Interview: Drunken Chorus – Doing The Rounds

If, to you, pub theatre means sitting on uncomfortable plastic seating, watching an ensemble of actors with artfully-coloured apple juices soberly slur their way through yet another Tennessee Williams play, you may find heady refreshment in Drunken Nights. While other pub theatres can be accused of recreating the staid, traditional model, separating audience and artist across dusty rooms that lack wallpaper and good ventilation, the events programmed by Drunken Chorus dive right into the heart of the tavern. Fully embracing the people, the stories, the intimacies and the informalities that lurk in your local boozer, Drunken Nights promises to serve up the spirit of the pub with an energising theatrical mixer.

“We want to create something different, something unique to pub venues – taking place right there in the main bar space”, articulates Drunken Chorus’s Artistic Director, Chris Williams. In 2012, six years after establishing his contemporary performance company, Williams opened the doors to artists looking to develop their work through a programme of mentorship and exposure to some of London’s most honest crowds. It would perhaps be flawed to interpret this vision as part of a quest to make the performing arts more accessible; rather, by dropping an entrance fee, shunning the pub’s back room and bursting in on what is often an unexpecting public, the ‘Drunken’ formula takes advantage of the publican’s accessibility in order to drive performance into everyday life. Crucially, Williams wants to use the pub –  an environment that “makes for highly unpredictable and risky work” – to foster content that is innovative; through this, he has discovered “an edge that is difficult to replicate in a theatre”.

Last year, approximately 100 applications came in from a vast assortment of groups and individuals keen to participate in Drunken Nights’ revelry. Of these, Williams chose 14 artists to show their work in the first wave of pub sessions. The shortlist was then further reduced, giving two solo performance artists and a pack of four self-declared ‘feminist bandits’ the opportunity to hone and develop their work with well-established mentors David Rosenberg, Karen Christopher and Julian Maynard Smith. Positioning the pub as not just a venue, but as an inspiration, Williams sought out innovative artists who responded well to the site, and who could incorporate an audience whose members were less rehearsed in the arts of passive aggressive hushing and who were unlikely to wait until the interval to get the pints in. What he found was Nathan Birkinshaw, a creative pub-goer with a rambling anecdote to tell; The Blue Tits, a collective of unlikely feminist twitchers with their binoculars firmly focused on the bird puns; and Lydia Cottrell, a dancer keen to use her form to interrogate gendered generalisation.

A professional dancer, trained at York St. John University and Kate Simmons Dance, Cottrell has used the mentorship available at Drunken Nights to explore what, with light-hearted observation, she sees as universal urges: “I was drawn to dancing on the table as it is something that everyone has done (or wanted to do) at some point.” Coming from a formal dance background, Cottrell derives a specific pleasure from the spontaneous nature of a pub environment and its laid-back audience: “Dance audiences often do not let themselves relax and just enjoy the work. It is going to be great performing to people who are going to enjoy the work for what it is instead of spending ages analysing every moment.” Echoing Williams’ sentiments when it comes to breaking down the barriers between high art and your average John Smith’s Joe, and excited about the challenges posted by an unsuspecting public, she enthuses: “We want to reach the regulars who are just in for a pint, to put contemporary performance in front of rowdy drinkers, and to find ways of creating work that is compatible and complementary to that environment and audience.”When I interviewed her, Cottrell was working together with Rosenberg to fine-tune her re-imagining of Maurice Béjart’sBolero. In the original ballet, a lone male dancer graces a table and, as Ravel’s romantic score intensifies, attracts an adoring chorus of equally graceful performers. Cottrell’s piece takes this fierily European work as a starting point and gives it a distinctly British spin, replacing the principal dancer with “a binge drinking party girl on a table in a pub in the UK.” Across three acts, Cottrell takes a “mathematical approach” to her piece, which will allow her to not only immerse herself in the environment of the pub, but also in one of the pub’s favourite pastimes: “spacing the work out will allow the alcohol to enter my bloodstream and enable the audience to see its effects on my body.”

And how have publicans responded to such rowdy interactions? Williams assures me, “the landlords have been great. We get away with a lot of things that theatres might frown upon, such as throwing booze around and dancing on the bar. For the venues, it brings lots of business into the pub, and also gets them a bit of publicity and press around London.” As the night wears on, the dancers may lose a little of their elegance, but there’s a certain charm in how Drunken Nights views your average British pub as a veritable hub of culture, and a romance in how the events marry this nostalgic image with a wave of promising new artists. Williams explains, “I guess we try to create a new kind of community in each venue – which is probably more in line with the old fashioned communities that existed in London pubs”.

As alcohol and conversation keep each other flowing, the pub’s suitability as a venue for developing talent becomes evident. “For us, pub performance events often require artists to perform for free, as an opportunity to present work and meet others,” observes Williams. “But we often feel like nothing comes out of that, so we wanted to ensure that we were offering something genuinely useful to artists that would benefit their careers.” And so Drunken Chorus works hard to support artists, with the mentorship the programme offers instrumental in both developing careers beyond last orders and in passing ideas between newer and more established generations of performers. As long as we can still argue over the rugby results and moan about Cameron between the acts, we’re onto a good thing.

Originally posted on Exeunt

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