Posts Tagged ‘Ontroerend Goed’

Review – Audience – Ontroerend Goed at the Soho Theater

December 10, 2011

I came to Ontroerend Goed’s “Audience” having seen them before at the One on One Festival at Battersea Arts Center, but knowing very little about this performance other than that I had some free tickets secured courtesy of the Twespians. But it’s not fair to say I had no preconceptions: in fact, I had a negative experience at my previous encounter with this troupe that heavily affected my mood going into this show. Last spring, I saw “Internal,” which B.A.C. described as “speed dating meets group therapy,” but I found it something verging on audience abuse. Admittedly, I was there to challenge myself (as part of a series of short shows that were billed as edgy), but I did not care for having a cast member share with nine strangers information I’d given him when asked privately to reveal a “dark secret;” I was offended and I interrupted his monologue to tell my side of the story (which had been recast to put me in a particularly ugly light), even though I felt that my speaking up wasn’t really part of show. But I was angry, and I wasn’t going to be treated like a fool in public by a total stranger.

Afterward, thinking about the effect they had on the other people I’d seen the show with – leaving my compatriots thinking they’d actually made friends or romantic connections with the performers – I was disturbed by Ontroerend Goed’s callous manipulation. They had broken the rules of interaction laid down as the Law Of The Theater, and caused my companions to think we were thus no longer in a theatrical environment dealing with actors, but were in fact dealing with “real people” who were actually talking about their feelings rather than following a script. Oddly, at the same time Ontroerend Goed expected us to continue following the theatrical paradigm, not speaking out of turn (certainly not challenging what was said on “stage” like I did), and generally letting the experience be run for us rather than directed by us and our wills.

To me, the scales were not weighted evenly. While I had wanted to be pushed out of my comfort zone, I didn’t like seeing people’s heads messed with. And I was angry at the actor’s violation of my expectation of privacy and secrecy. He broke a social agreement. This caused me to break the actor/audience agreement. I felt in the end that we’d all been cleverly manipulated, that the evening had been something that was less performance and more social experiment, acceptable in the context of a “challenging” “One on One” experience, but on the boundaries of acceptability. I kind of admired it, but it has to be said, when I got to the Soho Theater, my guard was up. “Audience” was billed as “mischievous and exhilarating,” but my expectation was that it was likely to be manipulative and potentially mean, that at the least it might make me feel uncomfortable, but there was also a good chance that it could leaving me feeling angry, used, and possibly betrayed. And this was NOT how I wanted to feel at the end of the night.

And, I was determined, this time I would not.

This meant when I walked into the theater, I was feeling somewhat combative. I didn’t want to leave my bag in the strange little cloakroom; and I didn’t want to be somewhere that might lead the cast to pick me out for any kind of “special attention.” I wasn’t interested in the lecture telling us what proper audience behavior was; and I kept my distance (and refused to participate) as we were run through the paces of how to clap. As it turned out, I did get some attention, as I was featured in a video montage as the “brightest (dressed) person in the room;” but I wasn’t bothered by this (as I showed by flashing my devil horns at the video camera pointed at me). I’m easy to spot. (And for the record: it was what I wore to the office that day.)

By the end of the night, many of my negative expectations had been met. We, the audience, had been treated like mindless sheep, told what we were (leisured and healthy, as qualifying for benefits or having invisible disabilities did not fit in with the narrative any more than my brilliantly patterned clothing), and told how we thought, in an exercise that reminded me of the Riceville blue eyed/brown eyed class exercise or the Sanford prison experiment.

I believe Ontroerend Goed has an expectation of a certain level of response from the audience, and their goal is not just to wait until they get a response (basically, to see when someone will blink), but to coordinate this blinking over the course of the evening so as to move their show forward. In some ways, based on the video montage they showed at the end, I think they wanted us to see how easy it is to slip into the kinds of behaviors that allow things like the rise to power of the Nazis, perhaps because of the restraints caused by social conformity and, perhaps, the desire to “be nice” and not make a fuss.

It was clear to me from before that it’s our sense of restraint (as in, we bought a ticket and thus must follow the “rules” of behavior for an audience) that enables the actions I find offensive in Ontroerend Goed. They let themselves break the rules, but then rely on us continuing to follow them. I was not interested in this game and instead switched to the new paradigm right as they did. But they were unable to adapt: given rams when expecting lambs, Ontroerend Goed had to carry on trying to show how we were members of a unified, single-minded, easily controlled organism. The effect was weak and purposeless given the freedom we had claimed for ourselves. I fear, in the end, my combativeness and what it sparked upended the evening. Ontroerend Goed was simply unableto improv their way out of the mess I’d made.

