chapter  3
On the edge of chaos
Pages 40

I created the Bigheads for my indoor theatre play The Joy Society in 2003, but they were then used as street theatre at festivals and other outdoor venues in the UK, as well as in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, the USA, Canada and Singapore (2003-8) (Plates 3.1-3.6). The piece was intended to work within the parameters of the street-theatre industry, but it also attempted to push the extent of those parameters by challenging the growing tendency of such work to present safe, ‘cute’ images designed to suit the ‘family audience’ norm. They were designed to be un-ignorable. The objects themselves are large, latex heads, one metre high, with rotating eyes, extendable tongues and the facility to squirt water, either from the mouth, or the ears or between the legs. The performer’s body is concealed except for the legs; the arms can emerge from slits near the ears. The aperture at the base of the head is wide enough for the performer to be able to squat down, so that the feet are concealed. We normally used them as a trio, connected by walkie-talkies to a ‘controller’, who looks out for potential opportunities or problems, because the performers have limited vision through small holes in the eyebrows. The controller can cue choreographed actions, so that the heads can move in unison. They usually move along a pre-arranged route, looking for opportunities for interaction either with spectators or with architecture and street furniture. At certain points they stop, sit or squat, in order to accumulate enough focus from spectators to perform more subtle gestures with the hands, enabling longer, non-verbal interaction with spectators. Spectators have a constant choice of two ways of engagement, as inter-actors or as secondary watchers of the interaction. For spectators the combination of signs contained in the image of the Bigheads

set off an oscillation between two reactions. The most obvious was between attraction and repulsion. The image had a fairground/carnival aesthetic, reminiscent of figures from Disneyland, football team mascots and high-street store promotion figures. Conversely, the image is slightly nightmarish and the spitting, dribbling wet tongues, used irreverently, produce reactions of disgust. Because spectators would often physically engage in the game that they thought the Bigheads were proposing, the way that they interpreted the game could be observed. The poking out of the tongues had a particularly confusing double sense: it appeared to be

interpreted as cheeky fun by some and as erotic sensuality by others. The positioning of the tongue near the top of the legs has a phallic resonance. The licking of objects and spectators is very libidinous, and doing so in a public space appears transgressive, even deviant. Similarly, the image oscillated between low-status, vulnerable victim and high-status threatening tyrant, both in a real and not-real way. Frequently children would ‘adopt’ a head, leading it by the hand, feeding it, showing it things. Other children might attack the ‘monster’. Adolescents would become nearly hysterical when a wet tongue touched their ankle. Adults would often express their opinion of the performer inside, either in terms of foolish self-humiliation or admiration at the courage and endurance of such an act. Similarly, the surreality of the image was able to make the ordinary absurd

through juxtaposition, putting behavioural norms into a position of relativity. A frequent tactic was to mirror mundane human activities, such as sitting at restaurant tables, entering (with difficulty) a public phone box or waiting at a bus stop (Plate 3.4). The contrast was more apparent if the environment was very mundane, such as in the undecorated shopping streets, rather than within the context of a festival site. The juxtaposition had the disconnected quality of dreams, denying the primacy of logic or of making sense in any other way. The extraordinary appearance propelled the observers into a liminal zone of active questioning, as I was able to observe at the Montreal comedy festival, Juste pour Rire (2006). A river of people flowed down the street with the Bigheads moving slowly in the opposite direction. The density of the crowds meant that people could not see very far in front of them. As controller, I was often ahead of the team looking for possibilities. In this position I was very close to people at the moment they caught their first glimpse and, from their physical responses, it was easy to see a sequential pattern of reactions: surprise, disbelief, questioning (What is it? Is it safe? How does it work? What is it for? Is it for children or for adults? Is that tongue cheeky or erotic?). The initial reaction was followed by either laughter or fear, or oscillations between them. The fact that the faces were not recognisable as those of any public figure

avoided them being interpreted as a ‘statement’, political or otherwise. The purpose remained unstated and, therefore, more available for projections by spectators. Because there was less opportunity to categorise, spectators seemed to sustain their openness longer. As well as by means of creating uncertainty, the risk factor was augmented by raising the stakes with a sense of threat. The equivocal tongues were used as weapons, as water was dribbled down them from inside and then flicked off or squirted at specific targets or, if the watching crowd pressed in too tightly, it could be squirted out of the ear slits as the heads rotated, sprinkling it in every direction; the consequent opening up of the space, as people backed away, would enable the team to make an exit. The sense of threat would also be created by one Bighead creeping up behind spectators who were watching the other two. The tongue tips could be animated so that they moved like sensitive insect feelers, targeting a particular area of the spectator’s body and approaching slowly, providing secondary spectatorship for others. The tension would mount until the shock of the discovery, with the resulting shriek by the target and laughter from

others. In this moment the secondary spectators share and thereby endorse the ‘conspiracy’, identifying with the risk-taking without having to take risks themselves, creating a bond amongst themselves and with the performers. Walkabout work is developed through repeated improvisations with the public:

it is discovered rather than pre-determined. For example, in creating a piece it is necessary to select only two stimuli, an appearance and an attitude, before trying it out. The dramaturgy emerges out of repeated experiments. For the performers, the experience was one of high alertness; the heat and humidity inside meant that they had to be minimally dressed and this, combined with not being able to see well, made them feel vulnerable. They became adept at being able to assess a situation with very limited visual information and only intermittently audible directions. Because of heightened alertness the pace of learning was very rapid. The primary concern was seeing how far you could go, both in terms of the performers’ daring and also the spectators’ limit of acceptability. For example, younger children might be fascinated but on the edge of terror, or police officers in their car might ‘play along’, but begin to show signs of unease as doors were opened or windscreen wipers were tampered with (Plate 3.3). In each case, there needed to be acute observation to detect signs of the shift

from excitement to alarm. The reaction would, of course, depend on context. Whereas in the UK it is possible to go as far as licking uniformed policemen or security guards, the suggestion of a similar approach in Spain resulted in the performer’s hand within the tongue being discreetly crushed by a policeman’s boot. Similarly, the tongue approaching from behind, threatening both men and women became a standardised tactic but, at a festival in Belgium, a young

man of Middle-Eastern appearance reacted violently in defence of the woman he was with, presumably because of different attitudes to women and sexuality to those we were used to. In Singapore, performing near open-air, shore-front restaurants, the Bigheads became caught between order and play. Customers seated at tables beckoned the performers to approach for interaction but the restaurant owners told the festival stewards to instruct the team to keep their distance. In a city that actively imposed large fines for spitting and littering, the transgressive behaviour of the Bigheads was unwelcome to the authorities. The piece aimed to ‘get something going’ with the spectators by establishing an

open-ended play that had a sense of an event with a life of its own. Many street performers seek these moments of ‘lift off’, stimulating and sustaining spectator activity, but also withdrawing to a very minor role if that activity sustains itself. An example of this withdrawal occurred at an international rugby final in Cardiff. Asked to entertain the crowds as they arrived at the match, we found ourselves in the middle of a high-spirited throng of people, fresh from the surrounding bars, pressing in on all sides, with the vulnerable performers being playfully slapped and pinched. We retreated up a few steps to the raised entrance of an office; the heads squatted or sat, presenting a visual image to the river of people passing. The image alone stimulated a carnivalesque reaction that surprised us; women as well as men, would mount the steps so that they were in full view of hundreds of people, and present their front or back sides to the tongues, requesting to be licked, dancing in a grotesque parody of the erotic. Because of the already heightened atmosphere, the level of provocation required to achieve this ‘lift off’ needed to be only very slight, as if the mere image triggered a release into transgressive behaviour.