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Setting the Table, Setting the Stage: preparing and performing meals for Summer.

Shared Meal Credit Kate Daley

Fig. 1. A shared meal at Old Granada Studios, 2016 image courtesy of Kate Daley.

Welcome to the Table

We are in a studio space on the second floor of HOME, an arts venue in central Manchester. There is a grey dance floor, held down with white tape. Floor to ceiling windows on the left hand side of the room look out over a railway bridge, the thick glass muffling the sound of passing trains. Daylight is fading as the afternoon gives way to evening and the city becomes illuminated in the glow of artificial light.

A meal is about to be served. 

In the back right corner of the space a woman, Kam, is unpacking insulated boxes from a trolley that she has transported across the city from her kitchen in Bolton, fourteen miles further North. The trolley is borrowed from a theatre company, Quarantine, and has been dug out of their storage unit to be used specifically for this purpose. 

A meal is about to be served and a rehearsal is about to begin. 

While Kam unpacks the food, the creative team from Quarantine set up the space. Four long trestle tables are assembled. The legs are easy to carry but the table tops are heavier, more cumbersome, and it takes two to maneuver them securely over the legs. When positioned together they create a dining space large enough to seat around 50 people. Orange plastic chairs are placed side by side around them. The creative team distribute scraps of paper with questions scribbled on, one at each place setting, like napkins. These are starting points for conversation. Food and drink is ferried to the table: huge dishes of fruit, wicker baskets stacked high with homemade samosas, colourful salads layered in glass bowls, and bottles of still and sparkling water. 

At a kind of makeshift food stall from her trolley, Kam serves out portions of warm curry and rice and invites people to help themselves to yoghurt based sauces from small metallic dishes on the side. The air smells like fresh chili, mustard seed, coriander, cumin, and garam masala. 

Let Me Introduce You

The description above details the beginnings of a rehearsal for Summer., a production by Manchester based theatre company Quarantine. Set up in 1998, Quarantine are an artist-led organisation creating theatre that is experimental in form and approach. Quarantine present work in the UK and internationally, at arts venues and festivals and also in public spaces such as train station platforms, market squares, and cafes. The Productions are made with and about the people in them, devised in collaboration with both virtuoso performers and artists, and with people who may never have been on stage or been involved in theatre before. Performers in previous works have included philosophers, florists, opera singers, refugees and asylum seekers, families, children, older people, unemployed young men, soldiers, dancers, writers, technicians, and, on one occasion, a parrot. Central to each project is an interest in exploring, and creating the circumstances for conversation about, the complexities and contradictions of lived experience.1

Summer. was first devised in 2014 and was recreated in early 2016 for presentation at the Old Granada Studios, Manchester. It is the first in a series of works, which together form a large-scale, long-duration quartet Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring., (three live performances and one film) about the human lifecycle and the ways that relationships to time may shift over the course of a life. Summer. is about the present moment, with a particular focus on the very day on which it is performed. The work is remade with a different, intergenerational, local cast each time it is presented in a new location. In this 2016 version, the company was made up of 45 people who lived within reasonable travelling distance of Greater Manchester - the youngest only six months old and the oldest in their early eighties. In Summer., the performers appear on stage as themselves, responding live to questions about their day such as 'what time did you wake up this morning?' or 'who will be there when you get home this evening?', and practical instructions such as 'everyone wearing glasses find a space on the dance floor'. Many of the questions and instructions are heard or seen for the first time live on stage, so while the structure of Summer. remains similar from night to night, the content can vary greatly depending on who performs what section and what has happened in their life or in the world on that particular day. The audience too are part of this game, their co-presence is foregrounded throughout with instructions such as 'look at us while we look at you' and 'find what moves you' projected on to a screen above the performance space.2

I have worked regularly with Quarantine since 2012, and for Summer. I sat in on rehearsals as a kind of outside observer, undertaking research for my PhD. During my time in the rehearsals I became curious about a ritual that was established as part of the rehearsal process. At the beginning of each session with the performers, a meal would be served. The tables would be assembled to create a large dining space and everyone would sit together to share a meal. This was not fast food to be eaten quickly so rehearsals could commence. Instead, these were home-cooked meals that were allowed a great deal of space, sometimes taking up as much as half of the available time with the performers, and integrated as a vital part of each rehearsal. This practice of eating together continued throughout the rehearsals at HOME and also during technical rehearsals and before each performance at the Old Granada Studios. Drawing on observations from around the table, and later conversations with Kamini Patel (Kam), caterer for Summer. and Renny O'Shea, co-artistic director of Quarantine, this writing traces the parallel processes of preparation that were required to sustain the ritual of these shared meals, and offers a glimpse into the rehearsal process (Fig. 1).

