Local theatre has been experimenting with reception studies and things-that-make-theatre-not-film, such as site-specific performances, interactive performances, and doing things to the audience, for a little while now, and you would think we would have moved past taking such gestures as meaningful in and of themselves. Taking one person on a little tour round North Melbourne, as in the absence of sunlight does, I assumed that A is for Atlas, the company behind it (who have treated us to a solid take on Heiner Muller’s Quartet this year), would have thought through the possible problems. Eg, how will the single audience member feel about being walked around and spoken to in quite confidential terms? Will they get bored? What if they try to walk out? What if they feel they can’t walk out? What is the purpose of it all anyway?
None of those questions (and more) got answered by the one-on-one walkabout, which was not only batshit-boring, but also awkward in the manner of bad dates. The similarity, I shudder as I write, was in more than just my lack of power to cut it short. The sole performer, an otherwise beautiful woman who led me around a pub in that actorly trance in which my presence didn’t seem to matter much (why pretend to be interactive then?, I wonder), performed a quasi-confessional talk, which reminded me not little of conversations one occasionally has with insane people, and held exactly the same level of intrigue, which is to say little. Her deeply self-involved mimicry of conversation was not dissimilar from the stock-standard behaviour of a woman working very hard to be seductive: self-absorbed, even self-consciously poetic, always looking behind her back, and being charming but sort of self-gratifyingly so, emitting a kind of onanistic purr that makes the other side wonder whether their presence is even required for this game to go on.
So I switched to my usual bad-date survival mode (which is also how you deal with crazy people): I watched her carefully talk herself into a happy climax, unresponsive to her antics and thinking about what I was going to have for dinner, until she either cut the performance short to kick me out faster, or got to the natural end of one particularly inconclusive dramaturgy.
At this point, it’s worth remembering Chris Goode’s Cat Test for live art, still the classic of its genre:
The Cat Test can perhaps best be thought of as a development of the old miners’ practice of using a canary to test for the presence of carbon monoxide. (Not to be onfused with the ‘pop’ test for carbon dioxide, for which you insert a lit canary into a test tube, etc.) The Cat Test discloses liveness: an ordinary domestic cat is released into the midst of a theatre event, and if the event can refer to and/or accommodate the cat without its supporting structures breaking down — the structures of the event, not of the cat — then the event is said to be ‘live’, and is therefore disqualified from the Hampstead Theatre. If the Cat Test produces only the spectacle of Richard Griffiths shouting at the cat, a ‘let’ may be played.
As the cat of this live performance, I felt my presence rather underappreciated.
This sort of misthought failure gives a bad name to live art/hybrid/alternative/performance, which may explain why we still don’t have a short snappy name for the form. Not all is gloom, though. By making a few stretched analogies, we have just come to a litmus test of a bad date. Would it be any different if you weren’t there? *
* This may be the right moment to announce that Guerrilla Semiotics is seriously considering establishing the First Australian Award for a Hatchet Job, in the honour of Dale Peck, to advance the art of well-said controversy in this country. As you may be able to read between these lines, even mean-spirited critics like myself have come to struggle with phrasing damnation.
in the absence of sunlight. Artists: Tamara Searle, Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy, Dayna Morrissey, Danny Pettingill, Ivanka Sokol, Xan Colman. Fringe Hub – Foyer – Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
521 Queensberry Street North Melbourne. 24 Sep – 11 Oct.