Shunt was a collective of artists creating and curating live performance in unusual locations within London between 1998 and 2014.

'Shunt are innovators whose ambitious work has long worried at the definitions of audience, venue and performance, whose power to unsettle and surprise through sheer theatricality have far outstripped the company’s many aesthetic imitators.'
Total Theatre

'a maverick company proving itself more prepared than most to take risks'
Lyn Gardner The Guardian

22 NOVEMBER 2012

“Pioneers of immersive theatre and the group behind what used to be the coolest bar in town, the Shunt collective is back with its first show in two years. Dan Frost meets co-founder and director Louise Mari
“I’d like to think we’re still not mainstream,” says Louise Mari with a cautious smile. The co-founder of Shunt is slumped on a sofa in the bar area of Theatre Delicatessen in Marylebone, where the collective is rehearsing its new show. She’s responding to the suggestion that the growth in popularity of the company’s bold and somewhat barmy brand of experimental theatre has pushed it increasingly towards what might be regarded as ‘mainstream’.
“I think we make decisions that are not commercial decisions, which, for all our naiveté, is something I still really love about the company,” she says. “We don’t sell programmes, we don’t over-charge at the bar, we don’t charge huge prices for our work, and we’ve never been sponsored. We have integrity in what we do, and we always put the art first. Maybe the company would have a bit more security if we’d made different decisions about that kind of thing, but that’s just who we are.”
As you might have guessed, the Shunt team is quite fiercely independent. Which is one of the reasons it has been so effective.
Over the past 15 years, it has become one of the most influential arts collectives in the city, inspiring a generation of experimental theatre makers and performance artists. Some of this is the result of its large-scale immersive productions, such as 2005’s Tropicana or 2010’s dizzyingly impressive Money. But it’s also the effect of the Shunt Lounge, a dark, subterranean bar and performance space that the team ran for six years in the tunnels beneath London Bridge station. As well as being one of the city’s coolest watering holes, attracting hundreds of party-goers every weekend, it was also one of its most dynamic and unpredictable arts spaces.
Shunt invited in performance, exhibition and installation from a vast tapestry of left-field artists of every medium, and used the popularity of the bar as a way of promoting this work to crowds that might otherwise never have seen it.
“There was always an agenda of experiment,” explains Mari. “We wanted to support experimental work in all fields of the arts, to create a community of artists.”
That all came to an end in 2010, when work on The Shard forced them out (Shunt had leased the space from Network Rail). Shortly before the Lounge closed, Shunt opened Money, an avant-garde play that took place inside a giant purpose-built machine in a warehouse on Bermondsey Street.
Avant-garde theatre is a niche market at best. And yet, Money played to sell-out audiences every night for an entire year.
Now, after nearly two years away, Shunt is back with a new production: The Architects.
Loosely based on the Greek myth of the Minotaur, the play will open at the Biscuit Factory in Bermondsey at the end of the month.
“It’s very hard to talk about in any depth,” says Mari, “because the whole point of the show is disorientation, so if I tell you too much about what happens then it might spoil that. It’s not a physical labyrinth. We’re taking on the idea of the labyrinth in terms of something that’s disorientating – for your understanding of what’s going on and your relationship with the performance.”
Funded by the Arts Council, the piece has a third of the budget of Money, which had its lavish production values bankrolled by the success of the Lounge.
“The trouble is, we still have the same ridiculous ambitions,” chuckles Mari. “We’ve just had to temper them a bit. But the environments will still be very interesting.”
This much is not in doubt. Ever since 10 students from Central School of Speech and Drama decided to form Shunt in 1998, they’ve been putting minimal means to masterful use.
The Lounge is a case in point. Mari, now 46, was one of the few collective members with a direct hand in running the venue. She remembers “everyone working for peanuts and never sleeping”, partly because they never expected the bar to become so popular.
“We just thought, ‘Lets put some crates up on end and get a bucket with some ice and beer, open it up and play some music’. By the third week we had 600 people coming in,” she says. “It grew so fast, we constantly had to improve and adapt the space, and get more staff in. Then we’d have to make more money to support these new staff, so it ended up being this monster of a project. We were constantly trying to catch up.”
Which brings us to the question most Shunt fans will want asked: are there plans for another Lounge?
“We’ll never say no, but the idea at the moment is to focus on the company’s shows, because that’s why we started and that’s what we’re about.
“I’m also getting on a bit now,” she adds with a smile. “People keep saying, ‘Let’s do it again’, but I think I’d be dead in six months if we did.”

Jamie McLaren

“shunt return. No introduction required. They have a new show. We caught up with Louise Mari, one of the ten highly prolific co-founders and associates to hear about their much anticipated new production, 'The Architects' - taking place in a Biscuit Factory this christmas. Excited? Understatement!

