- Performing Proximity: Curious Intimacies by Leslie Hill and Helen Paris
Artist-scholars Leslie Hill and Helen Paris are Curious. They are the inquisitive codirectors of Curious, a company whose intimately scaled performances in lifeboats, on country buses, and by seashores might seem odd to conventional theatrical spectators. Yet, that curiosity fuels their performances as well as their analyses; and they are particularly curious about how closeness impacts the audience/performer relationship. Performing Proximity offers an in-depth look into this encounter developed through research that ranges from the molecular to astronautical, including exchanges with scientists, civil servants, and sex workers.
The study is situated within the growing field of scholarship on immersive theatre and at the intersections of scientific and performance-based studies of the body. Drawing on these studies, with particular attention to “proxemic zones,” the authors theorize how closeness in performance activates sensory relationships and experiences of intimate encounters. The book thus serves as both a study of performance proxemics as well as an “insider’s” guide to intimate performance creation.
The book’s organizational logic animates this oscillation between analytic reflection and poeisis. Part One focuses on four case studies: two rooted in interior investigations of domestic spaces and bodies (“Interior I: On the Scent” and “Interior II: the moment I saw you I knew I could love you”) and two focused on landscape performances (“Landscape I: Out of Water” and “Landscape II: Lost & Found.) Part Two explores the autobiological performance-making process in the “laboratory” (with scientists and shift workers), the studio, and in the field.
The authors internally organize case study chapters to enable readers’ shifts in perspective and perception. The chapter exploring On the Scent (2003), for example, offers a sensuously detailed journey through the production, a discussion of the neurobiology of smell, and a collage of perception theories and audience responses. I experienced the performance through evocative descriptions of rose cream chocolates, burning pork chops, hairspray, and musky, stale shaving lotion. Black-and-white close-up photos provide another archival medium of sensuous performance moments: Hill sniffing lines of chili or burning a clump of her hair. The chapter’s analysis also works via proximity, with theoretical citations and audience responses placed near each other, thus inviting the reader to make connections. While appreciative of the experimentation with form and voice, I found myself wishing for a stronger analytic guide towards the latter part of the chapter.
Yet, that kind of haptic disorientation is key to how Paris and Hill work as sensuous scholars. They are deeply curious about how human beings operate through impulse and intuition as well as cognition. To investigate the phenomenon of “gut feeling,” for example, they shared uncensored images and ideas with each other through email exchanges while also conducting experiential research in a neurogastroenterologist “gut” lab. The resultant performance, the [End Page 154] moment I saw you I knew I could love you (2009), explored and evoked gut feelings while attending to the experience of “close-ups.” Audience members sat on a stage confined in one of three life rafts, encountering technological perspective shifts including the projection of a tiny filmic scenario onto a packet of seasickness pills and the reading of an audience member’s “entrails” viewed through an ultrasound. The analytics here focus, in part, on comparative assessment of audience experiences suggesting how “intimate” social relationships shifted to more distanced “public” relationships when the life rafts filled beyond eight audience members.
The authors’ inquiries into the poetics of intimacy extend to their reading audience. I found myself addressed as an unknowable subject, a composite “you,” a “dear reader”—engaging another kind of curious intimacy. While reading the chapters on interiors and landscapes I noted myself attending to internal bodily processes and proximal surroundings. Sitting on the bank of the Mississippi River, I alternately paused to take in the expanse before me and concentrate on swallowing. I also made associative links, recalling environmental scientist Rachel Carson’s writings on seascapes as “edges” as I read about...