12/04/2016 - 16/04/2016
Feminine and mystic, TITLED by Nisha Madhan treats power structures like a house of cards, building them up only to smash them down and create an entirely new order out of the shreds.
“This is a ritualistic and fundamental exchange between You, Me and the Army of Administrators that run the world” says Madhan.
Celebrated for her humorous and deconstructed style, Madhan has consistently delivered work that plays by its own rules for the past six years. She has performed in Paris, Brussels, Perth and Helsinki and is a recurring name in Auckland’s Best and Most Original Production lists. Along with collaborator and designer Stephen Bain, she has built a following for performances that pull the rug out from under your feet.
“Part Kafka-esque comedy part Skull and Crossbones secret society…cleansing, exuberant, and wickedly wry… ” (The Pantograph Punch)
This is part of a double bill of feminist performance art presented by two leading forces in the Auckland theatre scene. TITLED by Nisha Madhan and If There’s Not Dancing at The Revolution, I’m Not Coming by Julia Croft both premiered in Auckland in 2015 to sell-out houses and critical acclaim. In April they will stage a takeover of BATS Theatre in Wellington bringing their bold, provocative and unapologetically political agendas with them.
Both works are presented by production company The Town Centre, a cult of deconstructionist theatre makers who treat the theatrical experience as something that is full of social potential.
A night with The Town Centre is a party. It’s an elaborate ruse to get you in the same room as them. Because they think you’re sexy and it’s just not as fun without you.
BATS Theatre, 12 -16 April
$20 full, $15 concession, $30 for both
This work is absolutely necessary for new growth and originality to emerge
Review by Chris Jannides 20th Apr 2016
Aleister Crowley, occultist supreme, has a follower in Nisha Madhan in her guise as the high priestess of theatrical cultism and the darker arts and practices of cosmic enlightenment, ritual purification and audience manipulation.
We give our personal details at the door to an officious assistant who never breaks a smile. Form-filling takes a bit of time. The questions are diverse. But we are used to passing personal information across cyber-space. This form-filling is just more of the same, but without a keyboard. Actually, it’s a bit like customs and bio-security questionnaires we fill out when travelling. We are number coded.
Five at a time, we are sucked into a tubular inflatable canal. A waiting area. Industrial fans keep the tunnel full of air and drown out any opportunity for chit-chat. Our host stands patiently with a red clipboard and a warm smile at the entrance to another space, which we soon enter.
This other space is a small backstage area. Nisha, our host, wordlessly lures us into feelings of trust and relaxation. She makes careful and gentle eye-contact with each person. Compliance is easily established. Though not speaking, instructions are conveyed through the back-and-forth of post-it notes and a black marker pen.
There is the relief of warm fuzzy moments of spontaneous and sometimes witty exchanges between Nisha and individuals in the audience. Giggling punctuates the proceedings.
Three people remain detached in their facial expressions and body language. They’re holding off for the time being. The task of creating a communal atmosphere is both symbolised and realised through the shared action of stretching and placing white sticky tape on the floor, walls, doors and people to make a cobweb that simultaneously connects and divides the space, us and the sticky notes.
Suddenly, I am being looked at intently by our host. Through small indications with her eyes she motions me to open the doors that we had entered through. I do so. The larger theatre space, which before had been concealed by the inflatable tube that ushered our initial entrance, is now open to us. It has been transformed into a universe with glowing pale green planets and stars.
A voice invites us in. The performance area is lined with seats on three sides. We are asked to find the one that has our written questionnaire and identity code on it. The mood changes from informal to formal. Ritual takes over.
Nisha strips to a leotard featuring a black sequinned top and bare legs. A stainless-steel bowl with water in it lies in the centre of the space. Geometrical lines cover the floor, reminiscent of astrological markings. The purification ceremony begins.
