Gecko have produced six shows in ten years. That’s by no means a lot, nor is it an issue of speed. On their recent three-day run at Northern Stage in Newcastle, they played to virtually sold-out audiences, a notoriously tough ask in the city for medium-scale touring theatre companies. So instead, it’s a real joy that this leisurely but considered output has, over the last couple of years, bred irrepressible excitement upon the very announcement of new venue dates.
So what are the origins of Gecko’s creations, the processes of the company’s development structure (or spontaneity) and the nature of time well spent? Gecko makes work that is as visually, physically and technically intricate as the ideas one can absorb from it. Institute has been two years in the making, from late 2012, knocked around in residency workshops and choreography sessions, to reblocked scenes, to outright rewrites. How much rehearsal time is enough? Is there ever “enough”?
“Some shows begin with quite a strong, forceful seed”, says Gecko Artistic Director Amit Lahav, “but Institute had a gentle seed at the heart of it, in its most embryonic state, and that was to do with care. I often spend time in schools and colleges delivering residencies and my philosophy is that whatever I’m working on will be what I take in with me. I started to look at care and pushed students in terms of the notions of a carer-patient relationship. They were very physical beginnings that started to build an emotional landscape. The process is really about following my nose, not trying to over-contextualise it, but consider what it makes me feel about myself and also the people I’m working with.”
This led Lahav to start scaffolding the essential emotional framework that powers every Gecko show, which then took him into conversations about the show’s intellectual potential in December 2012. But the risk is that any honesty, or passion, or truth if it can be said, also has the capacity to fall away if an emotion is overanalysed. Lahav explains that “in January 2013 for example I wanted to spend a very physical week or two with one of the performers. It’s about asking how far we can take that idea of two people trying to care for each other (or vice versa). That all comes from the work I would have done with young people in the previous year.”
“From there, we build it a week here, a week there, before I have a period of concerted development which gets me away from the physical aspect in the studio. Everything is filmed and everything is discussed. Each of those weeks can potentially get more and more technical, busier, more specific, more people in the room and so on. I might suddenly say ‘this is going to be a fuller company week, I have some serious ideas to explore’. I might choreograph some things, throw some things out, and I’ll start to shape an outline with technicians. At this point I’d already started to bring in filing cabinets that were chiming with what I was thinking.” For chronology’s sake, Lahav tells me that “we’re at about March 2013 at this stage. We then decided to show a piece at Pulse Festival in Ipswich in June, so we had a full-on development period before that. By this point it was still a work in progress and the show was about 50 minutes long.”
“At Pulse I knew I was onto something powerful. And after the festival we were back in the studio honing in on small stuff to do with detailed choreography, and in that period I’m writing the next stage of the show and how I want to structure it! Through all that time I’m working with the co-designer, composer, lighting and sound designers. So June 2013-January 2014 was all development.”
As mentioned, the look and feel—and even smell—of a Gecko piece hinges on its precision. The emotion is key, yes, but Institute is a seriously well-oiled machine, drilled and danced to the point of stars-aligning accuracy. “So January was a month of teching at DanceEast. That to me is writing. It’s about, ‘if this light comes from here rather than here, it means something different’. Building the emotional world. We did six weeks teching [overall] then we opened in Derby.”
Of course, its diegesis doesn’t stop there. “Every time this is teched and performed it changes quite dramatically. After the Spring 14 run, I had two months when I didn’t think about the show at all and then a very explosive creative flurry where I more or less rewrote 65% of the show. By the time we got to Newcastle it was very different. Essentially it was a new version. Newcastle was maybe version 3 – or version 3.1…”
This genesis, ever-changing and responding to its surroundings, does wonders for the final production. It’s clear when digesting it all that Institute has transformed many times (in a good way), spiritually one might say, and that each audience member will draw considerably diverse and private conclusions. (Of course, this is true of all theatre but seems to underpin Gecko’s creative motivations quite fundamentally). “It’s central to the style of the company”, says Lahav. “It’s relevant to every Gecko show that they always have a mirror effect. The invitation in the work is very important: it’s supposed to be generous and humorous to allow you in. Once you’re in, crafting your narrative into the piece is what makes it a rich experience. If it was purely about watching what was on stage and not embarking on any emotional journey, you’d only be left with the skill of the piece. We’re going to join together here and that’s what makes it special. If people in the bar are only having one conversation then I’m doing something wrong.”
This organic mode, connected to a dialogue Gecko has with an audience, speaks to the creation of epic theatre as much as our appetite for it. “The way a Gecko show builds is often epic”, explains Lahav. “Where do you go with that? How do you really take that on? I’ve always felt that we would need to find something ritualistic. So ritual is the name of the piece [Institute]. It’s about how we are going to free ourselves. Is there a way that the piece can tell a story while somehow allowing us to save each other? Or can we cure each other? If you want something to live for three years, four years, and keep growing, it’s gotta be pretty rich, it’s gotta have a lot about it, otherwise it won’t carry. It has to have that much detail and craft – and really that’s how the company lives.”