There is a man dressed as a lion playing the keyboards, and two chaps in festive jumpers competitively dunking biscuits in tea, while a sequinned emcee tries to get a room of awkward arty types to rap along as they nervously sip polystyrene cups of ale. No one appears to have the slightest clue what is going on; still there is the palpable (and entirely accurate) sense that this might not actually turn out to be the weirdest thing we see all evening.
Live Art Speed Date is something of a burgeoning institution, in the heady world of interactive, small-scale performance art at the very least. Stoke Newington International Airport plays host to the latest Winter Series, where behind curtains and at tables, via webcams and on treadmills, we encounter all manner of artists trying to rock our world with one-on-one performance before their time is up.
Played to the beat of the emcee’s horn and whistle, the night is relentless. One minute I’m pitching a film about paedophilia to Deborah Pearson, the next I’m carving the face of Jesus onto a potato, and how I ended up in the back of a transit van perched on Santa’s knee and scoffing mince pies is still a mystery. Perhaps it is a sign of our times that the pursuit of personal success drives a number of the encounters including TheatreState‘s motivational talk and Soren Evinson’s cynical competitiveness (don’t underestimate how hard it is to be this satirical in under four minutes). Elsewhere, human connections are manufactured and manipulated by artists including Katy Baird and Cluster Bomb to throw the intimacy between performer and audience into new focus.
There is always a risk in this sort of theatre for the audience to over-analyse their role within it, and to perform what they think is expected of them rather than allow themselves to experience a true gut response. Some of the best pieces subtly define the audience’s role from the outset, permitting them to instantly engage within the performance and get more out of it, rather than spending the first two minutes staring wildly into the eyes of the performer trying to work out what the hell is happening. Yet with only four minutes to play with, even in the less defined encounters there is never really enough time to think about what you’re saying until it comes tumbling out of your mouth in all its inane glory.
Rather disconcertingly, but with hindsight perhaps not entirely unpredictably, Live Art Speed Date playfully blurs the lines between theatre and reality. Snogging strangers is practically compulsory by the end of the evening, by which time smudges of lipstick can be found on every cheek and neck you see. Promiscuity is directly rewarded with performance – the more you do to humiliate yourself in a room full of strangers the more theatrical dates you get to go on. In terms of opening you up to the possibility of new experiences the format is successful and feels entirely worth it:; before you know it you’re clambering on the backs of a human pyramid in order to get your next hit.
As dates go, however, I have a predictably single-girl gripe: it was very much them, them, them and they just didn’t seem that interested in me. Granted, it’s not always easy to allow individual audience response to dominate in this sort of performance environment; however, only in a few notable cases did the interactivity feel genuine, and I sometimes felt like a faceless figure on a conveyor belt, there for the performer’s sake rather than the other way round. So when Max Dovey said he wasn’t going to perform for me it came as a bit of a relief, and the four minutes I then spent recollecting the street I grew up on for his Yourhomepage archive turned out to be one of the more gently memorable encounters of the evening.
That said, the whole night is so full of brazen silliness and theatrical fun that in the end it doesn’t really matter if all the encounters sweep you off your feet or not. As long as you find the one that does it for you, everyone leaves happy.