The Here and Now

Feature in Issue 22-1 | Spring 2010

Alexander Roberts goes live at Chelsea Theatre’s Sacred Season.

Sacred 2009, the fourth Sacred season of live art to be organised by Chelsea Theatre, brought together a packed programme of contemporary performance from across the UK and Europe. Attending a selection of works – Gob Squad’s Live Long and Prosper; Stacy Makishi’s Stay; and Action Hero’s A Western – I came away captivated by the cross-fertilisation of ideas glimpsed through the Sacred frame.

The three pieces that I saw were three very different performance events, but when placed together, it was their use of the live moment that became fascinatingly pronounced, with the whole practice of what it is to perform and present work in a shared and live space brought to the fore.

Stacy Makishi’s Stay is a brutal two-hander that appears to tell the story of two performers who live in a black box studio, living out a sadomasochistic ritual of dominance, dependence and subversion. The live dimension is crucial to the piece’s power; a point that Makishi goes to great lengths to emphasise. She talks constantly to and about the audience, describes the performers as artists and at one point, one of the performers justifies her crap acting by the fact that she’s ‘an artist, not an actor’. This emphasis serves as an unnerving reminder that the play could be real, and therefore the proximate threat, the violence and the torture in its seemingly sanitised frame before us, could also be happening for real.

Action Hero’s A Western is also a two-hander, but the shared space between audience and performer is used very differently, with a completely different impact. We, the audience, are placed at its heart and our presence fully utilised. Set within the casual location of the Chelsea Theatre bar, the concept is straightforward. Two performers guide the audience through a series of scenes – making attempts, with the little they have, to create a cowboy film. With the help of the audience playing extras, the Action Heroes, with a dry smirk, deconstruct a series of easily recognisable Spaghetti Western trademarks.

The effect, beyond giving everyone a lot of laughs, is to place a tightly-focused emphasis on what it is for us as an audience to be at the Chelsea Theatre sharing in this activity – the audience are totally conscious of their role. The same effect is achieved by Stay. In both pieces our presence is not only acknowledged, but pronounced as fundamental. The event becomes consciously owned by the audience.

Gob Squad’s offering was a piece whose inclusion in the programme excited me from the off. Live Long and Prosper is a film installation – two films, played simultaneously and projected onto two different screens. Gob Squad take seven famous death scenes from cinema and presents them alongside their own remakes – versions that were filmed in social spaces, in front of unsuspecting public audiences across Berlin.

The original films remove all sense of the surrounding sets, exclusively framing the fiction of each film’s narrative. In Gob Squad’s versions, on the other hand, their social landscapes are joyfully revealed: there are members of the public walking around in the back of shots, staring at the performances that are being filmed. As a consequence, the contextual setting and the public audience become fundamental dimensions to the interpretation of the remakes and the film installation as a whole.

The filmed events that Gob Squad engineered become clearly defined as documented happenings that were performed live, in front of a live public audience. The film installation then places these parallel versions side by side, drawing comparisons between the differing natures of fiction constructed live and fiction constructed through film. It explores the limits of the live event by exposing the difficulties or potential impossibilities that come with trying to make death appear real in live performance. Once again we find ourselves, the audience, positioned as the central subject in this installation piece, moving it from contemplation of different fictional frameworks to a focus very specifically on us and consequently onto the nature of the live event itself.

Each of these pieces, when seen independently of the others, of course contains its own autonomous meanings. But, in bringing them together, Sacred generated a fascinating exploration of the nature of live performance and the audience’s role within it.

Stacy Makishi’s Stay, Action Hero’s A Western, and Gob Squad’s Live Long and Prosper were all presented as part of the Sacred season at Chelsea Theatre, October – November 2009. www.chelseatheatre.org.uk/sacred2009.htm For further reviews from Sacred see the Total Theatre website: www.totaltheatre.org.uk/reviews

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Issue 22-1
p. 32