Quarantine: the theatre company making ordinary people part of the conversation
As theatre company Quarantine hands over the stage to ordinary people, joint artistic director Richard Gregory tells Lyn Gardner how deaf performers, parrots and conversational French form part of the work
A couple of months back, Richard Gregory of the theatre company Quarantine was in northern France to revive its successful show Summer. The work involves dozens of ordinary people standing on stage and responding to questions and instructions that they have never heard before. But in Bethune, Gregory found it more complicated to put on the production than he had expected.
Gregory speaks conversational French and thought that would be enough to successfully create the show in the language. However, he soon discovered that he simply could not express everything he wanted to say. “I had to find other ways to make myself understood.”
How we communicate when our language skills fail us, and the theatricality that comes from having to express ourselves in different ways, is the subject of English, a collaboration between Quarantine and National Theatre Wales. It opens at Dance House in Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre later this month as part of the Festival of Voice 2018.
The show is performed by Jonny Cotsen, a profoundly deaf man who was in his 40s before he learned British Sign Language. During the show Cotsen, who cannot hear music, also learns another new language: dance.
English explores how language and identity are entwined, how they enable us and thwart us, and was inspired by 18 months of thinking around those themes.
Playing with different theatrical languages comes naturally to Quarantine, the Manchester-based company founded by Gregory and Renny O’Shea two decades ago. Now, 30 shows later, you could make a case that all of the company’s work has been about creating a dialogue or conversations with its audience, and sometimes between audiences.
“We have always being trying to construct the circumstances for a conversation that we can all be part of,” says Gregory, although he is acutely aware that trying to have a genuine conversation in a theatre can be a false construct.
Unsurprisingly, Quarantine’s shows often take unusual forms. These have included family parties, plunged audiences into disorienting darkness and taken place in a karaoke booth. The company’s work is messy, communal and constantly shape-shifting.
As The Stage wrote in a review of the seven-hour quartet of works called Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring, it offered “a quiet space for reflecting, and an encounter with our neighbours, our community, who we may never otherwise meet. A vital reminder that we’re not all so very different, or so very separate, after all”.
Quarantine gives people who often don’t get the chance a space to speak on stage. There are plenty of plays that explore the relationship of language to power including Brian Friel’s Translations – a revival of which opened at the National Theatre this month to rave reviews – and Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language, which will be part of the West End Pinter season later this year.
5 facts about Quarantine
1. Quarantine acted as creative researchers on the BMW Tate Live Programme at Tate Modern in 2015 and were the inaugural John Thaw Fellows at the University of Manchester in 2005.
2. Quarantine’s seven-hour marathon Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring – three performances and a film – premiered at a former sound studio at Old Granada Studios, Manchester at Easter 2016. The bar/foyer was in a space that used to be the set of Mike Baldwin’s knicker factory in the long-running soap opera Coronation Street.
3. Much of Quarantine’s work involves food. For the past six years it has run a monthly event called No Such Thing, where its members buy strangers a curry in exchange for half an hour’s conversation. They’ve had more than 300 curries and conversations.
4. Susan and Darren was made with professional dancer Darren Pritchard and his mum Sue, who is a cleaner. During a performance in Manchester, some friends of Sue and Darren arrived late, said hello to Sue and Darren and sat down on stage in two armchairs that were part of the set. They stayed there for the whole show.
5. What Is the City But the People? has been watched by more than 150,000 online viewers on BBC iPlayer.
But Quarantine goes further and hands over the stage to ordinary people who are offered the chance to speak about their own lives and be themselves on stage. Gregory created such a work for the opening event for the 2017 Manchester International Festival called What Is the City But the People?, a catwalk-style celebration of the lives of Manchester residents.
In Butterfly, three generations from the same Glasgow family made and performed a show in the form of a family party. It followed Susan and Darren, an “event with dancing” in 2006 in which a dancer and his mother prepared for a party. Darren Pritchard had seen Quarantine’s White Trash two years earlier and asked the company to make a show around him and his mum.
White Trash was called a “dirty ballet of reality” and was created with and performed by seven young white working-class men whose stories and relationships emerge around a pool table.
Old People, Children and Animals did exactly what it said on the tin, putting all three on stage together. The only trained performers were the rabbits and parrots. Like the Swiss-German group Rimini Protokoll, Quarantine trusts that those who appear in its shows are experts in their own lives, and those lives are infinitely fascinating.
“In the early days we used the people, whoever they were, in the room as the source material and we dramatised that material,” Gregory says. “But over the years, as we thought about the politics, ethics and aesthetics of that, we became more interested in creating a dramaturgy of reality, rather than dramatising reality.”
NTW artistic director Kully Thiarai has long been an admirer of Quarantine and commissioned English. She believes it is a necessary piece, responding “to the social and political shifts in our world” and pointing out that “the number of people moving from their home to new countries, either through necessity or choice, is ever increasing”.
But what impact does that have on how we see ourselves? As Gregory discovered in France, having a grasp of a language and really being able to express yourself in it are quite different things.
While he was researching the show English, he met a Spanish businessman mournful to discover that while renowned for his sense of humour at home, he simply could not be funny in English; the Eritrean refugee who discovered that while his English-language lessons taught him practicalities, they did not teach him how to disagree or express love.
But Gregory is confident that wherever people gather together, and whatever language they speak, they will and do find ways to communicate. “The theatre is a good way to test that out,” he says.
Co-artistic directors: Richard Gregory and Renny O’Shea
Executive director: Ali Dunican
Number of employees: Three full-time employees, plus part-time and freelancers
Funding level: £160,000 a year from Arts Council England as an NPO and £13,000 a year from Manchester City Council
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