Death of the Freak Show – Swallow a Bicycle

Image courtesy Swallow-a-Bicycled Theatre

This High Performance Rodeo, I made it to one non-Lunchbox (Lunchbox is my employer – I’m their marketing manager) rodeo event today! It was Swallow-a-Bicycle’s Death of the Freak Show, which is part of their Site Specific Spectacular series. It was in the EPCOR Centre, and the show was basically split around the building. It consisted of sort of skits throughout the building, and the audience was variably part of the conceit as an audience, and not. This is going to get formal though.

Firstly, some non-formal impressions. Overall, I was entertained, and the story was engaging, even though I felt a bit confrontational with the story to begin with. I find I do feel confrontational with theatre that I am very up close to at first, maybe because I’m physically a part of the story, so if there’s a confrontational situation going on, I feel like I am ‘against’ the characters. And since storytelling normally involves a confrontation, that is basically always a problem. I saw Freak Show last year, the sex-themed one, which was probably not a good choice, it ended up being really awkward. And I feel awkward often enough that it’s not a transgressive theatre experience. This year was not primarily sex-themed which decreased the awkward factor a lot.

On to my formal comments. My main thought about the show was that the fourth wall was still totally there. I think the easiest, broadest comparison to the format of Death of the Freak Show is that it follows the format of a haunted house. And like a haunted house, sometimes you are there, there’s an audience acknowledged in the scene, and sometimes not; you’re able to observe, but like a normal play, there is no audience in the context of the story. This presented a real problem for me because it made it still very much a theatre-audience experience. I never was able to either be myself within the context of the play, or be a real part of the play, or not be really, really aware the theatre is happening. Basically, the fourth wall was really still there, even when actors were directly interacting with you, which happened maybe once. And apparently, when the fourth wall is six inches from you, it is really, really obvious.

I was comparing this experience to performance art, which I think could be a really useful reference point. The nice thing about performance art is you aren’t sandwiched in several realities you have to keep track of. In the site specific spectacular, there’s the reality in which you are you, the reality of the show when you aren’t there, and the reality of the show when you are there as an audience, in which you take on several roles (freak show attendee and medical student, for example). I found that pretty distracting, because instead of making the theatre part of life, it just collapsed the distance. Since in performance art, your role is an artgoer seeing some performance art, you still have all of your personal assumptions to be transgressed, but there’s no cognitive dissonance between the artist, who is playing a specific role but is still themselves, and you, who are essentially doing the same thing. I would be really interested to see site-specific, interactive theatre where it’s more integrated into your actual reality and you don’t have this odd separation from people. Where the roles the actors are playing are more integrated with who they are and where everyone is. I think it would be a lot easier to get lost in it.

And that’s really the key thing I found. I could not get lost in it. I can get lost in performance art, and I can get lost in conventional theatre, and I am sure it would be possible for me to get lost in interactive / site-specific /  theatre that is closer to a story that really blurs the boundaries between life and art and gets you in it, but the experience at the site-specific-spectacular then becomes weirdly confrontational.