The Anglo-German theatre collective considers itself ‘a bit like a blob’ – ‘morphing’ to meet its members’ needs. Founder member Sarah Thom tells Matt Trueman how the company has grown together over 25 years
The Japanese art of flower arranging, ikebana, features heavily in Gob Squad’s latest show. Throughout Creation (Pictures for Dorian), flowers are serenely slotted into place under a heat lamp. As an art form, ikebana elevates the act of arranging over the final arrangement, and it celebrates the plant’s life cycle – growth and decay – over the pristine beauty of blooms at their peak. As the performance plays out, petals wrinkle and wilt.
Gob Squad’s seven members have grown up together, over 25 years, but age has hardly withered them. The iconoclastic Anglo-German collective has built up a body of rambunctious performances unlike anyone else’s – and is still going strong.
Creation, a careful meditation on ageing, art and visibility, which premiered at Brighton Festival, felt like Gob Squad’s most mature work to date, but it still showed the silly side that has set the collective apart. En route, it has sent signals into outer space with Calling Laika, incited insurrection from the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Revolution Now and taken to the streets with camcorders and superhero capes to capture every single thing in existence for Saving the World.
Gob Squad has always felt similar to a gang – and watching it, you want to sign up and join in. But behind the buccaneering playfulness, there’s always insight and purpose. From its early site-specific shows to its own brand of real-time films, splicing the best bits of theatre and live TV, Gob Squad’s work has consistently pushed performance. Its shows stretch their limits and expand horizons, whether riffing off classics, such as War and Peace or The Picture of Dorian Gray, or teaching robots to talk, such as in My Square Lady. But, for founder member Sarah Thom, it all adds up to something bigger: “Just being Gob Squad, that’s our greatest work. Some have come, some have gone, but we’ve managed 25 years. It’s a piece in itself.”
Like ikebana, Gob Squad is an ongoing act: unfolding, evolving, undergoing growth and decay. It’s more than its shows – more, even, than its members. Gob Squad is a process – perhaps a way of life. It functions as a collective, completely and utterly. It doesn’t just create work collaboratively, the team members run their lives and their company in the same way. Touring dates, pay packets, funding applications – all of it comes from communal decisions.
“There really is no boss,” Thom stresses. “It’s a struggle, but we believe in the politics of that. You’re constantly in process, negotiating things, working everything out so it’s completely fair and egalitarian. We’re all one – a bit like a blob. We can’t exist without each other, but each of us is absolutely replaceable. Gob Squad would go on without any one of us.”
It’s not easy being Gob Squad. In fact, Thom reckons theirs is “the most inefficient way of working ever”, but the benefits outweigh the hassle. “Everything takes longer, but it does mean that, at the end, everybody owns it.” And nobody gets left behind, either – the company “morphs” to meet its members’ needs and fit their lives. It has shifted to accommodate relationships, babies and illnesses – people always come first.
“There’s no institution to defer or submit to. Everything’s open to debate, everything’s up for grabs. It’s what has held us together all this time,” she says.
Gob Squad grew out of Nottingham Trent University. Its founder members – four of which remain – met on its Creative Arts course, an inter-disciplinary programme rooted in collaborative practice that criss-crossed from video to visual arts. An exchange scheme with Giessen University gave the company its Anglo-German core: Berit Stumpf and Johanna Freiburg clicked with Thom and Sean Patten. They still do: “There was a kindred spirit. We just got on – that’s the most important thing.”
For the last 20 years, Gob Squad has been based in Berlin – the funding’s much better, commissions matched by the state – but it has retained relationships with theatres in the UK. “The UK is so important to us, way more than people realise,” says Thom. They still “feel very at home here”, but homecomings are getting harder. “Funding’s less available given the size we are now. Our shows practically have to fit into suitcases to tour.”
1. Gob Squad started in 1994. Its members wanted a way to get into Glastonbury for free.
2. Gob Squad has toured every continent but Antarctica.
3. Among the unusual spaces Gob Squad has performed in are the Steffi Graf tennis stadium in Berlin and a bingo hall in West Bromwich.
4. Gob Squad’s smallest production was To@ster, which involved two performers, 10 toasters and 1,000 slices of bread. The biggest, My Square Lady, involved a 40-piece orchestra, a choir of 35 children, 30 technicians, seven opera singers, seven scientists and a robot called Myon.
5. Performing Super Night Shot in Rio, Gob Squad faced arrest. The show ends with performers running through the streets in pants – illegal in Brazil. They bought bikinis and swimsuits, which are fine.
Having begun making site-specific work, taking over houses, offices and a furniture shop floor to subvert everyday spaces, Gob Squad began taking “baby steps” towards theatres at the end of the 1990s. For its first foray on to the stage, Close Enough to Kiss, it built a mirrored box to block the audience out. “Theatre’s about the act of looking,” Thom explains, “not just telling stories. We wanted to ask questions about the stage as a space.”
Effectively, it treated theatres the same as any other site, toying with their configurations and conventions. The show Safe likened theatregoing to travel: ticket checks, stewardess ushers, a pilot MC. Creation (Pictures for Dorian) is all about “frames within frames”. Similar to Wilde’s novel, it examines the triangular relationship of art, artists and audience.
We create a space where we’re able to be alive and to be ourselves
On stage, however, Gob Squad found itself constrained by the need to stick to the script. Since Safe, it has created structures, then improvised as it goes. “Rules, risk, reality, rhythm” – that’s the Gob Squad playbook. “Without them, something’s missing: the element of not quite knowing where you are. We create a space where we’re able to be alive and to be ourselves – and that is fun. It’s always at risk of being dropped and that makes it so much more exciting.”
If Gob Squad shows are alive, they’re also electric – literally as well as figuratively. Video is often at the heart of its work, the camera adding to and emphasising the quality of being live. Room Service plonks four lonely souls in separate hotel rooms for a night with only a camera for company. Super Night Shot, which it is doing for the National Theatre of Scotland this summer, sends four performers on to the streets to shoot a blockbuster film. One’s the hero, another the villain; one casts extras, another scouts locations. Their four feeds are mixed live.
This, perhaps, has been Gob Squad’s most pioneering front – not just in terms of performance, but in relation to society. Since the members of Gob Squad first picked up their VHS camcorders, cameras have become ubiquitous. Anyone can be a social media star. “When we first started using it, lots of people had home video cameras, so it felt quite universal, quite a DIY aesthetic,” Thom says. It proved liberating, freeing Gob Squad from ‘stageyness’ and participants from inhibition. “As soon as you’ve got a camera, you’re not crazy. You can ask people quite full-on questions in the street and they’ll answer.” In today’s camera-centric world, it can go one of two ways: either people are cautious, wary of protecting their image online, or they’re comfortable – too comfortable.
That might explain Gob Squad’s retreat to the stage of late, and to those classic texts. Practically, it’s useful. Thom says: “Source material brings us all back to one point, as we go off on our seven different tangents.” But there’s politics too: about looking back, about remaking, engaging with the past. “You’re always standing on the shoulders of giants,” adds Thom. History, like Gob Squad, art and ikebana, is a process.
Collective: Johanna Freiburg, Sean Patten, Sharon Smith, Berit Stumpf, Sarah Thom, Bastian Trost and Simon Will
Employees: One full-time, four part-time, plus a pool of 20 guest performers, designers and technicians
Funding: €140,000 per year from the Berlin Senate
Super Night Shot is in Glasgow on August 9. Creation (Pictures for Dorian) is touring internationally. For more information go to: gobsquad.com/dates