Review – One on One Festival – Battersea Arts Centre

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Theater festivals normally scare me off, but the One on One festival at the Battersea Arts Center held real promise for providing a unique experience. A series of short … experiences … in which I was the only audience? Alerted by the BAC twitter feed (and Jake of A Younger Theatre‘s enthusiastic tweets), I grabbed a virtual copy of their program and perused the options.

The variety of options available was remarkable. While some seemed very lighthearted (Emma Benson’s “Me You Now,” in which you sing a song with the performer), others very “unique performance just for you” (Stan’s Cafe “It’s Your Film,” a live cinema experience), I was more struck by the ones that seemed to be taking a trip deep into the psyche, in the realm where interacting with other people by yourself opens up questions about personal boundaries and pushing yourself (or the actor/s) beyond the comfort zone. The most shocking of these was “The Pleasure of Being: Washing Feeding Holding” (by Adrian Howells), which utterly terrified me with its premise of being bathed by a total stranger. Other way-beyond-the-comfort-zone options were “2 Free” (Ansuman Biswas) (“The performance will be released only to the extent that decide. Exactly what happens will be determined by your fear and desire. Performance involves nudity of the artist and adult language”) and “The Smile off Your Face (Ontroerend Goed) (“You are blindfolded,you are in a wheelchair, tied up. It’s about experiencing”). Fine, I thought as I read through the program: I’m not okay with being bathed, but I’m not going to be totally cowardly, I wanna push myself. Where are my “preconceptions of social behavior?” Am I bothered by being in a room with a naked actor? I mean, hey, I made it through Hair, and there had to be 40 naked people on stage for that.

The booking process allows you to either let BAC select your options, or to call and “select your own journey,” which I think still means you only get to pick maybe one show and then only if it’s not already full. I called, of course, to make sure I’d have an evening in which my boundaries were pushed, and was relieved to find out that for the really edgy ones, no one was being dropped in unless they requested it (whew!). I was able to suggest a few more things I might have been interested in as well as what I was absolutely NOT (no bathing!). Then it was time to settle down and wait for the festival to roll around (as I booked on June 10th, I had a lot of time to wait!).

One month later … I showed up at BAC (two bus stops up from Clapham Junction rail station and really just not that hard to get to) at 6:45 and almost immediately kicked myself for getting a lame pasty at the station instead of getting a £4.50 quiche in the venue bar. It was a lovely summer evening; the steps outside were covered with performers and picnickers, while inside people were running around practically vibrating with enthusiasm. The BAC staffers were all dressed in black with little upside down watches hanging off their shirts, giving the event a bit of an Alice in Wonderland sort of feel. The otherworldliness was enhanced by the ghosts of productions gone by that filled the venue – I could practically see the carnival-masqued Punchdrunk revellers in the shadows, and the bee tilework on the floor kept making me flash back to being pulled into a dark room and served absinthe by a strange little man with a Poe-like story to tell. Meanwhile, half the tables in the foyer were reserved for performances, some with the most intriguing artifacts on them: one said, “If you sit here, you’re agreeing to take part in a secret mission” (of 30 minutes duration); a nearby chair said “if you sit here, you will be kidnapped” (for 15 minutes). It seemed very much like the unexpected was bound to occur.

I settled down with my ticket and the venue map to figure out what was going on. I had a normal paper ticket, but also an “appointment card” listing the performances I was scheduled for. My start time was 7 PM, but my first “performance” wasn’t until 7:15. In total, I was booked for four shows, from 7:15 until 22:25, with a break time built in for nearly an hour at 8 PM. There were also various non-ticketed events happening, about seven at my count (on my day). The first one to check out, I thought, was listed on the map as #7: “The butler – a private drink just for you.” I found the spot – a closet with a black cloth strung up halfway in and three holes cut through at face and hands levels – and had my first participatory, one-on-one theater experience: having a £6 capirinha mixed for me by what seemed to be Jack the Knife. It was, I thought, a nice warm-up for the evening to come, though, truth be told, on a warm evening the reader would be advised to make sure to keep herself well-hydrated in general. (I had two water bottles with me that I almost entirely emptied before the night was over. There was free water at the bar, though, but I dragged mine with me, choosing not to use the coat-check as I was worried I’d lose my map since I had no tickets.

