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Sudden Intimacies

Nicola Shafer

A feather falls to the street: a message from a disembodied hand to one of the waiting audience. She is sent up the stairs into West Space, alone, with the fallen invite. At the top, a young man greets her warmly–as if she has arrived at his party at last–and directs her to a room on her right. She opens the door and inside finds those sent before her, waiting in darkness.

And so Strangers and Intimacy begins, with each audience member suddenly engaged in a disarmingly intimate scenario. There in the dimness, among strangers, there is the accidental touch of hands, shared breath, a ripple of anxiety, the joint anticipatory wait for something more.

Strangers and Intimacy is a 3 part exchange project between Australian artists (Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Brian Fuata, Madeleine Hodge and Sarah Rodigari) and artists from reader, a collaborative performance group with bases in Glasgow and London (Eilidh Macaskill, Robert Walton, Pete Harrison and Lalge Harries). The project began last September, when 8 artists were assigned a pen pal on the other side of the world. Weekly letter writing engaged the artists in a process of exchange that revealed personal locations, contexts and intimacies. After the artists had met and sorted through the materials and ideas came stage 2–the performance in Melbourne. It is a highly innovative excursion into performance in which the audience is strangely part of the act.

In fact, the term ‘audience’ is rendered useless–the work engages everyone so deeply that no-one and everyone is ‘watching.’ We, who were not part of the letter exchange, enter a world in which we develop intimacy; suddenly we are paired with another audience member, dancing slowly, closely, repeating a forced echolalia of "My darling, I love you, I have always loved you. I always will." We are thrown into a bizarrely intimate situation with a complete stranger: we feel ‘close’ to them, bound perhaps by a mutual sense of discomfort and awkwardness. It’s not real intimacy, but a re-enactment of it.

Then we are seated on the floor of a room where we listen to Madeleine Hodge tell us about dating etiquette. We laugh at her act, engaged momentarily in the traditional audience/actor theatre dynamic. Gently, Alice Chang places her hand on my elbow and whispers "come with me." I am led to another room to be seated at a table and offered a glass of water. Soon I am joined by Pete Harrison and Sarah Rodigari. Suddenly, the theatre dynamic is broken. I am sitting at a table, sipping water, while 2 of the ‘actors’ discuss a day at the zoo and a lost friend. There, thrown into the act itself, I am suddenly eavesdropper, participant, dinner guest, audience (maybe) or even ghost. I watch and listen to the intimacies of 2 strangers, but the intimacy itself might or might not be real, just as the glass of water might well be a prop.

And so the night unfolds, room to room, activity to activity. Essentially, Strangers and Intimacy strives to conjure the sense of closeness that develops as people reveal themselves to one another. At the same time, in the context of a ‘performance’, the intimacies developed within the hour or so at West Space are in themselves feigned. In a way the piece successfully imitates the real experience of human connection and the development of relationships.

There is no narrative, more a series of moments strung together, each delivering a particular experience to the audience. There is no driving personal drama. Eilidh Macaskill writhes and strips and orders us to declare love to our dance partner, and then all at once we are shifted toward the doorway, where in a disjunctive and unrelated scene we watch Sarah Rodigari and Pete Harrison farewell each other in an hysterical and anxious goodbye. There is no sequence, no storyline and no characterisation. The strength of this work lies in its ability to stimulate a series of emotions in the audience while the actors themselves remain strangely like machines set to elicit our feelings.

The party is over. Again, a hand on my elbow and a jacket thrust to me; "Thank you for coming, I do hope we see you again", says Alice, staring deep into my eyes. She leans in for a hug, and in this moment of farewell, I am suddenly unsure whether I have really known anyone in the room. With one foot on the landing and one in the theatre, I am hazy with confusion–am I still in the act or is this a real goodbye? "Thank you so much for having me," I say. "I hope we meet again."

Strangers and Intimacy, co-ordinator Madeleine Hodge, West Space, Melbourne, Jan 28-Feb 5

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 45

© Nicola Shafer; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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