This summer, in situ: will be performing the Greek tragedy The Bacchae as an open-air, walk-around performance.
We are delighted that professional sculptor Melissa Pierce Murray is to be our artist-in-residence during rehearsals and performance, contributing not only her acting skills but her sculptural creativity.
In this interview, Melissa talks about her artistic approach, how she has worked with in situ: during rehearsals, the part her sculptures will play in the performance, and the upcoming Performance Sculpture studio sessions she is offering to the public in Cambridge in February and March (2024).
Melissa, tell us a little about yourself, your background and what you do.
I grew up running around barefoot in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I’ve been in close proximity to moose!
I went to university with intentions of studying drama and physics, and took side detours to perform dance, to race bicycles, and to work at a synchrotron. I have double degrees in English Literature and Physics.
I first came to Cambridge in 1994, seeking adventure after deciding that graduate studies in physics wasn’t quite the adventure I wanted to have.
But I did somehow decide that being an artist was the right adventure. I learned to draw, carve stone, weld steel and cast bronze. I got an MA in Fine Art and learned to write in art-speak – to speak of what happens in the studio using words such as ‘interrogate’, ‘subvert’ and ‘liminal’.
I try to make intriguing objects and to create novel contexts for engagement. One of my favorite artworks was made of stacked clear blocks of ice and inky spikes of steel. The work took inspiration from tensions between volcanic and glacial forces in Iceland. I used a chainsaw to cut the ice.
Why are you interested in the collaborative process? Why have you chosen to collaborate with in situ: in our production of the Greek tragedy The Bacchae?
In the past I collaborated with dancers to create interactive sculptural spaces. I filled Wakefield Cathedral with dynamic Awkward Objects (2019). In performance, the dancers could demonstrate how the works defined physical spaces for bodies to inhabit and interact with, and show how these works also portrayed an emotional territory of feelings and experiences.
Working with in situ:
Working with in situ: is giving me an opportunity to expand my understanding of how people respond and interact with my sculptures. I’m thrilled to be working with the company – Richard, our Artistic Director, creates a brave, exploratory space to transcend any inhibitions about using the body to express. As well, I’ve an interest in classics and find the tropes and stories of Greek theatre so relevant and provocative.
You are an actor in the in situ: company. And as we develop our Bacchae project, your sculptures are also becoming part of the production. How does that work?
I’m fascinated to see crossovers between performance devising and studio experimentation. One of the ways I work is by creating a ‘sculpture kit’ of sculptural elements, then using these to create compositions and explore ideas in the studio.
During our rehearsals, I have invited my fellow members of the company to view the sculptures not as props nor as backdrop, but as actors in their own right. We responded to metaphorical and suggestive properties of the forms.
As part of our rehearsal process we’re also exploring the site in Wandlebury Country Park where the eventual summer 2024 performance will happen; this will help me get a sense of scale and potential. Over the next several months I’ll then be working in the studio to create a set of sculpture pieces for the performance.
When the company moves to full performance on site, what part will your sculptures then play?
I envisage the sculptures moving about the woods with the actors while sometimes taking on roles themselves: as chorus, as counterpart to a protagonist. The meanings and interactions will emerge over the next several months of rehearsal.
What impact do you hope your sculptures have on the audience watching the play in summer 2024?
Certainly interaction with the sculptures is having an enlivening effect on the actors!
And I’m wondering if it’s possible to use the sculptures as a stimulation to involve or even include the audience.
Melissa, you are also offering a wonderful opportunity to the public to join you in a series of hands-on sculpture classes in Central Cambridge in February 2024. Can you tell us more about these and how we can sign up?
I love creating opportunities for people to connect with and explore their own creativity. I’ve worked with all ages, teaching stone carving to adults, experimental drawing to teens, and imaginative possibilities to scientists.
With these upcoming sessions I hope to do something a bit different. I will be teaching sculptural techniques but my aim is for all the class participants to play with ideas of performance together in the studio – and perhaps also in other environments. I’ll have a limited number of people in the classes, so I can really work individually.
Performance Sculpture Studio Sessions
Get creative, get your hands messy and make something extraordinary! Learn techniques including casting, modelling and construction while exploring interactions between sculpture and performance.
Free taster session: Thursday 15 February 7-9pm
Classes: Thursdays 22 February to 28 March 6-9pm
Cost: £150 for 6 sessions, materials included