Experimentica - Day 2 - Secret lives

If there was a common thread to this second day of Experimentica, I guess it would be that of secret lives and alternate identities. I missed Traw and Emma Macey’s mash-up of sound and video due to the length of a panel conversation between eminent Wales-based theatre-makers on the history of Chapter Arts Centre, part of an ongoing oral history series called ‘What’s Welsh for Performance? / Beth yw ‘Performance’ yn Gymraeg?’ So the first show of the day was Tom Marshman’s ‘Finding my Inner Cowboy’, an endearing if slightly rough-about-the-edges performance monologue recounting Marshman’s attempts to become a cowboy over the past six months.

As the audience enters, there’s a video playing of Marshman on the phone with a friend while a few days into this project. Marshman describes his desire to emulate the strong, silent type – he names Montgomery Clift (in Red River) and Heath Ledger (in Brokeback Mountain) as particular icons. He likes the idea of ‘someone who doesn’t say very much’ but still ‘gets his point across’; in contrast, Marshman says, he always feels like he says and does too much. Almost immediately, this point is made: Marshman leaves the stage and returns wearing nothing but a thong, boots, holster, and cowboy hat, dancing enthusiastically to country music with a US flag held between his buttcheeks.

‘Finding my Inner Cowboy’ continues to work with these contradictions, and with both the obvious and inadvertent points of connexion between cowboy and queer culture. Marshman seems torn between a deep melancholy, the cowboy’s silent longing ‘that dares not speak out loud’, and an irrepressible exuberance that seems inescapably part of who he is. This enthusiasm positively lights up his face in footage of him trying to ride a fairground mechanical bull, or during a country and western line-dance that involves members of the audience. Just when I find myself wishing that Marshman would stop fighting this contradiction and become the cowboy he wants to be, this is exactly what he does: looping a lasso to opera music, then giving up the lasso in favour of a jump-rope (while the opera continues), and finally becoming the kind of cowboy who falls in love with a spaceman. It’s unabashedly personal work, but its strength is in these personal moments rather than in its funny but obvious pokes at cowboy culture.

Leaving Marshman’s show and returning to the foyer, we find that Deborah Light, as her alter ego Angelica, has taken over the theatre box office – perhaps this is ‘the secret life of the box office attendant’?. She is wide-eyed and innocent, her face in a fixed stare like a lost doll. With bright pink tights and eyeshadow, she bounces uncontrollably to electronic music while attempting to come to terms with a matching pink phone or the pink notices pinned up on the box office walls. Over the evening, the music ranges from opera to children’s songs, and Angelica is alternately sedative, hyperactive, and plaintive. The first reaction from passers-by seems to be bemusement, particularly from those who are there to partake in the Chapter Arts bar’s celebration of Oktoberfest. There’s also a hint of voyeurism, arising from the power differential between the spectators outside and the performer inside a glass room, in which she was at times only partially visible. But the length of her performance (from 9pm until the arts centre closed after 11.30) means that she seemed gradually to become part of the fabric of the place and of the time – like the box office attendants whose place she has supplanted and whose ‘performance’ we take for granted. Oh her? She just works here.

I expected that Beth Greenalgh and Sam Hasler’s ‘Maps’ would fit this unfolding idea of secret lives, as the programme notes suggested that the piece was dealing with Hasler’s journey from a Sainsbury's on the other side of town where he works to the performance space – a journey which (on foot) takes the length of the performance slot. So I was anticipating a commentary on the dual lives of performance artists, or of Sainsbury's workers. This connection was occasionally made: a phone call from Hasler from somewhere on his journey, the delivery of polaroid photos of him into the performance space, a map of the journey marked out on the floor with Sainsbury's brand paprika. But really the piece is much more about Greenalgh’s wait, and the audience’s wait with her.

In a semi-enclosed white space within the larger studio, Greenalgh, in a slinky dress, drinks copiously from a bottle of wine and reads slightly noir-ish, slightly surreal scenes from a script into a microphone. Behind her, a video projector shows images of her which highlight the photographic process itself: old-movie style graininess and light flares, cinematic poses, and manipulation of light and colour. Elsewhere in the space, someone plays a bass guitar for the duration of the piece. There’s a dreamlike quality to this waiting, and when a trembling and out-of-breath Hasler finally arrives, carrying two four-bottle packs of Sainsbury's water with a flower in each bottle, it’s a continuation of this surreal world not the triumph of the real one.

Theron Schmidt has been writer in residence throughout Experimentica 07, and is part of Writing from Live Art (www.writingfromliveart.co.uk), a Live Art UK initiative.

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