Art & Events Interview Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Silvia Mercuriali: Swimming Home

By | Published on Friday 1 January 2021

You may recall that in mid December we recommended an immersive work for you to experience in your own bathrooms by the name of ‘Swimming Home’. If you haven’t already followed our advice and checked this out, no matter – there is still time.

I was intrigued about this production from the first moment I heard about it. And once we had recommended it, I found myself wishing I knew more about it. To remedy that – and to find out more about the artistic force behind it – I spoke to creator Silvia Mercuriali.

CM: Can you start by explaining a bit about the technicalities – how do audiences access ‘Swimming Home’ and what do they need at home to participate?
SM: ‘Swimming Home’ ​is ​an immersive theatre experience for an audience of one that takes place in people’s own bathrooms. ​Developed through interviews with swimmers from all over the UK, the show is delivered directly into people’s home through a phone app called Mercurious-Net, National Ear Theatre. The app can be downloaded here.

Once you have downloaded the app onto your phone, and booked your slot, you will be sent a unique ticket code which you need to insert into the app in order to access the piece. Once you have done that, you leave the app open and the show will start automatically on the day and time you have chosen. The app is available worldwide and it adapts the broadcasting of the piece to the local time.

All you need is a bathroom with either a shower or a bath, a swimming costume, a pair of swimming goggles and a large towel. You will be sent a few simple instructions via e-mail to prepare the room for the experience. Connect your phone to a set of headphones – bluetooth is preferable but not necessary – check that the volume is on full and then let the track lead you through the experience.

CM: Now can you explain a little about what to expect from it? Does it tell a story? What themes or ideas does it explore?
SM: Standing in their bathroom wearing a swimming costume, goggles and some headphones, the participants are led on a journey of rediscovery of their relationship with water, as they prepare to enter their bath or shower.

A sonic reality matches the participants’ actions as they are instructed to move around their bathroom, inviting them to view their surroundings through a new poetic lens, and allowing the bathroom to take on new guises. Sometimes anti-chamber to a municipal bath, other times an outdoor pool in the Hollywood Hills, the familiar shifts constantly through sound.

‘Swimming Home’ is a show about the bliss of floating, the terror of sinking and the natural attraction to water, which connects us all.

CM: What inspired you to create this work? What made you want to do a water-based thing?
SM: My work focuses on turning the real into fiction, super-imposing onto a landscape, a soundscape and a narrative, changing the perception of it. As I have no control over the general public inhabiting the space at the same time as the audience, the real world becomes ‘co-author’ of the piece, writing its own contingent storylines.

The real and the imagined blur, creating a parallel reality which exists only for the participants, whilst around them, the general public carries on undisturbed. The audience’s panoramic view of my work is a melange of public and private interactions, comprising both the random/unplanned and the controlled/scripted.

Growing up I was an ice skater. I have spent many years in ice rinks and sports halls….I find these places very theatrical. The relationship between the viewer and the viewed is very similar to that of an audience and the actors on stage, but with the added thrill of the unexpected.

The actor on stage always knows what to do next. They have rehearsed their lines and decided upon the dramatic turns that the story is going to take. In sport halls, even though the actions have been practised over and over, the conclusion of the event is far from predetermined.

I love swimming. The soothing effect of that moment of weightlessness, setting your mind to a task that only focuses on you, and not on what you might produce. A body floating in water, just moving, breathing, counting, feels like a happier freer body.

I love the anonymity of a municipal swimming pool, and the ease with which we share the space with other people, half naked and immersed in water “we share the fluids… but you really are alone, on your own”, as Maia Rossi, one of the swimmers interviewed, put it.

As the pools shut I decided to create a piece set somewhere that anyone could reach easily and, as the theme was swimming, the bathroom seemed the inevitable choice.

