The Expectations of Strangers

Strangers & Others participant headphones charging backstage. Photo by Ian Abbott

Strangers & Others is a new work by H2Dance that asks people to look, touch, assume and judge whilst reflecting upon themes of socialisation, tolerance and autonomy. Here the usual role of an audience (a collective of individuals sat in the dark in a seating bank) has shifted and the choreographer’s (Hanna and Heidi) have invited people to participate rather than watch.

After H2Dance invited me to be writer in residence I wanted to encourage people who purchased a ticket to Strangers & Others in Colchester, Peterborough and Nottingham to talk to me so that I could document their experience through a series of informal conversations. I spoke to people immediately before, directly after the performance and two weeks later to capture their gut reactions and see what they thought after some reflection.

In a previous piece I looked at some of the historical thinking behind why performances are documented and who work is documented for; it felt important to document Strangers & Others from the perspective of multiple participants in different places as history is often told from a single perspective and is often filtered by the person who has commissioned it.

This is the first of three works (pre, post & two weeks later) published on Medium that charts the thoughts of people as they encounter Strangers & Others at different stages.

Person 1

What drew you to this performance?
I saw it was dance and I infinitely prefer that to the tribute groups which they have here all the time. I understand that it is interactive, that we somehow we interact with the dancers, but exactly how I don’t know, that is to be discovered. I saw there were two performances and this one suits my timing. I’m sure I’m not very exciting but I don’t know what to expect.

Do you come to the venue regularly?
I’m a member of the arts centre which means I don’t pay anything much for most performances and I come here often. My interest would be Indian dance and then dance; I emphasise dance not darts. The occasional comedian but they can be disappointing and gigs, jazz, yeah I come here as often as I can.

Have you seen H2Dance before?
I haven’t seen H2Dance before, not to my knowledge.

Did anything in particular catch your eye when you read the information?
I’m a little concerned at exactly the extent of the interaction because it seems to suggest we should make suggestions or something and I’m not a choreographer; but it’s to be seen what we are making suggestions about, posture, whatever. No idea. It’s a blank canvas.

Have you done any interactive things before?
Yes. Here. I think we had to dress in forensic suits for something once, it was a limited thing, the director was here as well he would remember better; we were in forensic suits and had to hide behind something and then appear. Also we had dance, a group came and we sat in kind of pretend boats, I think they were big paddling pools, I can’t remember and then we would dance with an apple between our foreheads. You’ve got to want to dance and want to be able to dance, to go with the flow — there are probably a few other things but they are the ones that stand out. They were fun, you feel better for it afterwards because it is something very different from the predictable straight line thinking that we have in the day.

Would you be likely to tell other people about what happens tonight?
I go to the art gallery every day and will tell people about it…when I know what it is.

Have you danced in your past?
When I was young it was a big interest, more Isadora Duncan type, I fancied myself as an Isadora Duncan, but any dance really. I did a course in Indian dance, my goodness that was tiring. It wasn’t Kathak it was another sort; Kathak I know because I’ve seen the maestro Kathak dancer here, Prashad…Prashad something, wonderful, very elderly but very good, I could stay here all night to watch him. I can dance.

Is there anything you’re worried about tonight?
I’m not worried about anything, not in the slightest. Compared with what I’ve come through in my life its gonna be enjoyable.

Person 2

Can you tell me what has brought you here tonight?
Curiosity really, I saw it on the Creative Colchester group on Facebook and it fitted in with my plans for later as I go to a poetry class so the timing was very useful.

How was it described on the Facebook group?
It said call out for participants and so I had another little look and that got my interest rather than audience, it was participants. I thought I’d give it a go; I like jumping in at the deep end.

Is that something you do regularly? Participate in different types of things?
My friends think I’m a bit nuts because I go into classes on my own; I started ballet and tap dancing on my own without anyone with me and that was scary but fun. I’m open to anything and I’ll give anything a try.

Have you been to the venue before?
Last time I was here was about 5 years ago, I came here a lot in my teens watching gigs and comedy and stuff. I don’t go to watch dance really, I’ve seen ballet before but that has been about it.

What do you think will happen tonight?
I have no idea. I’m very used to the Edinburgh fringe and lots of the weird and wonderful things there, so I’m kinda thinking walking through spaces and reacting, that’s the impression I’m getting. We’ll see.

What did you see at the fringe this year?
Hannah Gadsby was amazing and very powerful. I’m trying to think of the weirdest show — we saw lots of improv with pirates and crime scenes — all good fun.

Is this something you would tell your friends about?
Yes, definitely. They’re all curious at work, they’re like: “What are you doing tonight?” and I said I’m not sure, we’ll see.

Person 3

Can you tell me what you’re expecting tonight?
I’m expecting to feel quite exposed and I’m gonna be put in a situation where I feel should I be doing this? Or should I be a bit more reserved?

Where has that feeling come from?
That’s come from what people have told me. In the sense that they are like you will feel a little bit on the spot and because the guy I’m going with is my boyfriend I feel there’s gonna be stuff that I might be more comfortable doing with him than someone else in the room. 
Why did you choose to come tonight?
It sounded like something really good; I love theatre that exposes me, I like theatre where I feel a bit on edge cause I get a buzz from it. It seems something unique, it wasn’t a topic or like a depressing thing, it’s interactive and you’re part of the performance — I thought that sounds great.

