Chapter Arts Studio
Tuesday, 18th June 2013
As always Volcano have propelled their audience into unfamiliar territory; exciting, intimidating and totally overwhelming. In a production like no other Volcano demanded that their audience surrender the power of sight and leave themselves vulnerable as they crawled, shoeless, into the unknown.
Blinda is genuinely like no other ‘theatre production’ you will see and as such it is impossible to write a distanced and analytical review of something that was designed to be personal and lead the participants into a mind state of self reflection and discovery. Mine is just one experience; some will love Volcano’s latest offering, others will have found it painful and uncomfortable, I am sure that more than a few will have left confused and possibly annoyed. I began as one of the second group, as a person who does not enjoy casual physical contact; no lovey hugs or air kisses for me thanks! But as I left the Chapter Studio I was firmly in the first group, I loved this crazy, unpredictable production…..although I would be very careful about who I recommended it to!
Now to explain the physical contact comment. We sat in the foyer of the Studio, each one of us on a small bench in an individual wooden box with the word ‘FRAGILE’ stamped on our hands like an expensive or precious parcel. Having been asked to discard our phones, bags, jackets, watches and even shoes and socks we all looked sheepishly at one another, initially hoping that everyone else was doing the same and then praying we weren’t being taken for fools. One by one we crawled barefoot into a pitch black tunnel and I instantly regretted my fashion choice of maxi skirt as the hard ground gave way to grass.
I fought my hayfever sneezes, not wanting to break the calm created by the soothing ‘wilderness’ soundtrack as a pair of hands found mine in the pitch black. I reached upwards accidentally and unmistakably grabbing an unknown woman’s breasts! As I exclaimed a muffled and very embarassed “sorry” she helped me up out of the tunnel and locked me in a gentle, but firm, hug whispering “shhhhh, shhhh” in my ear – the only words to be heard all night.
As the unknown figure who had forced me into unnecessary contact let me go I was suddenly lost. Stripped of my sight with no way to tell which way was North I adopted the classic, hands in front, pose of the blindfolded in the classic children’s game ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’. Occasionally I would bump into something or someone; a velvet curtain, a corrugated cardboard wall or a hastily withdrawn hand as I listened to the sound of a roomful of clueless people fumbling in the dark.
Eventually, just as I was beginning to feel ok in this visionless environment one of the hands didn’t withdraw; instead it grasped my fingers and guided them towards this unknown person’s face making me feel the eyes, nose and mouth like a blind person recognising a friend. They did the same to me, I inexplicably panicked when they moved my glasses, stupidly worried that they would take away my sight in a room that I could see anyway! After more awkward hugs and a strange little dance we parted ways.
This pattern of complete aloneness followed by extreme closeness continued. I strangely found myself enjoying the solitary darkness, relying on my ears to guide me whilst also craving more of these weird encounters. Soon my heightened sense of sound picked up a lot of rustling in one corner, so I followed it. A dim doorway appeared and I shuffled through to a room that my feet told me had a cardboard floor and boxes strewn in my path.
I bumbled around in there for a while alone, surprised that no one else had joined me. All of a sudden the room seemed full of shadows that were hastily shedding their clothes! Startled and confused I quickly made my way back to the relative safety of the room of grass and random hugs as a light slowly revealed the now naked actors.
Their four silhouette’s thrown against a thin paper wall separated them and the audience, they struck a few suitably artistic poses before we found the collective courage to enter the room. Standing awkwardly in ones and twos the group now displayed the very British art of ‘not making eye contact’ as the performers moved slowly in the dimly lit room decorated with hundreds of cardboard boxes.
Unfortunately it soon became clear that just because the performers were now surrendering something to us it did not mean out part was over. They engaged in intense, but non-threatening eye-contact for worrying amounts of time – “do I stare back? Smile? Look away….but not down?” I opted for a friendly returned look and an embarrassed half smile, that simultaneously said “sorry” and “wow, you’re brave!”
Having always had ‘one of those faces’ I often find myself on the receiving end of the sob stories of complete strangers, normally I don’t mind this but when one of the male actors decided that on top of my feet was the perfect place for him to lie down I cursed my overly-friendly features. He stayed there for a long time, I tried to ignore him, watch the other move around and occasionally jump or twist fit-like.
I was doing quite a good job until he turned his head and locked me in his stare, he slowly raised one hand, “am I meant to help him up?” Of course I did, just as I engaged with each of the other performers; an intense staring competition, hand-holding and shy smiles with one of the girls, silent comparison of our stumpy toes with the last. It seemed I was the only one to get this full on level of connection, the most anyone else had was a box handed to them, a head rested on their shoulder…damn my welcoming face!
After this odd display of naked strength and grace the four of them formed a pathway, at the end of which a door opened. The audience trailed through one by one, out into the foyer again, normality regained. There was silence, no-one knew quite what to say.
All of this may seem bizarre and totally unnecessary to someone reading this account but I genuinely have to say the whole experience, although odd and uncomfortable, asked some interesting questions about vulnerability and human connection. I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly what Volcano were trying to tell us, but I definitelyt learned a lot about trusting my instincts and I can finally admit I do enjoy a goood, sincere hug (preferably from a family member or close friend).
Perhaps more extraordinarily if I ever see one of those audience members or one of the performers (hopefully fully clothed) on the street I would like to think we will share a knowing look. We will not say a word, we will carry on with our day but in that look we will share a secret – we know what the other is like in a state of vulnerability, we formed a strange yet comforting bond in less than an hour and none of it was as scary I we may have previously thought.