For a while at Battersea Arts Centre we have been interested in intimacy as a quality in the performance projects that we help to develop. In the one-on-one festivals that happened here a few years ago this interest was at its most focussed. In those festivals the performance pieces were all based around having one performer/artist in the space with one audience member.
London Stories is a twist on that concept in that there will be one storyteller and two audience members in the space at the same time, and, in the main, those audience members will be strangers. So one of the things that lies behind the form that London Stories takes is an interest in further exploring the potential of very intimate performance and looking at the dynamic between individuals within a very small audience as well as the dynamic between audience and performer.
How does it feel to ‘go through' these stories with someone else – what sort of bond might be created? What sort of responsibility is shared with that other person? Does it dilute any sense of intimacy with the storyteller having someone else there or does it create an exciting and very intimate sense of community?
Apart from an interest in further exploring intimate performance, and using our building with all its nooks and crannies as an exciting context for that, London Stories is about celebrating the particular power of people telling their own stories and speaking from the heart about what they really feel. In this sense, as well as exploring the quality of intimacy in performance, it is about an interest in honesty, immediacy and authenticity perhaps.
Of course we are not naively asserting that all these stories are somehow not performed – we all know that our behaviour in everyday life and the stories that we tell to our friends in the pub are on some level acts of performance – but we think that with the true stories in this festival there is some sense of stripping away at least some of the theatrical artifice that can keep you at a distance as an audience in lot of theatre experiences. This hopefully contributes to a sense of closeness, of live-ness and of connection with the other human beings in the space with you.
The ethos of London Stories is about giving people from across London the chance to share their life experiences with others, for us to ‘pay homage' to those stories, to learn from them and for the storytellers and us to remind ourselves that we are not alone. In some ways it builds on the genre of the one-person autobiographical performance which is such a feature of the devised theatre scene. It is a chance to hear autobiographical stories from a broader range of people – not just the minority of people who call themselves professional artists. It is a chance for important stories to be heard which wouldn't otherwise.
Our experience of the one-on-one festivals is that audiences enjoyed a sense of being an individual with agency in the space with the performer. They enjoyed the fact that they mattered – the performance couldn't happen without them there. So they had more power than usual in some sense.
Theatre shows with larger audiences can seem a bit like watching a movie – if you get up and leave the show will probably carry on much as it did before, or if you fall asleep it might throw the performer a bit but there will be others in the audience who are awake that they can focus on. In intimate performance like this that is not the case. You have greater power and probably greater responsibility – I think that sense of responsibility is accentuated in this festival because the storytellers are putting themselves in a vulnerable position by sharing their own life experiences with you.
The storytellers are taking a risk by putting themselves in this position. The storytellers all understand that they will have to tell their stories multiple times each night and they are all excited about that, but we don't know how this will really feel in practice for them. We also don't know quite what the experience will be for the audience going from one story to the next and having to deal with the very different emotions that each story throws up.
So there are lots of risks, lots of unknowns in this festival, and it might not work perfectly. But, as long as we mitigate the risks and do everything we can to make sure that people are ok, this feels like the sort of risk, the sort of experiment, that Battersea Arts Centre should be engaged with as it tries to explore what is possible in ‘theatre'.