Tag Archive for Covid-19

The Whistlers on Tour: a tale of Covid, Brexit and Climate change

In June 2019 Red Herring Productions received a commission from Green Carpet – a relatively new consortium of four arts organisations from France, Belgium and the UK. We were commissioned to create a show that would be developed through a series of residencies in each place, returning 3 months later to perform in each place when all the ideas and testing had consolidated into a beautifully designed experience. The project is called The Whistlers

My confederate Kim Tilbrook and I were delighted and a little astonished to have been selected. We had a breadth and depth of experience that fitted the bill but this was to be our first co-created project and we were perhaps a little bashful. Plus we had really expected to be pipped to the post by a French company, as generally, they are ‘the business’ when it comes to outdoor arts. So, as I say: delighted. 2020 was set to be a jam packed and fun filled year. We made site visits and began to prepare. We recruited Alison Houiellebecq as a sound designer, composer and performer. We made costumes. We did some rehearsing. And we wondered what impact the novel coronavirus recently identified in Wuhan would have on our plans…

Over a year later, we emerged a pioneering and somewhat Brexit battle scarred band of brothers (and mainly sisters) who had experienced a Kafka-styled trauma from the hands of HMRC and other kernels of bureaucracy; we’d stretched our contingency before we’d even hit the road, through the purchase of various documents and tests; and our plans for a leisurely creation period across 3 months in 3 European countries had been reduced to 4 days of work in the South of France, during which we had to respond to an almost environmental disaster. If you planning a similar adventure, if you would like to feel reassured in your thinking that Brexit was a mistake, or if you simply seek some schadenfreude, then please read on. 

So, we’ll back-peddle to January 2021 when Brexit came along and our commissioners insisted that we try to make the project happen this year and we started the arduous job of working out what we had to do, to avoid getting into trouble and excruciating fines.

The first thing that you need to know is that information on the government gateway website is pretty badly written and, in my experience it is not kept up to date. In May 2021 it still suggested that drivers crossing the channel need a Kent Permit, which was disbanded in February. I spent the first few days going hopelessly around in circles. If you’re looking for this, follow this link. Now this one. And this one. And (what fun) you end up back where you started and none the wiser. Reading carefully, the information suggested a difficult scenario: that we would need visas, that we had to apply in person, that the embassies were only open 2 hours a week and could be booked up to 6 months in advance, meaning that we were already most likely out of time to be able to travel France in April. Until we discovered that we were an exception and wouldn’t need visas. Until we discovered that most people are exceptional and that unless you’re working for more than 90 days in a year, you can work in France quite easily.

So – Tip No 1: the chances are that you are exceptional – don’t take the formal advice on face value but look for the alternative options. This goes for foreign government advice too. At the time of writing the Belgian government website also suggests that drivers need a Kent Permit, no doubt borrowed from the UK government website. 

Many of my friends and colleagues have had to fill in a Carnet form, to temporarily import and then export their theatre ‘goods’ into places like Switzerland, Norway, Australia or Dubai. But neither Kim nor Fiona (the third of the Red Herring trio), nor I had completed one before. Unfortunately, this is one area where there is no exemption or exception for a small scale theatre company who are not transporting food or exotic animals. Tip No 2: Query Tip No 1. I got confused by the government website (again).

‘If you’re taking a vehicle, get a CPD Carnet, instead (of an ATA Carnet).’ What they mean is, if you’re exporting a vehicle get a CPD Carnet instead but as we were driving I, rather understandably thought that this meant us. So I called the number provided (which I later realised was for a private company prioritised by the Government website). A woman on the phone told me that I needed this document but that this didn’t exist yet and told me to cross my fingers and flash my eyelashes at the border because a French customs officer is within their rights to send us back if they wanted to and they sometimes did, but not often. She asked me to report back to her about how we got on as she needed all the intelligence she could get. She also told me that I needed to apply for an ATA Carnet, which is essentially a passport for all the ‘goods’ inside your vehicle. 