I wanted to be able to offer an experience which could be done easily from the comfort of people’s home. If I couldn’t transform a public pool into a private world, I could transform a private bathroom into a public pool…

CM: How did you go about creating it?
SM: My source of inspiration is often the world of cinema. I have been watching a lot of movies featuring swimming pools – ‘Sunset Boulevard’, ‘The Swimmer’, ‘Cat People’, ‘Water Lilies’, just to mention a few – and digging deeper into the iconic status of such sites, from their rise to fame to the decline that follows, with all its accompanying symbolic meanings .

Water is the driving force of all nature, said Leonardo da Vinci…

I read as much as possible about water, I researched the history of swimming pools and swimming, and the anthropolgical relation that humans have with water. I looked into evolutionary theories, and the role of water in the shaping of the world, and humans, and researched the relationship between mental health and swimming.

And as I said, a big part of the development of the piece was interviewing as many people as possible, from professional swimmers and coaches, to beginners and occasional swimmers, about their swimming habits.

Last but not least, I have been swimming as much as I could… as much as it was allowed.

I loved meeting all of the swimmers and their enthusiasm and openness to the project has been key to its realisation.

The most important thing for me is the quality of the experience that the participant is having. Where are they? What is their relationship with their surroundings? How do they interact with it? Who is the voice leading them within their predicament and what is the overall tone?

Once I have answered these questions the writing can begin. Writing for me is not just about words but about sound. How is the sound changing the way we feel and relate to the world around us?

Then of course, there is a lot of testing, to make certain the instructions are clear and easy to follow.

CM: Who else has been involved in this project?
SM: On this project I have worked with Michele Panegrossi, an artist and technologist – who developed the Mercurious-Net app and assisted me in the binaural recording process – and Giusi Di Gesaro, my producer, whose work building an audience, and managing marketing and ticket platforms, has been invaluable.

I also collaborated with video artist Susanne Dietz on a series of 20 second films to promote the piece; graphic designer Peter Arnold; actors Simon Kane and Sam Booth, whose voices are featured in the piece; and actor and director Gemma Brockis, who bathed for me, to test the actions in the bathroom, and also played the accordion.

CM: You call this kind of production ‘autoteatro‘. Can you explain to us what that is? How did it come about and how have you developed your work this way?
SM: Autoteatro is a strategy I developed with Ant Hampton for the show ‘Etiquette’ in 2007, which explores a new kind of performance whereby audience members perform the piece themselves, usually for each other.

Participants are given instruction via audio, visual cues or text for what to do or say. By abandoning themselves to the script, audience members relinquish some of their responsibility for their actions to the authority of the pre-recorded instructions. The customary roles which demarcate the theatrical experience are subverted.

The actor no longer knows more than the audience. The distinction between audience and performer is radically transformed, and the concept of ‘fourth wall’ is obliterated, as the world of the fictional and the ‘real’ coexist in the same space.

The ordinary and common-place becomes interwoven with audio fictions that seek to confuse, embellish, distort and merge the audience’s perceptions of time and space, whilst maintaining them as theatrical subjects at the centre of the action.

We developed this strategy following the desire to shine a light on the real and unrehearsed. More focused on the peculiarities and uniqueness of the audience / participant, than in the ‘protective mask’ of a character / performer, the autoteatro strategy offers the opportunity to become the protagonist in a fictional story, without having the responsibility to act or improvise, nor the pressure of being watched.

I have developed this strategy further, stretching it and moulding it to different technologies and different contexts. I invite audiences to question what is real and what is not, changing their perception of themselves and the space they are in.

CM: It sounds like you have always been most interested in the kinds of theatrical work that are experimental, immersive, site specific – how did your interest in this begin?
SM: I have always been inspired by non-places: squares, waiting rooms, cafes, supermarkets, places in which you might be anyone, where you don’t need to prove yourself and where you can disappear for a little while, re-invent yourself for a fleeting moment, where you can observe the world around you and let your imagination run free.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s dilapidated landscapes and common faces, Federico Fellini’s lines of cardinals and nuns cutting through the crowds, and John Smith’s ‘The Girl Chewing Gum’ are the things that inspired me and formed my taste the most. All of them directing your gaze to the unwatched, the everyday, the banal, turning it into poetry and fantasy, forcing the viewer to consider their own gaze in relation to the world.

