The cast of Show On's Thrashing Without Looking | CarriageWorks

Performance Space’s just elapsed short, sharp season of short, sharp works was called Show On and encompassesd no less than nine discrete events, one of which (Applespiel Make A Band And Take On The Recording Industry) I’ve already reviewed.

Presented in partnership with Mobile States, it’s a short but dense season of contemporary performance from all over Australia, focusing on audience participation and the intersection of art, life and popular culture. Which, arguably, is the best basis on which to build compelling theatre. A groaning buffet table of performing and visual arts and is challenging to cover comprehensively, but here goes.

Aphids (Martyn Coutts, Elizabeth Dunn, Tristan Meecham, Alan Nguyen, Lara Thoms and Willoh S.Weiland) returned to Performance Space after a couple of years’ hiatus to present Thrashing Without Looking, an inscrutably titled, 50-odd minute adventure in experiential theatre.

If you’re the kind who’s most comfortable as a spectator and thoroughly uncomfortable as anything else, maybe you’d better stay away. With Thrashing, you get to watch, but not in the usual way.

Entering one of several dark, cavernous spaces at Carriageworks, you note the lack of seating. That’s because there’s no audience, in any conventional sense. The audience are performers. Yes, you’re it. But before you even enter, you’re divided into one of two groups. The first is given a menu. The second escorted, one by one, and taken to an area where goggles dangle from above. They’re video goggles and they’re strapped on. It’s a disorienting experience in itself and one which makes you (or at least makes you feel and believe you’re) highly vulnerable.

Given the state of the technological art, the vision is surprisingly ‘lo-fi’; though perhaps this is deliberate. You’re aware of colour and movement; people moving about. But you’re spatial ability is seriously impaired. Again, disorienting.

The premise of the work is to shoot a movie, on the spot. And, presumably, a new movie for each performance. It isn’t actually clarified and the results don’t, necessarily, speak for themselves.

By and by (having tried on two sets of goggles, given that the first pair worked very poorly), I was approached by a strange woman, a disembodied voice, pleasant and friendly, who indulged in one of those ‘do you come hear often?’ conversations and offered me a glass of champagne, which I readily accepted. Finding my mouth was another matter: any pretension to coolness, while saddled with a pair of video goggles, is folly. A rolling super appeared on my screen, instructing me to recite some scripted lines, which involved dismissing my newfound companion as a creep and asking her to go. But before the dismissal (my character struck me as indignantly and painfully self-righteous), we danced. It’s true to say that, with the transformation of sight, the merest touch from or another human being takes on much greater significance. One’s sensitivity is dramatically heightened. It’s, at once, a tender and sensual experience.

Moments later, my reverie was cut short when my bubbly was confiscated (more’s the pity) and the next thing I knew (as best I recall the order of events) was I was dancing ith a man, who removed his pullover to reveal a hairy chest. Come to think of it, this may’ve precede my ‘date’ and followed the close-quarters experience I had with another individual; indeed, it was so up close and personal, eyeball-to-eyeball, I couldn’t definitively decide whether it was a man or woman. Again, still, disorienting. The whole nature of sensory experience is subverted by the introduction of but a single technological innovation.

All this to a soundtrack that could hardly have been more eclectic. We were even fed the lyrics to Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, making for a weird, staged, collective karaoke.

To the extent I was engaged and responded, Thrashing fulfils its promise of interactive performance. To the extent that there are scripted lines, we, the audience, are turned into ‘instant actors, just add video goggles’, there’s a semblance of a set and props, a director (if, ostensibly, only via video input) and a soundtrack, it’s also ‘live cinema’.

The most interesting point of convergence, however, is the unwritten contract between audience and theatre makers: the audience unwittingly become performers and collaborators, co-creating the work afresh with each and every new performance. In the words of the producers: “Thrashing Without Looking is created and controlled by the audience, simultaneously constructing, witnessing and experiencing the scenes as they play out.” While it’s exciting on paper, the slated fifty minutes seemed to be somewhat truncated and the results exhibited at a makeshift bar, over another glass of sparkling wine, insubstantial and unsurprising.

