Holding Back the River

By Stephen Scott-Bottoms

Creative research can take you many places you never expected to be. One of my strangest ever moments of "how did I get here?" was when I found myself, in the spring of 2017, standing on the raw mud of a river bed in the middle of a major industrial city. The river was still flowing past, far above head height, but I stayed bone dry because I was standing inside a coffer dam—a box of metal sheeting that has been pile-driven into the bed of the river and then drained of water so that construction work can take place at ground level. As I stood there in my hard hat, heavy-duty industrial equipment was swinging around just overhead.

So, how did I get there? Well, naturally, because my latest theatrical collaborators were engineering contractors responsible for installing a collapsible dam mechanism. This was being built in the middle of the River Aire, as it flows through Leeds, England. A little of that story of how I came to be working with the contractors, BAM Nuttall, is told in my essay, "The Rise and Fall of Modern Water: From Staging Abstraction to Performing Place," for the December 2019 special issue of Theatre Journal (71.4). But among the things I do not mention, there is that they invited me inside the coffer dam so I could really get a sense of what we were talking about.1 I was hosted by a site foreman named Mark, who turned out to be not only a lovely and helpful man, but also completely fascinating. So I turned him into a theatrical character and had one of my students play him, in our piece Weir Science. These are the joys of PaR (Practice as Research).

Let me back up a little. This special issue of Theatre Journal is about water. I have been working closely with the stuff now for nearly a decade, and it is the gift that keeps on giving. My fascination began during 2010–11 when I ran a research network project for fellow academics and artists, which was concerned with the possibilities of using site-specific performance (that is, outdoors, away from the theatre building, in non-climate-controlled environments) as a way of reflecting on questions of environmental change.2 The network (funded by the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council, or AHRC) met in three very different locations over the course of a year—a world heritage site, a nature reserve, and one of the busiest, most built-up areas of London—in order to think through some different types of environment and the ways they have changed, or are changing. And for me, the thing that kept presenting itself was water—as ornamental ponds, as streaming rain and rivulets, as the majestic River Thames. I would say that water found me rather than that I found water. It just started calling. Water seemed, suddenly, the most clear and obvious example of the way that the environment itself is constantly active and dynamic.

Figure 1. BAM Nuttall's site foreman Mark Pheasey descends into the coffer dam holding back the River Aire. Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme weir works (May 2017). (Photo: Steve Bottoms.)














Figure 2. Crown Point Bridge, Leeds, viewed from just inside the coffer dam. (Photo: Steve Bottoms.)














Figure 3. The otter habituating the Crown Point weir works, photographed by local resident Jim Willson (reprinted with permission).














We are brought up to think of the natural environment as a "backdrop" for human activity. Backdrop is, of course, a theatrical word but it is a dated one, and so are our ideas about the environment: it is not just the space in which we humans do things, but is constantly active and constantly shaping our behavior (just as we shape it). And water is the very epitome of "vibrant matter" (even if Jane Bennett's wonderful book of that title barely mentions it) whose behavior is both predictable and wildly random, and whose moods affect ours constantly. As I discuss in my essay "The Rise and Fall of Modern Water," there has been over a century now in which the habitual method of managing water in the West has involved treating it as a volumetric abstraction—a resource to be channeled through networks. In the paradigm of modern water, as geographer Jamie Linton has shown, water is only about water, just the stuff that comes out of taps. But, of course, water is so much more than that, and as he argues, we need to get back to treating water as being about everything and everyone. Because all of us, human and nonhuman, need it and use it and indeed are largely made up of it. So we need to start from there, both politically and aesthetically. In very crude terms, that is what my essay is about. 

Figure 4. View of the new weir section at Crown Point, taken from the construction site on the north side of the River Aire. Two common terns sit on the concrete pier separating the collapsible weir section from a remnant of the old weir (foreground) retained for heritage purposes. In the background, the coffer dam housing ongoing works on the second weir section (May 2017). (Photo: Steve Bottoms.)