RR: 'A new work from shunt, inspired by the Labyrinth and the Horror it contains' reads the strap line for The Architects. Tell us about how the myth of the Minatour has inspired your latest show.
LM: The labyrinth has been the springboard for making The Architects - and touchstone for our creative ideas. We don't ever try to literally represent or illustrate our source material - it's just one inspiration for the work, which also is inspired by the space we're in; the skills of the people in the room; the physical journey of the audience through the space, and ideas of who the audience are when they're in the show.

RR: Since the production is taking place in the labyrinth of a Biscuit Factory, is there a sinister hint of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory here?
LM: There is nothing sinister about biscuits. They are an important part of our everyday lives.

RR: Why the re-union?
LM: Have we had a break? I don't feel like I've had a break. I have been working with shunt associate Nigel Barrett and it's been a pretty full on year.
As we all have successful careers outside of the company as independant artists it does get trickier and trickier to find time when we can all be together - it needs a ridiculous amount of diary co-ordination which is a drag.
We are two shunt performers down this time because we have two new tiny shunters on the way - but the girls will still be instrumental in making the show - just not performing. Hannah (Ringham) is back, after being away for our last show 'Money', so that's exciting. When one person isn't around you really feel their absence in the work. I guess it has been eighteen months since we finished 'Money' and I have to say it's been really lovely to all be back together again. Everyone has learned from working with other people in other environments and we all return with new and exciting things to offer the collective and enrich the work.
The shows hold us together. However different we are as people and however we disagree about things outside of the work room we have an uncanny synchronicity of vision when we start to make a show.

RR: Who else is collaborating in the show?
LM: This time we are having some new blood which is a big responsibility. We are using musicians and aerialists who we haven't done before. Saying that, Max and Ben Ringham are writing the sound for the show, as they always do, and Layla (Rosa) will be directing the aerial stuff which is her area of expertise.

RR: We have to ask - will The Biscuit Factory be the new shunt lounge?
LM: V22 at the Biscuit factory have their own Summer Club which is a loungey type affair where they curate artists and events. They just had the finale of the Rio Occupation there, which was really exciting. They're building it up slowly and it's growing nicely into something quite uniquely lovely. For the moment we have no plans to run a lounge - but to focus on making shows and pushing our practice in new and exciting directions.

RR: How have you all spent your time while on 'leave'?
LM: I've been working with Nigel - making stuff for the Tate Gallery at Latitude; taking 'The One Man Show' to the Edinburgh Festival last year; we made 'The Body' at the ICA - where we attached the audience to heart monitors and gave them real looking babies; we made a festival of installations for children in Redbridge; and we're about to embark on some research for a large outdoor, immersive performance for children - based on the true story of Andre Stander, a policeman who robbed banks. David (Rosenberg) has been working with Frauke Requardt making 'Motor Show'. Gemma (Brockis) has just appeared in 'Crow' with Handsprung and is making a show about the English civil war. Hannah has been travelling the world with Tim Crouch and doing her 'Free Show' and is making a show for kids right now. Mischa Twitchin has just done a masterful new show as part of Showtime at Rich Mix. Heather (Uprichard) has just written a play. Lizzie Clachan has not stopped working as a designer and has been nominated for loads of awards. Serena (Bobowski) has had to slow down considerably now she's approaching her [baby] due date - but not too much.

RR: As a collective you've been going since 1998 - you've clearly been a huge influence on how performance is experienced. What have been the most prominent changes you've witnessed within the performance art scene - and where do you think 'performance' might take us in the next 14 years?
LM: The rise of the producer makes our early endeavours at arch 12A Bethnal Green seem very naive and beautifully so now. We all miss the simplicity of those early days. But what has grown is the audiences openness to new work and new ideas - and how they are so much more up for being engaged in new ways without worrying too much about categorising their experience. When we were starting out someone asked me why I was anti traditional theatre, which I found a weird question to be asked. We're not anti anything. We are pro-theatre, pro-audience, pro-experiment. I'm not sure this question would be asked now in such a bewildered way. There are not so many rules - so who knows where that will take us. The important thing is that the audience come with us wherever we go.

RR: Shunt has always had an edge to it: what clues can you offer us on any worldly commentary The Architects might conjure?
LM: One of the suggestions for a starting point was the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, which we reluctantly let go of because it was such a vast beast to tame. But there are still elements of this in The Architects and it hopefully will inform the darker aspects of the experience. There will be a sacrifice.

RR: Is this the ultimate christmas show?
LM: It is going to be wild. You should come. I've never been more excited about doing a show - ever.

RR: What do you want the audience to walk away with?
LM: A sense of awe.

Louise Mari, co-founder of shunt

Shunt is a nonprofit company limited by guarantee and a registered charity 1079471

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