Have you done other interactive things?
Not here no. Every time I’ve come here it’s been watch, maybe sometimes get up and get a coffee on stage, which I enjoyed, but I don’t really feel like I made much contribution to the piece — I’m literally just watching it. That’s it.

You like the idea of making a contribution?
Yeah definitely, I like that you’re putting yourself out there and people can see you and how you’re allowing yourself to be looked at and allow yourself to be exposed. I think that’s great. I find it quite fascinating.

Where did you hear about the performance?
My boyfriend volunteers here and we normally go on Wednesdays and we like look up what’s happening on a Wednesday. It sounded like a decent one — so we were like, let’s go.

Have you been to any dance before?
Yeah, funny enough I’ve just come from pole dancing. I started 2 weeks ago, it’s really good.
Can you describe what you think the first five minutes will be?
Oh gosh. First five minutes. I’m gonna be moving, I’m not gonna be standing. No actually, I’m gonna be standing still. First five mins I’m gonna be still and I’m gonna be introducing the show, maybe I have to put my name out or something, but I’m gonna be standing there being looked at. I picture it in a circle. Everyone’s standing in a circle and we are all kind of analysing the room whilst listening to what’s happening.

Person 4

What are your expectations are of what you are about to encounter?
I’ve heard a little bit about what it is; I think it’s less about what it is but more what I’m expecting. Probably to feel a bit uncomfortable in terms of questions and being able to share a judgement on something. I think that’s the anticipation…I’m quite excited about it, I’ve not done something like this before, so for me it’s more about what choices am I going to make and how are they going to compare to what other people think.

How would you describe this?
I guess it’s participative art and feels like from what I’ve heard a fair bit of a social experiment as well. I’ve only ever done…anything close to it through work and through coaching type training things with leading questions and being asked to give a judgement and perception on things; that’s the only thing I can compare that’s really close to it.

Can you describe what you think the first five minutes will be?
I don’t know. I think from what I know…I know you are going to go into a room and interact with other people and then hearing either directions or questions or contexts and then left to make a choice. So I think as far as I know it’s about observation and being told certain parts of the story — I assume everyone is told the same thing.

Why have you come today?
I was invited. a friend mentioned it, described it and sent through a link and it just sounded really, really interesting. I quite like observing people’s choices and comparing and contrasting. I get the chance to do it sometimes at work but that is a completely different environment than with complete strangers. This is going to be really interesting for me to see how people make judgements and what judgements they make.

Person 5 and 6

What do you think you are going to experience?
I am going to be honest with you; we have looked at the script. Because we are going to be interpreting the signed performance we have to do a bit of preparation before. Obviously we don’t know the content of what’s being said so we get given the script so we know what’s being said; although we’ve seen the words we don’t visually know how they are going to deliver it and what kind of effect they are hoping to create. So we know where they are aiming for and know how they are going to get there but the actual visual effects and how that’s going to affect other people will be interesting to see.

Have you interpreted any dance shows before?
I have, yes. Recently I did U Dance Festival; with that what you are finding is within the dance sector it’s not just only dancing to music some people are involving text and spoken word within their performances. I was interpreting any performances that had spoken word in so that audience members are able to access that as well as general audience; it is sometimes a shock to some choreographers that they have to think about access and if there are D/deaf people in the audience that will need to be interpreted by an interpreter on the stage with the performers. It’s a bit of education on that aspect.

What do you think of using headphones and instructions as interpreters?
It will be interesting I think. I have never interpreted a dance show. I have done straight plays, poetry that kind of stuff but never done a dance show; I think it will be interesting because everyone has got their own personal experiences like they are being spoken to personally so it will be interesting to see how we can interpret that for D/deaf people so that they have an equivalent experience. I think we will be in it and take part in the first show, then come out, scratch our heads and go right, how are we going to do that then?
It depends on the intimacy and things like that and how the interpreter is going to be involved; it will be a triadic relationship. I don’t know what the relationship is going to be involved in the space but…actually I did one piece at the beginning of this year where I was a participant. I was interpreting for the event and at the end there was a choice if people wanted to go to the next performance and it was a blind company; I don’t remember their name but they used headphones and they had, you know, their sticks that they move around with and had microphones on them so that the sound of the sticks was following them round a big building and you could tune into the channels and hear them make their way around the space. I don’t know what to expect but today’s performance is spoken.

There is spoke work and a soundtrack over the top — how have you interpreted soundscapes in the past alongside spoken word?
It kind of depends on how it goes; sometimes you can sign something quite small to create quiet, if it’s something big and loud with a lot of impact then you can sign it big and strong and short and sharp. It depends on how the sound is interwoven; obviously we’ve seen the script so we know the words but the background track we’ve not received so…which is why we need to see it first so we know what we’ve let ourselves in for. Some performances that we do is more your proscenium arch kind of theatrical stuff and sometimes the sound is also reflected in the lighting; so for a visual aspect if it’s big crashes or whatever it’s kind of choreographed with the lights and technicians…I don’t know what the lighting and the mood is going to be. Sometimes we can reflect that mood and what’s happening on stage whatever it might be.