Which led me to dissect, once again, the stated promise of the event: “Navigating moments of confusion, anticipation and exhilaration, this playful provocation of crowd dynamics will saturate the senses and challenge personal experiences of trust, intimacy and comfort. Expect video goggles, champagne and loud music in a disorienting journey through small talk, hysteria, loneliness, banality and cliché.”

Well, anticipation, even mild fear, is present. And it does involve playful, good-natured provocation; although little in the way of crowd dynamics, since you’re dealt with on an individual level. Issues of trust, intimacy and comfort are definitely aroused and the description of content is accurate: there is small talk, loneliness (the goggles alone are immediately isolating, in the manner of a blindfold), banality and cliche. In context, much of the music, which might otherwise be deemed respectable, becomes banal, complicit, as it is, with hackneyed dialogue. It’s a confronting experience, but not a particularly exhilarating one, beyond the freshly magical nature of touch, described above.

Something which seems to go unmentioned and which (to my mind, anyway) is one of the most powerful outcomes of the work is the control factor: one sees, essentially, only what the producers want you to see, which raises, quite obviously, all sorts of questions about censorship, torture, disinformation and attendant notions of ethics and morality.

Rramp is even more difficult to do justice, in review. Subtitled “The Collector, The Archivist and The Electrocrat”, it’s created and performed by Christine Johnston, Lisa O’Neill and Peter Nelson who present, more or less, as a band. Well, a kind of gothic circus meets spoken word dance electronica metal rock band. Ahmarnya Price contributes some animations, worked-up into  a backdrop of video projections, by Jen Jackson.

David Walters ensures the lighting is evocative of something slightly sinister and cracked; like a precious vase, by a poltergeist. Selene Cochrane’s funereal attire for Johnston seems fitting, too, transfiguring her into a moody Morticia. There are many changes, so Leila Maraun’s precise production and stage management contributions can’t really be overestimated. This quartet has worked together for a decade or more, so slickness should come as no surprise, I suppose. There seems to be a pervasive, profound and innate empathy between them. Their collective expertise knows few, if any, bounds: they boldly delve into forms including music, dance, theatre, comedy, storytelling, new media and more; seemingly undaunted by the demands it places on them.

Rramp’s (if I can call the trio that, for collective convenience) resume is extensive; this work was commissioned by Brisbane Powerhouse and was originally outed in a twenty-minute work-in-progress form at last year’s World Theatre Festival.

It may not be entirely transparent, but Johnston is The Collector, utterly punctilious. O’Neill is the subservient archivist and Nelson the ‘electrocrat’. Like many of us, The Collector is obsessed; even possessed. Possessed by possessions. Yes, they possess her as much as she possesses them, if not moreso. Inasmuch, Rramp is a potent comment on consumerism. This collector hoards all manner of idiosyncratic oddities: bones; tax receipts. Sadly, she has little to fill her life other than jars full of collectables (or things she deems so) and memories. Again, chillingly resonant of empty modern lives inhabited by crap, rather than culture, ideas, values or relationships.

Much of Rramp is concerned with relating the taxonomical finer points of The Collector’s strange and macabre collections and stories about chickens. Relationships with and between chooks. Alarmingly, I’m led to understand that much of this material relates to Johnston’s early interest in science and determination to become a doctor, which she forfeited for taxidermy and visual arts. The hens and roosters are a different matter: she used to sing with (or to) them, in her formative years, growing-up in what was then semi-rural Geebung, a north Brisbane suburb. She even speaks chook, a language, or nexus  of languages, invented by her during that time and which have proved surprisingly seminal in advancing her career; not least as Eve, of The Kransky Sisters.

