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Photo: Dr Kara McKechnie

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 5 / Day 3


I am in the fortunate position of having a car and cashflow that allows large, less frequent shopping trips. Today was the second of these I have done since lockdown began. Strange how this trip to the supermarket is the biggest event of my current life; I build up to it, feeling anxious but also a little bit excited at the prospect of being out in the world. I even considered dressing up this time, as there is precious little other opportunity to wear nice clothes these days.

Last week I was at the checkout when the national minute’s silence was held, acknowledging key workers who have died of the virus. The announcement of the planned silence was made over the tannoy, and almost everyone in the shop stopped what they were doing. We stood and waited. Looking slightly awkwardly at our hands, smiling slightly sadly but warmly, but not too much, when we caught another’s eye. The end of the minute was marked by applause, palpable relief at doing something we have now all become familiar with in our Thursday night community clapping sessions.

I couldn’t shake the impression of this as being as close to a live theatre experience as I was going to get any time soon. Being in one space together and experiencing a moment out of normal life. Doing things on cues provided by social expectation. Experiencing a change of space through change of activity and sound, in one moment, together, with a bunch of strangers. The feeling afterward that it made us more of a coherent group, though fleetingly. The pressure to behave in the same way as the rest of the group. Finishing it all off with a somewhat relieved applause (the length of which mustn’t be less than your immediate neighbours’).

I also reflected on how the layout of the shop was choreographing our actions. The one-way system down the aisles made me lean cumbersomely into corners, manoeuvring my heavy trolley, weaving an unusual path around the shop to find my items. Someone walking down the aisle against the flow was a choreographic moment. The lines on the floor demarcated where I could step in relation to others, which in turn determined the rhythm and timing of my movement, depending on how long it took them to find the right bottle of milk.

Supermarket as theatre. Is this what we’ve come to?

Photo: Separated while shopping

Separated while shopping.

Photo copyright: Bernie Goldbach

(Underway in Ireland, Flickr).

The other day I wrote about the way I’d begun to reflect on my dramaturgy practice through considering spatial metaphors applied to my relationship with people (specifically, choreographers or directors I work with as a dramaturg). Today in the supermarket I noticed how physical proximity no longer has the same part in making meaning in our relationships with others. Having to maintain a more or less equal distance with everyone you encounter – whether it’s the customer service adviser at the shop, the runner you pass in the street, or your relative who has come to visit you in your driveway – makes us cast around for new ways of making meaning for each other through our acts of communication.

I had a conversation with a shop worker today, and was painfully aware that we were not the right distance from each other – we were closer than two metres apart, but not as close as we’d normally be for the type of interaction we were having (fleeting, between strangers, but one of politeness and service). I’d come adrift from the comfort of rules of physical interaction, and so I was unable to operate them to bring about my desired outcome. I couldn’t even rely on facial expressions to make up this gap in communicative action since I was wearing a mask.

In a workshop that Ruth Pethybridge and I delivered in Oxford last year, exploring spatial metaphors with other dance and theatre practitioners, we investigated how an understanding of the impact of placing our body in different relations to the space we were in could become part of the toolkit of our collaborative working in the studio or rehearsal space. Specific to my knowledge of being a dramaturg; if I felt that the choreographer needed some emotional back-up, I could move next to them; if the process needed my intervention, I could place myself more centrally in the space; if the choreographer needed to know that someone was keeping an eye on the bigger picture, I could find a higher level in the room or place myself behind them.

In the workshop, we wondered if these physical changes could make a difference, even if we don’t actually perform any different actions or say anything different. We played with roles of performing and observing, noticing what felt different to each party when we changed our bodies’ locations in relation to the room and to the people we were collaborating with.

Photo: Observed improvisation

Observed improvisation. An Oxford workshop exploring spatial metaphors.

In one of the exercises, one workshop participant chose to ‘observe’ an improvised performance by placing his chair in the very middle of the space, closing his eyes, and letting the dance unfold around him. This was a nice way of illustrating Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as applied to dramaturgy: you can’t observe anything without changing it. As a dramaturg, I am not an objective observer in a rehearsal space. My very physical presence, and all its variations, changes what is made and how it is made in so many different ways. Being attuned to and aware of the kinds of changes I might bring about with my body, its actions and location in space is something I can, therefore, use in supporting the creative process.

As we turn to our screens to look outward, I don’t know how this part of my practice could translate to the virtual rehearsal room. Can I play with my proximity to the camera? The location of my face in the frame of the image? What movement can we attend to, through our cameras and video frames? I wave goodbye at the end of meetings. I never used to do that.

The next time you go to a supermarket, enjoy the unintended immersive choreography!

Photo: (Don't) get in the way of the movement

Miranda Laurence is an independent dance dramaturg based in the UK, with over 10 years’ experience working in the dance and arts development sectors. She collaborates with dance artists across the UK and internationally, recently working with Johanna Nuutinen (FI) and Attila Andrasi (HU/ES). Her practice and professional development has been supported by awards from Arts Council England, Oxford Dance Forum and South East Dance.

Her collaborators work in a range of dance forms, from Kathak to screen dance. She is also in demand as a workshop leader, recently invited to Arhus by the Association of Danish Dramaturgs, and by London Studio Centre for their MA in Dance Producing.

Miranda has also directed the Dance & Academia project based in Oxford since 2008, convening a number of seminars and conferences engaging movement practitioners and academics in many different disciplines.

Alongside her freelance practice, Miranda is employed as Arts Development Officer at the University of Reading, where she is developing a strategic arts programme for the University including leading on new public art commissions.


Photography courtesy of Miranda Laurence.


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