Thursday, 25 October 2012

Half-baked ideas about one-on-one

The first one-on-one performance I ever made was carefully constructed to protect me from the audience. That's not how I saw it at the time, but it's something that occurred to me after recently performing a new one-on-one. That first piece, called I'm Listening, featured me sitting in an alcove with a screen in front of my face playing a video of me listening to someone telling a story. The audience was asked to tell me something while watching my recorded face react to someone else's words. It was meant to disconcert people, and it did. It was also an unexpectedly, powerfully rewarding experience for me. People told me all sorts of things; biographical details, funny stories, romantic pain,  boasting, trauma, touching concern for me, hope and distress - in one or two cases I had real fears for their emotional wellbeing, fears the form I'd chosen prevented me from doing anything about. I heard every word, but I didn't know their names or faces,  never had to look them in the eye. I never had to do or say anything. Because of these things,  never really thought of it as a one-on- one performance, more an istallation with a live component. Writing about it has made me realize I need to rebuild I'm Listening, but that's a topic for a different post.

Performing solo has been a pragmatic choice rather than an aesthetic one, and as I've gotten to know more and more people in Lancaster I enjoy working with, I've done less and less of it. Collective awareness, the complicity among performers, among audience, and between the two groups is at the heart of what theatre is for me, and apart from a long-term one-woman show and some storytelling, I just didn't want to perform solo at all, never mind the intimacy and intensity of one-on-one.

And then I read this funny and touching post and thought "This would make a great little one-on-one performance!" With Daniel Abraham's permission I adapted it for ease of speaking and for more British references, and have now performed it at two festivals. I'll be honest; I didn't take it too seriously. I thought of it primarily as a geek joke that people might get, a throwaway, essentially frivolous piece of work that I was doing for fun, and to attend festivals I wanted to attend while my 'serious work' was nowhere near ready to show, and that I'd never perform elsewhere. I'd reckoned without the audience, which is pretty stupid for someone who's given to mouthing off about how it's always about the audience.

I felt that I was very vulnerable performing the show, both in the sense that pretending to be in love with the audience left me open to unwanted romantic attention, and that there was considerable scope for them to steer our interaction away from the course I wanted it to take. A couple of people did, in fact, intervene in the performance - one turned it into a dialogue, the other responded with an improvised monologue of her own. A third may have asked me out, I'm not sure - I've never been any good at that kind of thing. Several people though, told me later that they felt it gave them no room to reply, that my performance held a one-way mirror between us, isolating them from the possibility of communication.

I don't know which of these is true. Maybe they're all true at the same time. I've only performed this to about fifteen different people, and I don't feel I've learned even one fifteenth of what it can teach me. I haven't learned that much yet about one on one performance but I have learned that even when the audience isn't telling you stories, every single performance is radically different from the others. It wouldn't be alive without a real human connection beneath the fiction of the text; and no real human connection is ever throwaway.

Because it was filmed outdoors, with other conversations taking place, this video doesn't have the best sound quality, and of course it can't hope to capture the kinds of things I've been talking about. All the same, it's documentation, and there if anyone wants to see it. My thanks to hÅb Arts  for the video, and of course for the perennially exciting and supportive Emergency festival at which it was filmed. I'd also like to thank Vee Uye  of Larkin' About whose MixTape was based within earshot, and whose kind words were crucial to my rethinking the performance, and Tuheen Huda, the audience member in the video.