Immersive theatre – touchingly relevant

I’m in the UK this week and its bloody freezing – literally 0°C outside – hence my blogging frenzy!

It is that time of year in education – exam madness and the drawing to the end for my senior students – when they have to reflect on all they have learned. What has stuck me in the last few weeks is the impact that particular theatre forms have had upon them. Listening to TPPPs by Tim, Clarissa and Jeff there were some central themes, one of them being the Theatre of Cruelty. Another student, Katie, when asked in a university interview who her favourite theatre practitioner was, said Artaud. All this raised a wry smile from me, because the work of Artaud is notoriously difficulty to teach (and learn). We have so little in terms of definitive thinking from him, save a random collection of essays and playlets, so that much of what he wanted theatre to be is supposition on our part.

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What was made me clear to me, however, was that the students found the theatre form to be  liberating, something that allowed them to explore the notion of what it is to be human, to challenge the audience and immerse them in an alternative theatrical experience.

So it when I read a review of the Adelaide Arts Festival by Etan Smallman in the Huffington Post  entitled Lap Dances, Groping and Public Marriage Down Under: The One-on-One Theatre Where You’re The Star of the Show it not surprisingly caught my attention and I got reading. Here are some extracts:

………Earlier in the week, I made up an audience-of-one for the strangest show in town as I sat bound and blindfolded while being wheeled around a dark basement – with strangers caressing and feeding me before a woman pushed me on to a bed and stretched out on top of me.

The first of a trilogy of interactive performances by Belgian theatre group Ontoerend Goed, The Smile off Your Face had been the subject of hushed chats across the city.

Blindfolded and at the mercy of the cast’s young performers, you have a nose rubbed against your face, marzipan wafted under your own nose and a carrot – and a man’s bearded face – thrust into your bound hands. My fingers were then tightly wrapped around a woman’s neck in advance of us engaging in a bizarre dance.

When the blindfold is eventually removed, you find yourself confronted with, depending on your judgment, a priest or Father Christmas – before meeting the man whose face you were forced to fondle.

He then proceeds to show you a wall of Polaroid shots containing one of you grimacing. Finally, as you stare into each other’s eyes, tears begin spilling down his face while you’re slowly wheeled backwards out of the building.

The experience, which molested every one of my senses, left me buzzing and struggling to sleep. Meanwhile, it left author Kathy Lette – who was in front of me going into the show – worried she’d been “impregnated by a Belgian”.

What’s more, my experience lives on in the form of my Polaroid snap. Yes, the image of my strained face and bound hands will now be travelling across continents as this powerful performance art continues to tour the world.

Evernote Camera Roll 20130325 175058I knew I’d heard of Ontoerend Goed before so started digging and found what I was looking for, a rather dismissive review by Lynne Gardner:

The Smile Off Your Face is more therapy than theatre

I’ve always believed in the healing power of theatre – and this play, which won a Fringe First this morning, certainly feels like a one-to-one therapy session.

I’ve always believed in the power of theatre to heal. There have been times in my life when sitting in the dark, hearing stories being told, has been a life-saver. I’m often amazed at the way theatre provides just the right story that you need for succour at the exact moment you need it.

However, there is a difference between theatre and therapy. Really good theatre might indeed be therapy but it is first and foremost theatre. Theatre is often extremely good social work — and cheap at the price — but the social work is a by-product, or bonus if you like, of the art…..

…….The Smile Off Your Face is quite an experience. You are taken down a flight of stairs, put in a wheelchair, have your hands tied together and are blindfolded. In this helpless state, you are wheeled into a space where smells are wafted under your nose, lights shone in your eyes and your face tickled. Entirely in someone else’s power, you relinquish yourself to them – dancing when you are asked to dance, lying down on a bed when you are told to, and answering questions about yourself, some of them quite intimate. Somehow, it feels safe to speak. I was reminded of the confessional box of my Catholic childhood or how toddlers cover their faces and think nobody can see them.

Many people have come out crying, deeply affected. I’m not going to spoil the final revelation in case some of you get a chance to see it. But although it is a memorable 20 minutes, I’m not entirely convinced that it qualifies as theatre. Having seen King Lear once, you are unlikely to feel that you should never see King Lear again. Indeed, if you were a real glutton for punishment you could see King Lear 25 times and still get something different out of it every time. Likewise, a Complicite or Punchdrunk show. But once you’ve seen The Smile Off Your Face, there would be no point seeing it again because the element of surprise is destroyed. It’s like riding on the ghost train: the first time you’re spooked, but second time round you know to when to duck so that the dancing skeleton doesn’t whack you in the face.

Perhaps I’m being far too narrow in my definition of theatre, but what The Smile Off Your Face reminded me of most was a trip to the beauty salon for an aromatherapy session, where you are stroked and patted amid delicious smells, and lulled into a slightly hypnotic state where unexpected intimacies are exchanged. Its success is less to do with its power as a piece of theatre and more to do with the fact that the more ways we are offered to communicate in the modern world, the lonelier we feel. So perhaps the best way to look at The Smile Off Your Face is not as a 20-minute show but as 20 minutes of one-to-one therapy.

Evernote Camera Roll 20130325 175057

What I also remembered is that having had a few months to consider her experience at the hands of Ontoerend Goed, Gardner changed her mind and wrote:

Second thoughts about seeing shows twice

I imagined that The Smile Off Your Face was one of those experiences that would only work once, but it definitelystands up to a repeat viewing

Last year in Edinburgh I argued that the hit show The Smile Off Your Face wouldn’t bear a repeat viewing…….