As there’s more to the complex web of relationships between said chickens than would fill a whole season of Neighbours, I won’t even attempt a précis, from memory. Suffice to say, these stories are charming, surreal and affecting. Yes, affecting, as the stories of these cherished chooks are emblematic of stories about people: the mundanities of our lives; hopes; disappointments; fears; triumphs. We are as fragile and easily broken as chicken-bones, after all.

At the same time, the comically deadpan performances of the three actors, dancer/s and musicians are as thoroughly endearing as the narrative they’ve, ah, hatched. The animations only add to the sincerely homespun charm. The musicianship is practically insurpassable and were the three only to perform this it would still be a diverting experience. There’s nothing like it anywhere across the broader theatrical landscape.

Strictly speaking, I’m virtually prohibited from reviewing Culminate, a work (or works) still in development, commissioned by Force Majeure, as a follow-up to Cultivate, a similar ‘creative lab’ launched last year. I comply, reluctantly, out of respect and politeness: for the people involved and the FJ pedigree.

While the idea of a sneak public peek behind the curtain, hoping to catch a glimpse of the wizard is captivating and while I strongly favour any move to allow artists the freedom to experiment and fail, the ‘no review’ policy does raise vital philosophical questions. If you’re going to put it out there, why should critical comment be restricted? Is this form of censorship and embargo democratically or artistically supportable? If the work isn’t ready for at least some sort of critical scrutiny, is it right to make it amenable to the public? Can it be good enough for the public, but not for critics? Is it right, appropriate or viable to make the public a collective dramaturg? And isn’t it an obscenely populist notion and abdication of creative responsibility to test market works in progress?

Tamara Saulwick’s Pin Drop represents another foray into the fertile realm of documentary theatre. In a sense, this form can be something of a copout. For one thing, it tends to put writers out of work (before you holler for a marshall, I’m only half serious). It might be seen as easy. After all, go out and interview half a dozen people about some aspect of their lives or experience and you’ve got half-baked theatre, at least.

But Saulwick has taken what might be, or might’ve been easy and made it into a poignant, unforgettably powerful experience. Moreover, in all aspects of production, it’s a marvel: performance, sound and lighting design are exceptional and exacting. A sense of anxiety pervades the whole piece. In fact, it’s amazing how intense, dramatic and demanding of the senses an hour can be. You might need a Bex and a good lie down afterwards.

Theatrically, Saulwick ‘channels’ eleven voices other than her own, to impart fragments of fear. Though the tales are based in truth, it’s transcended by the partly visual, definitely visceral and overwhelming aural nature of the piece, to become something of a thriller. Endings aren’t important or material to the interrogation of the thoughts and feelings that accompany threat, the suspenseful journey is, so many threads are deliberately left dangling. The interviews were with women aged from six to 92, victims of attempted molestation, home invasion, robbery and rape.

But don’t think there’s no room for humour, even amidst the terror: superhuman strength and courage is one of the hallmarks and, suddenly, the victim becomes empowered. The gathering of this confidence can sometimes provide surprising images, such as when a slight-sounding woman in a bikini forcibly evicts a large intruder who’s straddled her.

Pin Drop is an ingenious name for a show that will have you spellbound and, potentially, white-knuckled, on the edge of your seat, grinding teeth or biting nails. Not only do we have real-life excerpts to torment us, but surround sound and Saulwick’s peculiar Foley table to set our imaginations to work, our nerves on edge and our subconscious into overdrive.

Saulwick may be the creator and performer, but equally essential to the work are Peter Knight’s composition and sound design, Bluebottle’s design and production and even Harriet Oxley’s costume design, which is at once demure, sensual and suggestive.

Show On was well worth braving at least one of the coldest nights of Sydney’s winter for and, indeed, for Pin Drop alone. And we haven’t even talked about the audiovisual installation The Democratic Set.

The details: The Show On season played Carriageworks from July 25 to August 4.

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