Preparing The Meal

.

[A]fter infancy and before adolescence, when one is shown a thing and told this is a pine cone. It is the world. The pine cone becomes a personal fact. One begins to imitate things and people and to find one's place in the world that way.

Matthew Goulish,  'Memory is This', 2000 3

Samosas are time consuming to make. They are a task best spread over a few days. There is no point in making only a small amount of samosas, it is much more time effective to make them in large batches, a few hundred at once. They keep well in the freezer. In fact, Kam tells me they are best cooked from frozen because a good samosa will have pastry so thin that it will melt if put straight in to hot oil. The first step is to prepare the filling. Kam's favourite are vegetarian - potato, pea and spinach with coriander and lemon, or spiced carrot and cabbage - but they can also be made with minced meat. The ingredients should be peeled if necessary, finely chopped and then fried in selected spices until softened and aromatic. The filling should then be left to cool completely, if possible overnight (this will also allow the flavours to infuse). The next step is to make the dough for the pastry, which must be chilled before it can be rolled thinly, cut into semi-circles, filled, and folded at the edges to form small triangular parcels. The finished samosas should then be put in the freezer overnight or until they are needed.

This is a process that Kam repeated numerous times while catering for Summer., filling her freezer time and time again with hundreds of samosas ready to be fried on rehearsal days (Fig.2). Kam has a finely honed system for preparation and, on her own, can fill and fold 70 to 80 samosas per hour. She first learnt to make samosas at family gatherings as a child, a tradition that continues today. All her aunts will come round to her parent's house in Bolton and get a production line going, some making the filling, others making the pastry, and later (after both have cooled), all stuffing and folding together, producing around 500 or 600 samosas in one day. For Kam, making samosas is a process she has perfected over time. It is a learnt ritual of preparation performed by and passed down through several generations of women in her family, brought to Greater Manchester by her grandparents who moved to England from Samapur, a small village in the state of Gujarat, India. In investing time and labour in the process of preparing samosas, Kam imitates actions that hold within them echoes of the labour of generations of women before her, and through these actions she repeats, but also re-negotiates, her relationship to her family and this aspect of her cultural identity. For example, there are particular elements of this tradition that she upholds - where possible she tries to use spices that have been home ground, a process she is now learning from her mother who knows how to identify high quality spices and how to sift through them to remove any grit. There are also elements of this tradition that she has modified over time, for example she has developed her own methods for folding the pastry (and thinks her way is best), and she will continue to invent new fillings for future ventures, such as the serving up of this Gujarati street food snack at market stalls in Manchester as part of her self-run business, The Samosa Shack.4

Freshly Served Food Image Credit Kamini Patel

Fig. 2. Freshly served up food at a meal for Summer, image courtesy Kamini Patel.

Samosas were only part of the offering at the meals for Summer. rehearsals, an accompaniment to an array of other dishes including curries, biryani, idli, spiced spinach, salads, dhal, soups, chapattis, sambhar, and a recreation of Kam's mum's signature dish - bhaji butties:  'It's carbs on carbs on carbs. It's like a sandwich with spiced potato on and it's dipped in batter and mum puts ketchup and stuff on. They taste great'.5

While Kam was planning meals, shopping for ingredients, soaking and marinating, preparing her vegetables, cooking the dishes and boxing everything up to bring to rehearsals, a different kind of preparation was happening in the studio space on the other side of the city. At times when the performers were not available, the creative team would meet to talk about the concept and structure of the work, and to plan for the sessions with the performers. As part of this, they would undertake their own form of preparation for the shared meals, writing questions to be distributed around the table later as starting points for conversations.

Did you buy anything today?

Was there anything different that you noticed on your journey here?

Is there an object that has been passed down through your family?

What is your signature dish?

What is the scariest thing you have ever done?

Did you miss someone

today?

Through the process of writing questions the creative team could begin to explore the territory that Summer. might cover and find shared, and contrasting, points of interest and enquiry. There were always more questions generated than could be answered in the time available. At each meal all of the questions were laid out on the table and the performers invited to sift through them, to choose from the ones nearby or to wander around the table to find others that caught their attention or triggered a memory, that they wanted to answer or to avoid. In the studio, in the time before the performers arrived, the pile of questions prepared for the mealtimes evoked a curious absence in the space. These were questions written for people who would come later, an archive of potential histories waiting to be brought to life through performance.

