Thursday 21 January 2016

Being in the Audience

Ebony has started doing shows. I am her audience. I now totally understand how Fran’s dad felt in 1993. When I was little, I had a friend called Fran. When I went to her house to play, we would devise, direct and perform very complicated and detailed plays. We usually got all our younger siblings involved. We would do our costume changes in the toy cupboard, and feel pretty talented. At the end of the show, Fran’s mum (Julie Andrews) would clap enthusiastically. She would even ‘wooo’ sometimes, so moving were our performances. Fran’s dad wouldn’t. He would sit next to Fran’s mum (Julie Andrews) like he was on death row, and when we finished the show, he would just stare at us. Most likely because he didn’t know the show was over, because he was bored out of his mind and had stopped paying attention. Perhaps this is why Fran’s mum (Julie Andrews) made loud ‘wooo’ noises, in a desperate attempt to wake him up.

The good thing about being a child is that, even when someone doesn’t clap, you still think you are amazing. I thought Fran’s dad didn’t clap because he didn’t get it, our concepts were simply too above his level. The fast costume changes, the dance routine, the accents, it was all just a bit professional for him. He was probably more of an amateur theatre lover and, sadly, we couldn’t offer him that. We might have only been seven years old, but those seven years were filled with experience, improv and theatre skills. In short, we knew our shit.

Ebony is just four, and yet I already recognise that shit in her shows. Her shows are almost always musical. There is no singing, just music playing in the background. It is often the Frozen soundtrack, but at other times, it is Blurred Lines. Her shows involve a great amount of audience participation, something which might be intimidating to people less initiated into the world of theatre (see above for a brief description of my theatrical qualifications). She works in improv, there is simply no time to rehearse when you are putting on up to 10 different shows each day.

She bounces off her audience, making each and every show truly unique. Some days, she lets me pick the music (Blurred Lines, I know, I’m sorry. She doesn’t understand the words, I’m sure. It’s catchy. Sexist and catchy, a lethal combination) and other times she demands particular songs (“Elsa!”). When the music starts, she makes her way to the middle of the room, or wherever the small patch of visible carpet happens to be amongst the scattering of toys in the playroom. As the audience start to feel on edge, she begins her dance.

She has devised and perfected a move that currently has no name, it is not yet known about in the art world. It’s pretty avant-garde. It’s a whole body move that combines a twisting of the knee, a jerking of the elbow and an uncomfortable-looking hip movement. The audience is left wondering, is this comedy? Can I laugh? And this is one reason why the show is so different, it leaves the audience feeling confused and uncomfortable almost the entire way through. It doesn’t fit into any of the traditional genres, it is in itself a genre, and that leaves people doubting their reactions.

At times, it seems like the performer has completely forgotten about the performance. She becomes withdrawn, distracted. She might suddenly sit with her back turned to the audience, playing with Lego, or she might walk out of the room to get a snack. Of course, audiences have been left alone before, but after a 10 minute wait, most audience members assume that the show has finished. Upon standing to leave the auditorium, or pulling out their smartphones to check Facebook, the performer will re-enter the theatre, screaming like a banshee that the audience is missing the show. That orange she’s eating? The lego house she just built? They’re a part of the performance. And so are you. Is this the performer’s way of showing the world that art shouldn’t conform to the public’s timeframe? Maybe art doesn’t care about your dentist appointment, could the piece be about that?

It’s just one of many unanswerable questions brought to mind by the performances. Each show is different, and yet the audience experience remains the same. The audience is bored, confused and, even, scared at times. As a society, we like to predict what will happen, we like to know the appropriate way to respond to things. We clap when others clap, we laugh when others laugh. These performances have only a single, solitary audience member, so the pressure to respond appropriately heightens and the fear can become all-consuming.

The show might end when the music stops or it might end 10 minutes later. Each performance is unique. Even if you sit through 100 shows, you still won’t be able to recognise the end approaching. After sitting silent and full of self-doubt for at least 10 minutes, the show will end. It is at this point that the encore will start. The performer will bow, the audience will clap, the performer will disappear, the audience will breathe a sigh of relief. And then there will be an encore. The encores won’t stop. They won’t stop until the audience stops clapping. But when you are the only audience member, it can take a while to pluck up the courage to stop clapping when the performer is making eye contact throughout each bow. Is this ending a stark statement on the lack of appreciation for the arts within modern society? Is it about the cuts to art funding, or the lack of young people going to the theatre?

Yet more unanswered questions. The audience is given a few minutes to rest, and then it’s time for the next performance, one that will be very different to the last.

Shows are performed daily in the playroom. Tickets are free. It’s probably not worth going to see.

NOTE: It was later brought to my attention that Fran’s mum is not actually Julie Andrews.

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