I enjoyed the experience immensely in Edinburgh but wondered whether it was more akin to aromatherapy than theatre. I suggested that since the entire thing is predicated on a final unexpected revelation, it wouldn’t really stand up to a second viewing. Well, I was wrong. I saw the show again the other night……..and it very definitely does stand up. In fact because I knew what was happening, I was able to relax into it.

Detached woman of the world that I am, I’m not quite with those who come out crying or claiming that their lives have been changed forever by the experience. I find something ineffably sad about the way that it encourages intimacy and yet ultimately shows intimacy to be an illusion, but this is a genuinely beguiling piece of theatre and made me think how some of the techniques it utilises could be applied in other ways. It’s only on until tomorrow, but bag yourself a ticket. If you can’t get one, the look on people’s faces as they are wheeled out is a performance in itself.

Now for a woman with quite strident views on theatre in all its forms (and one who I generally respect) that was some turn-around. Take a look for yourself here in the video trailer for the show.

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Now people have very polarized views on immersive theatre, theatre of cruelty – call it what you want – so it is up to you what you want to make of its relevance and value. I know what I think!

I’ll leave you here with an interview by Alex Needham with Ontoerend Goed’s co-founder Joeri Smet.

Ontroerend Goed: touch-sensitive theatre

The Belgian theatre company have been accused of betraying secrets, exploiting audiences – and not actually being theatre at all. Not guilty, says co-founder Joeri Smet

Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed (which roughly translates as “feel estate”) like to work a one-to-one basis. In The Smile off Your Face, actors wheel around a blindfolded audience member, then caress him or her on a bed. In Internal, a show which caused uproar in Edinburgh when it played there in 2009, an actor sits in a booth with a single theatregoer, seduces them into revealing their darkest secrets – then shockingly makes them public in a group session at the end.

In one of these booths, situated in a rehearsal room at Adelaide’s Dunstan Playhouse, sits Joeri Smet, one of Ontroerend Goed’s founders, just before Internal’s final performance at the Adelaide festival – after that, the company will embark on the third part of their immersive theatretrilogy, A Game Of You.

Having performed Internal in several countries, Smet believes British people take the transgression of public/private boundaries much more seriously than other nations. “I don’t want to make generalisations, but that causes a lot of unease for British people. It”s not like that on the continent and here in Australia people are OK with it much more – ‘Sure you can tell that about me’.”

Smet maintains that the company never explicitly divulge anything truly personal or painful, but couch it in general terms. “I will say that someone is making a very big step in their lives and it’s very frightening but also challenging – I wouldn’t reveal what the big step is.”

Joeri Smet in Trilogy: Internal

He denies that he is exploiting the audience’s vulnerabilities. “They always have the choice whether to engage or not.” No-one has ever walked out – “they stay to the end out of curiosity. It’s been said many times that you get as much out of the trilogy as you put in so I guess it’s a 50/50 thing.”

Ontroerend Goed’s exploration of how much audiences will take lead them into hot water at Edinburgh in 2011, when their show Audience – which isn’t showing in Adelaide – featured the one performer training a video camera onto a woman in the audience, and bullying her into opening her legs. Other audience members were furious – after that, they used a plant.

“I found it difficult that all the reviews focused so much on that one moment in the show because it’s about a lot more,” says Smet. “The ethical dimension of the show suddenly became the most important theme, which I found [to be] a reduction of the whole thing.” They toned it down “so people could actually see that the show isn’t about somebody being bullied in the audience.”

As for the woman they picked on, “we had contact with her and with the people surrounding her and in the end it was OK. From what I heard it was not herself who was really angry about it – it was more the people around her.”

Smet says that the controversy over his company’s shows is overblown. “There are some myths that surround the trilogy. People who have expectations of really extreme things happening might be disappointed. It’s all about getting in contact with each other in a respectful way. In The Smile off Your Face we’re exploring your physical trust, which is never damaged.”

The Guardian’s reviewer Claire Armitstead suggested that recent scandals about abuse and exploitation have made The Smile off Your Face seem much darker than when first performed in 2004. “I can see how people invest new meaning it but it’s not a deliberate thing,” says Smet. “The show is exactly the same as when it was developed.”

At its climax, the audience member’s blindfold is removed and an actor talks through their experience, finally bursting into tears. How many people have cried along with him?

“Many,” says Smet. “More women than men, but men also cry.”

Does that make him punch the air?

“I don’t go ‘Yes!’ – it’s great that people are so touched by it,” says Smet. “And I don’t always know why they cry. I can get that The Smile Off Your Face makes you cry – it probably would make me cry as well. It’s about being taken care of physically and being on that bed and having a very intimate conversation. I have to say that many people go and say ‘I haven’t been touched in this way physically, intimately, in so many years’ and sometimes I find it a bit sad to hear that. There are a lot of people who have a lack of intimacy in their lives.”

So is the trilogy theatre or therapy? “Maybe it’s not classical theatre but it is a theatrical performance with just a different approach to the audience – they’re in the show instead of watching it from outside,” says Smet. “It’s not therapy, but creative acts.”

The company’s next show will be called Fight Night, which Smet says will be more like Audience than the immersive trilogy. “It’s five actors and one presenter who try to stay on stage and people vote them off – but apart from that it’s also reflecting on democracy and the fairness of elections and the manipulations that go with that.”

Trilogy: The Smile Off Your Face

Meanwhile, A Game of You seems destined to keep Adelaide talking right until Sunday, the festival’s final day. Ontroerend Goed have been here before, but playing the fringe rather than the main festival. “I have the feeling that we have a lot more theatregoers her in the Festival Centre, says Smet. “I also feel that people are also a lot more understanding of the kind of show it is, the kind of performance it is. In the fringe it was like ‘this is a weird thing’ … in a positive way. Also we’re in a different building – with aircon. Last time it was pretty tough performing for 17 days in the heat.”

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