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An intriguing display of work from third year students studying Contemporary Practice at the University of Birmingham.

The reason for going to this showcase was a result of a lecture announcement made by a third year student and an email sent out. After friends of mine expressed their interest to go along, I thought it best to see some of the work Drama students at Birmingham devise for their degree. The department rented the theatre’s Foyle Studio, with a stage floor and raked seating bank. Given the title of the module, the performances were expected to be original, high-brow and thought-provoking given how theatre styles have become so diverse today. There were six performances in all, with a short interval half-way through. With no more than two students per piece, all the performers must have had a lot of freedom of choice when creating their material.

First up were two girls who entered the stage by walking down the steps either side of the seating bank. This immediately demonstrated there was no fear to exploit the audience space. Accompanied by rather metallic and discomforting sound effects (that sounded like a blade against a grinding wheel), the two performers started to brush their hair very slowly. What followed was an unexpected change in physicality from being people to rabbits. Much of the time was spent gnawing away at raw carrots placed behind two boxes they sat on. The length it took to consume these served a great deal of comedy, especially when the two went to eat a second carrot each. One cut and removed the top layer of the other’s clothes to then label parts of her body as if an animal (loin, belly etc.). The connection between sexualisation and animalisation of women suddenly became clear.

Followed by this was a one-man piece from the performer’s point of view. To begin with, he cleverly tested that the microphone worked and slipped into an obscene use of language which still generated audience laughter. He alternated between having his back to the audience, facing the back projection screen, and breaking out of this by freely moving and communicating with us. In the former, the screen displayed a year (2008) in which his narration took place. It dealt with his discovery of gay pornography as he began to discover his sexual orientation. The points at which he turned back to us disrupted the narrative rhythm and gave reason to laugh as he resumed his story with more inappropriate words. His interaction with us was especially thoughtful. He spoke as if everyone else was just as familiar with this lifestyle as he was, which certainly challenged sexual discriminations. The latter parts involved him asking us a survey; we started by raising our hands and put them down if the question didn’t apply to us. For example: “Who could never become a vegan?” Once one person was left, he politely invited them to the theatre bar and offered to buy a drink. I cannot be sure what they discussed and why he wanted to do this, but it highlighted how social barriers between performer and audience could be broken down.

The final piece before the interval was a twelve-minute monologue from the mouth of an elderly woman (the girl most probably covered her hair in talcum powder). Her kitchen table was inundated with breakfast items and newspapers. She entered in dressing gown and slippers, apparently distracted by the goings-on of her next door neighbour. One could tell instantly that she was dissatisfied, not about her own life, rather the problems other people had with theirs. She spoke out spitefully against the violence of gang culture in her community and how young females in particular were never safe from it. The allusions she made to indirectly express this received uneasy laughter from the audience. I feel we were laughing at the character’s ‘bigotry’ rather than with it. This was of course the point; even though the lady was old and living alone, her address to us exposed the arrogance and forthright nature of her socio-political views. She took a particular disliking to any citizens who did not have a respectable occupation and made it clear which people in her neighbourhood were not at all welcome. Very different in terms of its approach to how messages were conveyed (‘blunt’ and ‘frank’), this undermined our perceptions of the aged and decrepit.

The second half commenced with one of the stand-out pieces in terms of comic value. We were given an opportunity to see inside the frame of an artwork. This centred on two performers who parodied the depiction of pure, untainted women. Their main concern however, was to adjust their positions when ‘viewers’ of the gallery were not around. Several other students filled in as members of the public, intrigued in the painting’s precision and detail. Even the subtlest change in facial expression from one of the main performers such as the widening of eyes had audience members in hysterics. Moments such as these broke the suspense of stillness and silence so it was not clear when the piece actually started. Although the two girls had to fix their gaze straight ahead, they eventually took their opportunity to scratch and fidget. It later came apparent that they were not elegant enough and the artist had painted them in a brush “too thick”, which resulted in the greatest of audience raptures. The illusion that they were entrapped in a painting was destroyed when one of them poked their head out of the frame, but still added to the sense of melodrama. The piece reached its height when the two girls scrawled over themselves in lipstick in the hope of appearing more attractive to passers-by.

The student who made the announcement a week or so before was next to perform and structured her piece in a non-linear fashion with a flashback. Her set choices allowed for swift costume changes without being seen or having to move. It was made up of a door frame covered three quarters of the way with a bed sheet. This embodied issues of unprotected sex and other social encounters. Flourishes of comedy came with the aid of one of the previous performers who hid behind the covering and held onto cardboard puppets to interact with the main protagonist. The girl distorted the puppets’ language and this meant that we only understood her point of view. There were long periods of club music accompanied by lighting from a glitter ball above which immersed us in the world of the piece. There were a couple of moments where the student came out from behind the frame. She wore shoes with LED soles which made her visible in the darkness. The atmosphere turned very awkward when she asked if anyone in the audience had a condom with them. Much to the surprise of some people, one person eventually provided one. It is later suggested that an unforeseen problem has occurred because the girl directly calls an NHS helpline. The piece ultimately warns of the precautions that must be taken before engaging in sexual relationships.

Finally, two students explored in their performance the injustices women face in their relationships with men. In order to confront how female emotions are overlooked and their bodies exploited, poetry was used instead of standard prose to communicate the adversities of domestic labour and sexual relationships. A blue paddling pool was the main piece of furniture, filled with masses of paper cuttings. A visual analogy for water, the girls sat in the pool and handled the paper as if washing themselves in it. They later grabbed handfuls and threw them high in the air, or instead screwed up individual pieces and tossed them towards members in the front row. Admittedly the poetry became hard to follow; it was the only style of language used and this can become challenging to digest when not written down. Nevertheless, I felt it gave both performers more authority and conviction in their delivery of the lines. By unravelling their disgust at the men who abused them in the past, it could have made others consider their treatment of women. The piece also aimed at the wife’s role in the house. Views have developed which claim this work should be paid rather than be a light duty. Their performances contained appropriate moments of pause and shouts of emotional disapproval.

An eclectic selection of work from one of the most current and up-to-date practical modules.