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Proximity Micro Festival

Astrid Francis

FRINGE WORLD: A program of small-scale theatre, dance and live-art, Proximity is for those who like the idea of being the performance, not just watching it.
Proximity Micro Festival
With the Fringe World spectacle about to hit Perth, a select audience had the honour of being invited to a sneak-peek of the program for the Proximity micro-festival, which starts on January 29 and runs every Sunday until February 19. And if this program provides any indication of what the rest of Fringe World will be serving up, we are in for a feast of cutting-edge performative happenings in this fair city over the next few weeks.

As co-curators James Berlyn and Sarah Rowbottam and provocateur Kelli McClusky explain, Proximity is a chance to get up close and personal with theatre, dance and live-art in a radically intimate way. Proximity utilises every nook and cranny of the two-story Blue Room Theatre building, where 12 world premiere performances are created for an audience of one.

Proximity has three programs (A, B or C) made up of new small-scale hybrid art made by WA artists. Audience members can combine four shows into a one-hour experience made just for them, or see the entire program over three hours. Each performance runs under 12 minutes and involves varying degrees of participation. Each live work explores intimate connections with its viewer through touch, smell, sound and physical proximity.

I elected to participate in Program C. Upon arrival, I was provided with a schedule and map of my afternoon’s journey. An announcement was made via a crackling PA system indicating I was to make my way towards the first performance in my schedule. Like an anxious traveller awaiting my gate call at an airport terminal, I scurried to the location of my first performance situated in the Male Toilets. A quick look at my program told me this piece is entitled Glory Hole Beard (Jackson Eaton). Ah. I suddenly felt like I was a naive traveller who had got into an awkward and compromising position due to a misunderstanding of language and culture in a foreign country. Another announcement instructed me to enter the Male Toilets for the start of the performance. I think I need to mention here, that entering each new performance space in Proximity is like entering a portal into someone else’s life, or a displaced memory of your own life that you can’t quite recognise. You find yourself facing moments of panic, embracing moments of delight, questioning motives (usually your own) or simply asking for a helping hand.

Glory Hole Beard is described as a provocative, challenging and funny work in the program. I’d also like to add slightly creepy, even whilst it flirts with the realm of The Absurd. With an implicit sexual force driving the interaction, there was little room to move the conversation or tactile exploration of the Beard beyond anything more than a simulated anonymous sexual exchange. I admit, a fulsome dark beard poked through a hole in a door is pretty funny. However, like anything that is thrust through a glory hole, the masculine whole is ultimately objectified, which only left room for the concept of the Beard to be explored as a sexualised object. So the exchange between audience and performer, in this case, became quite restricted unless both participants were eager for some clichéd soft-porn banter and simulated titillation. Which is possibly one of Eaton’s explorations with Glory Hole Beard: that a man’s beard is a glorious symbol of his virility, but if he buys into that image as his defining identity it is reduced to a mere parody of sexual potency.

Proximity 2012 Glory Hole Beard

After vacating the Male Toilets, my next destination was outside the building and a short walk away to where the most splendid machine was awaiting for me to embark. Mobile Moments –Series #2 (Sarah Nelson) involved being transported – by the beautifully dressed Nelson in inter-war bike riding attire – around the Perth Cultural Centre on a stately carriage-like trike whilst having my film portraiture taken. Each throughout Proximity will be included in a film portraiture series that will be shown on the James Street Amphitheatre’s LED screen at a future date during Fringe World.

There was something very kinetic and uplifting about my Mobile Moment experience. Each gentle bump and dip on our circuit was an inexplicable delight, leaving my stomach slightly gooey-bellied but wanting to experience the sensation again as soon as it had passed. I had an easy and free-flowing conversation with Nelson, although I suspect if you just wanted to sit and take in your surrounds you could do that too. Nelson asked me a few pointed questions outside of our general banter which, again, led me to the sense of watching myself inside my own head. Despite being in a public space, I was only vaguely aware of the reaction to those around us. It was somehow a very private experience and I easily forgot we were surrounded by people. It is definitely a unique way to engage with the Perth Cultural Centre; somehow you feel you are actively helping the energy of the space to come alive.

Conceptually, The Union (Renae Coles) had a Pythonesque quality to it – in which one can enlist the help of The Union of People Against Very Small Injustices to combat an irksome matter. Coles, as the Union rep, had a great command of bureaucratic rhetoric for the occasion, including forms to be filled in and a compilation of required listening of anarchic punk rock to inspire you to the cause. However, there was something at odds between being given the freedom to whinge about banalities and the idea of stirring oneself into action via the creation of a protest punk song based on your minor complaint. The irony may have more punch if the participant was able to create the song along with the artist during the session to bring about a sense of immediate empowerment. It was unclear to me if the track will be recorded by the artist at a later date and subsequently sent as a sound file to me. If it is, I may well end up sending it to my local council to protest its proposed parking amendments in my street. That’ll show ‘em.

Proximity005_THE UNION

To end my afternoon, I patiently took my seat on a pink stool outside a darkened room. I vaguely felt I was on the naughty chair or was having flashbacks to sitting outside the Principal’s Office in Year 5. However, once inside Sweetlife’s sugary room, all sense of impending punishment was banished. Sweetlife (James Berlyn) is atmospheric, engaging and fun whilst challenging your ideas of yourself; your desires, your priorities, all the things that you do or don’t do towards creating a sweet life. Berlyn has a warm and safe energy, like your favourite Playschool presenter or a good therapist, but in his syrup-filled domain there is also something of Willy Wonka about him – enigmatic and a little bit wicked. Or perhaps it is merely that he allows the space to fill with your own existential anxieties. Whatever it is, it’s plenty of fun.

Proximity2012 - SweetLife

Utilising a game format, the participant is rewarded with lollies which symbolise a number of ‘sins’ and ‘virtues’ that you propose to embrace or reject to lead you towards a sweeter life. In the end, it all depends on how good your aim is, and you can take that metaphorically if you want. I went away with two lollies and lost one, which I was pretty chuffed about albeit somewhat disturbed that the one I lost represented my desire to embrace kindness. Perhaps this was symbolic of me now being a reviewer?

Proximity engages all the senses and is most definitely experiential. If you like your theatre to be in a black box or proscenium with a clear line between who is creating the work and who is watching the work, then you may find Proximity challenging but I’m willing to bet a rewarding challenge. If you like the idea of being the performance, or living a series of moments that explore ideas of relationship, intimacy and identity – whether your own, imaginary ones or those of the artist beside you – the Proximity micro-festival is for you.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Blue Room Theatre Summer Nights presents
Proximity Micro Festival
Curators: James Berlyn and Sarah Rowbottam
Provocateur: Kelli Mccluskey
Stage Manager: Mary Wolfla
Volunteer Coordinator: Tom Cramond
Volunteers: Emily Chancellor, Palmy Palida

Artists: Claudia Alessi, James Berlyn, Janet Carter, Renae Coles, Russya Connor, Jackson Eaton, Jen Jamieson, Nikki Jones, Janette McGinty, Sarah Nelson, Sarah Rowbottam and Hellen Russo

The Blue Room Theatre
53 James St, Northbridge WA
Sundays January 29th and February 5th, 12th and 19th, 2012

Info and bookings:

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

Astrid Francis is a Perth-based reviewer for Artshub. She has a background in theatre performance and has worked for a number of performing arts organisations and funding bodies in Perth. Rather than prop up the bar with her opinions after a show, she is now putting her criticisms on the page and into the ether to stimulate a broader audience.