Benedict Sandiford and Cassie Friend come from two very different backgrounds in terms of theatre training, but since their collaboration on ‘Jackson’s Corner’ in 2013, they have found great synergy between their different styles.
This year, for South Street Arts Centre’s festival of storytelling, they are creating a brand new piece of experiential theatre, Kaspar.
The audience, seated in a yurt, and surrounded, acoustically, by the sounds of an 1837 touring carnival, are transported into the dark and unsettling world of Kaspar, the travelling mystic and illusionist. Performed by Ben, Kaspar retells his story of love, magic and conflict to his captive audience, perhaps expecting sympathy, perhaps in desperation.
We learn of love lost and love unexpectedly arrived, and love in strange and challenging shape. We learn of a calm, serene boy, whose beautiful singing voice, siren like, hypnotises Kaspar and leads him down a different path in his life, causes terrible conflict between the protagonist and his wife, whose tent the audience are in, and winds Kaspar’s life into an epic almost Greek tragedy. We also learn of deception and the dark arts that rule, or perhaps plague, Kaspar’s life.
Kaspar is a character created by Ben Sandiford, originally to be given shape in a song, but as soon as his co-creator Cassie, a Lecoq-trained performer and director, heard the story she insisted that it was a piece of theatre, it must stand on its own legs and be told. The story itself and the very way in which the story was originally created means that it necessitates a visual, aural and experiential form of storytelling. And as Ben says passionately, "if they find him, they’re going to kill him, so this is his last chance to tell his story to the universe". But this is no ordinary story and its protagonist is no ordinary man.
We delve into the world of dark, non-traditional magic, as Ben describes "magik with a k, not the magic of illusion, but the magic of a higher power". It is a world by which Ben seems fascinated and which he has been exploring for much of his life, through interests in meditation and deep concentration exercises.
It strikes me that the more immersed a storyteller is in the world surrounding their story, the harder it can sometimes be to communicate it to an audience. The use of short-hands, the technical or specific language, the nuance and unspoken rules of that world must all be communicated clearly to an audience member who may know nothing of it at all. This communication must also take place without spoiling the mystery, without compromising the knowledge and research and the integrity of the writer or creator’s character and vision.
This is where Cassie has been playing a particularly vital role, in re-reading Ben’s world, helping him translate it for an audience. It is a real skill of hers that has been apparent in previous pieces, like The Idiot Colony, and 1 Beach Road, to communicate complex human emotion and experience, in a simple, accessible way.
The stories that she tells, that she describes as inspired by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, are particularly powerful. When we are, instead, hearing the story of an extraordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, the story must remain grounded enough for the audience to connect with it. This is one way in which the pairing of these two artists is mutually beneficial and potentially really exciting.
Collaborative creation of theatre is one of the best ways to draw in multiple techniques, skills and experiences, and it is these that enable a piece of theatre to speak to the many diverse audience members it will reach.
The pair have set this piece within a yurt, that will be set up at South Street Arts Centre, and that will immerse the audience in Kaspar’s world. Once the audience are inside they are part of the show, they are fellow carnival goers perhaps, or friends, or enemies and how the performers bring them in to the story is being carefully worked out through the devising process. “Once they’re in, there’s no way out!”
This piece is only possible because of the support and creative vision of John Luther at South Street Arts Centre and both Ben and Cassie struggled to emote enough about the opportunities that the creative programming and producing at the small arts centre offered them.
“I wouldn’t be making theatre if it wasn’t for John giving me space and time and opportunity. It’s a real hub, everything comes through here and for me, it’s a great place to bring all my creative strands together"
The new Short Festival of Storytelling showcases creative, unusual, innovative contemporary theatre, just like the Sitelines festival that South Street has also created. South Street Arts Centre’s theatre programming offers Reading something truly exciting and forward thinking, bringing some of the best new and existing small scale theatre makers to Reading and regularly producing and commissioning brand new work, grown and shown in Reading itself. And yet some shows struggle to sell tickets. Perhaps it is simply exposure to the gems of theatre that pass through this unique building, that is needed, as Ben explains,
“For me, South Street changed my career path, starting out doing LAMDA exams and standing in front of cameras for twenty years, but the work that is programmed here and that I’ve been able to get involved in has opened up my experience of theatre”
It seems that South Street and this commission has brought together two very engaging collaborators, and given them space to ferment and refine their ideas and creativity. This is an offering from the arts centre to the artists and audiences of Reading that should not be undervalued.
Similarly the arts centres across the country that do the same are contributing to the cutting edge of theatre, and to the generation of work that can move and inspire in new ways. Whether starting from a song, a story, a real person, an image or an object, theatre that takes risks, crafts and shapes and devises in collaboration in this way, is something really valuable. It has a freedom that traditional text based theatre can sometimes lack, constrained by precedent and expectation.
Kaspar sees two of our best local theatre makers, drawing on their different and complimentary styles to tell a provocative and mysterious story. It is clearly an inspiring and exciting process for them, and it should result in something really exciting for us too.
Kaspar is on from Wednesday 21 January to Saturday 24 January at South Street Arts Centre, which commissioned the work, and was supported in development by Greenhouse.