My first “experience,” at 7:15, was “The Face Game.” I waited a bit, the gatekeeper knocked on the door (to warn the performer), then I was let into a room in which a man stood with his back to me. “We’ve got one minute,” he announced. “Do you want to play the ‘try to see my face’ game?”

“No,” I said, wondering what the other options are.

“Um … okay. We’ll just stand here then.”

“Okay, then,” I countered, “let’s play the face game then.” I proceeded to bounce around the room, ducking and swerving and making false leaps, trying to catch him facing the wrong direction, but unwilling either to touch him or to, say, quickly slide between his legs and look up. My minute was up; I had not succeeded, and I left. (Note that other people were let into this that hadn’t been booked for it, as it really was a very, very quick performance. It’s worthwhile to ask if there might be room to squeeze you in if you’ve got some time on your schedule.)

I then went downstairs to where Abigail Conway was performing “On the Dancefloors” as I very much liked the idea of getting some dancing in (plus I’d get to choose the song!). Unfortunately I’d misread the map and tonight was a “by appointment only” evening, so up the stairs I went to the “Recreation Room” and Sarah John’s “Below” (“It’s a film for those who like to watch and a scene to perfom in for those who like to play. Or is it only a girl singing a song?”) which only had a 5 minute wait. I sat and drank some water until my turn, when I was led, eyes closed, into a large room, where I opened my eyes and … well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. There was a girl, there was singing, there was a mirror, and what exactly happens in that room kind of depends on you, doesn’t it?

Anyway, five minutes later and I was done, too early for my next performance (7:40), too late to do Tanie El Khoury’s secret mission or be kidnapped. I went ahead and headed across the hall to the “blue zone” and sat outside the “council chamber showers” waiting for “2 Free,” which, truth be told, I’d pretty much forgotten I’d booked (I was hoping to preserve an air of surprise and mystery for the night). I was given a plaque to read (it said that my event would last thirty minutes, as measured by an hourglass, and that I’d get a 5 minute warning when it was getting to be time), then I was handed a lit lantern, my overturned hourglass, and let into a room that contained nothing but a chair.

Well, there was a little bit more. There was a sign on another door that said I could take as long as I wanted to hang out and chill in that room, but when I was ready I was to go into the room behind the sign and follow the instructions on the back of that door (and, I think, it said you could leave whenever you wanted, at any time). I didn’t even bother sitting in the chair; I swung open the door and found …

Holy “falling down the rabbit hole, Alice:” a naked man, blindfolded, gagged, with his wrists and ankles bound. Clearly, I was no longer at the National. The sign on the back of the door said something like, “Take your clothes off and then remove and/or move the ties as you see fit; you may leave at any time.” There were two hangars on the back of the door.

So, dear reader, what happened next? It seems really unfair to color the experience you might have by giving you the details of my own in overly great detail. Later in the evening I found exactly one other audience member who had done this piece (also a woman) and we compared notes; both of us eventually stripped and (as it turned out) took advantage of the shower in the room next to the very small alcove (it has a nice fluffy towel in it and she, like me, was really desperate to cool down). The shower room had no curtain per se but did have a nice fluffy towel to dry off with and a somewhat mysterious glass bottle with oil of some sort in it. Biswas did not speak to me (when allowed to by the lack of gag); he did, however, speak to her. I remain mystified as to what the piece was trying to accomplish or where the performer expected it to go; however, it was good (for me) that the performer was a slight, slim man whom I found utterly non-threatening; the weirdest bit was trying to figure out what to do with all of that time.

After that was over (I went for about 20-25 minutes, not the fully allotted time) I actually needed to chill out for a while, and went to the bar to just do nothing and let my brain empty. I had a full hour and more to kill, but then I found out that there was a surprise glut of open spaces as a large school group had cancelled, so I went back to the front desk and signed up for two more spots in the available time (and surrendered by 10:25 slot: sorry, Barnaby Stone, but the jet lag was getting to me). Thanks to this, I was able to go to “Headlines,” “I Vow to Thee My Country,” and “On Dancefloors.” “On Dancefloors” was a total blast and perfect to clean my head: I got a shot of rum and danced with Abigail to Lady Gaga while disco lights flashed. Then I went to “Headlines,” which was a little mystifying: I hadn’t been following the news, so listening to two people go on as if (in the first room) they were the harassed brother of a murderer and then (in a second room) the harried police chief of a small town just didn’t much resonate to me, though I thought the acting in these roles was quite strong and easily fell into my role as journo and then commisioner of police. (I expect these stories change from day to day but am not sure.) The whole thing emphasized to me the bizarre nature of the UK press, in which seemingly small stories get blown out of proportion with 24 hour media coverage; in the US, that kind of thing seems the exception (i.e. for OJ Simpson).

