The challenge with ‘The Exeter Riddles’ Project was to create a performance event that would act as the climax of both the Animated Exeter and the Extreme Imagination festivals, and would involve and attract the public despite taking place outdoors in the middle of winter.

Philip Reeve, author of the Mortal Engines books, had written a new story for Extreme Imagination, entitled The Exeter Riddles. This envisioned time leaks breaking out around the city, caused by some mysterious power source, and depositing bewildered denizens of past eras (Cavemen, Romans, WW2 Blitz Wardens & Land Girls, etc.) at various familiar locales.

Under the direction of Mischief La-Bas, elements of the story were woven into the finale. As a conceptual ‘glue’, Artistic Director Ian Smith introduced a ‘Ministry of Historical Defence’ to begin an awareness campaign about the ‘History Leaks’, by multiple street interventions, press releases and poster publicity. This fictitious but credible ‘government body’ created a great sense of mystique and sustained a constant presence as the various characters began to ‘pop up’ and animate the city. The local press were enjoined to engage with the campaign, printing regular tongue in cheek scripted news reports. Posters were to be found in bus shelters and shop windows promoting the efforts of the Ministry of Historical Defence and calling on citizens to come to their aid, for the sake of their city and ultimately Britain itself.

The public proved their willingness to investigate an experimental piece of work by turning out en masse on a very cold night to see the finale. Part promenade and part installation, it mixed projections with theatrical storytelling and historical re-enactment to thrilling effect. Based on the premise that the source of the time leaks had been traced to the city’s ‘Heartstone’ buried in a local park, the ‘story’ was presented by means of AV projections and a small amount of pyrotechnical effects emanating from a focal stage whilst various historical characters animated four satellite performance areas. To the insistent sound of drilling shattering the night air, the reawakened Heartstone was revealed.

The project received a huge amount of enthusiastic support and commitment from the Exeter community. The College and University were both drafted in to supply students from various courses including performance, music, journalism, video and prop-making, as well as technical support and expertise.

Producer: Val Wilson, Exeter City Council

Artistic Director: Ian Smith

Artists: Sumit Sarkar (AV) and Ewan Hunter (Design)

Performance Directors: Angie Dight and Paddy Bonner (both of Mischief La-Bas); Fin Irwin (Bicycleshedtheatre); Rachel Vowles.

Physical theatre workshops: Matt Freeman (Le Navet Bete).

Funding by the Arts Council of England, Exeter City Council and Heritage Lottery Fund.

Photo credits: Matt Austin