Features Performance Published 25 March 2014

Best Before End

Leslie Hill and Helen Paris of Curious talk about proximity, intimacy and performance ahead of their new show, Best Before End, which opens this week at Chelsea Theatre.
Helen Paris and Leslie Hill

Leslie Hill:  Recently Helen and I have been thinking about the relationship between proximity and intimacy in live performance. Thinking quite literally about the distance in physical space between performers and audiences and how that distance or proximity impacts our encounters with one another.

This thinking has manifested in a forthcoming book, Performing Proximity: Curious Intimacies which, like our years of work as performance makers, is about paying close attention to people in the moment.  In the book we write at length about creating, sharing and witnessing small delicate encounters and exploring the various alchemies created in works and processes that feature face-to-face encounters. Writing the book has been our way of synthesizing and sharing our experiences of performing to audiences in close physical proximity, sometimes close enough to reach out and touch each other, feel each other’s breath or see the patterns in each other’s irises.

In writing this to you now we can’t see your eyes, let alone the patterns in your irises, nor do we know anything about your age or gender, if you are inside or outside, if it is late at night or early in the morning, what country you are in or any of the individual details we would appreciate about our audience members through shared proximity. In this regard you are much farther from us than our audiences. Still, through writing this we offer a different kind of intimacy, the intimacy of though shared across unknown virtual distances, a series of contemplations rather than a face-to-face encounter.

Helen Paris: In recent years there has been a burgeoning of small audience, participatory works. What has ignited the current desire to make and to experience one-to-one and small audience performances that are participatory, immersive and intimate? Who is driving the desire, artist or audience?

You or me?

Within these close encounters, what lets someone in and what keeps them at a distance?  We are very good at navigating close encounters. Jammed against each other on public transport each day we are experts at keeping others shut out of our compressed but still personal space, deftly pulling the shutter of that already compacted space closer, sealing ourselves off, retreating within.

And yet … ‘Come closer, closer still’, we entreat our audiences.

I think of the fleeting moments of contact between audience and performer: the desire to look and to be seen; the desire to pay attention and for attention to be paid; and the desire to capture and still some small moment of contact.  This desire for connection, intimacy even, manifests at some level in all the work we have made as Curious. Across all of these moments is an unspoken acknowledgment between performer and audience of the fleetingness of the encounter. These moments of connection, transitory as they are and indeed must be, are perhaps enough in themselves.  For us, there is something implicitly political in small audience work that pays attention to the individual, focuses on the epic in the everyday and the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Without you here, I write the things I want to say to you. I imagine how I will say them. I imagine you with me. I imagine the qualities of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of our face to face. I am looking for something in this embodied encounter. I am looking for the give and take of our meeting. What do I take away from our close-up when I remove myself to the stage, me in the light and you in the dark? What trace of our encounter lingers and becomes part of me and how I perform? What lingers for you in how you let yourself watch and listen? How do we hold onto a sense of the shift in our relationship as audience and performer and how do we carry that shift with us into our future encounters? The close-up presents itself before we meet. It is always already shaping the text I write, altering its rhythm. I already hear how it might sound, sense how it might feel.

In this encounter what should I call you – accomplice, companion, Ishmael?  From spec-actor to emancipated spectator, from attendant to guest, from participant to per-cipient, all these namings move closer to encompass an active, fully sensate involvement. I find myself tethered to the prosaic moniker ‘audience member’ but in my head I whisper ‘you’.

I am sitting behind a two-way mirror in Toynbee Studios, London.

You are the other side

I strike a match and suddenly caught in the mirror the reflection of your face dissolved on mine. My eyes on yours, your mouth on mine.

Vena Amoris, 1999

I am in a stranger’s bed in Hackney, in Shanghai, in Brazil, in Newham, on the Upper West Side in NYC, in Tower Hamlets.

You are there right next to me.

On the Scent 2003

We are in a life raft huddled close

You hold a tiny projection of me in the palm of your hand.

You dance with me to Elvis singing I can help falling in love with you and we balance an apple between our foreheads.

The moment I saw you I knew I could love you 2009

I am standing at the oceans edge at sunrise waiting for you.

 You are a mile a way, maybe more, walking towards me.  Then, suddenly we are hand in hand at the waters edge.

Out of Water 2012

It is you that makes me return, still, to return again, and again, hundreds of performances later to continue exploring the distance between us – the how close and the too close and the not close enough. I want to keep on meeting you in the realm of performance, in its dark shadows, at its invisible borders, within its strange interiors and at its sharp edges, in close-up and in long shot, in shifting proximities and curious encounters.

I return this time with a piece called Best Before End. Best Before End is about time running out, the title playfully invoking the sell by date on perishable goods.  On a deeper level the piece speaks to temporality and mortality. How can we say all the things that we want to say before it is too late?

Best Before End is a solo performance designed for conventional theatre seating. The decision to return to this format after making and touring a lot of close audience work in recent years was deliberate, informed by a desire for a different kind of intimacy – one that requires more distance between you and me. Sometimes physical distance leaves room for greater emotional intimacy. In a piece about time and mortality we felt that the space between audience and performer allowed the piece to be more potent.

Live performance exists in the moment that we – audience and performer – come together to experience it. The tension of time running out is woven into the performance itself. One of the questions I return to over and over is whether the experience of performances in close proximity can inform and infuse subsequent work that returns to theatre spaces. Do I bring something back to the stage from these other more proximate encounters that effects how I perform? Do you as audience bring something from your encounters in small audience works that lets you audience differently when you return your seat in the dark?

I look up and see that suddenly I am running out of word count, running out of time, but still with so many questions I want to ask you  – questions about time, about closeness, about proximity and intimacy – when they connect and when they disconnect.

The silver nitrate has fallen from the frames,

leaving them blinking in surprise.

The film goes on spooling, playing empty moments whilst the silver pools at my feet  – a shining world of possibilities, fluid, malleable.

I bend and cup it in my hands rock it gently, sieving futures with pasts, prints to finger prints.

Silvered, my fingers play chords,

Silvered my fingers conduct time.

Silvered, I put my hands in my pockets
and leave myself notes from the past.

Silvered my fingertips press to my lips

So that moving stars fall from my lips, for you.

Take what you want. I will let you change time

I will let you go back to the moment that changed everything

and change it.

Best Before End 2014

Best Before End is at Chelsea Theatre 26-28th March. For more information visit the Chelsea Theatre website.

Performing Proximity will be published by Palgrave MacMillan in July 2014

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