Rituals for Change begins with an axe and some blocks of wood. A woman, in a dress, dares to attempt to cut it. It fills me with anxiety as, never having tried it, I assume that I wouldn’t be able to, especially not so publically. Do I assume that because I know I am bad at cutting wood with an axe, or because I am a woman?
Rituals for Change explores the very nature of change. In the work, change is presented to us as a gradual process, it never starts at a distinct place, and it never ends. There is no one moment when something ceases to be one thing and instantly transforms to another. Instead, change is fluid, an ongoing process of adaptation.
Running water is in constant change, fire too. When the elements, that are centre-stage in this piece, come together, they often form a whole new material. Some of these changes are reversible, when water mixes with soil, and some are irreversible, the lighting of a match.
Emma Frankland, whose latest piece is firmly rooted in the live art and contemporary theatre genre, has her own experience of a continuous process of change as a transgender woman. There is no point when a transgender person becomes a different gender, there is no one particular day when the switch is flicked. Like with all gender, it evolves and shifts in all of us.
Her experience is delicately held within this piece, but it’s not a performance of her story, it is not a piece about trans issues. Rather, it is an exploration of the fragility and fluidity of identity itself. She asks us to look in the mirror at the person we were ten years ago, is that person a close friend to the ‘us’ we are now, a distant relative, or a complete stranger? Did we notice the change, was it gradual or did we wake up one day and find ourselves different?
So much of who we are changes all the time, and yet, we are so adamant that gender does not, cannot change?
The set in this piece was integral to the devising of the work itself, and Emma worked closely with a designer to form an environment that would literally drip with symbolism.
She creates a box in the centre of the space and fills it with contemporary masculine symbols. An axe, scaffolding, wood, soil, raw materials. She then performs a series of calm and beautiful rituals using the materials around her. It is profoundly moving.
Each ritual appears to be extremely important and yet almost inconsequential at the same time. There is no need to understand them or their significance. She carves a symbol in the soil at her feet, but wipes it all away again in an instant. She piles salt into two equal mounds on either side of a scaffolding tower, and then scoops it up and it is gone.
As she builds a tower in the centre of the space, piece of scaffolding by piece of scaffolding, climbing it level by level, we being to feel the risk and precariousness that she is talking about. She stands at the top and presents us with some kind of battle cry ‘we who are changing, we who invite trouble, we who waiver, we who leave this place different than when we arrived’.
Theatre is exactly this: we enter the space as ourselves and when we leave, we are irreversibly changed. Every experience we have changes us, shapes us, leaves a trace, and it is something we should hold precious, we should mark and revere. In this piece of reverence and spirituality, it is the human body before us that is at the heart of every ritual performed.
The text is sparing but poetic and lyrical, and tells of Emma Frankland’s classical actor training and her Shakespearean background. Despite moments of ‘acting’ that only occur during the delivery of text, where she speaks polemically and less directly, the emotional connection that she generates is palpable.
This piece is about the many genders that we all are, the space between them and the way in which our identities change. It encourages us to celebrate change, to embrace the freedom that it provides. The tone is powerfully contradictory; delicate yet strong, confident and unapologetic yet subtle and fragile and quiet.
The show will now go to Forest Fringe during the Edinburgh Fringe festival from 24th to 28th August.