The physical storytelling of Ockham’s Razor
Glass was very excited about chatting to Charlotte Mooney from the renowned theatre company Ockham’s Razor, and hearing about their upcoming performance at Latitude festival, but also to dig a little deeper, and find out what inspires them and makes them tick.
I met the team in the Rose Theatre in Kingston as they were preparing for a performance of their newest piece ‘Not Until We Are Lost’ surrounded by all their impressive stage equipment, all conceived and built by the team. The group has three core members, Alex Harvey, Charlotte Mooney and Tina Koch, who met whilst studying at Circomedia, Academy of Circus Arts and Physical Performance in Bristol, and who set up the company with a united vision in 2004.
It’s a very exciting summer for Ockham’s Razor, and at Latitude they will be performing their critically acclaimed triple bill, a series of three pieces named ‘Arc’, ‘Memento Mori’ and ‘Every action…’, taking the audience on a dynamic journey, dramatically told in their unique and physical language.
The name ‘Ockham’s Razor’ comes from a logical principle attributed to the mediaeval philosopher William of Ockham which states that between two plausible theories, the simpler is preferable. It is called Razor because it cuts out unnecessary elements, and this is reflected in their performances, where the stories are told with refreshing clarity and simplicity.
For readers who are new to Ockham’s Razor, how would you describe yourselves?
We describe ourselves as aerial theatre. So what we do is take the movement of aerial circus – that’s anything in the air – and we use that movement to tell stories. Put simply, it’s physical theatre, telling stories in the air using movement.
How did you get involved with Latitude?
They approached our producer about doing the show, and it’s really exciting for us to be there. Latitude’s theatre side is very strong, and it’s a festival we’ve always been interested in, so we are really, really pleased to be going.
What pieces will you be performing at the Latitude festival in your triple bill?
There are three short pieces, and each one tells a story. We don’t use language – I think we have three words in ‘Every Action…’, and apart from that the stories are told through the physical interaction. It’s very obvious what’s happening, not abstract. There is a clear recognisable story, physically told. It’s a bit like silent film – like ‘The Artist’ – but obviously it’s more extreme because it’s very physical and quite metaphorical, but it’s similar in the way you can easily understand what’s happening without the use of language.
The first piece, called ‘Arc’, is performed by three people. It’s set on a suspended metal frame, and it’s essentially about the relationship between the three different lives, and the tensions and jealousies and the rivalries that happen. As the relationship between the three performers is destabilised, the platform they are on becomes increasingly unstable. The question is whether they can form some kind of stability or harmony. It’s a good one to start with because it’s dramatic, it has a journey in it and it is quite powerful.
The second piece, ‘Memento Mori’, was actually the first piece we ever made, and it’s just Alex and me. It’s a piece of art about someone’s relationship with death. And it’s very intimate, a very quiet piece, so it works well in the middle of the show, when people are already drawn in, and have got used to the language of circus and theatre. The music is written by Patrick Larley, and it’s very special and touching for us to perform.
Latitude presented an interesting challenge because we normally perform this piece at night, in a theatre, a black space, and Alex is normally lit in his costume so he almost becomes a mirror, reflecting the light. Because he’s playing death, the idea is that death would be an absence. In Latitude we are playing in the evening, so it will still be light, so we’ve had to change his costume. We’ve been working with our costume designer Tina Bicât and because originally the piece was inspired by the ‘Dance of Death’ woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger, where a skeleton goes and dances people to their grave, she’s created a very masculine strong take on that, the Jacobean figure of death.
The third piece is ‘Every Action…’, with four people and 25m of rope over two pulleys. If you pull on one piece of rope, the other person goes up in the air, so it’s about the relationship between people and how you can help someone up, or dump them on their head. It’s very light, but has a very strong narrative and relationships, and it really works as the final piece of the evening.
How would you perform differently at a festival compared to your own gig?
It’s very different in festivals, especially in daylight. A dark theatre gives intimacy and concentration, but at a festival people come in and out, wander about, and with the light and space a lot of the energy can dissipate. So you have to do the performance and push it out there, project it physically, with your body. Also sometimes you have to change your rhythms – some parts need to be slower, and other bits you need to zip through, because the concentration is completely different in that environment.
