London Stories: A 1-on-1-on-1 Festival

London-Stories

Originally written for Exeunt.

“We all want to connect, I think,” Richard Dufty muses as we chat in one of Battersea Arts Centre’s many cosy, secluded corners. The last time I was face to face with Dufty was in his company Uninvited Guests’ show Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, as he shook my hand and offered me a glass of sparkling wine on the way into the performance. Now, in a new festival of intimate storytelling, the senior producer at BAC is interested in interrogating just those kinds of theatrical encounters – the moments where the mask slips and a more genuine connection between performer and audience member might just be possible.

“A lot of the performance that we’re interested in here is performance that is reaching for the real,” he says, quickly adding, “whatever that means.” Dufty and his artistic colleagues at BAC are fascinated by “the power of directness and honesty and immediacy”, a power that they have explored through a number of building-wide projects. The One-on-One Festivals in 2010 and 2011 questioned the nature of theatre and the relationship between performer and spectator, offering a series of encounters that shifted participants’ perspectives on the theatrical event. In BAC’s latest foray into intimate performance, however, Dufty and his co-producer Rosalie White are also interested in the intimacy that might be possible between audience members.

“There’s so much talk about the kind of community that you can get in an audience and what happens when you experience things together, and often it feels like a load of guff,” Dufty says frankly. By shrinking this down to an audience of two, the 1-on-1-on-1 Festival will go beyond this empty rhetoric and look at “the intimacy in what happens in a very small audience”. Each audience member will experience the event in the company of a series of strangers, entering each encounter alongside another person. The hope is that this will foster a closeness that is usually absent from larger performances; as Dufty points out, it’s hard to ignore your fellow audience member when they are the only other person in the room.

Another shift from previous One-on-One Festivals is in the nature of the encounters themselves. Rather than commissioning professional artists to create work for the 1-on-1-on-1 Festival, the theatre issued an open call for Londoners willing to share their stories, receiving over 100 responses. Dufty explains that the reasoning behind this approach was driven by the same desire to strip away layers of artifice from the theatrical event.

“There is something exciting about people who are not necessarily trained performers telling their stories,” he suggests. “If you’re interested in the frisson of something feeling like it’s actually happening there and then rather than being perfectly rehearsed, then there’s something to be said for not always working with professional performers.” There was also an attempt on the part of the theatre to tell the stories that we might not usually hear. Dufty recognises that the life experiences of those who make and regularly attend theatre at a venue like BAC are likely to be fairly similar; he and White wanted to open the building up to other stories, issuing an invitation to “come look at the rich variety of lived experience just in this one city”.

And the city itself is key. While the original focus was on stories rather than on place, Dufty and White soon discovered that the narratives they had collected from Londoners were all “saying something quite beautiful about this city”. In a sprawling metropolis where we usually avoid meeting each others’ eyes at all costs, London Stories forces us to take a closer look. Dufty is not expecting audience members to leave and immediately strike up conversations with strangers on the Tube, but he does hope that “you can at least wonder what their back story is, where they come from, how they came to be here, and what happiness and sadness and hope and tragedy is in their lives.”

The festival’s relationship with its city extends to its layout within BAC. The “building-wide adventure” will take audiences on a labyrinthine journey through candlelit rooms and corridors, dimming the light inside to allow some of the world outside to seep in through the windows. “There’s some idea that London is bleeding both ways,” explains Dufty, “from the storytellers out to the city and in again.” In many ways, the old Victorian town hall is the perfect location for this evening of urban storytelling; as Dufty suggests, London Storiescontinues in the building’s tradition of democracy, activism and community.

The stories themselves range from the heart-lifting to the heartbreaking. Dufty tells me that many of the narratives are deeply emotional for the storytellers – “it’s partly therapeutic” – but that in even the bleakest tales there is an element of hope and redemption. In selecting and curating the stories that make up the event, Dufty and White have dedicated thought to the texture and mood of the evening, contrasting the melancholy with the joyous. Dufty admits that “the curating job has been, on a very crude level, about mixing the heavy ones up with the lighter ones, the sad ones up with the funny ones”. There has also been a responsibility towards the storytellers, who are committing themselves to a necessarily exposing series of encounters by sharing their own experiences.

For all his talk of honesty, however, Dufty acknowledges that through the repeated telling of these stories, they will inevitably be transformed into a kind of performance. No matter how intently we tear away at artifice, a thin layer will always remain. Despite his instinct to reach for the real, Dufty cautions that “we shouldn’t be naive about ever being able to reach it”, adding “there are always masks”. But this should not stop us from reaching nonetheless. “Whilst you recognise that getting to absolute honesty is impossible, the pursuit of it is beautiful – the honest, genuine pursuit of it is a beautiful and very human thing.”

While unadorned honesty might be impossible, what London Stories – and intimate performance more widely – does have the potential to do is delicately reconfigure the theatrical contract. In these surroundings, there is a sense that the audience is indispensible and that the event itself “doesn’t feel too pre-determined”. And as Dufty emphasises, there is something fascinating about this not just theatrically, but also politically. “Things don’t have to be like this. It could be different.”

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A Love Letter

Love-Letters-Straight-from-your-heart

Last night I fell a little bit in love.