From washing herself, then dipping her hair into the bowl and tracing the geometrical patterns on the floor with flicking water, Nisha orbits the area in an anticlockwise direction, rolling full-length along the ground. Water is spread everywhere. She meticulously and then furiously washes the space with her whole body. Getting faster and faster, the exertion is palpable. Head arched back in her horizontal whirling dervish action, she never takes her eyes off the bowl. It is the glowing silver navel of our dark mini-verse.
Exhausted, she stops and stands in cruciform. The assistant robes her in white and wraps her head in a black turban. Now the sermon. It is dramatic, authoritative and extended. We are told that “this house is breathing” and that “from bridges we see carnage of concrete and want to destroy it”. Like all seers with divine sight, in an oblique reference to global warming and biblical forecasts, we are warned that we will all need each other when the waters rise. Following her lead, we recite a creed in unison. It is a jumbled parody of cosmic homilies with Bacchanalian inflections: “Cosmic Will is the Garden of Holy Music”; “Failure is the Food of Drunkenness And must be performed with Joy and Beauty”; “Be ready to transcend into the Company of the King and Queen on the Great Stage.”
Our number tags are called out. One at a time we advance to the Priestess who offers us water or wine. We hand our personal questionnaire to the assistant who clips it to a pulley system. Another assistant positioned in a loft above our head dutifully takes the form and puts it through a paper shredder. The shredded information falls back down on our heads in a baptismal shower of redemption and liberation. We chant: “I am here. You are there. This is the moment. We are together.” We are instructed to leave the theatre.
Is this the end? No. The foyer has now been transformed. Streamers, balloons, dance music, plastic cups, a cask of wine. It is a ‘Going Away’ party. We sign a large card that is given to Nisha when she emerges, now in street clothes. From cosmic heights and mystic initiations we descend into the mundane world. We are transitioned back to normality and relaxed interaction. A closure with connection.
I reflect on the experience. When writing reviews I normally don’t like just describing what I’ve seen from beginning to end. In this case, I find myself doing it. I am not sure why I feel compelled to recapture the performance in this way. It is fun reconnecting with the work through summarising it.
Theatre is a magical place. A place of transformation. But not only from the perspective of the performance, in theory, also for the onlooker. Nisha is making this point. Instead of leaving who you are at the door and then sitting anonymously in the dark, to gain entry we are required to give as much information about ourselves as possible so that we can be ‘processed’. Theatre is often a product that delivers itself wrapped and polished to aisles of detached onlookers. However, through humorous processes of interaction, Nisha makes us intimates. Detachment and isolation dissolve in a gentle alchemy of participation.
The space is also transformed and mobilised. It goes through a number of persona and costume changes. This is an exercise in spatial anatomy and to analogies between architectural and human bodies. Being a dancer and choreographer, I like this. I like anything that theatre practitioners do that makes space more dynamic and extends it beyond the confines of a passive decorative shell or backdrop.
So I see us start in an oral cavity with the sharing of personal data. We pass through an oesophagus that digests us. We find ourselves in a small stomach where we are introduced to the basic enzymes and nutrients of this particular body. A realm of consciousness follows, a brain space, a cavernous stomach of the mind where distances and heights are inaccessible and where thoughts have to be grounded, ground-up, purified. And finally, excretion into the outside world and a joyous effluence of fellowship and inebriation.
This show, Titled (actually, I don’t get the title!), is organised and sleek. No messiness. Clean lines. Dissected space. Analytic precision. It is a networked space. Links, spokes, communication lines. It is a sequential space. Direct, directed and purpose-driven. The space performs. We perform. We co-perform with Nisha. It experiments with alternative theatrical formats and modes of performance. This work is absolutely necessary for new growth and originality to emerge. And for its provoking of stimulating thoughts and questions.
It has been theorised that in the mists of antiquity, theatre grew out of pagan ritual. I see Nisha Madhan asking:
How are theatre and religious rites similar?
Might theatre as ritual have spiritual or consciousness-raising agendas?
When theatre clothes itself in the costume and role of ritual, what might it reveal about itself and its function?
How well does theatre bond people together in common cause and feeling?
What do we take with us into the outside world once the circle of the theatrical experience is broken?