Figure 5. Hilary Benn, Member of Parliament for Leeds Central, inspects the Weir Science mock-up weir model while talking to staff members of the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme. (Photo: Steve Bottoms.)














But I want to say something more here about PaR, because in a weird way I think it has parallels with water. (Bear with me here.) Practice as Research has become a major component of the research landscape in theatre and performance studies, at least here in the UK, over the last couple of decades. Yet it often seems to me that theatre scholars and grad students treat practical research in performance as if it is just about performance, instead of being about everything and everyone. I have lost track of the number of PaR projects I have seen or read about that seem to be locked away in an arts-silo space, with researcher-practitioners minutely examining some particular formal procedure for rehearsal or some particular technological innovation for the stage. All of which is fine, but not if it becomes the default setting. This narrowed focus is a bit like standing inside a coffer dam while the river flows on around you. There's so much more out there.

These thoughts were rattling around in my head a little when I received the anonymous reader reports on the first draft of my essay. I was pleased that one of the readers was taken with its PaR aspect (which really just comes into play in the last third of the essay), but I was unsure about her/his/their encouragement to me to focus further on this aspect in revisions. The reader suggested that Weir Science and the other riverside walking tour I discuss, Seven Bridges, might together indicate a novel PaR methodology that could be summarized and communicated to TJ's readers. This was flattering, but I was uncomfortable with the suggestion; for me, too much of the existing PaR discourse already seems concerned with self-referential arguments around methods for making things. This is so much the case, that form often seems to dominate or even drown out the question of content. For me, however, content always comes first and form follows: you find the form suitable to the material and the context.

Walking tours are, of course, a useful form for exploring rivers, because rivers are pretty linear things. But Seven Bridges and Weir Science were very different walks, of very different lengths: the main movement of the first was to travel upriver about a mile; the main movement of the second was simply to cross over the river and look at the same spot from different angles. The pieces were different because the content was different as were the collaborators. Over a five-year period working around the River Aire in both Leeds and Shipley (twelve miles upstream), the form of the work I made was constantly shifting with content, context, and audiences. For me, telling stories in pubs and constructing a makeshift cinema underneath water pipes were equally forms of site-specific performance that responded to the contingencies and people we were working with.3 That is why I was uncomfortable with emphasizing the particular form of these walks as a point of focus in my essay.

So what is my point? Simply that I would encourage any researcher-practitioner to get out of the theatre building, look around, and meet other people from other walks of life. For me, one of the most rewarding things about working with and around water has been the sheer range of people I have been able to meet and collaborate with—because water is never just about water. And it is amazing how receptive people can be when you ask them ignorant questions about what they do or where they live, because getting back to basics is often valuable for them also: most people are not asked to reflect on the fundamentals very much. Research like this is a great way to feed your imagination and your content-pool.

Figure 6. Street performers rally an audience for the Weir Science site tour, the crane in the background. Leeds Waterfront Festival, June 2017. (Photo: Jenny Pearson.)














Figure 7. Steve Bottoms (right) as "Guy from the Council" with an audience group for Weir Science midway across Knights Way Bridge, Leeds. (Photo: Jon Dorsett.)














Please note, however, that I am explicitly not recommending a specific methodology for PaR here. I do not presume to assume what anyone else might do in performance terms, with whatever external links they might cultivate. At one end of the spectrum, these could simply contribute to "deep background" research; at the other, they might somehow become the show. All I am recommending are the pleasures and rewards of developing connectivity beyond the academy and the arts world, both of which can too easily become echo chambers. Certainly, my own creative practice has now been shaped by the process of navigating new relationships, trying to make sense of them, and then using them creatively. That is how I ended up at the bottom of the river.

Figure 8. Two older and one younger audience member, following the Weir Science site tour, viewing the river from the north side of the construction area. (Photo: Jon Dorsett.)















1. I blogged in some detail about this visit at http://multi-story-shipley.co.uk/?p=2041.

2. These network activities are documented and archived at www.performancefootprint.co.uk.

3. For full documentation, see www.multi-story-shipley.co.uk.