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Participatory solo shows

Debbie Pearson
Battersea Arts Centre
Battersea Arts Centre is probably the closest thing I've found to a theatre that feels like home in


By James Hadley in London

Battersea Arts Centre is probably the closest thing I've found to a theatre that feels like home in London. There's a theatre laboratory atmosphere about the place that reminds me of my time at BATS Theatre in Wellington.

Although BAC is huge and hugely well resourced by comparison. They even have a team of emerging producers whose job it is to identify and collaborate with the theatre innovators of tomorrow.

For the first time in last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, BAC ran a small venue for experimental theatre and perfomance installations (not genres that are as widely represented at the Fringe as you'd think). It was called Forest Fringe and there was recently a weekend at BAC of highlights from last year's Forest Fringe and scratch (work in progress) performances of shows being developed for this year's Fringe. Many of these took the form of participatory solo shows, which seems to be a growth format, reducing the theatre experience to the basic elements of one performer and sometimes only one audience member in order to play with an exponential number of possibilities for how that encounter might play out.

The performance which made the biggest impression on me was by a Canadian performer called Deborah Pearson. Unfortunately I can't quite remember the name of her performance, but it was something like 'Songs that my relationships have killed', or at least that was the concept. Limited to an audience of four, you were invited into a darkened room, where Deborah sat under a patchwork draped between the backs of armchairs, creating a makeshift tent-like space that immediately takes you back to a childlike state of make-believe. As you join her under the canopy by lamplight, Deborah hands you each a CD mixtape, each with the name of an ex boyfriend on the cover and the dates of their relationship.
Now I think what followed was pretty much authentic stream of consciousness reminiscing about her actual exes and past relationships - it certainly felt authentically autobiographical. In turn she would ask you which of the tracks on your particular CD you wanted to listen to, then take the CD from you and play the chosen track. This would inevitably set off a series of recollections - about how an ex introduced her to the song, or ruined the song for her, or about a particular relationship occurence with which the song is indelibly stained. The nice thing was that it wasn't angsty. There was romantic pain there, but it was left as subtext that we'd all be able to hear in between the lyrics.

The deal was that she'd talk about the particular ex and relationship for the duration of the song, vaguely endowing you as the ex's stand-in at her little teaparty of romantic nostalgia. Getting each audience member to select a track from their CD was a wonderful way of getting you to invest in the show - make you feel that you'd directly contributed to the experience. There were no self-help book conclusions or epiphanies, it was, quite charmingly, just what it was, which made it all the more affective. Perhaps it says something about society when we pay for a stranger to confide in us as if we were their closest friend, and then to walk away, but there was nothing that cynical about this piece.
Another performance at BAC, presented by They Are Here on the same evening, started with a book that told you, in first person, that two siblings had been hiding in the building for several weeks, as if invisible ghosts, and to follow the post-it note trail to encounter them. From there there was indeed a trail of post-it notes on the wall, which led you on a hunt down corridors and up staircases. The two sisters had alternated writing the post-it notes, so that they sometimes work as a dialogue, sometimes as echoing observations of what the ghostly presences have observed while hanging out in the building.

This builds up both a sense of the characters and their relationship, as well as an insider's perspective on gossip and various opinions and habits of the staff and employees of the theatre. So it ingeniously fees our paparazzi curiosity about other people's lives on two levels at the same time. Then when you get to the end of the trail, you find yourself at a locked door, with the instruction to write a question on a post-it note and put it under the door, then wait for an answer. The answer eventually gets pushed back with some cryptic magazine clipping and scrawled note. Another quite ingenious encounter.
Less successful was a solo performance by Ed Rapley for one audience member at a time - but I have to take responsibility if it was less than stimulating. You walk into a large room, empty apart from a man sitting on a chair with his eyes closed and his hands pointing at an empty chair opposite him. When (or if) you sit on the chair, he says that when he opens his eyes he will say whatever first comes into his head. Which he does. And from what I overheard from other audience members, most of us get a word or a sentence, which may be more or less correct as an uncensored observation. And that's interesting enough. But what's more interesting is what happens next.

It's meant to be a minute long performance, but most, like me, are so trained at being a passive observer when in audience mode that the tendency is to smile and walk out as the performance is finished. I've heard though that the piece is more interesting when the audience member chooses to respond, which is an interesting prospect. What happens to theatre when the audience member takes over?!


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