On the government website there was a link to an organisation that could issue an ATA Carnet. It turns out that this is the London Chamber of Commerce (other Chambers of Commerce are available but you won’t find them through the government website). This document lists all of your ‘goods’ in the vehicle – every little thing – which in our case comes to 623 items, including visual description, weight and value. And it comes at a cost. Ours cost £500 and approx. 24 lived hours to submit and resubmit it several times because you’ve not worked out the format properly. This thing needs a serial number. This thing doesn’t. The system won’t accept our spreadsheet, so you manually input each item The online system tells you to give the title of the production after each item. The person on the phone who will ‘pass’ the document tells you to omit the title of the production. You add. You subtract. And it needs to be completed asap otherwise it won’t arrive in time and… Oh you can’t come to the office in Hounslow to pick up the document tomorrow as you live in Devon and no we can’t post it, so you need to book an (expensive) courier service. Furrowed brown. Shallow breathing. We are a small theatre company with no reserves and a steadily decreasing pot of monies to make a theatre show. 

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the commission partners for our project is an organisation called Le Citron Jaune, based in a small town, close to Marseilles. Le Citron Jaune is a ‘creation centre’ where artists are brought in to create new, mainly outdoor performance, to test ideas out with community groups and to present what they’ve done. The wonderful bunch that run it are quite maverick and the region is recognised as something of a ‘Wild West’. Their message was: ‘If you think negatively it won’t happen but if you think positively we can make it happen.’ They sized up the situation to suggest that, considering testing and quarantine, the risk was slim to us and to the community. They had a low rate of infection. And while performance wasn’t exactly permitted, there would be a way around everything. Furrowed brown. Shallow breathing. Gentle rocking. What about our insurance? And ‘best practice’? 

But like the accommodating fellows we are, on 3rd May 2020, we headed into the breach. As an exporter and importer of goods you have to get your ATA Carnet stamped out and into each country. So 4 stamps per return journey. On the UK side this means travelling to an Inland Border Facility of your choice – there are several. Tip No 3 – Expect mistakes. Let me paint the picture. A huge carpark with about 20 large lorries and one short wheel based hire van. 50 people in high vis standing out in the rain. They point. They show you where to go. Which lane, which space, which walkway, which building, which entrance, which booth. 

To be clear, when talking to each customs officer I met I explained that this was my first Carnet. I didn’t know what to do and I needed them to instruct me. 

HMRC Operative: What did they say in the training? Do they sign the yellow sheet or the white one? Jo? I’m think it’s this one. That one? I better ask my manager. Yes my manager says it’s this one. Sign and date here please and wait in your van for the document to be stamped…

Time passes… Text message: Your document is ready for you to pick up at the Customs office. 

HMRC Operative: Thanks for coming back. I’m afraid that the document isn’t ready. You’ve signed the wrong page. Yes I know that’s where I asked you to sign but it’s wrong. I know that there’s only enough pages for each journey. Yes and a spoiled page might require you to get a new Carnet. Can we write a letter stating that you were instructed to sign and date the wrong page? I’ll ask my manager. Please sign and date here and wait in your van for the document to be stamped…

Time passes… Text message: Your document is ready for you to pick up at the Customs office.

HMRC Operative 2: Hello. I can’t give you your document as it’s not been signed off. Yes I know that you were messaged to say that the document is ready. It’s ready but I can’t sign it off…

Time passes…Life passes…

HMRC Operative 2: Thank you for waiting. I understand that you were obliged to wait. Your document is now signed off. Here it is. There’s also a note written by my colleague.  

Even so, by the time we arrived back in the UK, we’d clocked up an unhelpful amount of mistakes. 1) I’d not signed the front of the document which meant that nobody should have let leave the UK in the first place, or let us back in. 2) We’d been asked to sign and date a wrong page and as we had the same amount of pages as journeys the whole the document could be considered null and void. (This was mistake was actually realised right after an inexperienced officer  asked for a letter that stated that I’d been instructed to sign and date that page, this was impossible to achieve. Furthermore, a French customs officer had dated another page as if it were 2022. I reasoned to the English border force officer that time travel was impossible and unless they could prove I was from the future then I couldn’t see the problem. And hesitantly the document was passed back to me – with undoubted and repeated confusion. Furrowed brows of various customs officers later on in the summer when we cross once more to the continent. 

Travelling back in time once more (because we can with words), we wound our way Le Citron Jaune, having quarantined in the Ariège for a week and driven to the Camargue in torrential rain. The following day (Day 1) we found ourselves exploring the Bois François, a municipal woods and heath on the edge of the Rhône River. We absorbed the atmosphere of our site and made quick decisions around how to fit and bend our material to suit it. We plotted contingencies to deal with the wind which can whip off the river, which is a large, fast running body of water at this point, just before it hits the sea. At 6pm, we were due to meet a local ornithologist who would introduce us to some of the local wildlife – the species and individuals with whom the Whistlers would become familiar. However, we noticed that the river had swollen its banks during the day and the path right next to the river was now impassable without wellies. So we had an enjoyable session with him on the other side of the woods.

