Catching fire: Louie Jenkins creates spark at Burning Man

Fire burns brightest in the depths of the Nevada Black Rock desert, or so the stories suggest, where nearly six square miles are ablaze with adventurous artwork, pioneering pyrotechnic performers, and non-stop parties.

 

This is Burning Man: an alternative arts festival which knows almost no boundaries. Since its inception in June 1986, when it was born from the ashes of a giant wooden demigod burnt at a San Francisco beach party by 35 onlookers, the yearly celebration has grown into an international exhibition.

But, unlike most festivals, there are no spectators. Instead everyone gets involved: disciples bring their own artwork, their own living quarters, and even their own food and water for the week-long party. All 70,000 of them, in scorching 40-degree heat.

The story of Burning Man is one of autonomy, decommodification, and, perhaps most importantly, freedom. It was this all-encompassing ethos which first attracted pioneering performer Dr Louie Jenkins to the festival.

“Burning Man is not everyone’s cup of tea,” she says. “You have to surrender to the dust. At the end of the week you, your cars, and everything you own is covered, it’s like being in a Mad Max movie.”

A senior lecturer in our Department of Theatre, Dr Jenkins is a professional actress and director whose innovative theatre explores death, mourning, and shame, with a specific focus on queering narratives. It is this unique approach to performance-making that she teaches to her students at Chichester and further afield at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco.

“The experience of Burning Man was eye-opening, there really is nothing else like it,” she says. “You feel the desert under your feet, yet there’s an entire city surrounding you, and everyone is dressed in elaborate costumes.”

There is a dearth of commercialisation at Burning Man. No brands, logos, products, or anything available to purchase.

Such a fastidious culture is governed by ten core principles, which all participants must live by. Those who have previously attended, including Dr Jenkins, will tell that most pull together into a collective community.

She adds: “The whole event is massive, and bikes are essential to get around on. It’s built on a clockwork system where different camps provide a diverse focus, which means something creative happens 24-hours-a-day.”

Dr Jenkins’ venture to Burning Man was also an opportunity to take her CIIS students – each of whom gains credit for developing a performance project – to the festival.

“There’s not another university in the world that takes its students to Burning Man,” she adds. “The festival is built into the degree, and the students receive credits for their individual performances.”

“The Nevada desert is one of the most barren locations in the world, and my philosophy is if students can perform here, they can perform anywhere,” adds Louie, who leads a module within the Theatre Performance-Making MFA.

Weeks before attending the festival, Dr Jenkins was asked to work with the new cohort of students on the degree. The intensive course culminated with professional performances at Z Space theatre at the heart of the contemporary performance scene in San Francisco.

“Theatre in the USA is far more traditional than the UK in that performers are predominantly governed by directors,” adds Louie. “As an independent artist, much of my work is devised, so I wanted to demonstrate that students can retain their own artistic licence while performing.”

Launched in June last year, the objective of the Theatre Performance-Making MFA is to develop its students through learning and working across alternative and creative cultures. The 18-month course runs in parallel with the Chichester-based MA Performance (Theatre and Theatre Collectives) and includes a four-week residency our University.

The artistic focus of Dr Jenkins has now returned back to Burning Man, after she was asked by its organisers to develop a theatre district for 2016. She adds: “This is an incredible opportunity for me, but also for the Department of Theatre at Chichester.

“The themed districts at Burning Man are massive, and we have been asked to create a visually-stimulating presence based on the thousands of bikes used at the festival. My vision is the Spoke Collective, which includes the expertise of several lecturers at our University.

“This includes Rob Daniels, whose company Bootworks has experience of bicycle-based theatre, having performed at events likes Glastonbury and Edinburgh. It’s incredibly exciting, and will be an unbelievable experience for us and our students.”

For more about the introduction to the Theatre Performing-Making MFA at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, including details of how to apply, visit www.chi.ac.uk/theatremaking. Alternatively for more on Dr Louie Jenkins go to www.chi.ac.uk/staff/louie-jenkins.

Burning Man