We find that you can do intimate things and small moments as long as you set it up in the right way, and we’re really interested in looking at that further with future work we take outdoors. People often go to an outdoors performance just for the spectacle, but there is scope to do subtlety I think.
What’s the secret to running a successful harmonious theatre company?
We tour a lot, an insane amount of time – I think last year we were at home for something like four weeks – so harmony is very important. I think we have developed certain strategies. Generally we’ve tried to stay in the same apartment so you cook together, eat together, have a family unit, which is really essential. Also it’s very important to have good times together – like making the effort to buy drinks at the end of the evening, having fun on your day off – because it’s an incredibly stressful environment and you need relief together. In Manchester we all went out dancing together.
But also it’s just little things like when we are making a show – when we are in that creation process – just making sure we have meetings ever day and talk to each other – and being honest, and knowing that if you have a problem and something’s going wrong, then it’s better to say something early than to let it fester, just like siblings.
We had a mentor from Improbable, and at a meeting before we created this show they said, “What are you most worried about?” We told them that disagreements were our main worry – even disagreeing where the piece should go creatively. They told us we should look at disagreements as artistic turning points. When you have very strong opinions in two directions, it probably means that neither option is right, but there is a really radically exciting third option that you haven’t thought about. So you should look at disagreements as really exciting.
How do you find inspiration for new ideas, new pieces?
It’s interesting. In the very early stages, Alex, Tina and I, all of us carry notebooks around with us, putting ideas into them at all times. We’ll often be inspired by shows we see, not just circus dance theatre, but also fine art, adverts, films, photographs, something people said… Then the three of us sit down and tell each other what we’ve been thinking about, what’s been catching our attention. It’s always mind-blowing and we find that there are surprisingly similar things, probably because we spend a lot of time together.
I also think that the things that you are interested in can be a reaction against the show you’ve just made – in 2009 we made ‘The Mill’, a show about systems breaking apart and tensions and groups falling to pieces and things going wrong. Then our next piece, ‘Not Until We Are Lost’, is very much about the experience of being lost and abandoned, and how the group finds you and brings you back together – it’s about cooperation, fellowship and love. I think ‘Not Until We Are Lost’ is absolutely a reaction to ‘The Mill’, and I’m sure whatever we make next will be a reaction or development from ‘Not Until We Are Lost’.
Our work is not overtly political, but it is definitely informed by what is happening around us. Because what we do is becoming increasingly metaphorical and poetic, you may not be able to say, “Oh this is about the Arab spring”, but what is happening in the world is in there, there are resonances.
Latitude is the last major listing on your website – what have you guys got planned after this?
A summer of touring the triple bill, at Latitude and then in Europe, and we have a gig in Lichfield in England as well. Then in autumn we have two more ‘Not Until We Are Lost’ dates at the moment – we’ll see if any more come up.
And then we are reprising the opera we did with Improbable – in 2007 we were in a Philip Glass opera called ‘Satyagraha’ which was about the life of Gandhi, performed by Improbable and the English National Opera at the Coliseum in London. It also went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Now that’s happening again in November/December time, which is a complete joy to do. The music is beautiful, and the singers are just extraordinary – the experience of doing that opera was what inspired us for what we are doing at the show at the moment.
Also over the summer we’re thinking about our next show, which is very exciting, and we are looking to do a collaboration with a great musician – going to make it 2014 and we’re opening it late 2014 early 2015.
Do you have any performers that you are really excited to see at Latitude?
Yes! I think National Theatre Wales are there, and I really want to see their show. Also the band Teleman. Do you know about them? Pete and the Pirates broke up and they re-formed to make the band Teleman, who I am crazy about, very excited about seeing them. And also another band called Sweet Baboo.
Finally, what are your top tips for getting the most out of a festival?
One of the joys of a festival is just wandering and going off-piste. Have a few things to want to do every day, but other than that, just wander round.
by Ben Slater
You can see Ockham's Razor (please link: www.ockhamsrazor.co.uk) at Latitude festival (please link: www.latitudefestival.com) which takes place in Henham Park, Southwold, Suffolk from July 18-21