Sunday, 16 September 2012

How Artists Talk About Caregiving

I used to be an actor... and a director.  In fact, when Nicholas was born, I was working for a horse-drawn theatre called The Caravan Stage Company (the Caravan has since traded their clydesdales for a tall ship).  Now, after 23 years of looking after my children, I remain fascinated by storytelling on the stage, or even what might be called theatre in unusual spaces.  I adore contemporary storytelling, especially when it speaks to me about things that I know deeply but rarely talk about.  There are two such theatrical works that I would like tell you about today - I haven't seen them, but I find their premises compelling for our community of caregivers.

The first is a play that was 'performed' at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer (2011).  It's called "The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding..."  The play consists of one actor and one audience member - and yes, it is played out in silence and involves the actor bathing the audience member (bring your bathing suit!), followed by a long session of holding and being held.

Here is the review from the Edinburgh Fringe:

This one-on-one hotel room experience is Adrian Howells’ attempt at total care for a single audience member. It starts with a warm bath filled with rose petals. I undress and step in. ‘It’s my honour to bathe you,’ Howells says, with no hint of insincerity. He lathers up a sponge and starts to wash my face, torso, arms and legs. Afterwards I’m wrapped in a dressing gown and taken to a pre-prepared duvet nest for a snuggling session.

It makes you realise that in adult life most individuals don’t get the opportunity to be truly pampered. I could book into a spa, but after I’d received an all-over body scrub it’s unlikely it would be followed by 15 minutes of tender cuddling. Also, Howells seems to be saying, some people don’t receive any cuddling at all in their lives: not from a professional, not from a partner, not from a parent. His offer is a rare half-hour of someone’s undivided attention and affection. An experience of almost unconditional love that feels like it could be a form of modern therapy for the isolated individual.
But, I think to myself, as I’m lying in the bath covered in petals, there has to be a catch. Everyone brings to this show his or her own set of connotations. I bring a healthy amount of reviewer’s cynicism. I wanted to give myself up to the pleasure and warmth of human contact. But I didn’t feel loved, or even decadent. I thought, instead, of a time when I might not be able to wash myself any more. I thought of my elderly grandparents, and how my parents used to bathe them. That love was truly unconditional. This is just a simulation – a performance.
Or is it? I don’t for a second feel as if Howells is playing a part. When he hugs me goodbye it’s a real hug. I think about him repeating these intimate moments over and over. Giving away something so much more significant than a therapist – giving away what feels like a two-way emotional connection for the price of a Fringe ticket. Is he doing it purely for the thrill of participatory theatre, or for deeper reasons?
There’s a moment when I’m lying against his chest when I remember what it was like to be a kid. But this memory jars against the reality of what’s happening. As a child I felt safe because my parents looked after me, and their reasons for doing so were the simplest on earth. In this setting I’m not quite sure what Howells’ reasons are.
Perhaps I should have asked him. But the time seems to run out very quickly. Howells makes it clear that there’s no wrong way of experiencing The Pleasure of Being … It’s true that your enjoyment of it will depend on what you bring to it. What’s certain is that the show (if you can call it that) creates an incredibly knotted and intriguing performer/audience relationship. I don’t leave feeling relaxed, but I do leave questioning my own definition of the performance, which is testament to how bold and unique this is as a piece of creative work.
I have no idea how to rate this show, as I haven't experienced it personally.  But I do give the artist kudos for exploring themes of giving care with people who do not walk along our path.  
Another just plain terrific show that I haven't yet seen (sigh) is "Private Dancer" by the Scottish artist Janice Parker.  I met Janice when we lived in England and she showed me a video of show on her laptop.  It was dance theatre of the first order, but with a difference.  Janice Parker explains on her website:
Private Dancer takes place in and around a specially designed and purpose built ‘house’, a realistically scaled luminous installation, containing 5 different rooms. Each room is filled with personal memorabilia and objects belonging to a solo disabled dancer, who inhabits and performs there to an audience of one.

A dance that is never seen, alone at home we give it our all our best moves, our best performance ever. In this rare glimpse of a personal world, you’ll be entertained to a host of good music, see some very fine dancing and be offered the treat of watching alone. We might let you in……

Watch the video on the website to get a feel for the intimacy of someone with a disability dancing for an audience of one - it is remarkable.  
I am thrilled that artists are exploring our world, the world of giving care to people we love.





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