CM: Did you always expect to have a theatrical career? Where did you start out?
SM: I always had the desire to work in theatre since I was young. I studied at The Arsenale School Of Physical Theatre in Milan and worked with a theatre company in Italy until I moved to London to join Ant Hampton under the company name of Rotozaza in 2000. I have also worked as a performer for SHUNT, Clod Ensamble, Vincent Dance Theatre, and recently Punchdrunk on the ‘The Third Day (Autumn)’ for HBO.

CM: This kind of work is entirely suitable for a pandemic situation, of course… but has the pandemic impacted on your creative output?
SM: The piece was originally conceived for an audience sitting in the viewing gallery of a swimming pool, watching people swimming their lanes. I wanted the audience to discover themselves part of a bigger story, where reality and fiction merge, confusing the line between real and illusion.

In response to the pandemic, I decided to develop the piece as a triptych of shorter stand alone experiences: act one taking place in people’s homes and therefore allowing people in isolation to access it; act two for a lone swimmer during their training; and act three, finally, in a municipal pool. Each act influences and informs the others, creating a multilayered experience, which reveals itself slowly and that gradually take us back to a world where communal experiences can be had safely.

This pandemic, whilst not limiting my creative practice, it has challenged it and pushed it. As the kind of work I make does not rely on theatre spaces, requires no actors other than the audience/participants, and utilises basic technology, which is available to anyone, it has managed to adapt to this crisis more easily.

Of course lots of shows I had booked for 2020 and 2021 were cancelled and I had to re-invent a way to distribute the work to the audience independently. From this necessity, I have developed Mercurious-Net to distribute the work and I have been able to reach out to audiences in Brazil, Mexico, Germany, Australia, South Africa, Denmark, Italy, the US and France, creating a direct dialogue with the audience.

As the piece adapted to the pandemic, it also generated a parallel project which I am very fond of: ‘DIY Swimming Home’. After having taken part in the show, participants are invited to send us a picture of themselves ‘swimming in their home bathroom’. The response has been beautiful and it will be soon available online. Anyone can take part even if they haven’t done the piece.

This project is slowly building a beautiful community of ‘home swimmers’ from all over the world, all connected by their respective plumbing system. Now that we are so distant from each other and kept separate in our own bubbles, unable to travel, I especially feel the need to connect more. ‘DIY swimming’ does this with the simple action of taking a picture. ‘DIY Swimming Home’ was part of Brighton Photo Fringe 2020, diversifying the medium through which I express my artistic ideas.

CM: What hopes do you have for the future? Do you have any other work in the pipeline?
SM: I am working closely with Michele Panegrossi to develop the app further in order to include my other autoteatro shows: ‘Wondermart’, an autoteatro piece for two, set in a supermarket; and ‘The Eye’, developed for Fuel Theatre and The Guardian, a piece for one person and a small mirror.

I am also currently working on the Italian and French versions of ‘Swimming Home’, which will also be available through the app, and after that I will be starting to work on ‘Swimming Home Act Two’.

CM: During lockdown, many theatre companies have been creating work to be accessible in people’s homes. Do you think this might have begun a new era where online accessible performances become a more regular thing?
SM: I think the pandemic has given more visibility to a lot of work which was already there.

A lot of artists’ practices have been developing new ways to interact with the audience beyond the traditional theatre setting long before 2020. As venues have been shut for so long, audiences have been looking elsewhere for entertainment and culture, and what were perceived as niche experimental approaches have become more apparent to more traditional circuits.

While I hope theatre will re-open soon, and we will be able to enjoy the social aspect of theatre as well as great shows, I feel there is a great potential to further explore ways to deliver accessible performances to those who cannot travel so easily or find immersive experiences more challenging.

I do not believe this kind of work replaces theatre, it is a whole different kind of immersive experience which will always exists along side more traditional forms.

‘Swimming Home’ will continue be available until summer 2021. See this page here for more information, dates, and to book.

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Photo: Susanne Dietz