The show made me angry, even though I realized in the end that I’d probably got upset over something that had no more meaning than any other scene played out on any other stage. But this time, at least, I didn’t walk out feeling like I’d been used. Was I manipulated? Probably. But the rest of the audience made me feel like we had held up the social contract with each other. I had not, this time, been betrayed; I told a mouthy actor we wanted to see a whole new world, and, as the rest of the audience shouted “I am Spartacus!”, this time we got it. Thank you, fellow audience members. I’d always hoped I wasn’t really all alone.

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 9th, 2011. Performances continue through January 7th, 2012. Another analysis of Ontroerend Goed is here; a review by Tipsy Hippo of Thursday’s show here. While I considered this show angry-making, it did lead to three hours of conversation afterward, which, given the show was just barely an hour, was a damned good return on investment. No one was physically damaged in this show except for my friend with hypermobility who had an actor shake her back out of alignment in an attempt to encourage her to stand up and dance to some sexist rap music. Ontroerend Goed, KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF OF THE AUDIENCE. You HURT her. I had to watch her shuffling in pain down one set of stairs after another all the way home because of your thoughtless assumption that anyone without a visible disability must actually be healthy. Don’t be so arrogant next time.)

Review – 2011 One on One Festival, Challenging Menu – Battersea Arts Centre

April 1, 2011

My number one arts experience of 2010 was the One on One festival at Battersea Arts Center, so when they announced they were doing it again in 2011, I was beating down the (internet) door as soon as tickets went on sale. This time rather than picking one thing you want to see and a few maybes, you picked off of menus. I avoided the one I’d done before (with Free by Ansuman Biswas) and instead picked a menu with a group that had received a lot of good press in the past.

I’ve been thinking about what to write about this event and I’ve decided that I can’t, in the middle of the run, talk too explicitly about the performances lest I ruin the element of surprise. Instead, I want to talk about how I felt during the event. This is about what I experienced internally rather than what I saw and did.

I approached the whole thing with a series of fun and (as I saw it) a lack of expectations other than that I wasn’t likely to be physically hurt. During the course of the three performances on my “meal card,” I wound up experiencing trust being built and then played with, social norms flouted and updended, and reality warped. I also lived through a performance that hit one of my biggest phobias, which was especially hair raising because I had had an hour long gap between it and my previous performance and had killed time visiting with other people (mostly total strangers) at the bar and was soused and rather more emotional than usual. Note to actress: no, I don’t usually sit on top of chests of drawers, but it seemed like the right place to be at the time.

What I found most interesting about this night was that it messed with my perception of reality. I was not alone in this; I talked to several other audience members who participated in one of the pieces I did and they all were questioning what had really happened. Had they just made a friend? Had they found a lover? Had they been betrayed? I was surprised they thought that anything had gone on besides a predetermined interaction between an audience member and an actor; the reality of what the actor said was non-existent, as they were “acting.” Those who thought they had made a connection with the person underneath the actor were mistaken; our reactions were just as predetermined as their actions.

But in the intimate setting of the One on One festival it is hard to tell the difference. This sense of confusion, of something “real” happening, was heady; but it made me wonder: was this actually unethical theater? We were paying to feel something, but I couldn’t help but feel that if the creation of an emotion or connection between an actor and an audience member was done so effectively that people, say, wanted to wait afterwards to talk to the performer to see if they “meant it,” the performance, and performer, was walking a dangerous line. Ontroerend Goed, Ansuman Biswas, you may be in dangerous territory.

As for me, well, I like dangerous territory, and I did, of course, choose the menus marked as most extreme. I’m not afraid to be personally challenged and I have a pretty clear idea of where the line is drawn between myself and a performer. I still find it really unpleasant to be in a situation where a childhood fear of mine is the center of the experience, but I was willing to let myself be kidnapped (if unsuccessful – I note someone else who was screamed as her “assailants” hooded her). I also very much liked how the organizers set this up so it wasn’t a “one”ly festival – it was, in fact, very focused on getting the audience members, who saw most things by themselves, to interact afterwards, what with the badges saying what you’d been to and then the addition of new games that try to nudge you to play with strangers. Overall, it was a great experience, one I highly recommend, though you will get out of it what you bring to it. Me, I will be bringing myself back next week – it was so good I had to try it all over again.

Review – One on One Festival – Battersea Arts Centre

July 9, 2010

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.)