Ghosts of the Near Future
emma + pj present
Ghosts of the Near Future
Summerhall - Demonstration Room
August 3 - 28 (excluding 15 and 22 Aug) 12:00pm
Ghosts of the Near Future is a cowboy-noir fever dream about extinction. Colliding music, micro-cinema, and razor-sharp storytelling, it is a hallucinatory Vegas road-trip through a vanishing landscape, a haunting collage of miracles and misdirection. It takes us to the brink of disaster and asks whether we’re ready for what comes next. In our age of climate emergency, emma + pj present a final encore for a world living one minute to midnight.
emma + pj bring the world premiere of Ghosts of the Near Future to Summerhall, the Edinburgh Fringe debut for the London-based performance duo, the collaboration between American theatre maker, Emma Clark and British maker, PJ Stanley.
Gareth K vile: Can I ask how the collaboration between you came about? I am interested in the UK/American connection: does this express itself in the work that you make, and does it insist on a particular approach to making a work?
emma + pj : We first met while studying for a Masters in collaborative devising at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. We were immediately united by a shared passion for experimental performance and interdisciplinary approaches to making, and began collaborating as a duo right after graduation.
Our ‘transatlantic’ identity is absolutely central to our perspective as makers. It informs our reference points and our relationships to home and the wider world. As Emma is a migrant artist working in the UK, questions of rootedness and belonging are never far from our minds. Together, we’re strongly interested in the mythologies and structures that constitute our two nations, and how our work can begin to probe and decipher them.
Our debut show Atlantic explored the chimaera of the ‘transatlantic’ perspective and what it means to communicate across distance. We made the piece on either side of the ocean, believing that where you make is deeply connected to what you make.
In our new show Ghosts of the Near Future, we are playing with a fantastical rendering of Americana-- an uncanny but familiar world driven by received notions and memories more than objective fact. It is the product of a Brit understanding a landscape through genre, and an American viewing home from the distance of an ocean.
Micro-cinema: I think I know what this is, but could you tell me a little more about how this works on the stage?
Strictly speaking, we should probably call it macro-cinema-- the practice of filming tiny objects at extreme close distance. But micro-cinema was the name that stuck!
On stage, we puppeteer specialised live video cameras through miniature dioramas and scenes built out of tiny objects. The video is broadcast onto a large screen above us on the stage, so that a window is opened into a world we don’t normally see or consider– the individual spines of a cactus, the texture of bark and moss, the interplay of light through drops of water.
Using this technique, we create breathing images that exist as a counter-register to the rest of the performance. We knew early on that we wanted this show to exist at scales and rhythms that didn’t just centre the human. We’re greatly inspired by video art, using time and image to create experiences that demand a different mode of watching, more attuned to the natural, the gradual, the organic.
We’re also interested in what it means to watch closely, and the power dynamic between subject-object and observer-observed. Our use of the micro-cinema turns the performer into a kind of puppeteer-archaeologist, exploring objects as-they-are in a sort of radical witnessing that becomes an act of transformation itself. And alongside this, we enjoy the ‘magic trick’ of making images out of simple materials, and weaving stories out of fragments that you might find at the end of the world.
There is so much ambition in your use of genre and content: is this a result of your expansive use of different media and styles, and do you begin with a concept or a particular dramaturgy?
We’re definitely omnivorous when it comes to our tastes and interests. We love fusing together seemingly disparate media or forms, and finding playful friction in their interplay. Often we’ll lead from a place of instinct, putting together pieces that we feel belong together but can’t quite understand why yet.
For this project, we had an early sense that the performance would involve Las Vegas, micro-cinema, magicians, and the desert. During the pandemic, we were thinking a lot about time, landscapes, grief, and disappearance. The word ‘extinction’ kept coming to our minds– the world was facing a great disappearing act, vanishing before our eyes, and we were marking time like ghosts. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how our formal and genre interests combined around this topic, but at the time we were leading from a place of curiosity and provocation.
Once we started making the show, its dramaturgy began to reveal itself. We devise material in a highly collaborative fashion, and for ‘Ghosts of the Near Future’ we teamed up with a sound designer and scenographer from day one to begin building a world and panning for gold in our stew of genres and interests. We’re still in the process of experimenting, and aligning made material with our intentions for the experience. The process never ends- the real art is knowing when to let go and allow the work to speak for itself in front of an audience.
In making a work that addresses the climate catastrophe, does theatre still have a role to play in public discourse? Is it a 'moral' medium to use for a subject that might ask hard questions about the nature of the event's production?
As a medium, theatre has a unique potential and potency. In the theatre, we find ourselves at the intersection of narrative, shared imagination, gathering, and embodied experience. In this collective space, we can stage and rehearse alternate possibilities for how we live together and approach the challenges of our time. The live space is inherently a co-created space, and co-creation is the basis of all that is political.
Having said that, it’s important to note that we don’t see our work as educational or didactic. We see ourselves more as curators of space, creating temporary micro-climates where political questions can be engaged with on different levels- emotional, embodied, non-literal even.
With this project, we are making work in the context of climate emergency but also in the shadow of all the other extinctions that loom on our horizon: extinctions of nation, language, ideology, and the tiny personal extinctions that come all too soon and linger all too long. Theatre has a unique potential to combine these big, macro political questions with more intimate personal explorations in the shared moment of live experience. That’s it’s true gift.
We’re not sure that morality is a metric we’d apply to our work or to the medium at large. We do feel that it’s critical to speak about the ethics of performance and the way work is made. Theatre has in many ways been a hugely unsustainable industry, both in terms of its environmental impact and the exploitation of its labour force. We’ve been inspired by the advocacy of groups such as Staging Change, the Theatre Green Book, and the many grassroots movements to improve sector sustainability. We’d like to see more collaboration in this space, particularly between larger organisations and smaller companies and groups. It’s a conversation that’s still got a long way to go.
How are you feeling about coming to the Fringe (this is a variation on my usual 'why would you put yourself through this challenge?' questions!)?
It’s a real mixture of excitement and dread! You are right to say it is a challenge– the systems in place at the festival put an immense amount of risk on individual artists and companies, and a lot of the ‘building back better’ statements made during the pandemic by large organisations have resulted in little tangible change for freelancers. It’s a huge amount of pressure to take on in addition to the spectre of Covid and the cost of living crisis.
That said, there are so many things that are thrilling about the Fringe - the amount of work you can see, getting to meet artists and audiences from all over the world, the opportunities it can present professionally. The Fringe remains the biggest platform for emerging experimental theatre makers like us, and we’ve got wonderful partners supporting us on this next step on our journey. The time felt right to take a leap of faith.