Our identity is created in two ways; from considering our own experiences and actions, and through observing the world around us. Since the dawn of the digital age, the way society interacts has changed dramatically.
Outside influences now dominate how we perceive ourselves. But social networking and mass media might not always have our best interests at heart, or even reflect the world honestly. “This relationship to our own body is one of the key elements to our show,” says Gob Squad’s Sharon Smith. “One of the specifications for our older people was that they’d spent a lifetime onstage, or more explicitly, they’d spent a life in the gaze – they’ve been a commodity. For the younger ones, they aspire to having a life onstage. They dream of being looked at.” Her group of British and German artists are questioning who decides what is beautiful. Together with a diverse group of local performers a generation younger and a generation older than themselves, they’re exploring our attitudes to ageing and power.
Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s most celebrated horror story, Gob Squad brings the UK premiere of Creation (Pictures for Dorian) to Brighton Festival so they can uncover the exquisite in the everyday. “We had quite a strong concept to start with. We knew we wanted to make a multi-generational piece. Within that we wanted to search for a diverse cast to work with us, as we’re looking at notions of beauty and morality. We ask the question ‘What is beauty?’ and look at it as a commodity.” After several residencies last year, including one in Brighton working with local guests the performance is taking shape. Right now, they’re in a rehearsal space in Berlin, bringing succinct order to a difficult concept.
It’s a big room, full of big ideas. The artists collective is wringing the best from 300 mirrors, picture frames, props and sound & video designers. “It’s overwhelming and a bit sweaty. There’s a lot of people in a room. As well as make the show, we’re also trying to devise a template that we can take to cities, find six guests, and in two days put them on the stage.” With a horizontal working process and no director, they’re constantly influenced by what happens in rehearsals. Using a range of ages has uncovered a range of preconceptions. While older performers have lived a live on the stage, the younger ones have a projection of what that experience has been like. But this is based on a superficial version of reality – we rarely know what somebody suffers behind the mask. How do we strip away what are we willing to show? Is what we hide what makes us special?
The titular Dorian Gray suspends the aging process at a terrible cost to his soul. This co-commission for Brighton Festival and Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts suggests we all might make the same choice. Using this as a point of reference they blur the lines between performance and real life. Asking the audience to become more than passive spectators, and perhaps revaluate their self-image or perception of others. “Theatre can be a place where we can imagine change. We gather, and that’s very powerful. If we can imagine something collectively, we can go out and build it. Once you’ve had the idea, you’re already close to something.” As this performance company get older, there’s an increasing audacity in their ambitions. A recent, suitably genre-bending interpretation of War and Peace shows they’re undaunted by a seemingly impossible task. Working under bold themes and expansive titles in a way forces them to enter situations with humility and fragility. Like beauty and the human experience, these performances are utterly ephemeral in their nature. “It’s not an object of art. It’s a subject, and it dies with us.”