Reflections on the Woodland Pavilion

Dr Andrew Filmer

Department of Theatre, Film and Television, Aberystwyth University

Woodland Pavilion at night

Photo credit Jenny Hall

The Woodland Pavilion was a temporary outdoor performance space, located in a small patch of managed woodland on the grounds of Y Plas, Machynlleth, throughout the summer months of 2013. It was designed by Jenny Hall of Craftedspace, with funding from Sustainable Tourism Powys’ ‘Sense of Place’ grant scheme, the Machynlleth Comedy Festival, and Glasu. The Woodland Pavilion opened at the beginning of May 2013 to serve as an additional venue for the Machynlleth Comedy Festival. This reflection serves in part as an evaluation of the functioning of the space, but also as a discussion of what the most suitable ways of evaluating the space’s functioning might be. Through a grant from the Strategic Insight Programme (SIP) addressing ideas of play, space and performance I was able to observe some of the preparations prior to the Pavilion’s opening, as well as attend events and engage in discussions with Hall.

Traditionally, architecture has been evaluated according to technical and aesthetic criteria – how a structure combines components and how it presents itself. These criteria privilege forms of knowledge that are the domain of design professionals. More recently, however, a turn to consider in more depth the experiential dimensions of architecture has begun to emphasise social and contextual criteria. These involve evaluating architecture in terms of its effects, its actions and its users’ experiences. Put simply – not what a building is, but how it performs.

Woodland Pavilion at Machynlleth Comedy Festival

Photo credit Ed Moore

Thinking in these terms, the real value of the Woodland Pavilion may lie not in its technical aspects, nor in its aesthetic appeal, but rather in how it enabled the production of social relations through providing a space that invited appropriation, participation and conviviality. Architect Doina Petrescu asserts that, ‘Making community and making space for community cannot be separated’ , and the Woodland Pavilion, as both a physical space intended for community use, and a small network of local volunteers seeking to facilitate that use, sought to provide a form of supporting structure for the potential actions of others. Celine Condorelli suggests that ‘thinking through the lens of support’ helps us understand art and architecture not in terms of the production of objects, but in terms of the production of relationships. Art and architecture operate to highlight and intensify our relations with each other and our environment, helping us to locate ourselves in the world. They are catalysts for events that change our perception of who we are and where we are, expanding the range of our experience and opening us up to other ways of being. The importance of the arts is frequently expressed in terms of their ability to enrich social life and to transform or empower individual lives. Central to this is the sense that art can help individuals develop the capacity to act otherwise, that is, the capacity to exercise agency. This way of thinking about art and architecture provides suitable terms by which to evaluate the Woodland Pavilion, taking into account its performance as an architectural object in a fuller sense. What sort of relationships did it produce? How was it appropriated and used in anticipated and unanticipated ways? How did it enhance existing public space and contribute to a sense of place in Machynlleth?

The Woodland Pavilion was located on the grounds of Y Plas, in a small patch of wooded ground wedged between the Bro Dyfi Leisure Centre to the west, the council car park and the Machynlleth Rugby Club to the north, and a footpath to the south. The footpath provides a connection between the A489 and the Leisure Centre and Y Plas. Despite its proximity to the centre of Machynlleth, the site feels peripheral to the town proper, looking out onto sports fields and open ground to the south.

Situated amongst the trees, the Woodland Pavilion was a modest structure comprised of a bare wooden platform with a roof of four square hips suspended above it at a slight angle by lengths of chain strung from surrounding trees. The roof was built on a steel frame and equipped with guttering. Formally, the structure appeared as a light-handed intervention into its immediate setting. Its untreated wooden surfaces and the lack of physical supports between the platform and the roof above it opened it to the woodland around. Looking at the Woodland Pavilion meant looking through it, setting up a relational play between the structure, the woodland and the rooflines of the town beyond. It provided a lens through which the woodland could be appreciated as a valuable open space in its own right rather than simply a piece of undeveloped ground. Approaching along the footpath from the north or the west, the Pavilion drew one’s eye to the woods, and as the summer foliage thickened and the wooden platform and roof weathered the Pavilion became more embedded into its surrounds, registering the passing of time and shifting of the seasons. Philosopher Edward Casey observes that, ‘every building is a compromise formation: a middle ground between nature and culture.’ The openness and the spatial porosity of the Woodland Pavilion helped draw attention to precisely the interrelations between nature and cultural in its physical site.

Woodland Pavilion with Hijinx Theatre

Photo credit Jenny Hall

From its inception, the Woodland Pavilion was conceived as a space of connection, linking the Machynlleth Comedy Festival to the broader community, as well as serving to establish and strengthen links between community members and the place in which they live. The Pavilion emerged from conversations between Jenny Hall and Henry Widdicombe, director of the Machynlleth Comedy Festival, in October 2012 about the provision of an outdoor stage for the 2013 festival that would be child friendly and able to showcase free comedy and performance. The intention was that this temporary space would then remain in place throughout the summer so that individuals and community groups could make use of it. In her application for the Sustainable Tourism Powys’ ‘Sense of Place’ grant, Hall wrote that in addition to supporting the success of the Comedy Festival she hoped that the Woodland Pavilion would ‘foster an environment of warmth, care and playfulness.’ In conversation she expressed this as a desire to provide Machynlleth with a ‘space of positivity’ that would help the local community recover from the traumatic disappearance of April Jones.