Next up on my normally scheduled list of events was Emma Benson, who had a tiny little room off of the long corridor where Thom Shaw was doing his “Drag Mountain” performance (couldn’t get a slot, alas). I went up the little staircase and was let into a room beautifully outfitted with floor-to-ceiling tree trunks and a table with candles on it. I sat down and she showed me three songs we could sing together; “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Let It Be.” I chose the Beatles, as, while I knew the first two, I felt pretty confident I could sing harmony on the third. She visited with me a bit, then asked me about where I liked to sing; I started, she joined in pretty much immediately, and then we rather joyously made our way through a song that I normally consider sappy but which, in this case, as a song sung with a stranger, as we looked into each other’s eyes and I tried to do the harmonies right just by ear, was really just a glorious experience. Emma also seemed to get a bit of a performer’s high off of the experience and said she’d not had a singing that went like that before, and asked if I sang in a band or anything; maybe she was just making it all up but my God, I felt like we were totally hitting it. Woo!

The evening wound down pretty quickly after that point. I visited “You Me Nothing,” which earlier I’d been told “lasted as long as the person wanted it to;” this is because it is a small chair in an empty room in which you sit by yourself, only really good if you want a chill-out (I did) and some space to yourself, but otherwise a bit dull. I finished with “I Vow to Thee My Country,” which I wasn’t able to really engage in; I wasn’t able to buy into the performer’s premise (“make a vow of how you will show your commitment to your country or your people”) and got more pleasure out of reading the other people’s vows and judging them as “with it” or “cop out.” My favorites were: “I will pick up trash on the beach and on the streets” from someone in Brighton, and another one in which a Scotsman vowed to go see his country perform in the next world cup “and support my country.” Awesome!

Then it was hometime for me, and a tired girl I was, too. Overall, I thought this was a really exciting evening and well priced at £22. I’ve described how it went as best I can, but I don’t think I can just say uniformly that “you should go;” this will suit some people but not others. I, however, thought it was great, and, all things considered (especially that the performances change almost entirely with about three different “sets” of performances) I would really like to go back.

(The One to One Festival continues until July 18th with 7 and 8 PM performances and matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 and 3 PM. I advise you pick the earlier time slot so that you can see more shows.)

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6 Responses to “Review – One on One Festival – Battersea Arts Centre”

  1. Tweets that mention Review – One on One Festival – Battersea Arts Centre « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by webcowgirl, Matt Boothman. Matt Boothman said: Ah, so not ALL the reviewers saw Smile Off Your Face – Webcowgirl saw The Face Game, 2 Free and Me You Now #1on1Fest http://icio.us/td32hm […]

  2. One-on-One Festival « Dilettante Daydream Says:

    […] Read Webcowgirl’s review on Life in the Cheap Seats […]

  3. Jennifer Syrkiewicz Says:

    I absolutely loved this entire review – thank you! I wanted to get a glimpse in to the event having read a little about it on the BBC site – really glad you have taken the time and trouble to review it here. Jen.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I loved it too, just wish I could go again! Which performances did you see? Which did you like most? What didn’t work and why?

  4. Taragh Says:

    I love the BAC one on one festival and hope it returns next year. I entered the 2 Free performance and believe I had a different experience to you. I think this was the result of removing all four binding on Ansuman. I wondered how many you removed? I’m guessing this influenced the performance that followed.

  5. Review – SPACED 2014 – a Theatre Delicatessen Souk Festival | Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl's London theatre reviews Says:

    […] tweet caught my eye about Theatre Delicatessen’s small theater festival – not quite a one on one fest, but something like it, with the intriguing but critical difference that you needed to negotiate […]

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