Vision and invention

Diana Klaosen enjoys getting lost in Salamanca Theatre Company’s multimedia maze

Michelle Ferguson in The Ecstasy of Communication

Michelle Ferguson in The Ecstasy of Communication

Michelle Ferguson in The Ecstasy of Communication

not hyper real
not virtual real
this is just real
watch your back
wear sensible shoes
and be prepared
to play ball
from Ecstasy poster

When the publicity for The Ecstasy of Communication came out, I found it difficult to envisage just what Ecstasy was going to be. The title gives nothing away other than its implication, perhaps, of some engagement with illicit recreational substances. In fact, it’s taken from a work by Jean Baudrillard questioning the credibility of much of what is presented by the mainstream media.

A project of Salamanca Theatre Company, the piece is a joint effort involving Hobart and Sydney-based artists with no traditional use of script or story-line, but a multitude of images and environments. Salamanca caters primarily for school-aged audiences (without any patronising theatre-in-education-type agenda) and also presents some theatre for a wider audience.

Ecstasy is co-directed by Salamanca’s Artistic Director Deborah Pollard and Alicia Talbot from Sydney. The designer is Samuel James of Melbourne, who constructed the maze along with Don Hopkins. Sound design and video installation are by Nicholas Wishart. The performers are from Salamanca, 14 of them rotating the roles each night of the season.

This novel collaboration between emerging artists incorporates a variety of visual artforms, video, photography, computer-generated images and soundworks, along with integrated grabs of live performance, randomly encountered as one travels through the maze. Alicia Talbot described the event as “a bit like being the ball inside a pinball machine”. A local newspaper came up with another analogy: “a website made into a real space, a maze with corridors and illusions in which it is entirely possible to get lost”.

The idea is this: audience members arrive at the scheduled starting time, are organised into groups of about 10 and, at 10 minute intervals, are invited into the “reception area” of the maze, where a hyper-efficient, slightly hysterical “secretary” (very amusingly played on opening night by Sarah Chapman) “interviews” them, gives a few suggestions for negotiating the maze—and off they go, more or less separately from that point. (You find your own way, you don’t have to stay in your group and you go in whatever directions the fancy takes you.)

The first obstacle is the entrance proper, which starts as a passage but becomes a low tunnel through which one has to crawl. From then on there are choices of mysterious doors, concealed entrance ways, intersecting corridors and specially constructed rooms, nooks and alcoves. Everything is in semi-darkness. Each space has a raison d’être; there are artworks here and there (nothing conventional, of course), an interactive, a video to watch, or a peephole, a sound installation or walls of textures to explore, or… The attractions are ingeniously simple but very seductive: a phone and answering machine installation with messages “just for you”; a TV showing a video by, for example, Matt Warren from the Empire Collective (featured in RealTime 23), complete with a box of TV Snax; a tableau photograph by Craig Blowfield staged as a visual pun on Bernini’s Ecstasy of Theresa and itself constructed as a photo-collage—a postmodern in-joke for Art History groupies; a red room carpeted and lined with fake fur and padded satin, to caress and roll around in…or whatever you choose; a closed-circuit TV where you can be the star, a fairground-style mini-theatre where you direct the actor…

Negotiating the maze was a fascinating experience and particularly notable for the camaraderie the whole exercise engendered between participants; as you ran into people in the various nooks and crannies you engaged with them, enthused with them about the experience—whether you knew them or not. It was that kind of event—much more people-friendly than even the most wine-soaked exhibition opening!

Interestingly, for an interactive piece incorporating technology with live performers, there were none of the embarrassingly forced “audience participation/humiliation” components beloved of stand-up comics…the sort of thing that makes one uneasy about sitting in the front rows at some theatres.

The contribution of several teams of personnel deserves mention. There was a rotating team of Salamanca Theatre performers, many of whom also worked on the volunteer construction team. Besides those cited earlier, multimedia works for Ecstasy were provided by Robin Petterd, Sean Bacon, Mark Cornelius, Sally Harbison, Brian Martin, Sarah Greenwood, most of them former or current students at the local School of Art.

It’s difficult to make any unfavourable observations about The Ecstasy of Communication. It occurred to me, that the event may not be suitable for people with limited physical mobility. However, the availability of different entrance ways and access-points permitted some flexibility in this regard. The event generated a lot of interest amongst local schools and teachers. The prospect of accommodating largish groups of school-age visitors, let loose in a semi-darkened maze seems, to me, likewise a bit daunting—but again, not an insoluble challenge. I understand student visitors entered into the spirit with excitement and got the most out of it.

These are minor speculations, really, in the scheme of things. The sheer vision and inventiveness of Ecstasy, its ambition and scope, the skill and effort that went into bringing it to fruition—the pleasure and the surprise of the whole interactive experience—these are its achievements. The over-used and often incorrectly ascribed description ‘unique’ is, in this case, perfectly accurate.

The Ecstasy of Communication, Salamanca Theatre Company, The Long Gallery, Salamanca Place, Feb 2 – March 13

RealTime issue #24 April-May 1998 pg. 36

© Di Klaosen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 1998