Interactive theatre at the Fringe
Yasmin Sulaiman talks to Adrian Howells about crossing the third wall
This article is from 2009.
As the Fringe enters its 62nd year, its reputation as a breeding ground for inventive theatrical encounters is proving truer than ever. And while site-specific productions such as the public toilets-set Waiting for Godot might have chins wagging, interactive shows promise to provide the more meaningful experiences in 2009 – from Baba Yaga Bony Legs, in which a Russian folktale is told while an audience’s feet are tickled in the dark, to Adrian Howells’ Foot-washing for the Sole, in which the performer washes the feet of a solitary audience member for half an hour.
One of the most exciting of these close-up performances is Ontroerend Goed’s Internal, the sequel to the Belgian company’s 2007 Fringe hit, The Smile Off Your Face. Unlike its predecessor, in which the audience was blindfolded and tied to a wheelchair, Internal involves five performers seeing how close they can get to five audience members in 25 minutes, through emulating the formats of speed dating and group therapy.
‘We wanted to develop a show that would continue the story of the individual audience member confronted by a performer in a space on his own,’ says Joeri Smet, a key member of Ontroerend Goed and a performer in Internal. ‘But this time we wanted to make it more like a personal relationship.’
According to Howells – whose one-to-one Fringe show premiered at Arches Live! earlier this year – there is a real desire from theatre-goers for this kind of intimate experience. He says: ‘I think it’s a really interesting paradox that as we become more technologically and medically sophisticated, we actually seem to become more and more isolated. I think that the reason I’m very committed to the mode of one-to-one performance is because it is absolutely about prioritising a very meaingful engagement and interaction with another human being.’
But can this sort of close-up theatre ever really be a fulfilling experience for the audience – or is it merely an exercise in discomfort? ‘I think it’s really interesting that a lot of people think they have to steel their courage in order to come to a one-to-one,’ says Howells. ‘Of course I understand the nervousness about what you think you’re going to have to reveal or expose, and that you don’t want to be humiliated or embarrased. But really, with me, it’s just about meeting another human being.’
In the past, Howells – who is currently completing a three-year research fellowship on one-to-one theatre – has gained praise for works such as Held, which involves 30 minutes of silence in which the audience member and performer spoon each other, fully clothed, on a bed. Yet making his audience comfortable has always been a priority.
‘It’s very important to make people feel empowered,’ Howells explains. ‘That’s a particular danger in one-to-one work. You really have to make it clear that there is not some agenda that the audience has to stick to. I don’t want people to feel in any way coerced into something that they’re not a willing participant in.’
But the balance between making the audience comfortable and uncomfortable has been a fine one in Internal, which has to date been performed in Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. Smet says: ‘If it’s too cosy and a bit superficial, then you have to ask, “Why make a performance like this?” So we really try to make people feel comfortable, but on the other hand we go a little deeper so that it becomes uncomfortable and actually starts to offer a more profound experience.’
Ultimately, both performers feel that human connection is central to their productions. ‘Sometimes five people that don’t know each other come to the show,’ says Smet, ‘and afterwards, they go out and have a drink together in a pub to discuss what just happened. That’s very nice to see.’ Howells echoes this sentiment: ‘Nothing can replace that real one-to-one contact with another human being. There’s nothing quite like it.’
Baba Yaga Bony Legs, Sweet ECA, 0870 241 0136, 7–16 August, 2.45pm, £8 (£7). Preview 6 Aug, £5; Internal, Traverse Theatre, 228 1404, 8–30 Aug (not 10, 17, 24), times vary, £14–£16 (£10–£11). Previews until 7 Aug, £10 (£5); Foot-washing for the Sole, St Stephen’s, 0141 565 1000, 25–29 Aug, £10 (£8).
’It’s just about meeting another human being’