Norfolk, the home of experimental theatre

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Natasha Tripney
Natasha is The Stage's joint lead critic. She has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2006 and has been part of The Stage’s Edinburgh review team since 2009. She's also the founding editor of Exeunt Magazine and reviews books for the Observer.
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In performance terms, the centrepiece of this year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival  is the presentation of all five episodes of Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s epic Life and Times project but the cross-cultural festival also marks the final date for the current tour of a new experimental live literature production, Electronic Voice Phenomena.

Co-presented by the poetry publishing and live literature production company Penned in the Margins, and the cross-form arts production company, Mercy, and billed as a sort of cabaret-séance, it’s a show that’s pleasingly hard to categorise.

The production takes its name, and to a degree its inspiration, from Konstantin Raudive’s experiments of the 1970s (experiments in which he appeared to divine messages from beyond the grave), but EVP, as a concept, in this context at least, is as much metaphoric as anything, a banner under which to unite a number of newly commissioned pieces which all in some way experiment with form and technology while examining their relationship with language.

As EVP’s Sam Hawkins explains:

We were interested in exploring language in a world increasingly mediated by text and technology; a literature not of coherent, stable stories, but of fragmented voices, dissonant broadcasts filtered through a volatile atmosphere.

The line-up includes a number of core commissions, from poet Ross Sutherland – whose piece, entitled That Name Rings a Bell, explores the concept of synchronicity via clips of old episodes of the Crystal Maze – from poet and playwright Hannah Silva, whose piece Total Man is based on the writings of Stan Gooch, and from SJ Fowler, whose contribution to the show marks the centenary of Dada.

There will also be a live soundtrack by Liverpool band Outfit, which takes its inspiration from the trial of Judas Priest for encoding hidden message in their music. These pieces will feature in every performance of the tour but the cabaret format will allow for the inclusion of guest pieces from Honor Gavin and Richard Millward.

The chosen venues are just as eclectic, from the Sage in Gateshead to the grand St George’s Hall in Liverpool – a venue Sutherland is particularly excited about – to Rich Mix in Shoreditch. The tour concludes at the Norwich Arts Centre on May 25.

Both EVP’s producers and participants are at the forefront of exploring what live literature, spoken word – whatever you wish to call it - can and could be. Sutherland, in particular, is a very exciting figure, creating work for Forest Fringe as well as a participatory comedy show, Comedian Dies in the Middle of a Joke, in which audience members were co-opted into performing into an hour long experiment with iteration and repetition complete with silly wigs.

Spoken word can often get slotted into a particular box, but this is a project that pushes beyond, part gig, part lecture, part something else entirely. As Hawkins says, this show is about “finding new ways to present live literature; the boundaries between live-literature and other performance (comedy, solo-theatre and performance art in particular) are really indistinct now”.

EVP is an experiment both in “cross-programming and cross-inspiration” and, as such, promises to be one of the most intriguing events at a festival that only last year saw visitors sleeping in trees as part of its installation-cum-campsite, AirHotel

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