The next morning (Day 2), we were woken up with news: the Rhône was so high – due to intense recent rain and ice melt from the Alps and the authorities had open a barrage upstream to manage the flow of water. As such, our site was completely submerged. At this point, in terms of disrupting our preparations, we could only laugh: Covid, Brexit, Flooding – what else might stand in the way of this small scale arts project going forward? (We could mention the ticks of the Ariège and the mosquitoes of the Camargue.) We’d got this far, we’d find some way of finishing! So we found a small patch of higher ground and decided to do what we could with this space. While several old gentlemen swore blind that the water level would remain high for weeks, the water did retreat fairly quickly and by our first performance (Day 5) we had extended our play area into a delightful corner of the woodland, which we’d not previously explored. And all was at ease with the world.

Audiences seem to have been at turns bemused and amused, which seemed a good place to start and to develop from. Our friends at Le Citron Jaune were pleased and we felt plucky. And that was enough to rejuvenate our spirits and drive us back North and into the arms of HMRC once more.

The Relief of Playing in Lockdown Pt 3

Encountering the Whistlers

For 3 days we worked with John Nicholson (of Peepolykus fame). He worked with us for 2 days in March 2020, just before the reality of the pandemic struck and it was satisfying to see how much our ideas and designs had progressed since then. We now have a set of costumes. We have designed the branding around the Whistler Conservation Society. And we have made some decisions about  the Whistler culture – a theory of how they came to live in the woods of the Caucasus mountains, a history of encounters with people from a Western and connected world, an understanding of how they live and operate in the wilderness including their communications with the birds and an assessment of their plight in the light of deforestation and climate change.

Our first job was to introduce Robin Lough, a new recruit to the Whistler Conservation Society (played by Barnie Gibbons) to Lynne Passerine (played by Kim Tilbrook). Kim had already made headway with Lynne’s character but Barnie was starting with a fresh sheet and we were keen to know how they could relate together. It turns out that Robin is a real nurd, who’s worked for years in a dull job but has found freedom in his voluntary position with the charity. He feels like the explorer he’s always wanted to be. And he greatly admires Lynne – the founder of the Whistler Conservation Society – who is focused and tireless in the pursuit of the charity’s mission. Nothing will harm the Whistlers on her watch, that’s for sure! 

While this was all helpful stuff in terms of making our show, the most beautiful thing was rediscovering the sheer joy and liberation of make-believe – what is essentially the stuff of our job. Robin and Lynne held hands in the sunshine and tears began to flow because of the simple stupidity and the honesty of it all. We’re not here forever but we’re in it together, so let’s make the most out of that human connection when we can get it. 

We moved on to the other characters in our project – the Whistlers themselves – who remain a little more elusive at this stage. There are various questions to iron out and we may only really discover the answers through playing with an audience. How conditioned are the Whistlers by their environment and the birds they live with? Are they birdlike? If so, how much? When does ‘birdlike’ become too alien and hard to identify with? Where does weird and comic meet? As is often the case, the answer is most likely around simplicity. Through the characters of the Whistlers, we’re essentially looking to encourage people to be in a place where they’re happy to simply be in the woods and listen. 

We played with various different approaches to the relationship between the WCS staff and the Whistlers. Is the charity controlling, keeping the Whistlers contained so as to look after them well, like animals in a zoo? In this case, might the Whistlers get benefits from coming out at certain times. Do they dance for food? Are there opportunities to adopt a Whistler? Or are the Whistlers actually more in control of their situation? Might they actually rob people? Can they disappear when they like? Can they call a flock of geese to whisk them away? 

John introduced us to Tribe Meets White Man – unedited footage of some Toulambi people from Papua New Guinea meeting a white person for the first time. They believe that the white person is a spirit and approach with great sensitivity and trepidation. While our characters have gone on a big journey from Eastern Europe and no doubt have encountered many Western people before, we think that it’s useful if they keep themselves as isolated from others as possible and remain relatively naive. This allows us to dream into the idyl of natural life and consider the risks that are associated with our relative disconnection from nature. One of the moments that worked well was observing a Whistler in conversation with a bird – simple but strangely curious. 

