Controlling the Future: Liverpool’s First One-on-One Performance Festival
Liverpool’s first one-on-one performance festival, Control 25 plans to infiltrate the city by directing audience members along a series of mysterious trajectories. Participants Sharron Devine and Ant Hampton tell us more
Control: the power to influence or direct people's behaviour or course of events. We all want to be in control: of our careers, our appearance, our ridiculous weakness for chocolate digestives… The desire to take charge is a fundamental part of human nature, or so preach thousands of self-help gurus from the shelves of Waterstones. Dull, yes – but can they all be wrong? Probably not.
True to its name, control is the subject of Liverpool’s first large-scale one-on-one performance event, Control 25. A festival that smudges the line between performer and spectator, Control 25 invites participants to surrender, share and seize control as they embark on an unknown journey through the streets of Liverpool.
The brainchild of All Things Considered (dynamic duo Sarah Hogarth and Emma Bramley), Control 25 throws itself into the centre of the increasingly trendy whirlpool of interactive theatre – and in doing so poses some interesting questions about the future of theatre making and the traditional passivity of the audience member. If a spectator’s actions, dialogue or memories contribute to the direction of a performance, do they not become co-creator, assuming the role of performer, writer or director? Or can an audience member never assume control of an artist’s pre-planned concept?
It may be difficult to believe, but among Liverpool’s vast cultural and artistic boasts, one-on-one performance has been widely neglected. It is a genre Manchester has embraced for some time – Contact Theatre in particular providing a platform for such work to be explored – and it is with some relief that Control 25 brings Liverpool up to date.
The premise is simple enough: guided by a set of instructions delivered via an earpiece, audience members will participate in a series of carefully curated intimate encounters. There are 25 routes in all, divided into four amusingly titled categories: Remote Control, Birth Control, Pest Control and Passport Control. Segmented by the level of risk the participant is willing to take, the routes of Remote Control provide a somewhat safer alternative to the adventurous trajectories of Passport Control, while the others pick up the pieces in between. Although a veil of secrecy surrounds the majority of the routes there is talk of intimate taxi rides, phone boxes turned karaoke booths and a questionable encounter with a Superlambanana.
Created in collaboration with the recent graduates of Hope Street's Emerging Artists Programme, Control 25 not only demonstrates its commitment to fostering young talent, but culminates in a critical debate led by established one-on-one practitioners Ant Hampton, Seth Honnor (artistic director of live performance pioneer Kaleider) and Sharron Devine.
“When I heard about Control 25 and the involvement of emerging artists who wanted to create one-on-one work, I fell in love with the idea,” begins Edinburgh-based Devine during a Friday evening telephone call. “I find it enriching to work with young people who are finding their feet; their vitality is probably just as useful to me as my experience is to them!”
“As human beings our most basic need is to connect. Audience members are always looking for a unique connection” – Sharron Devine
With a bank of knowledge as extensive as hers you cannot help but note the generosity of such a comment. With a CV that includes practice within the National Theatre of Scotland, the Traverse and Conflux, Devine is also a regular collaborator with Danish company Cantabile 2, ensuring her work is accessible on an international scale.
When asked to define the allure of one-on-one performance, Devine is refreshingly honest: “This may sound crazy,” she begins, “but I find a lot of theatre boring! From the middle of a stage you don’t know who you are hitting in the stalls – so you exit as an actor or a performer who has no idea of the effect they have had. I want to know what the audience think. The power of one-on-one work is seeing the effect you are having on your audience at any given moment and once you experience that it is very difficult to strive for anything less. Every audience is different; every performance has a different effect.”
Devine is clearly motivated by the social merits of one-on-one performance in an increasingly technology-driven age, banishing the malignant whispers of those who devalue such work as ‘art for art’s sake’: “We live in a virtual world controlled by Twitter, Facebook and iPhones, emails, texts and Snapchats, and yet I feel as human beings our most basic need is to connect. Audience members are always looking for a unique connection – often on a deeper level – and I think one-on-one work is a great way for people to find that.”
And yet despite the obvious social benefits, there remain – of course – those who find the idea of one-on-one performance worse than a swift kick to the face; the idea of sharing a moment of intimacy with a stranger can be too appalling a concept for our cold British sensibility to digest. Devine’s fellow Control 25 contributor Ant Hampton eradicates this fear by eradicating the artist: “My approach to one-on-one performance isn't to situate one audience member opposite an artist, or an actor – it is to remove them,” explains Hampton. “For years I have been in love with the strange quality of performance that comes from an 'unrehearsed' actor: an everyday person who agrees to be watched, investing and risking themselves in a performative situation.”
Much like the routes of Control 25, Hampton’s work relies upon headphones to communicate instructions to the participant – his first piece, Etiquette, controls the interaction of two people in a cafeteria.
“We figured that when couples get together in a cafe, there is always someone speaking and the other listening – actor and audience – under the implicit contract that those roles are regularly swapped. Sitting opposite a fellow audience member puts you in a shared state of curious vulnerability: the power balance is equal. If you take away the visibility of the artist then the vexed notion of audience participation that so often produces anxiety in people is escaped.”
Risk chosen and headphones secured, Control 25 is sure to attract a new audience of attendees, of whom many may have no previous theatrical experience. “I like the idea of a new audience who demonstrate bravery through their curiosity and mental involvement,” concludes Hampton. “Sometimes it is useful to introduce this kind of theatre in a way that doesn't present itself as theatre at all, attracting interest from people who thought they didn't like theatre. It proves that it is possible for people to discover performance from a different angle when you present it correctly.”
A voice in your ear telling you to climb atop a Superlambanana? That sounds like a different angle to me.
Control 25 takes place on 8 Nov in Liverpool city centre. Journeys begin at FACT and run 12pm-4pm at ten-minute intervals. Each journey will last approximately one hour. Tickets are £5 (plus booking fee) and can be found at www.control25.eventbrite.co.uk
Control 25 was funded by Arts Council England