Doreen Massey considers that any place – such as Machynlleth – is a product of interrelations, a constellation of ongoing processes rather than a coherent thing. Viewed in this way, the provision of the Woodland Pavilion as a space of connection through playfulness can be understood as potentially intensifying the experience and sense of place through fostering more connections and more interrelations. The name ‘Woodland Pavilion’ links the structure to the broader typology of pavilions. Pavilions, as Jessika Green explains, have existed to ‘provide protection and rest in large expanses of land, offer aesthetic and political commentary and have achieved an enduring role as vehicles of artistic and architectural experimentation.’ Green argues that contemporary pavilions – the annual Serpentine Pavilion in London being one prominent example – serve as ‘cultural mirrors’ as well as providing a ‘physical space for progressiveness.’ The Woodland Pavilion can be read as manifesting a desire to address Machynlleth’s recent trauma in a distinctly ecological way, addressing environmental, mental and social worlds together.

The Woodland Pavilion is also immediately recognisable as a performance space, an open-air theatre. The angle of the roof and the three wooden benches that were installed along one side of the pavilion oriented it spatially and functionally, providing it with a back and a front, and indicating a position for an audience. During the Comedy Festival the Pavilion was programmed as a ‘chalkboard space’ where a schedule of events were announced as performers signed up. This set the tone for its use in the months following. Performers working at the Comedy Festival were invited to use it for impromptu public events and, in the words of one comic, it served as ‘a honey trap for stand-ups’ due to its spatial characteristics and its situation on a busy pedestrian thoroughfare during the Festival weekend. Attending the Comedy Festival I observed first-hand the way in which the Pavilion seemed particularly suited to solo performers. The angle of the roof provided an acoustic support for the voice, the platform elevated performers just enough to address an audience, but not enough to physically dominate them, and the openness of the platform enabled performers to draw in and address an audience on multiple sides. The platform was big enough to accommodate larger groups, but not so as to swamp single performers. In quieter moments during the Festival, when otherwise unoccupied, people appropriated the Pavilion and its benches for their own private uses – sitting, resting, eating and conversing. At one point a little girl did an impromptu dance solely for her grandparents.

Woodland Pavilion with Comedian Mark Olver

Photo credit Ed Moore

While the Pavilion was clearly designed for performance, elevating and framing the human figure, it did so in a soft way, providing a degree of indeterminacy and inviting exploration. The platform served as both stage to perform on, but also shelter to gather in; a place of exposure and a place of protection; a place to be viewed and a place from which to view. During the summer months the Pavilion was publicly accessible at all hours, and this meant that it invited multiple uses, from family picnics and small gatherings, to walkers sheltering from the rain. This simple availability of the structure should not be underestimated. It was a piece of public furniture, available to all. Too often spaces provided for public use are heavily controlled or programmed – either through design or management – and this curtails their use for some. That the Woodland Pavilion did not suffer any vandalism or damage indicates that it was adopted and valued by the community. Only in two instances was the chalkboard next to the space defaced. In conversation Hall spoke with me about how she seeks to offer things of value and expects people to be responsible with them. The lack of vandalism suggests that the public valued the presence of the Pavilion and took care of it.

The Pavilion was also actively cared for and maintained by volunteers who checked on it each morning. As important as the physical structure was the establishment of this network of volunteers to maintain and operate the space and provide a means through which the space could be booked and used. This aspect of the Pavilion’s operation was complicated by the actions of Sustainable Tourism Powys, from whom funding was not secured until late March. Prior to this the funding body had requested further information including an itemised construction budget and specific information about how the space would be programmed. This transformed the project from being the provision of a community resource, to being the provision of an arts venue with a programme of events. Given the short timeframe between the provision of the grant money and the opening weekend of the Comedy Festival, the establishment of a network of volunteers was cramped and more pressured than it needed to be. Two contradictory logics were also established. On the one hand was the desire of Hall for a space that would be playful and inviting, one that would evolve organically. On the other was the need of the funding body to have the use of the space pre-established in some way. Petrescu argues that centralised approaches to architecture and planning have limitations. She advocates what she calls ‘microscopic attempts’ that engage with ‘the micro-social segments of public space: neighbourhood associations, informal teams, self-managed organisations, small institutions, alternative spaces and individuals themselves.’ Such ‘microscopic attempts’ allow for the piecemeal and the temporary, and engender participation through a greater sense of ownership and agency on the part of those participating, allowing for the growth of small ventures that identify and claim spaces on the basis of local knowledge and desire.

