There’s a moment halfway through the second 360-degree panoramic listen to the world from the back garden of Gobbledegook Theatre’s headquarters in Christchurch when the realisation dawns that if ever a company was misnamed, it’s this one. For if, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, gobbledegook is ‘pretentious verbiage or jargon’, then by encouraging us to slow down, take time and listen to the world about us, Gobbledegook Theatre is singularly failing to live up to its name. It might be silly, ludicrous even – after all, I’m holding a massive gramophone bell to my ear – but gobbledegook it most definitely is not.
‘It’s nothing more than a quirky way to get people to listen to what’s going on around them,’ says Gobbledegook’s founder and artistic director, Lorna Rees. She’s explaining the installation-performance piece, Ear Trumpet, created for the Inside Out Dorset festival in 2014. Inspired by the myth of the Bincombe Bumps – that the sweetest melody can be heard by pressing your ear to the ground at noon on the round barrows of Bincombe – the piece is driven by a notion that seams of music and sonic emanations can be detected beneath our feet by careful use of ear trumpets. Ear Trumpet features actual music – by Bridport composer Robert Lee – being played through subterranean speakers.
It has since been performed many times and in many places, but the central conceit remains that a team of tweedy scientists from the National Institute for Sonic Geology (NISG), led by its president, Dr Stella Barrows (Lorna), explain the theory to a gathered audience who are then invited to borrow an ear trumpet and listen to the world about them. The piece was two years in the making and has been further refined since. A look at the NISG blog reveals the depth of back-story and research that went into creating the work and is typical of Lorna’s larger projects for Gobbledegook.
‘We play it very straight, so straight in fact that people have been known to fall for it,’ says Lorna. ‘The look we have cultivated is straight out of 1948, but we do acknowledge selfies and mobile phones so it’s like a time slip. Most distressingly, I have to report that the greatest number of believers who bought into sonic geology and the “truth” of what we told them was in Bournemouth.’
This summer, as Gobbledegook celebrates its tenth anniversary, she is taking Cloudscapes out on the road again. Created for last year’s Inside Out Dorset, it took four years to make and is a duologue for performer and clouds in which the audience lies on beanbags in an outdoor auditorium and is invited to contemplate the ever-changing parade of clouds above them while Laura intones a story laced with clouds. ‘It’s the most personal thing I’ve done, yet if people drift off and fall asleep, I take it as the most enormous compliment,’ she says. ‘My dad said he always wanted to drive Route 66, so we did it last year for his sixty-sixth birthday, just me and him, which was incredibly special. It had to be partly about work for me so I cloud-spotted the whole way and worked on some ideas I’d come across that when empires come to an end, it is somehow related to changes in climate.’
Afterwards, the audience is invited to visit the Cloud Box, a converted horsebox where Lorna displays various pieces of ephemera that relate not only to clouds, but also to her family story. ‘Dad and I visited the Museum of Nuclear Science in Albuquerque, which I found incredibly disturbing until I read about Lee Merlin, who was crowned Miss Atomic Bomb in the 1950s and wore a mushroom cloud on her swimsuit. Hilarious. When we got home, I made a mushroom cloud outfit and my mum photographed me in Marsh Lane with the pylons behind.
‘I find Cloudscapes incredibly emotional, I have cried every time I’ve performed it. At the end people come and hug me and talk to me about it, it’s very moving. I’ve been working with hospitals including Dorset County Hospital to perform it one-to-one lying on a gurney next to patients. That will be incredibly intimate and quite special.’
Once again, Lorna’s research has been meticulous and there is a strong educational strand to the work seen to best effect in The Laboratory of Outstanding Stuff, a temporary installation commissioned by the Dorset AONB Team that toured ten primary schools to introduce the South Dorset Ridgeway. ‘We created this field tent that was full of stuff to do with the Ridgeway and staged two performances in each site for about ten children at a time. Then we left them with the tent so they could use it as a resource, but also encouraged them to create their own lab and fill it with stuff they had made or found out about. So they did things like organising field trips to Maiden Castle and reporting back on what they found.’
