Posted on:Thursday 7th April, 2022
Actors from the museum-based theatre show Before the Wall
The twelfth in a series of essays reflecting on the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation’s experiences in the arts
The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (‘R&V’) has pursued consistent strategies as an arts organisation over the last 7 years and, in a series of essays, I have reflected on the many lessons learned by it in the process. However, the projects and activities which have given me most professional satisfaction, and which have felt most exciting, do not necessarily fit neatly under a particular heading or objective. These projects nevertheless go to the very heart of what R&V has been seeking to achieve in the arts. In this essay, the last in the series, I would like to talk about some of these stand-out activities, and why they seemed to represent something special and important for the organisation, whether in terms of innovating, experimenting or celebrating the arts.
House of Knives – opportunities for up-and-coming artists
One of the most surprising and exceptional projects undertaken by R&V was also one of the first. When it was decided to launch R&V as a separate arts organisation and registered charity we made a 16-minute short film designed to raise awareness of the story of the poets Rimbaud and Verlaine and to recruit members and supporters. The call went out and, to my surprise, I soon found myself with a cast and crew of 37 young filmmakers, actors and other creatives. The characters of the poets were played by the actors Jack Johns and Sam Swainsbury respectively. The film which emerged was something of a minor miracle. Costing less than £4,000 to make, it was shot, edited and colour-graded to a high quality. Entitled House of Knives it managed to tell the story in a punchy and dramatic way with location shoots outside No 8 Royal College Street and a specially commissioned musical soundtrack. Most importantly the film provided a fantastic opportunity for the up-and-coming filmmakers. Although the payments made to these creatives were inevitably modest the project allowed them to gain valuable experience, CV points and a film credit. In terms of its practical purpose the film also worked well, helping R&V to sign up nearly 2,000 members to its database over a series of over a dozen screenings. Providing opportunities to up-and-coming artists and creatives over a range of different art forms was, from the start, one of R&V’s most cherished objectives. In the meantime, the film also allowed me to fulfil a personal ambition to direct a film, a process that I found both challenging and enormously enjoyable.
T.S. Eliot’s Parisian Year – surprising people with new stories
Of the many live events programmed by R&V since 2014 one of the most interesting and exemplary was the T.S. Eliot and Decadence event which took place in 2015. Sponsored by the T.S. Eliot Foundation this had all the ingredients of a ‘blockbuster’ literary event. Programmed in the 450-seat Hall 1 at Kings Place it featured, amongst others, the actor and film star Simon Callow. However, this prestigious provenance is not why I regard it as so important. The event was actually inspired by an academic monograph entitled T.S. Eliot’s Parisian Year written by Nancy Duvall Hargrove, in which she argues persuasively that Eliot’s mature poetry was decisively influenced by the year he spent in Paris in 1911, and in particular by the Decadent Movement in the arts and literature he encountered there, and by the poetry of Jules Laforgue in particular. An event with T.S. Eliot’s name on the title is bound to attract a good audience. But what the capacity audience got on this occasion was quite a new perspective on the poet, and one that tended to contradict everything that we thought that we knew about the poet as a champion of Modernism. For me, an event like this demonstrates perfectly how a well-known subject and a celebrity guest can be used to introduce something actually quite new, and to open doors to a whole range of less familiar content, in this case the world of French Decadent art and literature in the years before the First World War. Surprising audiences with new stories and artistic content has become an abiding feature of R&V and its work, as has its ability to draw on the latest academic research in creating original arts programmes.
Songs from a Parisian Salon – experiential content for a digital age
As I have written elsewhere, R&V has a reputation for programming ‘magazine style’ literary events, featuring a panel of expert speakers and actors, occasionally combined with some live musical performance. However, from the start, it did not want to be bound by this format. In particular, we were interested in the possibilities for developing arts events which are more experiential and immersive in nature. I regard this as one of the best ways to widen the audience for the arts, especially for content unfairly regarded as specialist. R&V therefore began to programme or become associated with events which mixed musical and non-musical elements in new ways. This led to an interest in combining theatre with music in a new way. What if a costumed historical character, playing a historical person or an artist, were to tell their own story on stage, whilst themselves introducing or playing music. This hybrid kind of show, part theatre and part masque, offers new possibilities both for telling stories in an appealing way and for programming music which might otherwise be regarded as niche.
Out of this was born in 2019 the Songs from a Parisian Salon show. It centred on the complicated and multi-layered character of Winnaretta Singer, the Princesse de Polignac, heir to the sewing machine fortune, and one of the most important sponsors of Decadent and Modernist music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The script by David Harsent and Nicola Nathan was a dramatic monologue performed by an actor in costume (Lucy Tregear). The fiction was that the audience were attending her Parisian salon in 1894 where she was hosting one of her famous musical soirées. Once again the content was inspired by original academic research, in this case the book Music’s Modern Muse by Sylvia Kahan. The theatre element was interspersed with classical mélodies performed by two talented young classical singers (Rose Stachniewska and Julien Van Mellaerts). The idea was to create a glittering evening’s entertainment, a piece of musical theatre, which appealed well beyond the normal audience for classical music. It was also a sly way for R&V to comment on how the arts are funded, and in particular on the increasingly important part played by private philanthropy.
The Winnaretta show was delivered as a pilot to a live audience in the Chancellor’s Hall at Senate House in February 2020. This kind of theatre and concert show is expensive to develop and stage, but it does demonstrate how great art can be presented to wider audiences in a more appealing way. In particular it reflects R&V’s belief that, in a digital age, live events need to become more experiential and immersive. Plans to develop this (and two further Winnaretta shows) for presentation on a larger stage at the Cadogan Hall were scotched by the COVID pandemic in March 2020. But the relationships established with up-and-coming classical singers and pianists resulted in two wonderful video series made under lockdown, featuring classical song performances at Lauderdale House and the Romanian Cultural Institute, all of which captured something of the atmosphere and glamour of a Belle Époque musical soirée. In the meantime, for me, Songs from a Parisian Salon remains a stand-out example of innovative arts programming.
