We live in an age of increasing social isolation. Communication technologies and globalisation are causing us to live and work in a way that is more mobile, yet more solitary. The gradual decline of organised religion has yielded an absence of ritual and communal experience for many social groups, while more and more people conduct their most meaningful relationships online.
For several decades there have been artists and writers who have craved refuge from isolation in the potential intimacy of theatre. Peggy Phelan’s book from 1993: ‘Unmarked: The Politics of Performance” interrogated the workings of psychic desire within theatre. She called the relationship between audience and performer “the always already unequal encounter (that) nonetheless summons the hope of reciprocity and equality.”
It is therefore not surprising that the past ten years have given birth to the ultimate quest for theatrical intimacy: theatre for an audience of one. Evolved out of experimental practices pioneered by companies such as Ontroerend Goed, theatre for an audience of one has been sparking discussion among international producers about how to overcome the obvious economic and logistic challenges posed by such singular viewing experiences.
Luckily BAC have risen to the challenge and allowed theatre for an audience of one to attain a national profile for the first time in the UK. In an interview with festival producer Sunita Pandya, James Cowen calls this work that “questions and transgresses the boundaries between audience member and performer in the most personal and intimate way, leading to truly unique experiences that invite the audience to question the ways in which we interact as human beings.”
Intimacy is a complex emotion that often requires the yielding of power by all participants. It is in the giving of weakness that most of the works in the festival hold the possibility of achieving intimacy, or being eluded by it. In Ed Rapley’s work ‘The First Thing’ participants are invited to take a seat opposite Rapley in a large empty room. He has his eyes closed. When he opens them, he says the first thing that comes into his head about the person that he sees before him. With little chance to retaliate (participants are asked to vacate the room as soon as Rapley has made his judgment) this work does little to overcome the division of power between audience and performer. It rather calls to mind the way that we might relate to someone in the street, making an instant judgment based on race, gender or even more subtle nuances of a persons appearance. In Villanella and Hanneke Paauwe’s work ‘Rendez-vous’ participants are taken into a small antechamber where they are asked to remove their shoes and then move to a warm dark room to lie down in a coffin. Once inside they are visited by a woman dressed in white, who plays the part of a slightly saucy guardian angel, forcefully posing questions about the quality of life lived by the participant and how many tears are likely to be shed at their funeral. There are no pauses in the monologue for the participant’s answers and as such the work feels more like an aggressive ordeal than a tender exchange. In Ansuman Biswas work’2free’ participants are invited to “a face to face encounter with the nature of social and personal boundaries.” Equipped with a lantern in an otherwise dark room, participants are confronted by a naked performer who has his feet, hands, eyes and mouth bound with black cloth. A participant can only remove the ties once they are also fully undressed. In my case this process lead eventually to being showered, dried and smothered in sweet smelling oil by the performer, whom I kept blindfolded throughout. For the first time my own vulnerability was matched by the physical responsiveness of the performer grappling with the uncertainty of an erotic encounter in which he could be seen but was unable to see. In Emma Benson’s ‘You Me Now’ participants are invited to sing a favorite song in unison with the performer, who encourages, cajoles and instructs as required. An imperfect but joyful singer, Emma Benson made my heart glow with the simplicity of this shared activity where we made bad harmonies and bum notes in unison.
One on One work can create a space where a performer is willing to risk vulnerability. It is in this moment that the giving of weakness becomes a mutual act of intimacy and “summons the hope of reciprocity and equality.” Not all of the works in this festival were successful in transgressing the boundary between audience and performer in a radical way. But taken as a whole they offered participants a rich playground for different forms of engagement and experimentation that was both refreshing and exhilarating.