how to put on a carnival

Well-established festivities such as the Rio Mardi Gras, Notting Hill Carnival, and Gay Pride offer the chance to participate in massive events which effectively create temporary communities. Part of their appeal is the inevitability of an annual occurrence, something special which can be anticipated and prepared for. But there's nothing to stop people putting on their own DIY carnivals to either reinforce or define unique communal concerns.

All you need are at least a dozen enthusiastic participants, a lot of chicken wire, portable objects which make substantial amounts of noise, and a willingness to indulge in papier mache. While sequins are optional, a theme is essential.

Carnival is an expression of both celebration and revolution. By its definition it must challenge the status quo, or at least subvert working- day banality. Carnival totters on the obscene because it provides a licence for people to do things they wouldn't usually allow themselves to do.

Here of course is the contradiction. Carnival has traditionally been tolerated by authorities because it can be seen as a safety valve. The classic Marxist argument is that carnival is a disincentive towards revolution since the oppressed masses are given leave to let off steam and feel temporarily empowered.

The other problem is, that as a social activity, there must be some sense of order imposed on the carnival chaos. It is regulated rebellion.

On 21 Jun, I initiated a summer solstice carnival procession with two colleagues from the University of Plymouth. There were about 60 participants and preparation began a fortnight earlier. The date was chosen for a number of reasons: the pagan connotations would provide strong visual imagery; it was also the longest day of the year, and I was directing a production of Troilus and Cressida on the beach that same night. The cast made up half the participants in the procession which wound its way through Exmouth, and along the sea-front to the performance site.

The procession's themes echoed that of the production: gender transgression, sexuality, war and disease. The idea was that the celebration would start in an ordered way, presenting "nice" socially-constructed images, and would progress towards grotesque distortion by the end of the route. The centrepiece of the procession was a 10ft-high pregnant woman, carried through town, before being smashed open to reveal nasty little votive images of children.

A group of women sang lullabies, dragging baby dolls behind them from pieces of rope emerging from under their skirts.

The participants each had personal reasons for wanting to present these images, but all had in common the need to be masked in order to do so.

Masking is an emotive subject: some people feel that the mask "possesses" the inhabitant, others that the mask allows its wearer to switch on aspects of his or her personality which usually remain hidden.

Despite the fact that the route was planned and the props made in advance, the procession was largely a spontaneous affair. You can collect most of the ingredients but the recipe isn't complete without the setting and onlookers.

Exmouth is a seaside resort and a retirement community. The sight of 20 whirling crepe-papered percussionists followed by giant phalluses and matriarchal symbols surprised, but did not faze, the pensioners eating ice-cream on a summer evening. Only the motorists stuck behind the procession were angered. The police were simply concerned that we weren't asking for money.

Our carnival was selfish, but not in the sense of making money. We wanted to express our fantasises and be tolerated while doing so. The essence of carnival is transforming the personal into the public. It is a shared experience and anybody can do it.


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