Gobbledegook’s next project, Mesozoic!, finds Lorna working with the Jurassic Coast Team as artist-in-residence for Dippy at Dorset County Museum for the duration of the Natural History Museum’s diplodocus’s stay in Dorchester from February to May. Working with regular collaborator, costume designer Adele Keeley from Arts University Bournemouth, Lorna has made the Sedimentary Skirt – an artfully rendered garment in three diagonal layers to reflect the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods of the Mesozoic era as they appear in the Jurassic Coast cliff faces viewed from the sea. The Jurassic layer is decorated with ammonites with white Dorset buttons representing the coccoliths found in Cretaceous chalk layers. There’s a Collecting Coat that goes with it, a duffle coat with ichthyosaur teeth in places of toggles and a printed lining that features Dippy (a North American dinosaur) and Mary Anning’s ichthyosaur. ‘It brings it back to Dorset and gets over the fact that Dippy would never have set foot on Dorset soil. I’m hoping we can create a Geology Gown as well,’ laughs Lorna.
My store and studio are reasonably organised, but I adore glorious chaos in creative spaces and that’s what I want to celebrate in Mesozoic!. I’ve seen enough sterile scientific workspaces when I know that palaeontologists – especially the enthusiasts – work in a muddle surrounded with bits of rock and mud, so we’re working with Dr Anjana Ford from the Jurassic Coast Team on a way of creating a performance space like that. This time I’ll be playing an enthusiast, a self-taught expert rather than a professional.’
Underpinning everything about Gobbledegook is Lorna’s finely honed sense of the ridiculous. She loves being silly and if she can be silly in front of an audience, then so much the better. And if that audience is in the street, well, just try stopping her. ‘I love street theatre; I love its immediacy, it’s incredibly democratic and free to watch. If you don’t capture your audience instantly, they’re gone. That means street theatre is very visual and often very funny, because nobody is going to stop to be made miserable.’
The third strand of Gobbledegook’s work has been labelled ‘Disruption & Joy’. It comprises random acts of daftness, fooling around in public open spaces in guises such as Grass Ladies and the Cosmic Cocktails. The former – Mo-w, Daisy and Lawn-a – sport astro turf dresses as they serenade passers by with pop songs; while Cosmic Cocktails involved staging a cosmic disco in the queues for the portaloos at festivals including Camp Bestival and the Larmer Tree.
Other projects have included brightening up a neglected wall with a large mural in an alley near Lorna’s home, hosting the Sixpenny Handley Waistcoat Festival, the portable Art Confessional booth at b-side multimedia arts festival, an arts residency with Coda Music Trust in Christchurch and holding a garden party on a flyover in Liverpool. ‘These are quick things I can do to stave off the temptation to give in to apathy,’ says Lorna. ‘There are lots of things to feel bad about in the world and lots of things that make me angry, but what can I do? What do I have to say about any of it that’s new, or that’s going to change things? Abjection leads to apathy and a reason to stop working. Rather than give in to that, I’d rather go out and try to make a difference to people’s lives, even if it’s just for a moment, just as long as it takes to smile. Shouting at people doesn’t change lives but conversations do, so there’s always time to chat and share ideas, I love that part of what I do.’
And, she adds, it’s very much a Dorset thing. ‘There’s definitely a contemplative aspect to what I do that I feel is to do with Dorset. The process that goes into the larger pieces I make is a long one with lots of research and thought. I need to take myself off walking to think or to write or draw – if I have a meeting in Dorchester for instance, I give myself an extra hour to go and sit at Maiden Castle and just be. I loved living in London for eight years but I had to come back here for the quality of life we can give our children and now there’s no way I could make my work anywhere other than Dorset.’
Now where’s the gobbledegook in that?
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.