In-theatre, online, public, private

Ben Brooker, ActNow, Zero Feet Away

Zero Feet Away

Zero Feet Away

Zero Feet Away

Since 2007, Adelaide’s ActNow Theatre has been quietly carving out a niche within the city’s capricious independent theatre ecology. Under founder and Artistic Director Edwin Kemp-Attrill, the company’s early, rough-hewn agitprop has given way to a distinctive brand of Boal-ian forum theatre that engages professional and non-professional participants in the creation of productions that are, in the main, devised, interactive and issue-based.

Zero Feet Away represents a digression for the company, situating its audience as members of a virtual rather than physical community. The shift is signalled by the name of the work—a reference to Grindr, the location-based social network for gay, bisexual and bi-curious men—and by the unusual injunctions that greet the audience as they enter the space: “Please keep your mobile phones switched on,” “Flash photography is allowed.”

Taking our seats, we are instructed to use our phones to log into a purpose-built web-based app that enables entered text to be projected onto one wall of the space. Predictably, a stream of nonsense appears as audience members familiarise themselves with the app’s interface. The anonymity is emboldening, the live feed swelling with expletives and amusingly disjointed words and phrases. A guitarist, Ben Flett, improvises warmly as director Kemp-Attrill and the performers, all of whom are young and male, and all but one gay, pass around a microphone and introduce themselves.

Our first task as audience members is to use the app to state our own sexuality. We are, unlike the performers, unseen and unaccountable as our fingers flit across our touchscreens and the breakdown is displayed on the projection wall. Other questions follow: “When was the last time you had sex?,” “At what age did you lose your virginity?” The answers feel variously mischievous, unreliable and confessional.

Confessional, too, is the word I would use to describe the frank, intimate monologues—each of which grapples with some aspect of the performers’ lived experiences of being gay—that form the work’s second mode of storytelling. At a time when HIV rates in Australia have reached a 20-year high, with young gay men most at risk of infection, it feels both brave and important that the majority of the monologues touch on issues of gay men’s health and recent innovations in the treatment of HIV such as post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

The work changes gears again as a multi-part segment begins in which our answers to a series of questions are used to construct the identity of a fictional character. An ad hoc mixture of popular vote and executive decision-making by Kemp-Attrill leads to the assignment of gender (male), sexuality (gay) and a number of personal preferences and life events which amount to a fluid biography. The exercise, though conceptually ambiguous, is enjoyable, but it is the show’s least mediatised moments that prove most compelling.

The final monologue is a harrowing account of an episode of sexual abuse. Our phones sit, useless and forgotten, in our laps as the air shifts under the weight of what is a moment of profound, unguarded generosity. The rest of the performers put out, one by one, the desk lamps that up until that moment had lent the show a homely ambience. In the ensuing darkness and silence, intimacy—and not its technologised simulacrum—feels to have been fully achieved.

ActNow Theatre, Zero Feet Away, directors Edwin Kemp-Attrill, Charles Sanders, performers Adam Carter, Andrew Thomas, Tyson Wood, Harry Bullitis, online app/manager Zoe Bogner, musician Ben Flett; Dance Studio 3, AC Arts, Adelaide, 14–16 Nov, 2014

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 33

© Ben Brooker; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

23 February 2015