As the show involves Whistler tracking, we wondered what tracks or other evidence they might leave behind them. How subtle might this evidence be? A broken branch here, a twist of grass there could suggest that a Whistler passed this way but is that interesting? Are Whistler bloomers on a line might too brash? As we we’d been discussing a unique type of culture, we explored how they might express themselves artistically. We decided that Whistlers would leave signs on trees and bushes, as other calling cards. They might have a style of birdhouse that they made for their bird companions. They might create ritual spaces, used to mark the feeding or passing of the seasons, or the comings and goings of migrant birds. What transpired was the creation of a lovely Whistler art trail, the kind of thing that would be great to happen upon in a woodland setting. I think we’ll take this one with us. 

Thanks to Thor and John for being such thoughtful and mischievous provokers. Thanks to Wild Rumpus for having us on site when things were still very uncertain. Thanks to Barnie, Ali and Kim for being brilliant, bold and weird. Let’s see what the next stage of development has to offer. Will we get to France? 

The Relief of Playing in Lockdown Pt 2

Playing with Sound

For two days we worked with Thor McIntyre Burnie – sound artist extraordinaire – to explore some technology and to make some decisions around our touring kit. 

I should explain: the premise for our show is that a small group of Whistlers have arrived in a wood. These are an ancient tribe of people who, for centuries, have lived deep in the forests of Eastern Europe, who live in close symbiosis with birds and communicate by whistling. They are the only known culture of people in Eurasia who have been isolated from the modern world. As such, a charity – the Whistler Conservation Society (WCS) – has taken responsibility for protecting and communicating their needs. Our project sees the WCS educating local people in the unique nature of this culture and recruiting local volunteers to advocate for their protection; and the delivery of Whistler spotting outings into the woods where you may chance upon a Whistler of two in their habitat. 

So, our exploration focused on how we might introduce people into the Whistler world, taking care to maintain and augment the fiction. We wanted to explore the relationship between live music and sound and pre-recorded, amplified sound. Ali is a mean woodwind player and we want to make the most of her skills. And we want to create the effect of a live songbird presence, who could (a little ironically) be disturbed by our presence in the woods.

We’ve used our headsets many times before in the context of a guided tour. The audience will gather by a Whistler Conservation Society tent, which will have information boards and links to short films. However, in case people don’t fancy reading the information or arrive late, we can use our headsets to relay some background information as people walk from the tent to the spotting site. However, we need to make sure that we don’t overwhelm the listener with information, while they are walking through a natural space that could be full of atmospheric sounds, as well as captivating imagery. If we’re not careful, the information won’t land well and we won’t make the most of the gifts of our site. If we get it right, we can help to locate the fiction onto a real place and start the enchantment on the right foot. 

Ali had explored a number of different instruments. We expected that a wooden flute or whistle would provide the most authentic or raw sound, appropriate to unsophisticated instrument makers. From our experiments we’ve decided that the ‘Original’ Clarke Tin Whistle is a good choice for our needs. They’re cheap, so we can avoid dramas if they get damaged. And the sound is simple and clear. The internet tells me that the design hasn’t changed in 170 years And we worked out that you can cover them in gesso and paint them to look like they’re made from wood. Job’s a good’un! 

Again, thanks to Arts Council England, we bought some Minirigs. Other brands of rechargable, bluetooth speakers are available but these are made in Bristol. And they’re good. You can tether them together in a chain. And you can bundle them together with 2 regular mini rigs and a subwoofer to make a fully rounded sound. While their operation takes a little time to grasp (you can see a video of Thor running through this online), they’re very good.

Tethering Minirigs via bluetooth in a woodland is a little risky. If they are unused for a while they will disconnect and when this happens you have work methodically through the group, in strict sequence, to tether them back together. However, it turns out that we can connect our silent disco headsets to the Minirigs with cables, which keeps them ‘on’ and enables you to control them via the same device.  In this way, we could easily and reliably amplify a rich tapestry of bird song across a large area. Carefully placed speakers could also give the impression of Whistlers hidden in the trees or the undergrowth. What would it feel like to the audience if there was the impression that Whistlers were up ahead? What if they were being slowly surrounded?

Thor brought along a shotgun mic, a highly directional microphone which picks up sound at a distance where it’s pointed. This is the type of microphone that you see on film sets, at the end of a boom stick, with a big furry cover like a cat. We already own 80 radio-controlled (silent disco) headsets and Thor suggested that we could link the microphone to the headsets, so that the audience would be able to pick up the sound of Whistlers at a distance (whistling and playing whistles). We had a go and discovered straight away that this was a hit. It meant that the Whistlers could be heard before they were seen. And when they were seen, this could be at enough of a difference for it to feel possible that the Whistlers had not detected the audience. As such they could be read as undisturbed. In simple terms, it would help to elevate the characters from a bunch of idiots in strange costumes. Also it was great fun for the WCS official to play on the tropes of Richard Attenborough, Chris Packham and other naturalists that we know and love. 

