A Greenwood Mass

FIVARS 2022 Spotlight: A Greenwood Mass / Offeren Y Llwyn an interview with Tracy Spottiswoode

At Lavernock Point in 1897, Marconi sent and received the world’s first wireless messages across open water, via the marriage of electromagnetic waves and Morse Code. His invention was to save countless lives at sea. In the churchyard at Lavernock lie sailors, artists, parishioners, the drowned and the dearly beloved, their lives told in brief on the gravestones. For some, the butterflies dancing in the autumn sunshine are their only visitors now. If we could tune into the right wavelengths, what stories would we hear?

This bilingual performance piece was created to offer solace in a form of communal ritual during a time of isolation and is inspired by the history, mythology and geography of Lavernock and the poetry of 14th-century Welsh bard Dafydd ap Gwilym, whose poems celebrated love and nature. FIVARS had a chance to speak with director Tracy Spottiswoode.

What lead to the creation of this piece?

Tracy Spottiswoode In 2020 the Covid lockdown brought everything to a standstill and at one point in Wales we were restricted to a 5-mile radius. The little coastal church at Lavernock Point – the site of my late husband’s grave – is just outside this 5-mile limit, which prompted thoughts about separation and loss and how the absence of habitual rituals at this time made the feeling of isolation all the more intense. Loved ones died and there were no funerals at which to gather and grieve their passing, no comfort in shared mourning or celebration of life.

Lavernock Point is where Marconi sent the first ever wireless message in Morse Code across open sea. It was the beginning of modern communications technology. In that time of isolation, how hard it was to communicate with our fellow human beings. At a physical and emotional distance, much was lost in translation.

Once the lockdown was lifted, it was a joy to come together with the creative team and devise a piece for this site, responding to its history and ours but also our present. We shared memories of different rites and ceremonies – meaningful and nonsensical, mysterious and poignant. We wanted to create for the audience a feeling of taking part in a communal ritual that might offer solace, even catharsis. To say, welcome friend, join us in this weird act of senseless beauty, we made it for you, you’re not alone.

A Greenwood Mass

What was the production process for you and your team? What did you learn?

We devised the project in a similar way to a site-specific theatre piece. This is a section of a portmanteau production inspired by the history, mythology, geography and language of the area surrounding Lavernock Point on the coast of south Wales. We filmed in different places – on the beach, in the church and at an abandoned WW2 gun emplacement. The sites gave us threads and themes to work with, and the overall piece was structured on a journey through the stages of life and death and rituals associated with those stages.

We learned that – as with devised site-specific theatre – you don’t need a script to start with. It felt more satisfying to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the audience and what they might like to see in that location, which could surprise and mesmerise and delight them. We learned to acknowledge the camera from time to time, so that – hopefully – the audience feels included and immersed in what’s going on.

The second lockdown put a halt to the project before we could shoot the final scene. I had to teach myself the whole post-production process which was challenging at times and took up most of the second lockdown period but was worth it in the end. This was made on a shoestring and required a lot of patience and determination. I truly believe it’s an art form in its own right. The support of FIVARS has been invaluable.

Happily, we had the chance to come together two years later (last month in fact) to film the missing section.

A Greenwood Mass

How did you become an immersive media content creator and why?

I started out as a performer and designer, working a lot in devised and site-specific theatre, often in the landscape or some ruined building somewhere! A period with Columbian theatre company Imagen, who created immersive projects where audiences entered singly at intervals and journeyed through a labyrinth of different interactive spaces, was very influential on my work. I created a similar labyrinth for a Czech theatre in Zlin, combining the history of the town with Alice’s adventures Through The Looking Glass. It blew people’s minds – in a good way.

When I first experienced VR, it blew my mind too. I saw the potential to use my site-specific theatre skills in a similar way, but with the possibility of this being more accessible and available to audiences worldwide, through a headset. I like surreal, dreamlike, non-linear narratives – fellow Welshman Peter Greenaway is a big inspiration – and VR is a natural fit, with its otherworldly quality.

In 2018 I was lucky enough to receive a Creative Wales Award from the Arts Council of Wales, which supported me for an 18-month period of R & D into storytelling in XR. I still work in traditional film, have several features in development and recently completed a short that’s going the round of festivals at the moment. But I completely love VR as a medium and am excited to make work for it, however, and whenever I can.

What is the VR/AR industry like in your region?

There’s a fairly robust games and animation industry, plus some companies using VR/AR for tourism and health. However, I think I am the only person in Wales making this kind of artistic, live action VR. I’m very excited about the new immersive space at the Wales Millennium Center in Cardiff, which for the first time offers a dedicated venue to show this kind of work. It could be a game-changer.

What do you have planned for the future?

I have the premiere of the longer 50-minute portmanteau piece – A SIGNAL ACROSS SPACE / ARWYDD DRWY’R AWYR – coming up in November 2022 at the Wales Millennium Center in Cardiff. We filmed the final section of this a few days ago and I’m working on the post-production all through October.

A Greenwood Mass

What would you like to share with fellow content creators and/or the industry?

Keep at it, you don’t need a big budget or a massive team, there are ways and means. It’s still nascent and we are few and far between so let’s help each other out as much as we can.

Do you think VR festivals like FIVARS are important?

SO important! FIVARS gives a platform to creators whose work won’t necessarily be seen at other festivals but who are nonetheless a crucial, inspiring and vibrant part of the ecosystem. I’ve seen so many interesting projects through FIVARS that gave me inspiration for my own work. And being selected for FIVARS not only shone a spotlight on my work that helped me get more commissions and funding but made me feel that all the hard graft is worth it in the end, that someone out there is on the same wavelength and appreciates what I’m trying to do as an artist. Thank you FIVARS.

Learn more about A Greenwood Mass / Offeren Y Llwyn at FIVARS in FALL 2022

A Greenwood Mass