is wildness? Sarah wanted to develop a work that would reflect the group’s own responses to this question. The effect or idea of wildness was something that could be experienced by the performers and by the audience, and it was this embodied experience that Sarah was particularly interested in. The performers also wanted to use the performance to give the audience permission to experience wildness.

Part of this was to introduce unpredictability into the piece. There was always an unpredictability inherent in Wild Life because of the different people involved in the group. But it was not an improvisation, and Sarah learnt a lot about how to contain unpredictability, or how to put a framework in place to allow unknown things to happen. In one scene, a young boy sat and lit matches, and “he was so committed to the unpredictability of whether a match would light…it allows for constant experimentation”.

The feeling of wildness was also created by the way the audience sat in a circle with gaps, so that performers (and water) could transgress the space. As Sarah says, she learned how to “collaborate with unpredictability”.

The public performance of the piece took place at Platform, and it was important to Sarah to make sure that it was accessible to anyone, and people did not have to know it was also a piece of research; it could stand alone as a work of art. Those in attendance included people from the local area and a theatre-going audience. For Matt Addicott, Theatre Producer and Director at Platform, the work helped “to demonstrate to the local community what art and creative practice can achieve and how positive an impact it can have on other areas of life and work”. As the performance sold out Platform would like to support it to happen again next year, but it will be changed in some ways. Sarah will begin the process of developing the work again with the same group of people and see how wildness and unpredictability emerge.

To find out more about practice-led research, develop a project or discuss funding and mentoring a PhD, get in touch with the College of Arts.



If you wish to find out more about this article or about how you can progress your ideas (i) as an academic wishing to engage with a non-academic organisation or (ii) as a non-academic organisation interested in engaging with the academic knowledge base, please email the College of Arts KE Team.


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