What if we heard the sounds of a threat for far off? For example, a group of people on a grouse shoot, who could accidentally shoot a Whistler and create a drama – both a tragedy and a great embarrassment to the Whistler Conservation Society! Ideas like this are mischievous and therefore compelling but we have to work out how much storytelling we want to layer onto the Whistlers and how much we want to sit in a simple place. To be continued…

The Relief of Playing in Lockdown Pt 1

In the middle of March 2020, thanks to Arts Council England and lottery players across the country, Kim Tilbrook and I met with Ali Houiellebecq and Barnie Gibbons to pick up the threads of our project – The Whistlers – that had remained dormant for a year. Whirligig Woods is the wonderful outdoor creation space managed by Wild Rumpus, where you play amongst the trees, convene in a beautiful wooden structure to huddle round a fire and have pow-wows and you sleep in caravans, lulled (and awoken) by the sweet song of the birds. 

While we’d been inactive as a group for 12 months, our brains had been whirring and our ideas had been slowly percolating. So this was an excellent and timely opportunity to explore what’s changed and – what do we do now? How had our ideas changed? How had we all changed or been changed, temporarily or permanently by the global pandemic? After all, this was the first time many of us had ventured far from home and spent face-to-face time with friends and colleagues. How would the experience of Covid-19 bear upon how we could and wanted to play together and – perhaps more significantly – how would this affect how we might play with the public? What kind of interaction would feel welcome, safe, uplifting? What follows is a series of thoughts, sharing our experience and reflecting on where we’re at, in these strange times. 

Post Covid: Ideas Shift

When The Whistlers was conceived in 2018 we wished to use the show to enchant people with the idyllic notion of humans living in harmony nature (specifically song birds). And we wished to subvert this idyl with a sense of alarm. Humans are hard-wired to feel at ease when they hear bird song, as it indicates that there are no predators present. And danger is indicated when the birdsong ceases – either they’re hiding from the threat or the threat has got the better of them. Our intention was to use sound to reflect this ‘natural’ effect. We would use sound to amplify the sound of birdsong within a wood, complemented by the sound of the Whistler characters and the audience whistling. In the méle, people would gradually become aware of the growing presence of man-made sounds – sounds of traffic, industry, explosions – which would eventually overwhelm the whistles and end abruptly, leaving an eery silence. 

In March 2020, this ending seemed rather too violent. We’ve all had the proverbial rug pulling from under our feet and perhaps we’re in need of more optimistic messages, showing us how we might navigate the uncertain future ahead of us and get closer becoming in sync with nature. As is generally the case, our mission comes to back to encouraging connection. Only connect. 

Thank you Arts Council England

We are incredibly grateful to Arts Council England for enabling us to continue our work over the next six months with funding from The National Lottery. 

This is crucial timing for us as we can now keep our projects alive so that in 2021 we are ready to roll!

We will be creating and sharing some digital content over the coming months. A DIY interactive sound journey to the sea and the woods, which may be comforting for those people who have mobility issues or otherwise remain house-bound over the next few months. Some animated snippets of the history of an extraordinary tribe who live with the birds, setting the scene for our forthcoming show ‘Whistlers’. Plus there will be more guest appearances from our lovely friend, Ms Sars-CoV-2…

That said, we look forward to a successful easing of lockdown and seeing you on a street, by the beach or in a woodland near you in the not too distant future, when we can do what we do best – bringing people together for fun, shared experiences. Here’s the that!

In a time of COVID-19

As countless arts organisations across the country, we are having to suspend regular activity for the foreseeable. We will be making some contributions to the creative pot over the next few months – in the hope of provoking laughter and creativity within homes in Devon and across the UK. Have a look at our short films in which we get to know Sars-CoV-2 a little better and watch this space for some interactive, sensory journeys in the countryside…

To the Green Carpet commissioners, The Somerset Wildlife Trust, North Devon Coasts AONBs and The Burton Art Gallery Bideford – we look forward to working with you in the not to distant future.

To our friends, family and fellow artists – stay safe and see you bolder and brighter on the other side!

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