Before the Wall – using theatre to tell museum stories
One of R&V’s operating principles has been to try and break down barriers between different art forms and formats in order to attract new audiences to the arts. R&V has often expressed its mission expressly in terms of cross-arts programming. But attracting new audiences is also about venues. For instance, many people experience theatre in the West End, but R&V is also interested in how an art form like theatre can also work in other venues. Through the Oxford Cultural Leadership Alumni network I have got to know many museum professionals and I became aware of their strong desire to communicate some of the stories underpinning their collections. It is one thing to hold collections of important artefacts. It is quite another to communicate about them effectively to a wider public. And, at a time when colonial expropriation and historic racism have made the provenance of many museum collections controversial, they are also struggling to find ways of addressing these problematic histories. This is where there is a role for original arts commissions. In particular, after a successful experiment with commissioning theatre in 2016 (Poetry House Live), R&V became interested in the concept of theatre in museums. An original stage play is a good way of telling a story, and of tackling head-on the sort of controversial subject matter which our museums are (quite rightly) now addressing.
This is how in 2019 R&V came to present Before the Wall, an original theatre show by playwright Chris Ruffle about the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in partnership with the National Museum of Scotland. These wars are firmly in the category of difficult histories. During the Second Opium War (1856-60) the Anglo-French expeditionary force looted and burned the Summer Palace of the Ming emperors, carrying off thousands of artefacts. Some of these artefacts are now in the National Museum of Scotland and were being displayed in a new South East Asian gallery at the museum. The story of their controversial and violent history needed to be communicated, and what better way to do so than by staging a theatre show telling the story as part of Edinburgh’s annual festival of new theatre. It was a great marriage of arts content with a particular venue, and a great chance to use the arts to tell a difficult and topical story. In this case R&V was also able to add an interesting ingredient. The cast was made up entirely of Anglo-Asian actors, who played both the colonial and the Chinese characters, allowing for a nuanced and thought-provoking portrait of power and expropriation. Implicit in the staging was the sense that, in some respects, the roles of the countries and cultures have now been reversed, with China being the coming global power, and the British and French being the supplicants. Using theatre in this way to tell museum stories is an exciting and innovative approach, and one that capitalises on the fact that museums can often also provide both venues for arts events and audiences. I anticipate that it will become a far more common feature of museum activities in the future. In the meantime, it felt as though R&V, a small arts organisation, was at the cutting edge of arts programming.
London College of Fashion - influencing the next fashion style
The same spirit of cross-arts collaboration also informs one of R&V’s most recent projects, the Decadence and Fashion creative challenge delivered in late 2021 with its partners at the London College of Fashion. Returning to one of its favourite themes, providing opportunities for up-and-coming arts practitioners, this project involved 35 student fashion designers in creating concepts influenced by Decadence. The learning on this project went both ways. R&V had to articulate very clearly in a detailed brief both what constituted the essential elements of Decadence as a world view, and how it connects with modern concerns and preoccupations. In doing so the organisation was able to draw on the expertise of Alice Condé, a research fellow at Goldsmiths, creating a lively conversation between university research and practicing artists to mutual benefit. The fashion concepts which came out of the project, on which the students were assessed, were very strong, featuring (amongst other things) ideas associated with decay, recycling, flowers, witches and gender fluidity. I am especially delighted by a collaboration which may significantly influence the artistic practice of the talented young fashion designers involved, individuals who come from all over the world.
Thinking outside of the box about the ‘poetry house’
Through much of its practice R&V has regularly asked itself how the arts themselves can be used to address or to solve problems. Rather than there being a separation between life and the arts R&V has seen a continuity, meaning that some of its projects have appeared both outside of time and at the same time also extremely topical. When, in November 2020, R&V learned that the legacy gift of the ‘poetry house’ at No 8 Royal College Street was being repudiated by the owner it was immediately plunged into a difficult legal situation, having to defend the public and community interest in the property in the middle of the pandemic. Apart from anything else, the resulting dispute felt very negative and a distraction from R&V’s commitment to championing the arts. However, a solution to this was at hand. R&V’s interest in articulating a vision for a poetry house had involved a phenomenological exploration of how human beings relate to their houses and their places. R&V had already concluded that the ‘idea’ of the poetry house was separate to, and more important than, the bricks and mortar of an actual house. This insight now suggested one of R&V’s boldest and most unusual artistic commissions.
Through a contact I was introduced to Timothy Richards Ltd, one of the UK’s leading architectural model-making companies. To express the idea of the poetry house we commissioned the firm to create a scale model of the property at No 8 Royal College Street as a collector’s artefact. That the techniques used are heavily influenced by French architectural model-making of the 18th century made the commission even more appropriate for R&V. This luxury object went on sale in the spring of 2021 and has played an important part in developing R&V’s knowledge about the possibilities and opportunities for merchandising online, something I have written about elsewhere. More importantly, the model of the poetry house used the arts to re-frame the problem we had been dealing with. It made explicit the fact that the most important aspect of the ‘architecture’ was the opportunity that it provided to stimulate and champion the arts, and that this vision could just as easily be represented in the form of a model. The beauty of the artefact and the importance of the vision somehow came together, transforming a difficult situation into a very positive experiment. The model of No 8 is delivered in a beautiful blue cardboard box which contributes a great deal to the pleasure of discovering the artefact inside. Thinking outside of the box has, almost literally, been one of the most exciting and creative aspects of R&V’s work and will, I hope, be the most lasting of its legacies in the arts.