Working with Babeworld on inaugral Digital Routes programme
6th October 2021
What’s in a name: the early years
imitating the dog: a name that was born from the need to have a company title for an application to the National Student Drama Festival that was taking place in Scarborough in 1998. I remember hours of throwing different ideas around and then, in desperation, looking through art books that were on the shelf in the room we happened to meeting in. A book of Eric Fischl’s work, full of images of a twisted suburban existence resonated and then we came across a painting of a naked woman in a leafy back garden. It was disturbing, but only when you looked past all that recognisable Americana. It was a little bit weird. It was a little bit dirty. Something of that strange thing that happens when humans seem animal like. Running around the garden on all fours, bare arsed. It grabbed our attention, especially the title: Imitating the Dog.
We were putting the finishing touches to re-staging our first show Einmal Ist Keinmal, which had been the final year piece completed by a group of students at Lancaster University. Set in a dressing room imagined as a kind of purgatory, five figures are summoned to a stage that we never see to perform weird sex and magic acts. We see the figures leave and come back. What happens on stage is absent, beyond a grainy image flickering on a live relay TV monitor. And they talk. They squabble. They dream of leaving. That was the show and people seemed to like it. It did well at the festival and so we decided to make another show. That’s how it started. Twenty-one years ago.
That summer of 1998 the company moved to Leeds: Simon Wainwright, Richard Malcolm, Alice Booth, Seth Honnor, Charlotte Stuart and me, Andrew Quick. The second show, Ark, received in-kind support from The Studio Theatre, at Leeds Metropolitan University and we begged and borrowed the set which included a small raised wooden stage and an industrial canvas sheet as a backdrop. It was physical, like Einmal Ist Keinmal. No technology this time. We wanted to create other worlds. We wanted to tell stories. There was lots of dancing. And water. Film was our main reference point, although the technologies of film making were completely absent. We did not have the cash. Then the technology got a bit cheaper and somebody in the company bought a hand-held video camera. This low-fi technology made its way into our third show, Guilty Pleasures. We had received a bit of Lottery Arts money from The Nuffield Theatre, in Lancaster, our first funding. We made a road movie of a journey that set off from Leeds and arrived at Filey Beach just as the sun was rising. Against this track, which we put on a TV screen centre stage, we played out scenes from T.S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion and we returned to some of those suburban obsessions that delighted us when we looked at those Fischl paintings three years earlier. It was all a bit muddled. It tried to be dirty. It tried to be weird. We were finding our voice. It was a classic third album and we were lucky to survive it.
Then we got our first commission from the Gallery and Studio Theatre in Leeds. Annie Lloyd’s support was so vital for us, looking back. We made Five Miles and Falling. The audience watched from inside a lift and saw the action at the end of a long corridor. We used a TV as a window and back projection. We were beginning our journey into a new world where video and digital technology would be at the centre. But even then, we were always interested in the story. And something of that dirt that Fischl exposed still interests us. Even though we are quite a bit older. People always ask why the name imitating the dog. The answer, for me, remains the same today as it did twenty-one years ago. Theatre is always about imitation in one way or another. Imitating the dog is impossible. It will never do what you want, it will always be out of control, always out of reach, always feral no matter how much you discipline it. So, it is all in the name: imitating the dog.
6th October 2021