That the questions would first be performed at a shared meal was not accidental, but rather part of Quarantine's long history of combining food with conversation, both in rehearsals and as part of productions: 

A soup room.6

A sit down dinner hosted by refugees and asylum seekers.7

A family party, tables piled high with finger food.8

A buffet spread prepared with the help of the audience.9

A series of meals for unknown neighbours.10

A group of strangers, each with a chosen ingredient for a still to be decided meal.11

'Authentic' Chinese cookery classes taught in the homes of people from Manchester, at a cookery school in Beijing, in a pop up restaurant in Utrecht.12

A lunch for two strangers in a curry cafe, food offered in exchange for conversation.13

A samosa production line.14

In conversation with Renny, she tells me this frequent return to the meal is fueled by an interest in the inherent relationship between food and conviviality, and a belief that in the processes of preparing for or engaging in a shared meal people will inevitably reveal something of themselves. As an example, Renny talks about EAT EAT,15 a project she directed in 2003 with and about a group of refugees and asylum seekers in Leicester, which took the preparation and serving of food as its central subject:16 

I was clear from the outset that I was very interested in people and their stories, of course I was, but I didn't want to objectify or create a pornography of experience, so food became a language for people to talk about themselves but in a different way, where they didn't have to reveal too much. For example, when we were deciding on what would be involved in the meal people would say 'we've got to have this if it's going to be a meal!'. So we'd talk about how that could happen, if we could get those ingredients here, and if we couldn't then what things we could get instead. So you know... just in that simple conversation you're talking about a lot. You're talking about adjusting to a different environment, about their relationship to their country, to their host community. You're talking about loss. But you can really just talk about food.

Sitting around the table for Summer. I listened to, and found myself sharing, stories. Sometimes these happened in quiet conversation between two people and sometimes across the table for everyone to hear. The stories ranged from the banal and everyday to more invested accounts of lived experience - past, present, and in an imagined or hoped for future. The process of eating together created a shared space in which people could co-exist for the duration of the meal, facilitating exchanges that could be fleeting or lengthy, and that were - in my experience - often intimate, unexpected and generous.

Renny too uses the word 'intimacy' when talking about the frequent use of meals in Quarantine's work, suggesting that cooking together or eating together can act as a 'kind of short cut to intimacy'.17  She acknowledges this can be genuine or a surface level engagement, but suggests it functions either way because it encourages an awareness of one another's presence. In other words, the shared meal is a space in which people are simultaneously performer and audience. In the context of Summer., that the meals could bring into play these boundaries between inside and outside, public and private, self and other, was one of the reasons they functioned so successfully as a site of rehearsal, for the same tensions were also a key ingredient in the final production.

Clearing up: a conclusion of sorts

With at least 45 people around the table each time, the meals for Summer. most often ended with a gloriously chaotic choreography of clearing as everyone joined in the process of re-setting the room. Scraping (rare) leftovers into tupperwear boxes for later. Removing the dishes. Gathering the scattered questions back into a pile. Wiping the surfaces and carefully maneuvering the table tops back off the legs, piling them together in a corner of the space where they would remain until it was time to set up for the next meal.

Although the routine of preparing for, setting up, and clearing away the meals was similar each time, the resultant performance of the meal was always different, shifting in response to the changing food, the configurations of people, and the varying questions and responses. The tables that were assembled and the food and questions that were laid out on top of them provided the stage and stimulus for encounter, and eating together provided a framework in which multiple acts of live performance could co-exist. From this perspective, the meals served as a form of live dramaturgy,18 offering a loose structure within which the dynamics of the group could be staged but without becoming fixed, creating a framework of convivial uncertainty, in which what happened depended on who was there and what they brought to the table.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

More information on Quarantine can be found at: http://www.qtine.com  

Go to footnote reference 2.

Quarantine, 'Summer.', 2017, accessed online 12 April 2017 http://www.qtine.com/work/summ...

Go to footnote reference 3.

Matthew Goulish,  'Memory is This', Performance Research, 5:3, (2000), 15.

Go to footnote reference 4.

The Samosa Shack is an artisan street food business selling samosas and other snacks inspired by Gujarati cuisine. You can find out more by visiting: https://www.facebook.com/samos...

Go to footnote reference 5.

Kamini Patel, interview with Sarah Hunter, Monday 12th December 2016 (unpublished).

Go to footnote reference 6.

FRANK (2002) was a large-scale installation, made up of 10 rooms, through which audience members travelled one at a time, with one person let through every four minutes. In one of these rooms Renny was serving soup alongside another performer. She reflects "some people would come in, sit down silently and just eat their soup and go, and other times people would really really talk". From Renny O'Shea interview with Sarah Hunter, Tuesday 10th December 2016 (unpublished). For more on FRANK see: http://qtine.com/work/frank/

Go to footnote reference 7.

EAT EAT (2003), for more information see: http://qtine.com/work/eat-eat/ and Rantsoen (2004), for more information see: http://qtine.com/work/rantsoen...