How are we energised into action beyond the mere effects of edification and entertainment?
How might the theatrical mimicry and motions of enlightenment, connection and purification have deeper resonances and affect?
From the ceremonial to the sociality of a good night out amongst friendly strangers, what has been left out of this production is the true pain and horror of the sacrificial victim.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Self-defeating or worth your risk?
Review by John Smythe 13th Apr 2016
“This is a ritualistic and fundamental exchange between You, Me and the Army of Administrators that run the world,” says Nisha Madhan in the media release for Titled.
In the programme, which we only get after it’s over, she quotes British artist, writer and founder of experimental performance company Forced Entertainment, Tim Etchells: “All that has to happen is that the direct lines of investment get drawn – between performers and task, between witnesses and performers.”[i]
Madhan then asks, “What if the unspoken contract between the performers and audience were a tangible thing?” and notes that Titled is the fourth performance experiment she has created to explore this question.[ii]
On arrival, consistent with Madhan’s preoccupation with bureaucracy (see endnote). we are given a questionnaire to complete which alerts us to ways were are labelled and define ourselves and stimulates concerns around privacy (you don’t have to complete it all). Elements of astrology are also included for us to respond to as we wish.
Enclosing 30-odd people in the vestibule between the BATS foyer and Propeller Stage entrance amid an ominous hum from within is the next ‘be with it as you will’ part of the experience. And from here on I must be oblique to avoid spoilers.
To say we are ‘piped in’ should not be seen as a warning to those averse to bagpipes, although the warning that those who suffer from claustrophobia should mention it to the staff remains valid. This second space is a bit larger, however.
Lines are drawn, spots are marked, ways are pointed and much labelling is done – mostly by Madhan and sometimes by audience members (if that’s what we are; inductees, perhaps, or conscripts?). The space is not conducive to all of us getting a clear view of what is going on, which may or may not be part of the point. I sense that our collective sense of intrigue, anticipation and interest is waning, although something I’ll call ‘the water test’ does add variety.
Harmonic convergence is a beautiful thing. In the context of the Performer-Audience contract it denotes a willingness to trust, participate, contribute and create. As a response to ‘Administrators who run the world’ it could be seen as mindless conformity.
The third phase, in a much larger space, requires us to find our designated seats and be reunited with our questionnaires. Here the lines of an astrological chart with a bowl of water at the centre allows Madhan to literally let her hair down and go into a spin. This sequence also becomes predictable and goes on for a long time, leaving us as observers with little more to do than marvel at the performer’s ability to sustain all that effort.
Those steeped in astrology, or even astronomy, may find greater levels of meaning in it. Others may concur with the programme note, that astrology is “a flawed system, just like every other shitty bureaucratic system.”
The final phase involves a ritual that evokes either Holy Communion or the Jonestown Kool-Aid test of faith – take your pick. This too takes a long time. Depending on where you are on the list, then, there may be plenty of time to contemplate the significance of it all and/or consider the value of your ‘investment’.
The private ‘You and Me’ moment with Madhan, however, crowned with a shedding of all that bureaucracy, is special. Or dangerous. Take your pick.
Madhan writes of her “search for a fundamental contact, a fundamental exchange between You and Me” and admits to obsessing about her existence in relation to everything and everyone else. “Theatre is a place that is capable of creating this intense sensation of liveness and presence collectively,” she concludes. “This is the sensation I seek.”
Etchells concludes his ‘On Risk and Investment’ piece thus: “Thinking of investment we ask: when this performance finishes will it matter? Where will it matter? … I ask of each performance, will I carry this event in me tomorrow? Will it haunt me? Will it change you, will it change me, will it change things? If not it was a waste of time.”
This review proves I have carried Titled through to this morrow and, in a sense, been haunted by it. Perhaps my decades of contemplating the ‘You and Me’ relationship and implicit ‘Performer-Audience’ contract mitigates against my experiencing change, as such. My conclusion is that performance is a means to an end, and that attempting to create an “intense sensation of liveness and presence collectively” by using bureaucratic tropes to deconstruct the nature of the performance contract itself is somehow self-defeating and disengaging.
