I’ve written about the Live Art company GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN before. I saw their 2012 show Big Hits at the Cambridge Junction, and it was one of the most powerful pieces I had ever seen performed in the theatre up to that point. It took one element of my mind – the part that up until then had quite sleepily accepted the inappropriate, hyper-sexualisation of women in the music industry – and slapped it awake, so that I walked out of the theatre feeling slapped, but grateful to be awake. I spent the next several days looking at the way women are portrayed in music videos and thinking ‘That is just fucking insane. And destructive to all the little girls (and big girls) who are drinking it in as “normal”’. That show led to a permanent change in the way I perceive our culture, and I was very grateful for that and respectful of the artistic power that created it.
So I was very eager to see their next show, and I was curious to see what issues they would choose to rumble next, and how they would use theatre (and the strange bag of tricks and techniques special to live art – abstraction, duration, awkwardness, shock, hyper-realism, etc.) to raise the issues and tangle with them. GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN are Artistic Director Hester Chillingworth and performers Lucy McCormick and Jennifer Pick. Their stated artistic mission is to make ‘broken genre performance’, and explore how ‘text does not always say what it says that it says it is saying.’
Their new show is called Number 1, The Plaza [insert link], and I saw it at the Cambridge Junction [insert link] last week, on 10 April 2014. It was the first night of a Spring tour of the piece, which will take it to The ShowRoom, Chichester on April 24th; BUZZCUT, Glasgow on April 26th; Tom Thumb Theatre, Margate on May 23rd; and Norwich Arts Centre on June 25th. More dates will probably be announced during the Spring.
I settled into my seat in the Cambridge Junction curious, but also a little apprehensive – because last time they slapped me, conceptually, even though I knew it was for my own good. Also, the mood music playing as the audience came into the theatre was ‘Send in the Clowns’ – a subtle opening tickle/provocation in the show’s performer/audience relationship. It suggested, delicately, and within a honeyed coating, one of the themes that would emerge in the show: the power dynamic contained within entertainment and media – that once we came into the theatre, we were in their space, their house, and we were under their control. They were free to choose what they did with us once we were there – for example, insult us incredibly subtly as we took our seats.
One of the interesting things about live art is that it purposefully re-considers how the audience encounters the work. For example, Big Hits was a purposefully awkward encounter for the audience. In that piece GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN defused, straight away, the usual theatrical mechanisms that construct a sense of otherworldly enchantment that can take place in a theatre, like the darkening of house lights and bringing up of stage lights. I remember that the first thing they did was stare at us without speaking, with the house lights up, for ages, which made me feel uncomfortable, and which dislodged any old-fashioned expectations or theatrical dreaminess that might have otherwise conditioned my mind ahead of the piece.
This time around, in Number 1, The Plaza, I felt much more lulled, much more entertained, and also, seduced. There was smooth, jazzy music, with a lot of saxophone and synthesizers, and slinky, sparkly dresses. There was humour and shiny, flowing hair extensions. There was a drinks bar. They opened with a show tune (Lucy has a great voice). It was, as they would tell us, ‘An Evening With…’ This time around they invited us into their ‘house’, which I saw as a metaphor for their theatre space, for entertainment, for media, for the conceptual space over which they have complete control once the audience/performer relationship has been entered into by both parties. The show would go on to explore the idea of the audience’s relationship to its entertainment via the portrayal of Lucy and Jen’s relationship with each other. It was enacted as an intimate, seductive, power-imbalanced and conflict-laden relationship.
The show shimmered with meta-levels about the idea of entertainment, using its entertainment of us (with songs, humour, sexy dresses) to comment on both the powers and the dangers of entertainment: it suggested that once someone is entertained, they can be in a sort of enchanted thrall and soaking in an implied and poisoned ethos embedded quietly in the entertainment. But because they were using entertainment to give us this message, they were also exploring the positive power of artistic entertainment to pull one’s consciousness forcibly by the hand, saying ‘come here with me to look – really, deeply look at this issue.’
And because they were exploring the power dynamic in the performer/media/audience relationship via Jen and Lucy’s relationship, the exploration expanded outward to include any sort of intimate relationship between two people, an artistic mechanism which gathered up the metaphorical material from personal relationships and heaved this back onto the performer/audience relationship. It was a violent, abusive relationship. At one point, they simply started physically fighting each other and freezing in long, held poses of conflict. But amidst the fighting, they paused to embrace, kiss, lick, inhale the other person, in moments of intense, passionate connection. When Jen started to be verbally abusive to Lucy (‘I fucking hate you, you little cunt’), Lucy’s humanity and sanity seemed to break down and apart. It reflected powerfully back upon the media/audience relationship and made me consider where the entertainment that surrounds us in our society has the power to break down our humanity, and our sanity. It also made me question passive acceptance of entertainment, and wonder how aware we are as a society of the subtle, implied messages in the media that surrounds us.
As I first took my seat and realised that the melody gently piped into the atmosphere of the still lit, chatting and drinking audience space was ‘Send in the Clowns’, I had a quiet laugh to myself; but later the brilliance and delicacy of this choice struck me. Its quietness, its underneath-ness, amplified a sense of the unseen, unrecognised power of implied messages in our entertainment. Implied messages are powerful because they slip into our minds under the radar, underneath our ability to perceive…and fight them. This opening was a statement about the power of the entertainer – the controller of the interaction, the chooser – and the lack of power of the audience, the absorber. If they wanted to imply we were clowns, or call us clowns outright, or tell us to fuck off, or shit on the stage, or say that women were stupid, pointless animals, or dance around naked, or get naked and rub shit on each other, they could do it; and we would be held, mute, within the ideas embedded in our minds about our role as the audience in a relationship to a piece of theatre, bringing up the question of passivity in the audience role. They could do, say, or imply whatever they wanted, and we would have to absorb it. I’m not saying that they did any or all of those things, and I will leave it for you to wonder whether the show actually goes to any of those places, especially if you haven’t seen it yet – but the point they made is that they could have done all of that, if they wanted to.
It is interesting to me that as I walked out of the show, my first impression was that the show didn’t contain the immediate, artistic coherence and power that Big Hits did. But I realised later that the show was simply different and breathtakingly subtle and complex in its exploration of its themes. So it worked a little differently on my psyche. What happened was that its powerful, political, profound themes and coherent brilliance slipped into my mind via a backdoor, like an implied message – like background music.