Most people understand improvisational jazz, but improvisational theatre? Emilie Collyer on Born in a Taxi’s fascinating No former performer has performed this performance before
The first thing I notice is that the two performers – Penny Baron and Carolyn Hanna – are both wearing excellent dresses. Both are in a stunning shade of blue: one with a halter neck and box-pleat skirt, the other a long, body hugging gown. The dresses evoke femaleness and femininity. They are striking, not bland or neutral. They say: “We have bodies and we have thought about how we look.” I am interested in this aesthetic.
There is a third performer – musician Michael Havir – sporting a dark suit and light blue shirt. He operates a keyboard, loop station and various acoustic instruments, including a megaphone. He is definitely part of the performance but my eye is more often drawn to Baron and Hanna.
Close to Havir stands a microphone. Other than that, the Dancehouse performance space is empty save for a pile of shredded white paper on the stage. The performers use the whole space: the stage, a good five metre of floor and even the rostra where the audience is seated.
On their website, Born in a Taxi describe this work as a trio that is co-created live every performance. The company has a 30 year history of creating improvised performance and much of their work takes place in public places: at festivals, on streets. Much of it invites interaction from passers by. Their body of theatrical work is smaller, punctuating their regular output every couple of years.
Mostly I forget I am watching an improvisation. It is polished and has a progression of structure that feels carefully thought out and planned. I am not intimately familiar with how the company builds their work. I learn after the show that this piece has no set structure at all: the only consistent things are the costumes, the shredded paper and Michael’s equipment. Everything else is different from one performance to the next, which makes the tautness of the ideas and execution all the more remarkable.
It’s beautiful to watch. Baron and Hanna are long-term members of the company (now co-artistic directors) with a 25-year shared performance history. Their familiarity with each other and with this mode of performance shows. It makes me wish we had more of a culture of ensembles in Australian theatre. There are dance companies, of course, and groups of actors who tend to work together. But this particular sustained rigour, of creating and performing work together over many years, is unique, and it really shines.
When I read that the intention of this work is to perform it every year for the next 30 years, I feel thrilled and moved. What a proposition! What an ode to consistency, to relationship, to process, to aging. In this era of “the next big thing”, when work in the arts feels so piecemeal, so contracted and freelance, the pure ambition of this commitment is both breathtaking and deeply reassuring.
The striking thing about the first five minutes is the physical articulation of both performers. Baron – wearing the halter neck dress – is on the floor, close to the audience. Hanna – in the gown – is sitting up against the back wall of the stage. Each moves slowly, specifically, in response to Michael’s musical offerings. I think so anyway; perhaps I have imagined this in my remembering. We are given time to get to know the performers and the ways they move, which tells us something about how they think, who they are to each other, and the dynamic between them.
The held precision of this section is lightly smashed when Baron strides to the wall of the theatre and starts talking about the (real) emergency evacuation notices. The fourth wall vanishes and we are suddenly in the space together: we can all see the signs, and she is talking directly to us. This leads to motifs throughout the show about leaving: leaving families to come to the theatre, leaving families to do other things, leaving and being left. It’s a deep existential musing delivered with levity.
We witness a number of other thematic riffs: verbal, spatial, audible and physical. Near the start and the end of the show, Havir counts from one to 10 (or 10 to one) on a megaphone. The first time, there is something irksome about a man counting while two women respond in the space. The last time gives a sense of chronology, of counting down, of time being limited. That light existentialism again.
I look for the “rules”. Baron seems to be able to talk directly to the audience and enter our space while Hanna does not. There are moments when they give each other instructions, but these don’t last long. When one of them makes a physical, gestural or dance-like offer, the other responds. This is again where experience comes to the fore: we can see a shared language in how they move and interact with each other.
I trace other thematic lines: about making work and its need to be scripted, structured and taut; about the pleasure of making and experiencing the opposite of this. Hanna croons a melodic line which says something to the effect of “I love it when things are uncertain, it makes my soul immensely glad”, which echoes an earlier moment when she slid on her back across the floor, like a glorious blue wave.
At different points, both performers have difficulty navigating the distance from the stage to the floor (a lovely metaphor perhaps for the working between spaces and contexts that the company does). But Baron also articulates other struggles, including an impassioned rant from among the audience in which she tells us how she failed university many years ago because she was told her work was too emotional: “Of course it’s emotional!”
Along with other verbal riffs, this is captured by Havir on his loop machine and played back – echoes within echoes.
Sometimes I notice Havir’s physicality as he plays the keyboard and am impressed by his musicianship. At other times he is more in the background, although of course I’m aware that he’s creating the whole soundscape for the whole show.
Born in a Taxi worked with lighting designer Ben Cobham and provocateurs Helen Herbertson, Fiona Roake and Andrew Morrish on developments of this piece. Morrish is improvising on lights and this weaves through the piece as seamlessly as all of the other elements.
Sometimes I am restless. This could be because it’s Friday night, or it could be hormones or lack of activity during the day. This isn’t a work that invites submersion of self. There are gaps and openings. We’re not literally invited to participate as, the audience was in the company’s last major theatrical work, The Waiting Room. But we are here in the room. At one point the stage and space are empty (is Havir still there? Perhaps he sits down) and Baron invites us, from the audience, to imagine ourselves there. What do we bring to this meditation on performance and being?
Then Hanna enters and Baron invites us to project ourselves onto her. It’s a cleverly rendered and elegant play on the role of theatre and the interplay between performers and audience.
The work has a sense of ebb and flow. I can’t quite find my footing in it at all times, but it holds me nonetheless. I wonder if part of the aim of the piece is to make space for uncertainty in all of its forms, and part of that includes putting the audience in that state. I reflect on the fact that the show has improvisation at its heart, how this contributes to the sense of uncertainty. Unlike most theatre, where there is a sense of a locked-in trajectory that everyone is working extremely hard to replicate and deliver.
As with any improvised form, in the hands of skilled practitioners the work itself is a showcase for the discipline. I suspect that while many audiences are more familiar with the notion of improvised jazz music, improvised theatre is more elusive. There’s the broader comedic tradition of something like Theatre Sports, where game structures are played out, or longer form, narrative-based improvisation, where performers create a story or series of short scenes perhaps informed by genre or theme.
This work is a more subtle beast. What are we watching? It’s a shared language of movement, but it’s more than that. There is spoken word. There are silences. There is the choice about where to be in the space. There is the incorporation of the audience (at one point, Baron commented on a person’s coughing). It makes a space where we can see the building blocks of performance-making, but it is also a whole show (that is, it’s not like watching drama exercises). It has a beginning, middle and end, and it’s made to delight, provoke and entertain.
The final sequence and image are both moving and arresting. The two woman stand nose-to-nose and hold each other. They play with each other’s hair. Then Hanna lifts Baron, and carries her out. It’s a moment that, again, has echoes upon echoes – of their friendship and working relationship; of a certain, very deep kind of love; of our dependence on others; of the fact that this is okay, even if it brings sorrow and loss.
As the company says, the idea is to keep doing this work until one (or more) of them dies.
There is a sense of shared history in the audience. I gather many of those present have worked with the company or the performers over the years. Most people seem to be middle-aged and older, although there are some younger folk. This makes me glad: I hope they can become part of this long-term project as well, that generationally it will reach beyond itself.
I look forward to seeing this show again over coming years. To celebrate longevity, women’s aging bodies, a commitment to craft, a sense of community – and to be so lightly held through it all – is a privilege.
No former performer has performed this performance before, created by Penny Baron, Carolyn Hanna and Michael Havir. Born in a Taxi at Dancehouse. Details