But before I get onto that, there are a few things you should know. Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight From Your Heart sounds, in many ways, like my vision of a nightmare: unapologetic sentimentality, public displays of emotion (emphatically not my thing – I was possibly the sole dry-eyed audience member when I went to see Lovesong) and, worst of all, the premise that in the room of the performance it is always Valentine’s Day. Whether single or in a relationship, the 14th February is a hideously over-commercialised day that I resolutely hate; one of my most vivid Valentine’s Day memories remains digging through stacks of saccharine, heart-studded cards in an increasingly frantic hunt for one to give my then boyfriend of only a couple of months that didn’t declare “I love you”.

Incongruously paired with this cynical, emotionally awkward streak of my personality, I had dangerously high expectations of the show. Everyone I’d spoken to about it had been in raptures, competing to express in superlatives just how much they loved it. And then, on top of all that, I’d been oddly compelled to write reams more than I probably should have done in my dedication (the piece is built around song dedications from audience members to loved ones – but more on that later) and was beginning to squirm at the thought of my nakedly sincere words falling from a performer’s mouth. All in all, the odds were in favour of me hating the whole experience.

And yet, in spite of all the above, I utterly adored it. The idea behind it all is simple enough: in advance of the show, audience members fill out dedications, requesting songs for their loved ones – partners, best mates, family members – and expressing what they mean to them; the performers then read these out and play the songs over the course of the evening, slotting them into a containing structure that gently explores the nature of love. It’s like an odd sort of marriage between participatory performance and Radio 2’s ‘Sunday Love Songs’, but one that strangely, charmingly works.

Entering the space, we’re offered a glass of sparkling wine and invited to take a place at one of two long tables facing one another. The aesthetic is cheap, familiar romance, all red tablecloths and roses, topped off with a glitterball suspended from the ceiling. There’s something of the wedding reception in the layout, an arrangement of the performance space that immediately cultivates the atmosphere of a social event rather than a theatrical one. It’s recognisable, unintimidating – an immediate setting at ease.

Once everyone is seated, performers Richard Dufty and Jess Hoffman take up their places at DJ desks at either end of the two long tables, from which they begin to spar with tunes, lobbing love songs at one another with grins and rolls of the eyes. There’s cheese and passion and raw, piercing heartbreak. But the bared soul of the show, as the songs played by Dufty and Hoffman melt into those selected by audience members, is formed by the dedications of those present. Like me, other audience members (at least on the night I went) seem emboldened by the setting to open their hearts, to share mushy declarations of love or friendship or to wrench out private pain. The company’s description of the atmosphere as something between a wedding and a wake is deeply apt, with both devotion and loss foregrounded, while the space itself shares that loosening of emotions that accompanies these rare events when we allow ourselves to unreservedly feel.

Perhaps surprisingly, given that we are all listening in to the voicing of emotions usually confined to the sphere of the private, Love Letters refuses to cast its audience as voyeurs. There is a sense that we must all give up something of ourselves, all equally drop a barrier that leaves us startlingly level with one another. The most striking way in which this is achieved is through an instruction for audience members to gaze into the eyes of the person opposite them for the duration of Johnny Cash’s ‘First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, creating an unsettling intimacy that somehow shifts something in the room (if the effect sounds exaggerated, try looking into someone’s eyes for the length of that song; it’s extraordinarily, revealingly difficult). There is, as a result, a sense of the collective, a half-community that will dissolve once we step out of the space but for a brief time reconfigures social rules (again, this looks hyperbolic and cliched as I write it, but I was struck by the way in which people easily spoke to one another after the performance, an ease between strangers that I’ve rarely witnessed in a theatre context).

Central to it all is the music. A shifting playlist that changes every night, the songs are intimately tied up with memories, but these aren’t just restricted to the memories of the individual who has made each request. As we listen to The Smiths, Kate Bush, Joy Division, Elvis, Soft Cell, almost every track unleashes a torrent of my own recollections, conjuring other loved ones with the breathless exhilaration of teenage infatuation or the comfort and warmth of the family home. It also made me think of all the other theatrical moments that are inseparably wedded to particular pieces of music (the trio of extraordinary visual snapshots that accompany ‘Wicked Game’, ‘Golden Slumbers’ and ‘The Last Living Rose’ in Three Kingdoms, the techno underscoring of Beats, the glorious, vodka-fuelled rendition of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in Benedict Andrews’ Three Sisters, plus lots more I can’t quite summon to mind right now), performance memories that pulse with a soundtrack.

There’s a part of me, that niggling, questioning, slightly cynical part, that wants to problematise what Uninvited Guests are doing; to prod at the notion of sincerity within a theatrical frame that is implicitly supported by insincerity and artifice, to raise a skeptical eyebrow at the idea of “liveness” – a word bound up with so many uninterrogated complexities – uniting a group of strangers in a dimly lit room with a shared promise of love. That part of me, however, is overcome by the urge to surrender to the seduction, to believe in the simple beauty of the piece’s premise. At some point, much like with falling in love, there is a moment of giving in, of trusting. And maybe that impulse to give in is exactly what makes Love Letters the gorgeous, giddy, emotionally puncturing experience that it is.