Alma Mater - One-person experience blending film and promenade theatre
Sneak preview of what might well be the future of the Fringe show
This article is from 2011.
In the vast sun-drenched glass-ceilinged foyer of Glasgow’s Briggait, there’s a room within a room -- a rudimentary windowless wooden box of about 18 cubic metres. It might resemble a wonkily-constructed homemade garden shed, but it’s the collapsible venue for what may prove the most innovative and enchanting show at this year’s Fringe – an experience blending film and promenade theatre into a novel, perception-challenging mini-fairytale journey for one.
As I stand facing the closed door, video footage on the iPad I’ve been given - all shot in the ‘pod’ - ushers me to turn the handle and enter the whitewashed space inside, which is lit only by a naked light bulb and furnished with just a bare bed and a stool. As the camera pans down, prompting me to lower the screen likewise, it comes to rest on two pairs of shoes side-by-side on the floor, one an adult’s and one a child’s. A red-haired little girl enters the picture, her gap-toothed expression a mixture of mischief and curiosity. Through the slowly shifting vista of the 21st century looking-glass in my grasp, the bare space around me becomes slowly transformed into her bedroom.
A canary in a cage, a stamp collection spread across the bed and tiny rain coats hanging on pegs all variously drift through the scene. A stern-looking senior girl enters -- the little red-head grown-up? An older-sister? Things start getting strange. What are we doing out in the forest? And why has mum just turned into dough?
‘Thanks for being our guinea pig,’ says Eilidh MacAskill, creative director of Fish & Game, as I step outside again blinking into the light. One key element hasn’t been completed in time for The List to get the first sneak-peek of Alma Mater – a score by experimental music group Ensemble Thing, which will play through headphones. Yet even experienced in silence, it’s an immersive and challenging piece of live art/theatre that leaves you spinning gently on your axis and undoubtedly charmed.
In Edinburgh, two pods will run simultaneously at Remarkable Arts at St George’s West. ‘We were thinking about putting one in the bell tower but we couldn’t fit it up stairs,’ says MacAskill. Around 48 people a day will get the chance to individually step inside Alma Mater for its 17-minute duration. They’ll enjoy the latest incarnation of a creation that began life very differently – and may go on to live many more lives yet.
Alma Mater was initially piloted last year at Scotland Street School in Glasgow, in a site-specific commission for IETM that took participants on a historical walk-through iPad video tour ruminating on the strict disciplinarian regimen of schooling once witnessed in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s famous building. The version of Alma Mater that will go to the Fringe is a standalone but complementary experience, featuring cinematography by Celtic Media Festival award-winner Anna Chaney, transposing certain motifs from the original to create a ‘sister-piece’, as MacAskill explains.
‘At Scotland Street School we imagined these little scared children being put through a military-style education system,’ she says. ‘We got to thinking about what the flip-side would be – children going home and trying to work out what’s happened to them over the course of the day. And we were thinking about this interior space in the psyche and in buildings, where you go to have this meditation on how you’re growing up and what’s happening to you. It just seemed to us like a kind of universal space that people would recognise.
‘It’s those hours that actually make you who you are,’ MacAskill adds, ‘alongside the big events – the fights at school, the teachers being horrible to you or whatever. The moments when you’re processing that on your own are just as important.’
Fish & Game – MacAskill and her creative partner Robert Walton (who recently relocated to Melbourne) – had considered doing another site-specific work at the Fringe, but they opted to instead develop the pod-based version of Alma Mater partly to be eligible for Made in Scotland funding. An initiative supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund to showcase Scottish-based performing arts talent at the Fringe, Made in Scotland encourages international touring – something Alma Mater is now all set for in its compact, cleverly transportable new model. Construction of the pods is more straightforward than most theatre sets – they can easily be assembled to spec. ‘It’d be simple for a company in Germany, say, to get their technicians to build one themselves,’ says MacAskill, ‘so you don’t even have to take it with you.’
First though, Fish & Game’s Fringe debut. It’s surprising that it’s taken so long, what with the company’s growing reputation for crafting the kind of quirky, experimental live performance the Fringe thrives on. Their last major production Otter Pie, an off-the-wall musical exploring the Scottish psyche, toured the country extensively to widespread acclaim. In 2007 MacAskill challenged herself to Eilidh’s Daily Ukelele Ceilidh, which saw her perform a ukelele gig every day of the year, be it to audiences in New York and Nova Scotia, or just her cat at home.
Post-Fringe a new Alma Mater will be created to mark the 40th birthday of the MacRobert Arts Centre in Stirling. Its evolution won’t stop there. There are all sorts of prospects for future applications, and all sorts of scope for developing the model to incorporate elements of live performance and even multiple iPads operating simultaneously. MacAskill’s hopeful the Fringe will open doors: ‘I’m looking forward to meeting other producers and seeing what the potential is,’ she says. ‘Because other people will have ideas.’
It’s easy to see Alma Mater creating a buzz at the festival – it’s an inspiring piece. There’s just one thing I can’t stop pondering. ‘The mother turning to dough – well that is a good question,’ proclaims MacAskill, seemingly not surprised to be quizzed about that element of the film.
‘We were thinking about folk tales and fairy tales as ways of describing coming of age rites of passage,’ she explains. ‘We thought it should be possible for all sorts of strange things to happen. With the mother we were looking at the Baba Yaga story. In a lot of fairytales, at the beginning the mother dies or disappears and it’s like “okay, now you have to work out how you’re going to deal with the world.”
‘We weren’t up for having her actually die,’ MacAskill stresses, agreeing with me that it would be a bit of a downer. ‘We’re not fully sure what that dough is about,’ she concludes, wistfully, ‘but we liked the idea of how it can be transformed and moulded.’ Much like Alma Mater itself.
Alma Mater, St George’s West, 225 7001, 6--29 Aug (not 15), shows runs every ten minutes from 11am--6.50pm, £5. Preview 5 Aug, £3.