“The person performing in front of you is dying in front of your eyes, as I am dying now. That’s literally true, invisibly so. But if you are sufficiently patient, you will see it…” – Herbert Blau
Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring. is an extraordinary quartet about living, dying and our relationship with time. Comprising three live performances and a film, presented together Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring. is a 7-hour marathon event where audience and performers merge in a piece of mass portraiture that’s fragile, frequently funny, often moving, always human.
Summer. looks at this very moment in time – dozens of people on stage, responding to questions and instructions they’ve never seen before. Re-made in each location with people from that place, Summer. is about lives being lived and it’s about as live as you can get.
Autumn. is the interval between Summer. and Winter. Like a theatre interval but almost two hours long and full of conversation, expert voices, exploration of the past and predictions for the future. It invites its audiences to reflect on our place in history – and, of course, the chance to eat together.
Winter. takes the form of a film, made with an individual who knows that they are dying. It looks at how our relationship with time changes when we know, in a finite way, that it is running out. Presented in ultra-widescreen form, it is a delicate portrait of a person at the end of their life.
Spring. features a group of women at various stages of pregnancy. It looks to the future and imagines what kind of lives might be about to be lived in the world we’ll leave behind. Fuelled by incessant karaoke and a text built out of hundreds of awkward questions, Spring. asks about absence and presence and what it means to be hopeful.
It began with death. Or at least thinking about it cropped up yet again, on a run, by the sea, in West Cork, in 2013. At first, a vivid realisation that the running was all that was happening and being thought about. Some rare summer sun and that sense of presence that the mindfulness gurus have marketed so well. A mind temporarily and simultaneously emptied of regret and projections about what the future might hold. Just bright running, there and then.
And out of that, the beginnings of the shape of an idea. To make something about our relationship with time. To make something big about birth and death and splashing about in the space in between. Nothing new in some ways – with the benefit of hindsight, it looks like all of Quarantine’s work has somehow done that. We’ve had our inevitable fair share of senescence in our years together and that brings a certain perspective. But there was something about scale and openness that felt important in that moment by the sea. And something about not knowing what might happen.
That run in West Cork began a process. It triggered us to gather some people around and then followed weeks, months of talking and thinking and moments of doing.
In 2014 we made the first version of Summer., in a patched-up draughty warehouse on an industrial estate in Salford. Rehearsal revolved around eating together – sharing food and asking questions, trying out strategies for making the show. At the heart of it is an interest in presence and a focus on how we spend most of our time. A fixation on quotidian detail, the banal behaviours of everyday life. (We keep returning to George Perec’s essay on the “Infra-ordinary”:
“Question your teaspoons.”).
On stage there were 37 people, from all walks of life, selected to span the decades. The youngest was 18 months, screaming her lungs out until she can be in front of the audience - 130 people somehow acting as a collective pacifier. The eldest was in her 80s, witty and quick and weaving amongst the crowd. All sorts in between. They’re a mixed bag. They could be your neighbours. They could be anyone – but of course, they’re not.
It starts with the lights slowly rising to Mr Blue Sky. Tacky but somehow perfect. The performers - because that’s who/what they are - follow instructions projected on a screen behind the audience. (The audience can turn around and read the instruction if they like). They answer questions that they haven’t heard before. They organise themselves into lines according to height and age and where they came from. They dance. They unpack their bags of stuff into a vast assemblage, a field of belonging(s).
Two years later we present the whole quartet in the old Granada Television Studios in Manchester: Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring. Two performances, an installation and a film. A piece of mass portraiture. Almost 300 people spent a day together – audience and performers merged in a 7-hour marathon event of life passing, fading and emerging. A huge bar of floodlights went up and came down. It struggled with what we mean when we talk about hope and offered us the privilege of looking into faces as they looked up, over our heads, tried to follow instructions and vouched for our inexorable relationship with the inevitable….
Summer. was much as it was the first time – the same shape, a different set of tiny voices miked up, another mass movement of people. There was a new thing: a lesson in stage fighting. A comic spelling-out and demonstration of techniques for slapping, hair-pulling, kicking-when-they’re down. The comedy turned sour when through the ramshackle crowd we glimpsed a mother kick a child; a pair of men who are old enough to know better, searching for breath as they slugged it out for way too long.
At the end, there was a 20-minute interview with one person. Around them the others searched for and gathered their own possessions that had been strewn around the dance floor and, one by one, they left the space. That last person’s stuff was left scattered around them as they tried to answer.
What were you doing before you came here?
Who do you live with?
What's the furthest place you've ever been?
How long did it take you to get there?
Is there a song you always find yourself singing along to?
What are you very good at?
Did you miss anyone today?
Who knows you best?
What do you think they’re doing right now?
Is there someone you only met once but you still remember?
Who will be there when you get home tonight?
What are you doing tomorrow?
And then a team of technicians and stage managers – all hands on deck – cleared the space and set up tables and chairs and a wind machine. A two-hour-long interval, full of stuff. This was Autumn. A constant soundtrack that sometimes stops. People chatted and laughed or went to the bar or watched from the seating bank. A table tennis table, dominated by boys and their competitive fathers. A silent disco. A long table with ingredients and a cook who taught us how to make samosas – food we prepared for the next audience and for us to eat made by the previous one. We could join a group of people to try to tell the history of the world from the beginning to this very moment. Occasionally someone stood on a podium with signs that they’d written. A table full of experts talked about what makes us tick. A pile of books and their owners had a conversation about everything they’ve ever read. The longest queue was for the clairvoyant. A jumble of people. A kind of chaotic harvest festival, where we might swap what we think we’ve made of it all.
Winter. came in slowly. We watched as the stage was carefully and deliberately swept into a neat line of debris. A huge, panoramic screen was wheeled into place. Lights lowered. We were in a cinema.
Winter. was a film that we made with someone who knows that they are dying. The first version, with a man called Angus Dunn, the father of one of Quarantine’s researchers, wasn’t completed because Angus died before filming could take place. For the quartet, filmmakers Rachel Davies and Dan Saul alongside composer Graeme Miller, worked with Mandy King-Holmes, the aunt of one of our key collaborators on the quartet, Lisa Mattocks. Mandy was in the last months of her life, suffering from lung cancer. The film was shot in and around her home in York, asking Mandy to think about time – what had gone, what remained, what the future might look like without her.
A year later, in Groningen in the Netherlands, Lisa collaborated with Sarah Hunter, on a new version of Winter, with 24-year-old Femke Yntema as the subject of the film. Femke had a degenerative condition, shared with other members of her family, which meant that her life would inevitably be cut short. She lived much of her life in a room at home where she was surrounded by everything and everyone she needed. Lisa and Sarah relocated 24 objects from Femke’s room to the outside world, re-placing them where they had originated, or imagining where they might end up. Femke died, aged 29, in June 2022. It was a privilege to have met and worked with her.
When we staged the whole quartet, we took a pause after Winter. It was a useful moment to stop and catch our breath and reflect. Behind closed doors we re-set the space. Spring. arrived. A stage full of pregnant women and babies. A text built out of a thousand questions that described the arc of a yet-unlived life. The piece was driven by non-stop singing of karaoke, song after song.
Let’s get it on
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Into My Arms
Mr Blue Sky
The sun keeps on rising. Some people are still here, some have gone. I haven’t run for a while, but I hope that I will.
Richard Gregory, Director, Summer.Autumn.Winter.Spring.