Others may feel differently and discover things that affect a change. I hope I’ve implied enough about Titled to allow you to choose whether or not to risk your investment of time and money.
[i] From ‘On Risk and Investment’, a chapter in his book Certain Fragments: Texts and Writings on Performance.
[ii] The others were This Is My Real Job, devised with Lara Fischel-Chisholm who created and performed it; a ‘structured improvisation’ involving stitching up the audience in red tape as a safeguard “from any possible hazards around”, created and performed with Julia Croft as part of Binge Culture’s Scratch Nights; a solo piece called You, Me, here, There which “started with what I thought were the fundamental elements needed to create a performance, at least two people (You and Me) in Space (Here and There)” which became a game in which she “set about the task of labelling everyone and everything (seen and unseen) in the room.”
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Make a comment
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Make a comment
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Jack Gray May 9th, 2016
Really nice review! I just came upon this, and having not seen the production, found the statements and way you interwove various thresholds of seeing, articulating and separating to be really interesting. I think its a fair comment to talk about leaving oneself at the door, and the character of theatre experiences that can be passive shells. I experience the chaos, calamity and possibility as a dance maker all the time in regards to these thing, of course, we must render the stage as hopefully inclusive - but by nature of the personal experience and embodied state of history, gender, nationality - the ensuing arrival and departure points for the audience can only be anticipated, but not solely controlled. This is the complicity that makes the interaction authentic, and the performance you have wonderfully described no doubt did and achieved many of things in many ways. Failure is such an interesting thought, what constitutes that I wonder? There are levels of becoming closer to an expectation or a goal, but I do think the broad width of human experience - and maybe the sacrifical victims left wanting - whether seen or unseen - are all part of the space, and whether we like it or not, what we do or dont bring once we enter the door. Thanks for the stimulation and congrats Nisha for what sounds like a really interesting provocative work.
Chris Jannides April 21st, 2016
I appreciate your response also, Claire. It helps answer some of my questions regarding the connections between ritual and theatre, and how effective theatre is in replicating ritualistic experiences. John pointed out, and I agree, diversity of response to art and theatre are essential. Your perspective and deeply felt reaction to this production and its experimentation is crucial in establishing this point. Thank you.
John Smythe April 21st, 2016
Thank you for sharing that, Claire. It is very valuable and important to know TITLED has produced such a profound and rewarding experience.
Claire O'Loughlin April 21st, 2016
I’m going to weigh in, to express a different experience of this show.
I felt Titled in a truly visceral way. I saw images that reminded me of epic feelings and experiences I had as a child, a time when I was deeply aware and in awe of the wonder of the universe and my place in it. In filling in the form I performed an admin action similar to things I do on a daily basis in my adult life, but by doing it in a theatre context, and within a performance that was dealing with connection and people and how we create meaning, I was made aware of the hilarious futility and stress of trying to justify your existence in a 6-page form. When we were all trapped inside a small black box while Nisha made connections between us with masking tape, I felt physically claustrophobic and I reminded how real and physical connections are. When Nisha spun around on the floor I thought about how when I was 19 I had a drug-fueled revelation that I must be the true centre of the universe because we are all the centre of our own universes, and now almost a decade later I constantly feel like I’m just a body of hair and skin always spinning around the point of it all but never quite reaching it. When I waited for my turn to be called, to be released from all those ridiculous fear and constrictions I’ve put on myself as an adult, there was a great sense of calm just in the waiting. With my candle I felt like a little glowing planet in a big system that was going to rotate me around eventually, and I had all the time in world. And when my turn came and all my self-imposed admin was shredded and fell down on me, it was kind of amazing, because all those stupid fears I wrote in that form were just let go.
