Impact case studies

Performing mountains

Interdisciplinary research project forges new relationships between climbing and performance

Professor Jonathan Pitches

School of Performance and Cultural Industries

Impact summary

Climbing may often be described as a sport or a pastime but rarely is it considered to be an art form.

Research conducted as part of an 18-month project (2016-18) led by Professor Jonathan Pitches in the School of Performance and Cultural Industries (PCI) is set to change that.

Supported by £250,000 funding from the AHRC and £15,000 from the Arts Council of England, the Performing Mountains project set out to discover the meeting points between theatre, performance and mountains and has enjoyed several major outcomes already.

In November 2017 a new practice-led research performance, Black Rock, in collaboration with the legendary British climber Johnny Dawes, premiered at stage@leeds.

Created by a team of artists led by PCI post-doctoral research assistant Dr David Shearing, the live performance was followed by screenings of a professional documentary chronicling the making of the piece, at the Kendal Mountain Festival, then at Arran, and at the largest mountain festival in the world, at Banff, Canada in 2018.

Black Rock is influencing the way in which mountain festival organisers and producers think about the value of live performance, encouraging some of the most influential players on the festival circuit to embrace the performing arts as a key part of their cultural offer in the future.

The project also provides a hub for other artists working in (and on!) mountains and has brought them together with prominent mountaineers and climbers in a series of recorded public talks Mountainsides and at an international symposium, all hosted by PCI.

At these events, Everest veterans Doug Scott and Stephen Venables as well as contemporary explorers such as Jo Bradshaw have rubbed shoulders with performers and artists including the celebrated performance company Lone Twin and the site-specific artist and designer, Louise Ann Wilson.
Unplanned but equally welcome is a new project, sparked by these meeting points led by photographer Rachel Ross and Occupational Therapist Marlisse Elliot, using film to give voice to climbers’ sense of (sometimes fragile) identity.

Underpinning research

Mountains are places of great cultural importance and cultural objects play an integral part in understanding them.

The richness of mountain film, literature and creative writing is celebrated each year across the networks of UK and international mountain festivals, but the place of the live and performing arts is less understood and, before this project, the genre of mountain theatre was undiscovered.

More than three years of research by Principal Investigator, Pitches, has led to a new definition of mountain dramaturgy, a new model of mountain rituals (from the personal to the epic), a micro-history of site-specific work hailing from Snowdonia, and three extended case studies of mountains newly understood through the languages of performance.

One of the most enduring insights is that the capacity of live performance to incite the emotions and excite the senses offers a unique platform to translate mountain experiences.

These ideas all appear in a monograph, Performing Mountains, due to be published by Palgrave in 2019.

As well as a sold-out series of performances of Black Rock, the project has hosted 4 public talks at stage@leeds - pairing climbers and mountaineers with artists - and a carefully curated international symposium.

Insights from these activities have been presented at the Universities of Cambridge, East Anglia, Aberystwyth and at Leeds as well as at Kendal and Banff mountain festivals.

Further project outcomes include a Special Issue of the Performance Research journal, entitled On Mountains, edited by Pitches and Shearing with contributions from academics, mountain archivists, artists and performers and there are developed plans to follow on the research with a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) dedicated to mountain arts.

This research was undertaken as part of the AHRC-funded project, ‘Performing Landscapes: Mountains’ at the Universities of Leeds with formal partner, Kendal Mountain Festival.