New Heights R&D

Spectra’s very first online, live, multi-sensory adventure – a reflection on the R&D process from the team.

Overview from Kate DeRight, Creative Director

As the pandemic hit, we had to put our touring plans on hold and start to think about how on earth we were going to continue our work. We wondered if there was a way we could use a digital platform to devise collaboratively and to create a show that gave the audience an immersive experience as well as providing a sense of agency and connection. Turns out, we could! 

Our starting point was visual: a photograph of a dancer in a patterned outfit that matched the floor they were dancing on. We thought about how we were all melting into our houses, disappearing into the furniture and wallpaper, and also about how very different such a patterned outfit would look outside – inside, it camouflaged us; outside it made us stand out. Working over Zoom led to more talking than we would usually do – we’re always working and making in the rehearsal room. Set against many discussions over the summer about the big societal issues that were at the fore of so many people’s minds, the visual idea of standing out flowed smoothly into our desire to be seen and to be heard.

In developing this work, we looked at games and different types of online interaction; we talked about different sensory experiences in different locations and sent each other personalised sensory parcels; we learned about how film is made and the process of storyboarding; we explored electro-acoustic composition, using sounds the company had recorded on their phones to develop the film scores; we developed a movement sequence taken from gestures we created in response to protest stories we’d shared; we made three films following a group of characters in lockdown at home, going out into the Woods, and into Society; we delivered a sensory parcel to each audience member that allowed them to interact with our live performers using touch, taste, smell, sound, visuals and play.

Working on New Heights has been a joy – and a real privilege given the hardship faced by so many at the moment, particularly those in the arts sector. We learned a huge amount and eagerly look forward to developing this work further.

The Artists Reflect

Jess Hakin, Performing Artist

Creating an online show was a new experience for Spectra, but became something that allowed us to work collaboratively and be involved in every step of the process. Having the designers and producer present in our rehearsals from early on meant that communication was much clearer when it came to ideas for the show. It also gave everyone the opportunity to work on different aspects of the show, pushing us out of our comfort zones and providing the opportunity to share skills between us. I particularly enjoyed performing in and working on the recorded films; as someone who is used to performing live in theatrical settings, it felt liberating to be creative in a different way and to collaborate with experienced film-makers to create something which we are able to keep and re-watch. During the rehearsal process, it was sometimes difficult to feel fully connected to other members of the team because the opportunities for smaller group conversations were limited when working on Zoom. It felt like a relief when some of us were able to meet safely in person to work on the films.

Ty Williams, Performing Artist

Working over zoom was fun because I was able to see my friends and audience and family, it was challenging not being able to see the group in person and not being able to do the filming outside and I really enjoyed seeing how the background worked for Circus Steve and to perform the live show. 

Robin Jax, Performing Artist

The sense of creative discovery was just as rewarding through online collaboration as it was in person. As mentioned before, it helped that I knew the performing team IRL from my experience on Eat the Stars. Working outside of my principal creative discipline made it hard to fairly evaluate my contributions. Watching it back on screen made for a very dysphoric experience. Filming wasn’t something I’d done much of in my previous projects, and doing this in some very public spaces was a unique challenge for me, but surprisingly I found this part very enjoyable!

Joe Clixby, Performing Artist

Physical space and interaction has been so key to the work I’ve done with Spectra before, that I was really unsure what form our devising sessions would take let alone the performance. It took barely two sessions for these uncertainties to be blown away by the incredible commitment, hard work, and openness of every member of the team. It felt like we hadn’t missed a beat since the last show. For me, my flat being my relaxing space and work space worked really well, it meant that I could get back into the right head-space whenever I needed to. Working on the music in the way we did was a totally new experience. Live music has been such a key part of Spectra shows, the issues with latency and audio meant that we couldn’t have it, which opened up so many new avenues we would have never thought to take, and resulted in some of the most satisfying and collaborative songwriting I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of. Manipulating real world sounds from our own little slices of life and creating music with and around that made such a fitting soundtrack to the show, and it felt natural and real, even though we were all in our separate houses. This is testament to Paul and Kate’s incredible facilitating and creating skills. I missed being able to see the Spectra family in the flesh so so dearly, but by the time we’d started the project we’d been locked down for so long, I was just over the moon to be able to hang out with everyone, let alone talk through heavy social and political conversations which were weighing on our minds, and create a show which I’m so proud to have been a part of. Viva Spectra. 

Hayley Guest, Movement Director

My role as Movement Director is focussed on devising creative tasks for the company, based on the themes and narratives we are working on. I ensure that the movement tasks are inclusive and accessible to everyone in the company, so that all the performers are able to fully contribute their ideas to the creative process. I will then use these initial ideas from the company to feed into movement sequences or prompts for improvisation, often continuing to develop movement with individual performers so that movement sequences showcase everyone to the best of their ability, whilst still being challenging! For New Heights, Kate and I discussed in detail how we wanted to allow the three different spaces to influence the movement. As much as possible, we wanted the movement to respond to the sensory environment around the performers – the sights, the sounds and the feel of the spaces they were in. On the filming days, the performers worked with a gestural sequence that had been created prior to the filming day, alongside movement prompts which were designed to allow the performers chance to improvise, play and explore the environment. 

