Alison Croggon unloosed her inner child and ventured to German theatre maker Sybille Peters’ live art for children at Melbourne Fringe’s XS
“Do you know what Live Art is?’ asked Will, the friendly man who welcomed us the performance of Playing Up at the Substation. “Oh,” I said, put on the spot. “Well. It means I’m here, and things happen.”
Which, I guess, is a decent beginning. A rather more specific explanation comes from the UK’s Live Art Development Agency: “Live art is a research engine, driven by artists who are working across forms, contexts and spaces to open up new artistic models, new languages for the representation of ideas and identities, and new strategies for intervening in the public sphere.”
As it turns out, Playing Up, part of the XS festival of experimental children’s theatre, is an excellent introduction to the whole concept. German theatre maker Sibylle Peters has brought two shows – Playing Up and Truth or Dare – that demonstrate her seriously playful (or playfully serious) approach to making art for children. Along with Joseph’s O’Farrell’s (JOF’s) INFINITY DANCE JAM!, they make up the live art contribution to XS.
Peters is founder and director of Hamburg’s Theatre of Research, a global leader in live art made by, with and for young people. It’s driven by the idea that children, especially when they are at play, are “researchers of the everyday”. Most importantly, live art invests children with agency, cultural and personal, and her various works explore notions of power in personal relationships, collaboration and risk.
Playing Up and Truth or Dare are exemplary, in that they are complex works structured in a way that is transparent to anyone who encounters them, from small children to curious adults. I turned up at the Substation with a substitute child – Ben happens to be my child, but the years have turned him into an official adult – not quite knowing what to expect. And, honestly, we had just as much subversive fun as the other children.
Playing Up is ingenious and delightful. Each group that turns up is asked to choose a colour (ours was yellow, my choice) and a team name (Fluffy Corgis, not my choice). Once we have team labels affixed to our chests in the colour of our choice, we’re asked to choose one of a number of attractive cards laid out on the table in front of us. Each has a game based on a famous piece of live art.
Our first pick was Valie Export and Peter Weibel’s 1968 piece, From the Portfolio of Doggedness. For this, one of us (the adult, me) had to be led around the public street by the child (the child) on fours, like a dog. Okaaay, challenging. We were given a box that contained instructions and equipment, I cloaked my handbag and we headed for the street. Outside a bunch of children and adults were there already, wrapping themselves up in what looked like sheets.
This experiment didn’t last very long, because to be quite honest it was very hard on my knees. Ben enjoyed tugging the lead and whistling, probably getting me back for years of parental bossiness. It was kind of hilarious, and somehow any self consciousness disappeared almost at once. Strangely, passers by didn’t seem to react at all. When my knees couldn’t take it any more we headed upstairs, eager for the next game.
This was another game about power, based on Jana Sterbak’s Remote Control (1989). For this, we were given walkie talkies, and again the child was in control. I put on a sign that said I was being controlled by a child, and headed out to the street again, while Ben stayed upstairs and watched me through the window. He made me dance around poles, pose like a ballerina and walk in various directions before he ran out of inspiration. He said afterwards that he decided not to make me high five passing strangers, a mercy I suspect a smaller child might not have granted me.
Next was Forced Entertainment’s Tomorrow’s Parties, in which we sat together, one of us playing the pessimist, the other the optimist, and made statements beginning with “In the future…” I was initially the pessimist, but found that hard to keep up, so we broke the rules and swapped half way through. Being a relentless optimist was just as difficult, but we played out the full seven minutes, making more and more ridiculous statements. We also had a go at Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s The Way Things Go (1987), in which we had to place five objects in a way that started a chain reaction, and Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performances (1978-1986), which has yet to play out, as it involved our making a vow to do something over a period of time and signing statements pledging our commitment. We vowed not to be cross on October 6.
I could easily have stayed much longer and played all the scenarios: it was amazing how exhilarating they were, how gently the shackles of social inhibition were lifted with the permissions embedded in the games, how purely happy and curious I felt in the room. All the games raised questions: about authority, about choice and decision, about permissions, about freedom and agency. And along the way, we were gaining an excellent insight into the history of live art. All the kids there were having a ball.
Truth or Dare, based on the familiar children’s game, turned up in the forecourt of the Northcote Town Hall as a kind of fairground booth last weekend. I simply witnessed this one, although now I wish I’d had a go myself. Eager children and their adults were led on to the stage and asked to make their choices, truth or dare. The various exploits are pre-recorded in videos and numbered, and the team results – adults vs children – are chalked up on a board.
While I was there, it was patronised by many more children than adults, and there seemed to be more volunteers for the dares than the truths. More than a few of the children did their feat, to recorded trumpets clarions and applause, and then queued up again for another go. The questions varied between absurd and serious. One kid was asked to say how he loved his dad. “Maybe, yes, I have to think about that,” he responded. “He made us go for a bike ride.” An adult, Ian, was asked what divorce was, and gave a creditable and honest explanation.
One dare, eagerly taken up by Lorenzo, was to think up a public demand and shout it over a megaphone. His was “stop using plastic!” Other dares included using animal masks to make a family of animals, to make an outfit out of things in a box, or to teach us something. (One kid taught us how to say the alphabet backwards).
Truth or Dare subtly altered the conventional power relationships in families, putting adults on the spot while permitting kids their natural anarchy. Both were equal when they stepped on the stage, all hierarchies of age dispelled. It was clearly fun to do, and certainly fun to watch.
JOF’s INFINITY DANCE JAM! is the simplest of these live art pieces. It plays with the contemporary interface between public and private afforded by the internet. You had to queue up again for this, and this time I teamed up with a mother and her little girl. This was an invitation to dance in a very tiny, very private night club, basically a glamorously curtained box.
When we reached the head of the queue we were welcomed by space ladies in friendly alien make-up, before the curtain was drawn aside to admit us to our private club. Inside it was private aside from a screen in which we could see ourselves dancing (this footage was, unless you opted out, then made into a gif), our images transported into a kind of Star Trek night club. I think we danced for around two minutes, before a sudden puff of smoke signalled the end of our turn. The little girl bounced around, her eyes sparkling.
These shows demonstrate that live art, especially when it is as carefully constructed as these works are, is a no brainer when it comes to making work for young people. Play is at the centre of performance, especially when it is at its most serious. And these were all serious works, playfully imagined and executed, as well as simply being enormous fun. 10 out of 10, would play again.
Playing Up, devised by Sibylle Peters, performed by Caroline Meaden and Will McBride, Live Art Development Agency (UK), FUNDUS THEATER / Theatre of Research (Germany), Tate Early Years and Family Programme (UK), Best Biennial (Sweden) and Live Art UK, with the support of the Goethe Institut London and the Collaborative Arts Partnership Programme (CAPP). Presented by The SUBSTATION.
Truth or Dare by Sibylle Peters and Theatre of Research, presented by Melbourne Fringe and Darebin Arts.
INFINITY DANCE JAM! by Joseph O’Farrell (JOF), presented by Darebin Arts and Joseph O’Farrell (JOF).