I realized Saturday afternoon that I’ve been doing a rather odd thing lately: I’ve been actively pursing theater that uses sensory deprivation as part of its gimmick. For two of these events, part of the Battersea Arts Center’s One on One festival (menu 5, “Immersive,” April 6, 2011), I wasn’t aware that I was going to be bumbling around in the dark in a room full of strangers; in the third (Sunday Morning at the Center of the World, Southwark Playhouse I was given the option of blindfold/no blindfold and chose the path of less visual insistence. I found the three of them … unusually stimulated my brain.
Let me explain. First, I am a bit of a control freak. Well, that’s not true, really, but letting strangers blindfold and touch me, putting myself in a situation where I can’t see who is coming toward me and yet know that they are there and they are going to interact with me, that is way out of my comfort zone. In fact, it makes me feel unsafe and a bit scared. But then, I do like having my boundaries pushed, and I see the One on One Festival as really enabling that, in an environment that’s safe enough … I think … that I could go with it. Mostly. At least I knew I wouldn’t get hurt. Probably.
Anyway, with Lundahl and Seitl’s “Rotating in a Room Full of Images,” I wasn’t actually blindfolded – I was in a pitch black room with headphones feeding me information. My eyes told me very little, and what my earphones said wasn’t always true … and I found myself listening harder, trying to pick up “real” noise that told me about my environment. I was also “listening” with my feet, which picked up vibrations from the wooden floor. This piece was often about there being people you couldn’t see near you – close enough to touch you – close enough for you to walk into if you just took two steps backwards. And this was creepy, because in pitch black you just could not tell they were there.
However, for much of the event, you were actually being led around very gently by the hand, and I had no sense of fear about the person who was holding my hand. It was a very trusting experience. They tugged me gently forward, I took steps into the dark. While the occasional lit bits of the event were certainly artistic, the real “experience” for me was letting go enough to be able to follow a total stranger when you could not see a thing anywhere. And I loved trying to expand my senses to “feel” the room, whether it was big or small or … the whole thing was probably only ten minutes but it felt like it went on for ages. It was cool.
I was kind of prepped for it in a way by Il Pixel Rosso’s “And the Birds Fell from the Sky.” It forced me to give up my desire to see my environment almost immediately, as it involved putting on goggles and headphones, making me feel even more isolated from what was going on around me than “Room Full of Images.” But “Birds” had a different goal: it wanted you to experience a world that was not there. I had to have trust to follow the person who walked me to my “car,” but after that I was mostly just following instructions, reaching out my hand when told to (to take a note, to receive a gift), turning left and right. My fear of the world on the edges of my vision – and, indeed, in front of me – was erased, as the sensory overload of the video-playing goggles made my brain too busy to process that I was actually totally cut off from the world of my normal senses. I think that this was kind of natural, however, as the eyes are so much what people rely on; even knowing the movie being shown was totally not real (I was not in a car driven by insane clowns), I was able to relax into the experience, with the “performers” enhancing it with what I fondly think of as Smell-o-vision: misting alcohol at me when the clowns were drinking, some kind of perfume when the girl clown was close (I think), and some other things. Externally, I was cued to open air by a fan blowing a breeze at me and stepping onto a brushy, grass-like carpet, and I was able to take these on as part of the world of the movie I was in. Stepping away, I could see two other people on the same “journey,” while a performer carefully leaned over them and made sure that her misting came at just the right moment; it all seemed very tender, somehow.
This meant that two weeks later I was quite ready for “Sunday Morning at the Center of the World,” and when they asked “do you want to experience our radio play with a blindfold on” I readily said yes. This meant that as this poem-type-thing was read, I pictured the bath being taken from a few feet away, smelled the coffee, recoiled from the alley cat that brushed against my legs, and took the crackling noise I heard in the air to be two blue plastic bags floating overhead “on their way to Tooting Bec.” While there were actors present and many unblindfolded people watching them, I think I gained more than the “straight” audience did from being able to let my imagination create all of the images of the talking dead and the cursing sparrows and the evil cat that swatted at passers-by on its own. And I very much enjoyed the many gentle cues (including raindrops) the actors added in to make it all “real.” It all went on a bit long (and there wasn’t really any character development or plot, it was pretty much just a poem about a Sunday morning in Earlsfield), but I enjoyed it and found it all very rich, more so unsighted than it would have been otherwise.
Interestingly enough, just a few days later I saw what I thought was going to be a musical comedy but was in fact an imaginary radio show (“The Island”), in which the London Snorkelling Team pretended to be the rather sad and untalented guests of a backwater radio show. This was also very much an exercise of the imagination (as we were “moved through time” and witnessed a visit from God), but I loved the buy-in that what we were seeing was really supposed to be a radio show – it just put me in the right mood for all the rest of the silliness.
Overall, I find that in this set of shows, the more the performers moved away from technology, the richer the audience experience, though, for me, the experience of trust was just as important as the stimulation of my imagination. As several of these shows involved a very high actor to audience level (“Room” had about four people doing the show for just one little me), they are obviously not the wave of the future, but I found that stripping away my control and cutting down on the senses I could use was a great trigger for my imagination and rather freeing. I’m glad I was able to do these … but I don’t think you’ll be seeing me in a blindfold again unless we’re playing Pin The Tail on the Donkey.