By Suzy Marston, Director of Performance Faculty; IVC
A gauze - or ‘shark-tooth scrim’ in more precise technical terms - is a piece of thin material that can create magical effects when lit as a backdrop on stage.
The gauze was originally bought for a production of 'Twist'd', an original adaptation of Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist, which I created for the stage with sixty students and Rob Campbell in the summer of 2009. The gauze was tailored with two slits, used as entrance and exit points throughout the production, designed to convey a sense of two worlds colliding: the past and the present, or perhaps a world of dreams and one of reality. Added to this, these extra portals enhanced the labyrinthine structure of Fagin's den, through which Oliver, Dodger and the Gang had to climb and clamber in order to reach down-stage centre and Fagin's glowing stove. Meanwhile, flashback films were projected on to the gauze, which we made on location in Cambridge, to depict scenes from Victorian England and Oliver's dark and dangerous life. A sixth form student, Eliot Roberts, edited the films with a soundtrack of romantic piano music. Finally, physical theatre was integrated into the upstage action to reflect the complex relationships between the characters that form this intricate story of love and loss. The show played to sell-out audiences and was described by Artistic Director of Menagerie Theatre Company, Patrick Morris, as "the most inspiring piece of theatre I've seen in a long time".
Since 'Twist'd', the gauze has played a similarly multi-faceted role in a range of The Performance School productions, staged in both the Gropius Hall and what we have come to call Black Comedy, our makeshift and yet highly atmospheric studio space. These performances range from populist talent shows and musicals like Guys 'n' Dolls and Chicago; short devised pieces for GCSE examination in dance and drama; hard-edged contemporary plays like David Hare's The Blue Room directed for A-Level; and classical masterpieces like Shakespeare's Hamlet.
To me, the gauze is a great symbol of what we do because it can conjure such powerful and poetic visual imagery, layering the artistry of new media technologies with the inimitable beauty of live action. It is a scenic resource which is both optically illusive and physically tactile, and students have often gasped with delight when they have seen the gauze lit up during those long weekend technical rehearsals that any Impington performer will remember! The effects of a skim are what first drew me personally to fall in love with theatre as a member of the National Youth Theatre performing in 'A Plague On Both Your Houses', a production which took place entirely behind one, as if it were a cinematic screen. As a teacher, I have always wanted to pass on my passion for theatre, along with the ideas that excited me in developing as a young theatre-maker and former student at the College. Many artists who were educated here and now work here too, such as dancers Amy Holly and Orris Gordon, feel the same.
Moreover, the gauze provides our dedicated student technical team with a real challenge and sense of possibility. When light is shone on the gauze from behind, the surface becomes translucent; when you light it from the front, however, it is opaque. When text and still or moving images are projected on to the material, movement from upstage of it can still be seen with a ghost-like quality; meanwhile, the presence of performers spaced downstage of it can be enhanced by using it to create silhouette. It has proved effective for performers to dance with the gauze material itself, stretching their fingertips on it, or sweeping it up into the air to then jump with it up to the balcony. Essentially, the gauze has helped us to tell many evocative stories, and emulates the techniques of the companies which inspire us to make theatre, such as Simon McBurney's Complicite or Wayne McGregor's Random Dance Company. It allows for actors as they wait to enter to 'see without being seen' and be part of the magic of theatre.
Whilst it has become a bit dirty and torn over the years, this in itself represents the rigour and rawness which characterises the theatre we do here at Impington. The gauze was also bought partly by funding from the PSFA and partly from the Drama voluntary account, which has grown exclusively from ticket profits following extra-curricular productions like 'Twist'd'. It is an object which truly reflects the way we have worked together to build and grow the performance resources at the College. Simultaneously, the gauze's potentiality on stage nurtures the imaginations of the members of The Performance School, so that their work is recognised nationally for one distinct and most vital quality: creativity.