Battersea Art Centre’s doors were flung back again this month for their one-on-one festival, giving you the chance, in the words of their steamy brochure, to ‘fill up on 3 delicious courses of intimate theatre’.
I’d heard much from people who work at BAC and friends who had participated in these kind of events before and was completely intrigued by the concept. One-on-one theatre apparently questions the boundaries between the performer and spectator in a way which more traditional productions cannot do.
So in the name of research I decided to opt for a menu which involved the most challenging experience I could find: and that was how I found myself sitting in a warm bubble bath strewn with rose petals, surrounded by the glittering light of about 50 tea lights, being bathed, held and finally fed by a middle-man who I had only met when I walked into the bathroom. And all with the express consent of my boyfriend. The man in question was Adrian Howells, performance artist and scholar, whose now-notorious work has been the chatter of both the academic community and the professional theatrical world.
I had opted to take part in The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding. You are told that you will be bathed, fed and held in a long embrace by Howells, and that nudity is optional: I decided to keep my bikini firmly on during the event; this was a social boundary which I was not yet ready to cross. Promoted as his ‘most challenging work to date’, it seemed to me to strike at the heart of what people both love and loathe about this new genre of performance art. Lyn Gardner succinctly puts the debate as follows: ‘At their best, these plays can be exhilarating; at worst, they are emotional porn.’
What I found during my experience with Howells was rather unexpected and, it seems, fell into neither of the two categories above. The first half of the event, my bath, felt strangely unchallenging and in fact a welcome time to relax out of the hustle and bustle of the rest of the BAC events. Asked to lie down in the water, Howells sprinkles water over you and then begins to massage and clean your skin, from you face and ears, down to your feet (your genital region is of course, as is explained in a short letter before you enter, not touched). These sensations, to me, were no different from being massaged or being washed and cleaned in a Hamman. A monetary transaction had taken place and Howells was performing the task we assigned, with a care and diligence I would expect.
So far, so unchallenged. But this lead me to question my own reaction. Should I be feeling challenged? Should I feel awkward? Should I be responding more warmly to his touches? Everyone who I told about this event to remarked that I was brave to undertake it. But I felt very comfortable.
But during the second half of the experience I felt quite differently. Howells asked me to remove my bikini and put on a large white dressing gown, all behind a small screen. He sat down with his legs outstretched at the side of the bath and invited me to by cradled by him on his lap. I acquiesced quietly and sat down. He pulled my head into his chest and we sat together in a long embrace. At intervals he asked me to open my mouth to receive squares of white chocolate, which I had noticed to the side of him when I came in.
To be bathed by a stranger is one thing, to be held in an embrace, which to me signifies strong intimacy and love, is quite another. I froze as Howells pulled me into his chest. Half of my consciousness was busily linking our positioning with the pieta, searching for some kind of artistic meaning within the work to interpret and externalise the experience. But this was to no avail: at the same time I was rigid with anxiety, recoiling from this position. Yet I did not end the embrace because, if I am being truthful, I did not want to reject a man who was opening up so physically to me and by this action potentially destroy the event he had created. Howells makes it clear that at any point you can end the arrangement, and yet somewhere within me my wish to appease him overrode my own feelings of anxiety. Like sitting on the orthodontist’s chair, I decided give myself up to this uncomfortable sensation with the promise that it would end in a matter of minutes, and would be to my longer-term benefit: in this case, for my writing and research.
I left the bathroom feeling a little relieved, but overall calm and desperately intrigued to talk to Adrian about what other reactions he has had with this new piece. Anything provocative? Anything outrageous? Whilst my academic study is informed by looking at these kinds of questions, I have to be honest and admit that my primary reason for wanting to know about other’s experiences was to be able to compare myself to them, as if to check that my reaction had been a ‘normal’ one or not.
And here I get to the crux of what I find interesting about the concept of one-on-one theatre, and particularly this piece. The point for me was not the selling if intimacy, or cheap thrills to recount down the pub at a later date. Here as a person I was completely alone, having willingly opened myself up to an abnormal encounter with a complete stranger. My lack of reaction to the bathing experience, and frozen one to that of our caressing, was only half of the experience. What I found was that during the experience and after it, I was constantly considering my reactions in the light of what other people may have done in that situation. I wanted to know whether my behaviour and reactions, (although witnessed by no-one but Howells,) were echoed in the reactions of other participants in this event.
Research into group theory and dynamics is an area which I hope to become better acquainted through the course of my research, but it is a well-known fact that people’s physical reactions to stimuli can be predicated on the reactions of those around them as much as what they instinctively feel themselves. The Milgram experiment still shocks people in the way it shows how humans can effectively switch off their ethical compass under the weight of authority: expectation of their role and duty outweighs their instinctual reactions. In the recent production Greenland, which has just finished showing at the Olivier at the National Theatre, the first narrator likens the populations mass denial about global warming with the fable about a group of people in a room filling with smoke, where no one reacts to it as they are judging their responses on the others in the room.
In my one-on-one experience I had no way of knowing other people’s reactions to the experience, there was no precedent to follow. To end the embrace with Adrian, I effectively had to be that person who awkwardly first claps at the end of a performance, hoping they have judged the moment right, or even the person who stands up and walks out the auditorium, rejecting the performance. Adrian’s calm, collected demeanour gave nothing away. If he felt my unease in the embrace he did no admit it. I came face to face with the fact that in my physical response to the experience, and to some degree through the intensity of my emotional response, I was looking for a validation or authority to check myself against. And during this event this is exactly what you do not get: and why, for me, it is a worthy experience to have gone through.