Gecko is a Ipswich-based cultural gem that it’s time we all knew about
- Credit: Archant
Ipswich-based physical theatre company Gecko is a major name on the international stage but is not so well known at home. As artistic director Amit Lahav tells arts editor Andrew Clarke, all that is about to change
Gecko, one of the world’s leading physical theatre companies, used to be one of Suffolk’s best kept secrets. Work, developed and trialled in Ipswich, is performed at Covent Garden and tours the world but, in the past, only those ‘in the know’ were aware of a cultural powerhouse quietly working away behind the scenes in our county town.
Happily all that has now changed. The company’s profile was boosted when it received the honour of opening an evening of live performance from BBC Television Centre last year, staging a piece entitled The Time of Your Life.
And earlier this year, in collaboration with DanceEast, it staged ‘7 Schools, 1 Town’, a filmed community dance project in which seven primary schools made five minute dance pieces, each highlighting an iconic Ipswich landmark.
Gecko is one of eight National Portfolio Organisations (NPO) based in Suffolk and one of five in Ipswich.
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This breadth of talent and creativity is what lured founder, performer and artistic director Amit Lahav to Ipswich from his previous base in Bristol.
NPOs are arts organisations which receive long-term funding from the Arts Council because they are judged to be creating work of national and international significance.
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At its heart, Gecko is all about storytelling and creates work which explores the human experience in an ever-changing society.
“Because we have shows touring all over the world, it is easy to overlook the fact that we are based in Ipswich and work is developed here,” says Amit.
“That’s why we were delighted when Kirsty Wark introduced us as being from Ipswich on the BBC live broadcast because it focuses the creative spotlight on the town and says that world-class culture is being produced here.”
Amit took the opportunity to take part in the New Wolsey’s Pulse festival earlier this summer to preview their new show The Wedding.
Although, Gecko’s previews look as polished as a finished production, Amit has a reputation of taking shows apart and rebuilding them from the ground up.
Some change more than others.
It can take years for a piece to evolve, grow and settle into its finished form and people who watched a 60 to 90 minute preview may only recognise a few brief minutes in the final show.
“I always liken the Gecko process to a painter working on a large oil painting – except if it was a Gecko painting Constable would have changed the Hay Wain each time he moved it to a new gallery.
“But, the way oil painters work is that they can work on a subject, look at it, decide that they don’t like an element, say a curtain for example, and get rid of it the following day. That’s what we do but you have to paint it first, to see if it works before you get rid of it.”
The BBC production The Time of Your Life was a huge challenge because not only did Amit have to devise a piece in three months – it usually takes two years to fine tune a Gecko performance – they also had to liaise with BBC technicians and camera operators.
“The BBC had no desire to film a live theatre performance. It had to be a piece created for live television which meant that the camera teams were part of the performance and had to be just as choreographed as the performers.”
Amit describes the experience as both nerve-wracking and exhilarating.
“It was incredibly tense and wonderful at the same time. The camera team were great and were desperate not to screw it up.
“It was a learning experience for all of us.”
The result is that Amit, very much a live performer, is now intrigued by the use of cameras and audio-visual elements in future work.
“I think as an experiment it worked very well and I can see how film, video and camera work could be used in future Gecko work and it taught me that I think in shots when making a show.
“For someone who has come from the world of theatre, I never felt that Television Centre was an alien place to be.”
For the time being though, work like The Wedding is based firmly on stage with a live audience placed at the heart of the action. Even using projections seems like an unnecessary add-on.
If he uses camerawork then it would have to be fully integrated into the performance, he says.
“I have given projection a bash but it just hasn’t clicked with me. I am so into the tactile and the physicality of performance and how you work with ensembles and make something come alive in a very human way that I am not drawn to using very modern technology.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything that looked gimmicky.
“I want to work hard to make things succeed on stage. I want to make things work in a very humble way. When I go and see work which is packed with tricks, I get turned off. I want to produce work that speaks to people, has something to say. I love it when you can look into the eyes of another human being and have that person to person moment. The best shows work because you feel it. You get drawn in by the emotion of the piece.