In meetings during March and April of 2013 Hall met with local artists Dan Gifford and Esther Tew – who formed the core group collaborating on the project – as well as others who contributed in significant ways: Sarah-Anne Morton, Jamie McQuilkin, Rosie Leach and Harriet Wallis. A key early consideration was to provide a way in which the space could be booked at low-cost for events of various scales. A website, linked with a Facebook event page formed the public-facing ingredients, with the website offering a calendar and an online form via which events could be booked. The provision of technical equipment was arranged at different cost to bookers: events were free to book as an individual or an organisation, but the involvement of a production manager would involve a fee, as would use of 12v lighting (£15/hour and arranged by Tew) or a 12v sound system with a mixer and sound operator (£15/hour and supplied by Gifford). Volunteers were rostered on to check and clean the Pavilion each morning, and a contact person was employed to process enquiries and bookings.

Woodland Pavilion with Siyaya

Photo credit Jenny Hall

The novelty of the space and the cold spring in May hampered bookings in the initial weeks. Not all the events that were booked went ahead. A Wednesday evening ‘skillshare’ scheduled throughout May never eventuated, while a fundraising event for Ysgol Feithrin Machynlleth and the Noah’s Ark appeal was cancelled due to rain. A talk by Scottish activist Alastair McIntosh fared better, attracting a good audience of around 30 who benefitted from the more extensive foliage that provided shelter from occasional showers. McIntosh’s ecological message resonated in a space that itself promoted an ecological awareness of one’s place within a broader system of natural, cultural and social networks. A beginner’s swing dance class and tea dance every Sunday in June attracted a regular attendance, while the girl guides made use of the space for their camp preparation. Other events included a summer solstice ceremony for children and families, a drop-in skill share to create your own rocket stove out of tin cans and a performance of Doin’ Dirt Time by Swansea-based Volcano Theatre. Three larger-scale events were organised by volunteer Rosie Leach who used financial assistance (in the form of a guarantee against loss) from the Noson Allan scheme. Taking on a role as a local promotor, Leach organised the staging of The Adventures of Sancho Panza by Hijinx Theatre on 28th June, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Taking Flight Theatre on 3rd July, and a song, dance and percussion workshop by Siyaya on 20th July. At the time of writing further events are being added to the calendar that include a documentary film screening, a tunnel making workshop and a planned final weekend of events at the end of August curated by El Sueno Existe.

The social support structure that Hall organised, to facilitate the operation of the Woodland Pavilion has brought together a number of volunteers and has helped to generate the capacity to stage events and set in train a generative thinking about what sort of events could be planned. The events that have generated the most numbers of attendees have been public performances by comedians during the Comedy Festival, musicians and theatre troupes. But the Pavilion has worked for events of different scales – from that of a young girl dancing for her grandparents up to touring professionals staging Shakespeare. One of the difficulties in inviting individuals and community groups to book and use the space has been its novelty and uncertainty over how to use it and why. Should the Pavilion return in 2014 it will no doubt be used for more formal bookings due to an increased awareness of what it is and how it can be used. To seek to more fully programme the space as an outdoor performance venue may offer more longevity in coming years. Conversely, this may also have the unintended consequence of tying it up and closing its potential down, preventing it from being used in other ways. Perhaps the notion of the Pavilion as a ‘chalkboard’ or ‘scratch’ space could be developed further and combined with the idea of skill-sharing by using it for workshops that teach a range of staging and event management techniques? This would develop the notion of the Pavilion as a community resource where one can play with ideas of making and staging, of appearing with and before others. Developing the capacity of others to imagine and stage their own events seems like a useful focus.

The Pavilion has been used and valued by the community of Machynlleth and the relationships it has produced through its operation have been enabling and capacity-building. It has provided a point of shared focus for the volunteers involved to facilitate community and family-friendly events as well as provide a simple piece of furniture that has been actively appropriated by a range of others. The Pavilion is an object of curiosity that invites exploration and experiment and opens up new perceptions of the woodland in which it sits. It extends the social space of Y Plas and of Machynlleth. The value of the Woodland Pavilion resides precisely in its ability to intensify the experience of place through promoting new connections and this is directly related to its small scale and light impact on its surrounds. The Woodland Pavilion offers an example of progressive architectural practice that uses architectural means to encourage imagination and creativity and to enhance sense of place and community.

References

See Branko Kolarevic and Ali Malkawi, Performative Architecture: Beyond Instrumentality (New York: Spon Press, 2005).

Doina Petrescu, “How to make a community as well as the space for it,” Re-public, n.d, http://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=60.

Céline Condorelli, Gavin Wade, and James Langdon, Support Structures (Berlin; New York: Sternberg Press, 2009), 7.

Edward S. Casey, Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 112.

Doreen B. Massey, For Space (SAGE, 2005), 140.

Jessika Green, “Pavilions,” TiP: Thinking in Practice, n.d, www.thinking-in-practice.com/pavilions.

Ibid.

Doina Petrescu, “How to make a community as well as the space for it,” Re-public, n.d, http://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=60.

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