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Proximity Festival

Zoe Barron

Some pieces in this interactive festival of one-on-one theatre are profound, while others are amusing without purpose.
Proximity Festival

Photo credit: Peter Cheng

Last year, those who missed out on tickets to the Proximity Festival (which was most, due to an extremely limited number available for this most unusual festival format) likely would have heard about one of two of the performances more than others. Proximity is a festival of short, one-on-one theatre pieces, and the performance I kept hearing about was Janet Pettigrew's Prior Arrangement, where each audience member was walked through the process of preparing their body for a funeral, before being laid out in a coffin. From all reports, it was an extremely thought-provoking and confronting experience, which was why it stood out. On the flipside, those performers who didn’t take full advantage of the restrictive format, who created concepts that were simply fun or amusing, tended to fade easily into the background. This was certainly the case again this year: some pieces stood out to create a lasting, resonating experience, and many were amusing but twee.

The festival consists of three programs – A,B and C – each made up of four eleven-minute performances. Audience members are given a map based on the program they’re attending, which guides them from space to space. Each of the performances is autonomous, so the experience is one of un-themed micro-experiences – a little like Scrooge being led from ghost to ghost, learning a little about life from each one. Unlike A Christmas Carol, however, Proximity demands interaction.

Most pieces are light: amusing ideas explored in little rooms with pretty props. Program B is the lightest of the three, perhaps against the best efforts of James Berlyn’s Tetherweight, which takes place in pitch darkness, with only the narrow beams of torches for orientation. Here, you are strapped to a contraption that turns you upside-down in the dark, so you lose your orientation in space and the weight of your organs suddenly becomes very noticeable. This experience is novel, but the premise struggles to marry with the physical performance of the piece. The other three performances in B are either fun or lovely or both, making for an enjoyable but reasonably forgettable program. In Let’s Make Love by Jen Jamieson you are manipulated to fall in love with the performer through orchestrated releases of oxytocin (the love hormone), and you leave either enchanted, or simply knowing more about oxytocin. In Personal Trainer you are strapped into a three-legged lycra suit Tanya Lee and coached to run awkwardly around a course together; again, amusing and fun, but with an undercooked purpose. The Floriographer, was possibly the strongest of the set, opening its audience up to the complex layers of meaning imbued in something so seemingly simple as flowers.

Program A was similarly light, with the one exception of Toyi-Toyi Theatre’s The Que. Here, Tarryn Runkel runs you through a series of tests to prove your Australian-ness and earn your “right to stay” in the country. It is a profoundly angry and somewhat heavy-handed piece that exposes not only the racism of our fair land, but also the little bit of racism in you. It is deeply confronting and I left thoroughly rattled. After that, the program is happy-go-lucky. Teach Ian Sinclair to drive a car in Learner, which may be enough to unleash some people’s deepest fears, but is again an amusing concept that doesn’t achieve much. Learn to Twerk in Caroline Garcia’s Twerkshop, which is fun, challenging for some, and does its bit to unveil the history of, and even de-sexualise, the twerking phenomenon. Construct the entire clitoral structure, inside and out, out of lollies in Cat Jone’s Anatomy’s Confection, and learn how its complexity has been left out of anatomy texts for centuries.

Program C is much darker and more affecting. The stand-out here is Somewhere You’ve Been Before, by Hallie Shellam. In it, you seem to leave the Arts Centre completely, entering an interview room, then a restaurant, and then you are walking home late at night, your memory of it constructed in smell and sound. Then, suddenly, you have disappeared – an unsolved crime. It is a seamless, immersive and complex piece that takes full advantage of the format to transport its audience completely. Natural Selection by Loren Kronemyer is a thought-provoking piece about losing the evolutionary race. It makes you value your opposable thumbs, but could be more challenging. Dance With Me by Sylvia Rimatis is severely unsettling, dramatic, and all in your mind. And Different Kinds of Air, A Plant’s Diary by Emily Parsons-Lord is immaculately constructed in set but not in story, where its message gets rushed through and lost at the end.

The fragmented nature of all programs, and the non-participation of the ushers and staff, mean that the magic is broken early and often. I wonder how different it would be if there was a theme or rolling development to the pieces; or if everyone was in character, staff and volunteers included, especially in such a haunting, isolated location such as the Fremantle Arts Centre. The concept of Proximity is a brilliant and, when executed well, the performances can be profoundly affecting. I’ll be carrying several with me for a long time to come. Too many were amusing ideas explored with varying levels of investment, however, making for an enjoyable experience, but one lacking the depth the festival has such potential for.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Proximity Festival

Curators: Sarah Rowbottom and Kelli McCluskey
Producer: Sarah Rowbottom
Advisor: James Berlyn
Provocateurs: James Berlyn, Julie Vulcan
Creator/performers: Cat Jones, Caroline Garcia, Tarryn Runkel, Laura Hopwood, Ian Sinclair, James Berlyn, Alina Tang, Jen Jamieson, Tanya Lee, Loren Kronemyer, Emily Parsons-Lord, Hallie Shellam, Sylvia Rimat

22 October - 2 November 2014

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Zoe Barron is a writer, editor and student nurse living in Fremantle, WA. You can find more of her work at