Improvisation Over Content

Open Body’s Unknown|show|Unknown|location is a piece about bodies in space, performed between concrete pillars in the underground car park by actors dressed in loose grey clothing and black boots. If that sounds a little unnerving and out of the ordinary, it was. Refreshingly so. The entire performance was improvised, though structured through sections with rules governing the behaviour of the performers. