It seems appropriate that the first thing I am confronted with, as I am shut in a tightly enclosed box for my first one-on-one experience, should be a reflection of my own slightly apprehensive smile. Where much theatre places the audience at the periphery, as spectators to the action but rarely much more, Battersea Arts Centre’s One-on-One Festival achieves the very opposite: placing the individual at the heart of the theatre and making the art as much about them as about anyone, or anything, else.
In this, their second festival of theatre intended for audiences of just one person, the BAC serve up a menu of experiences, with each festival-goer let loose on their own unique journey to explore the staircases, attics and basements of the sprawling building. Each menu consists of two short experiences and one extended piece, linked together stylistically or thematically. As a programme, it feels a touch too superficial – at a mere ten minutes, some of the short experiences are too brief to offer much to really challenge or provoke. As I am asked to contemplate what it would be like to be frozen for 1000 years, gazing out at infinity in the face of unchanging stars, my mind only just starts to allow itself to explore this possibility when my time in Cold Storage is immediately over. It takes time to leave the thoughts and feelings of the day behind and immerse yourself fully in the experience, and you find yourself halfway through your evening before you’ve learnt to relax and let the experience happen to you.
The nature of one-on-one theatre throws the relationship between artist and audience into a new light. In a number of the experiences the artist is not actually present: or rather not physically present, and yet somehow all around you simply in the idea they have borne out through their work. The artist may be a disembodied voice in your ear, or the faceless technician who you have somehow become wired up to in a dusty attic where your breathing dictates light and dark. Nonetheless we willingly hand over our bodies and minds to this unknown figure – trusting in them, behaving for them, even though occasionally this separation between audience and artist is frustrating. From this type of theatre you long for a sense of engagement that makes you feel that your experience is unique, and affords you a role in shaping that; however when the artist is not there there is little that they can do to shape the art in reaction to the audience’s input, and at times the experience fails to engage or reward as may be desired.
It is where the feedback between the audience and the art is at it’s strongest, and the theatre of a piece is given time to develop, that this intimate theatre is at its most powerful. I sit at a table opposite a stranger and we become actors and puppeteers creating a play on the surface that separates us. With time for the development of narrative, you find yourself drawn into the story that unfolds as you embody the characters and create the props, while the gentle multi-sensory moments that you act out on one another force you to put blind trust in a complete stranger. Playful and poignant, Rotozaza’s Etiquette combines traditional storytelling with a fully interactive experience that forces you tolook into the eyes of another, and consequently at yourself.
Ultimately the true power of this type of theatre, and of the festival as a whole, is in turning the individual’s attention inward. Whether it’s searching for your face pinned to the lapel of a complete stranger, or penning a letter to your future self, confronting who you really are now, and who you want to be, can be a surprisingly emotional experience. How you deal with certain situations can likewise be revealing – why do I blush when I’m instructed to tell a stranger that I’m a prostitute? I know it’s not true, I know he knows it’s not true, yet there’s that involuntary flush of embarrassment all the same. Given the right frame of mind you might just find that all the things you tell yourself about who you are, what you think, and what you’re okay with doing come crashing down. The physical experience will stay with you long after the event, and the questions and ideas it has planted in your mind will play out continually. If theatre is intended to confront us with human nature in all its complexities and make us think about the world, then there is as much value to be found in an intimate performance that provokes these thoughts on a deeply personal level, than there is in any more conventional form.
The BAC One-on-One Festival runs from 29th March – 9th April 2011, times vary. For further details, visit: BAC