Go to footnote reference 8.

Butterfly (2004), for more information see: http://qtine.com/work/butterfl...

Go to footnote reference 9.

Susan & Darren (2006), for more information see: http://qtine.com/work/susan_an...

Go to footnote reference 10.

Coming and Going (2008), for more information see: http://qtine.com/work/coming-a...

Go to footnote reference 11.

An exercise used by Quarantine sometimes in rehearsals and as part of GRAFT (2011/2012), for more information see: http://qtine.com/work/graft/

Go to footnote reference 12.

Kitchen Project (2012/13), for more information see: http://qtine.com/work/kitchen-... and also: Rania Ho & Wang Wei, 'Kitchen Project: A Grand Tour', FEAST, 2, (nd), accessed online 12 April 2017 http://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/feastassets/issues/Digestion.pdf

Go to footnote reference 13.

No Such Thing (2012-present), for more information see: http://qtine.com/work/no-such-...

Go to footnote reference 14.

Led by Kam as part of Autumn. (2016), for more information see: http://qtine.com/work/autumn/

Go to footnote reference 15.

A fuller description and analysis of EAT EAT can be found in the following article: Sally Doughty & Mick Mangan, 'A Theatre of Civility', Performance Research, 9:4, (2004), 30-40.

Go to footnote reference 16.

Renny O'Shea, interview with Sarah Hunter, Tuesday 10th December 2016 (unpublished).

Go to footnote reference 17.

ibid.

Go to footnote reference 18.

I use this term in relation to the idea of 'expanded dramaturgy' introduced by theatre and performance academic Cathy Turner. Turner uses it to describe the ways in which post-dramatic theatre and live art practices can challenge more conventional notions about the theory and practice of dramaturgy. She states that these arts practices "encourage us to broaden our understanding of dramaturgy beyond conceptions of 'drama' and synthesis of meaning, to encompass processual and open-ended structures [...] examining the potential for multiple narratives, frames and forms of textuality, and including non-hierarchical consideration to both subjects and objects". See: Cathy Turner, 'Mis-Guidance and Spatial Planning: Dramaturgies of Public Space', Contemporary Theatre Review, 20:2, (2010), 150.

Bibliography

Sally Doughty & Mick Mangan, 'A Theatre of Civility', Performance Research, 9:4, (2004), 30-40.

Matthew Goulish, 'Memory is This', Performance Research, 5:3, (2000), 6-17.

Rania Ho & Wang Wei, Rania Ho & Wang Wei, 'Kitchen Project: A Grand Tour', FEAST, issue 2 Digestion, (nd), accessed online 12 April 2017 http://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws....

Kamini Patel, interview with Sarah Hunter, Monday 12th December 2016 (unpublished).

Renny O'Shea, interview with Sarah Hunter, Tuesday 10th December 2016 (unpublished).

Quarantine, 'Summer', (2017), accessed online 12 April 2017 http://qtine.com/work/summer

Quarantine, 'Frank', (2017), accessed online 12 April 2017 http://qtine.com/work/frank/ 

Quarantine, 'EAT EAT'(2017), accessed online 12 April 2017 

http://qtine.com/work/eat-eat/ 

Quarantine, 'Rantsoen', (2017), accessed online 12 April 2017 

http://qtine.com/work/rantsoen... 

Quarantine, 'Butterfly', (2017), accessed online 12 April 2017 

 http://qtine.com/work/butterfl... 

Quarantine, 'Susan & Darren'(2017), accessed online 12 April 2017 

 http://qtine.com/work/susan_an... 

Quarantine, 'GRAFT', (2017), accessed online 12 April 2017 

http://qtine.com/work/graft/ 

Quarantine, 'Kitchen Project', (2017), accessed online 12 April 2017 

http://qtine.com/work/kitchen-...

Quarantine, 'No Such Thing', (2017), accessed online 12 April 2017 

http://qtine.com/work/no-such-... 

Quarantine, 'Autumn', (2017), accessed online 12 April 2017 

http://qtine.com/work/autumn/ 

The Samosa Shack, (nd), accessed online 12 April 2017 https://www.facebook.com/samos... 

Cathy Turner, 'Mis-Guidance and Spatial Planning: Dramaturgies of Public Space', Contemporary Theatre Review, 20:2, (2010), 149-161.

Sarah Hunter

Sarah Hunter is an Arts and Humanities Research Council and President’s Doctoral Award Scholarship funded PhD student at the University of Manchester. Her research is concerned with economies of time and temporality in relation to socially engaged art and performance practices. Sarah also works regularly with Quarantine, a theatre company based in Manchester.