“I am very wary of things which are very clever but are not very moving.”
As Amit talks it is clear that emotion and communication are the twin themes that his work returns to time and again.
His shows are often about the way that relationships work, how people interact with one another and what we mean when we communicate with one another.
Although, Gecko produces physical theatre there is dialogue in the work but it isn’t always clear or intentionally audible.
Amit enjoys playing with the sound and rhythms of speech. He says it becomes another form of music and emphasises the point that we don’t always mean what we say, that the true message is often implied or left unsaid.
“The sound guy on the
BBC broadcast had real trouble
with that concept.
“We had dialogue in that which drove him nuts because he kept saying he couldn’t pick it up clearly and I kept telling him: ‘Don’t worry you’re supposed to’ but he couldn’t accept that. It went against 30 years of training.”
He said that his previous show Institute had a long run in London before going off on a world tour, which included new destinations like places like Khazickstan.
Amit also visited China to develop possibilities for creating a work which would speak to an audience there.
“But, apart from that, much of our time and energy has been spent on developing The Wedding which is our brand new piece and getting it ready for Pulse certainly concentrated our minds.
“For me the focus has been trying to uncover exactly what it is.
“The rhetoric of the year before, when you are coming up with the initial ideas, has to die away and you have to dig down into the piece and discover what it is really about – what is it trying to say and what are you trying to say?”
He said that the germ of the idea for The Wedding was born from his fascination with the rituals which accompany wedding ceremonies around the world.
“Culturally it’s fascinating to compare the similarities and differences between what happens in Malaysia, for example, and somewhere like Greece.
“I wanted to look at weddings all over the world and compare as many as I could.
“Then I wanted to bring in the concept of another type of marriage. A marriage between the citizen and the state. I find this fascinating and I am asking the question: ‘Is this a forced marriage?’ Can we explore divorce? What would that be? What are the terms of the contract? Why do I feel that my lover and partner The State keeps changing the rules?
“The challenge for me in the making process is: Can I make that metaphor come alive?
“Then how do I include a more romantic idea about marriage as well? Something that has real purchase with an audience – something which is culturally meaningful.
“It’s a real challenge but this is why our shows take a long time to develop – to get right – which is why we try them out with audiences to see how they respond and I can see whether what I had in mind is actually what plays out on stage.”
He said that his ambition was that Gecko would be increasingly seen as part of the Suffolk cultural landscape.
“We are a community-minded origanisation. I live in the town with my family. Our kids go to school here. We loved driving the 7 Schools project and we want to bring that creative energy and that experience of making something to communities across the town and the wider county.
“Yes, we make work that goes all over the world but we also make work with local people right here on our doorstep and that’s equally important.
“It’s all about engagement and community and that’s Gecko.”
Why Gecko chose to move to Suffolk
Amit moved his company to Ipswich from Bristol in 2008 because of the supportive reputation of both the New Wolsey Theatre and DanceEast.
Suffolk’s cultural reputation has never been higher and Amit found a warm welcome in the town.
Sarah Holmes, chief executive of the New Wolsey, offered the new arrivals office space at the New Wolsey Studio and Amit started developing his imaginative and intricate performance pieces in rehearsal rooms at the Jerwood DanceHouse.
“I love the energy and the creativity to be found here in Suffolk. It’s also very nurturing, supportive place. It’s very easy to work in a collaborative, crossmedia way which is very important to us.
“DanceEast and the New Wolsey are extraordinary venues – and I have worked all around the country – they are phenomenal, and the people who are running them are phenomenal and that’s why I am here. Brendan and Sarah have great hearts and they are doing great, great things.”
He said that by forging evercloser links, the companies provide a wonderful advert for what modern Suffolk is all about.
“Suffolk is producing extraordinary work and we are very pleased we came here. The facilities and the audiences are superb. Audiences are warm, welcoming and very perceptive.
After we have shared a preview the comments and the discussions we have afterwards are always very revealing. Again it’s all about collaboration, communication and community.”