Which brings it right back to the beginning – from the outset I was delighted with the show because I enjoyed writing the form. I got into it. It was a clear invitation to the audience to become actively involved and give some of themselves to the show, and connect with their own selves first. Also, I think giving the (very informative) programme beforehand would have muddied the experiment, which was about experience and feeling, and we were asked to experience it without any predetermined information. If the creator of the show has made a conscious decision not to give out the programme at the beginning, I am so fine with that, because it's part of the experiment/experience.
Of course I am only talking about my experience. But I just want to put it out there to be clear that I, at least, was utterly immersed in, and affected by, this work.
When I left the show I felt exuberant and peaceful. The world looked different and I kept thinking about the hundreds of glow-in-the-dark stars I put on my walls as a kid, my attempt to recreate the universe with myself in tangible connection to it.
Chris Jannides April 20th, 2016
Thanks John, for your comments. Yes that paragraph is a bit glib, I agree. Theatre's goal is to engage. You're right. Removing physical distance between actor and audience doesn't necessarily heighten engagement or remove detachment. Participation, close proximity to the performer and increased visibility to other audience members probably makes us barricade and distance ourselves even more, much in the way we do when sardine-packed into subway trains and such like. I definitely do not wish to imply that 'conventional' theatre fails in any way with regard to engagement. Nor am I doing a battle cry here for the 'experimental' (although on most days my personal bias as an audience member is in this direction). I equally value both for different reasons. Perhaps my observations may have been better made if I'd used the words 'self-immersed' rather than 'detached'. This would then accommodate people experiencing rich feelings and connections from their removed positions in a typical theatre auditorium. With regard to the 'me at the door' comment: Nisha's gesture was itself more in this vein and, in spite of the information gathering, was clearly one of de-personalisation rather than individuation. Like most statistical data collection, in spite of our over-exposure and contribution to the performance, we were also simultaneously anonymised, the reminder of which was broadcast on the scrolling wall LED. So the 'intimacy' that Nisha created was more of the arms-reach variety than an attempt to actually create collective empowerment and intensity of feeling. We were prosceniumed close up. I like these kinds of contradictions. They surprise me and add another layer to my experience. This is compensation for situations when artists deliberately chose not to 'transport' me as their primary focus. My review, however, does leave with the question of emotional depth and why its absence is a noticeable decision. Like you perhaps, in spite of its amplification of things spatial and physical, my appreciation remained primarily cerebral rather than visceral.
John Smythe April 20th, 2016
Thank you Chris. Only by detailing the actual elements of TITLED are you able to share your enlightening and thought-provoking ‘interrogation’ of it with readers.
I do, however, want to question your assertion that, for want of a better term, ‘conventional theatre’ means “leaving who you are at the door and then sitting anonymously in the dark …” If this is so, who is the ‘me’ who responds through recognition, empathy, evaluation and judgement to scenarios being played out before me? I have never felt required to leave myself at the door. It would make going to the theatre a pointless exercise.
You say, “Theatre is often a product that delivers itself wrapped and polished to aisles of detached onlookers.” Given the primary objective of theatre in any form is to engage its audience, anything that relegates us to the status of “detached onlookers” has clearly failed - unless that is the point of the work.
While I certainly don't consider this work to be 'a failure', I did feel much more “detached” throughout TITLED than I normally am at a play. Despite Nisha’s clear desire to achieve connection with each and every one of us, I was largely unable to find a point of connection through which to become subjectively engaged. My observation remained largely objective. I did cogitate somewhat about the ritual, the astrology and the charismatic guru stuff but the way it played out didn’t challenge or provoke me beyond just observing it and recalling my long-held opinions about it. Nothing changed.
Reading the programme notes (it was only handed out afterwards) offered a lot more clues about the rationale for it all. Would people get more out of the show if they were given this first, I wonder? Mind-you, with all that form-filling to complete, most would not have time to read it. And anyway, isn’t it fair to say the objectives of a show should largely become apparent and be achieved within the performance?
This is not to say thinking and writing about it in retrospect, as you have done, has no value – it clearly does. But I see no reason to write-off centuries of theatre practice in order to validate such experimentation with new forms. We live in increasingly diverse communities and it’s good if theatres reflect that.