The company couldn’t be physically together prior to filming days, so the gestural movement sequence was created via Zoom sessions as part of the creative process. Ideas and plans for the film content were discussed and designed by the full company via Zoom too. This was definitely a new way of working for me and I felt that as we went into filming days we were going with the full input of the company. I felt that the improvisational, playful responses to the environments created beautiful, spontaneous moments. The movement looked, and felt, genuine. As performers, it was wonderful to be able to express our joy at finally being able to dance together (albeit socially distanced!) in a shared space. 

Being able to dance in a woodland is definitely a highlight for me! Moving with the other (wonderful!) company members in a space, after so much time away from the studio, was AMAZING! Creating movement for film was a new experience for me, and although it was strange not to have a ‘performance day’ as we would normally have, I really enjoyed watching the live show and films on the sharing day. It was a treat to be able to enjoy the live performance, and see how the audience reacted to each aspect. My family loved the sensory box of treats and took great delight in exploring all the items along the way.

Kaye Winwood, Sensory Designer

I have worked as Sensory Designer with Spectra for a few years now. Each show is always inspiring and ambitious. This is the first time we have worked on a digital platform and it was really exciting seeing it all come together over a couple of months. I was truly impressed with how the Director managed this change of space from physical to virtual, still maintaining inclusivity and opportunity, whilst being creatively rigorous throughout. 

The sensory boxes were a fabulous way to engage the audiences, and by mirroring some of the items on screen – such as fabric samples – we tried to make the audience feel even closer to the performers and performance. The addition of taste, smells and textures was intended to heighten the audience’s screen experience, so that they felt an intimacy with place and despite the physical distance they had a shared experience with other participants. 

It was wonderful to see the performers and the audience interact with the sensory boxes – me and my family included – and I mean what a treat to receive a parcel in the post. In many ways, working from home eased the working process, making it more manageable to attend more workshops than I have during previous project R&D, and it was really beneficial to spend more time being part of the entire creative process and spending more time with the team. 

Paul Carroll, Musical Director

Spectra always works with original music, which is developed alongside a show’s overall concepts and the movement, drama and sensory dialogue. All the cast members have at least some input into the creation of the music, regardless of musical experience and technical skill. For New Heights, all wider company staff were at some point involved in all aspects of the show and that goes for the music too.

One of the overarching questions for each individual was, “What does lockdown sound like to you?” Everyone began to listen more and grab interesting sounds in their homes, communities and nearby natural environments using their phones. The musical team, also performers in the show, had further discussions about how things sound different when you’re confined to the same few rooms more than usual and how things sound different outside the home when there are less people around. For example, Robin, who managed to make a flight to visit family when it was permitted, noted that in the huge waiting lounge at the airport he could hear sounds from the opposite side of the building, sounds you wouldn’t usually be able to hear had the lounge been at its usual capacity of bodies. So we made further recordings of quiet sounds close-up and loud things from far away and used them as stimuli for further composition. Soon we began to hear rhythm, tone and harmony in the sounds captured. Those of us with digital audio tools at home arranged the sounds into layers and repeating loops. I made virtual synthesisers on my computer which pitched sounds up and down in real time so they could be played on a keyboard.

This was a relatively new process for us because Spectra performances are often outdoors, without the benefit of electrified amplification so we write music that can be played on acoustic instruments and sung. For New Heights the music really does represent how Spectra works in the broader sense: everyone plays with new ideas, adds their skills, mixes it all together and sees what comes out the other end.

In using found sounds we were dabbling in the contemporary electroacoustic world, whilst the majority of the cast’s experience as musicians is in the Pop, Indie, Punk, Rock and Hip Hop genres. Textures and swells came from the wind and traffic, rhythmic content came from Kaye’s printer, Poppy bouncing a ball and Tyrone’s door bell as well as footsteps on the forest floor. We found chords in Joe’s washing machine and in an air-conditioning unit outside Sainsbury’s. I made virtual synths out of my squeaky garden gate and Tyrone’s food mixer. Inevitably, however, we were drawn back to our familiar musical skills. The found sounds inspired instrumental ideas more conventional to us as we added drums and guitars and arranged into verse- / chorus-like structures.

And all this without meeting up. We found that everyday technology such as mobile phones and email were good enough to engage and involve the entire company. For a Research and Development project New Heights turned out to be a very comprehensive outcome. Everything was produced to a standard we can be proud of. To hear the movement performers’ positive response to the music and then see it put together side by side in the finished films was a very rewarding experience. In the past Spectra shows have come and then practically disappeared but this time with the films we will have something to share forever.

Here are the 3 films that were created for New Heights: