Defining pleasure/ creating pleasure
Creating immersive, participatory theatre is no easy feat – as JUMP artist Dan Santangeli explains the process executing his latest work as part of Next Wave Festival.
“Slip your feet into your audience’s shoes. Now ask yourself, What’s my pleasure?”
Pleasure? Huh? Shoes. What? I didn’t even understand the question. I told myself that if I spoke slowly and calmly he wouldn’t sense how deeply I had fallen into a well of bafflement.
“That’s a good question,” was my evasive reply. I went through an overly polite routine of finishing-up a conversation and hastily hung up the phone. It would be two weeks till I called Chris with an answer.
First day of rehearsals and Chris’ question was an ever-growing black hole sucking months of preparation from me, stretching time and spaghettifying my uncertainty into a long noodle of anxiety.
Dearest Blog Reader, let me introduce the key players of my anxiety:
Meet Chris Ryan. My JUMP mentor and the man I just hung up on. He is excellent. A cross between Dumbledore and Stephen Fry. Not only one of the co-founders of The Sydney Front, famed for creating radical and immersive theatre works in the 1980s and 1990s, but also referred to by some in the theatre industry as The Mechanic. Skilled in dramaturgy, he is often called upon by independents to “fix” a production. Casual demeanour spiced with a sharp intellect. I knew he was awesome when on the occasion of our first meeting he showed me a photo of a human testicle disguised as a chicken egg and then, completely unrelated, handed over an essay by Christos Tsiolkas.
Meet Next Wave Festival. A biennial festival of emerging artists run by its savvy Artistic Director Emily Sexton. To an emerging artist, it’s the dream festival: fresh, high profile and consisting of bloody good art. At the time of Chris’ question, my show was one month away from premiering at Next Wave.
Meet my new production. WHEYFACE. A museum created after the end of the world. Immersive, participatory and a hotpot of human history.
Meet the audience. The imminent audience. The group of strangers I’m meant to be pleasuring. They are Melbourne art lovers. They want well-considered and well-formed experiences, they engage with art often and know what they like. They also dress well. I usually espouse the belief that artists should love their audience – to me it’s the difference between generous art and selfish art. But when I’m in the midst of making a work, and I feel this the most in the fast-paced hours prior to opening-up the theatre doors, the audience are not this at all. They are Haitian zombies.
Meet the creatives. The incredibly talented group of artists working with me to create WHEYFACE. In the coming month it would be their hard work and keen eyes that would pull this show together. This was the first time I was working with the exceptional set designer Jonathon Oxlade (so I’m shitting myself) and the ridiculously talented musician Yeo Choong (I’m instantly jealous of a man who can improvise in any genre on almost any instrument).
Meet Perspective. It’s the one thing you don’t have when making a theatre show. And it’s the one thing you need before you walk into rehearsals and say, Right! This is what we are doing today.
Shit. First Rehearsal.
What Chris was really asking was, “What is it that your audience are doing that is giving them pleasure? What is the actual task that they are engaged in that is giving them joy?” To Chris, the question is a dramaturgical tool that forces you to see the show from a single audience member’s point-of-view. It’s not about the artist, the mood their creating or the message they’re conveying. It’s about what the audience are experiencing and what is making them want to invest in the work.
I think I nailed this. When I called Chris after a fortnight of avoiding him, I told him about a scene we were creating in rehearsals: The Last Autumn. Elizabeth Millington, who played one of the tour guides in this museum, would make an announcement to the audience: “We will now use the precious objects you have been learning about tonight to create the last autumn of mankind.”
Elizabeth would then deliver a series of instructions to the audience: “You two. You shall be the lovers and walk across the museum holding up this umbrella. And you! You will be the autumn leaves. Take these bits of paper and throw them in the air like this.” And so on she went.
Within five minutes she had the entire audience standing-by. Some had set up a picnic, others were dressed as old men while a small group were wearing baking dishes as skis.
From her podium she orchestrated the scene. “Lights,” she commanded followed by a subtle shift in lighting. “Music,” she signalled to Yeo and a melancholy rendition of The Beach Boys’ Sloop John B begun. “And,” delicately gesturing to the group on the floor, “Picnicers, begin picnicing.”
Previously, the audience were so caught-up in their own preparations that there was genuine joy and surprise in both creating a scene and seeing it unfold around them. What was their pleasure? They were creating the fiction of our museum. The audience felt that their presence was integral to making the show happen.
WHEYFACE was a difficult show to make. Not only were we creating a fictional post-apocalyptic world but we were asking our audience to help us make it. We weren’t finishing our jobs until there was an audience present. Chris’ question influenced the entire devising process, where we always asked, “but what is giving them pleasure in this moment?”
Blog by Dan Santangeli
Image credits Sarah Walker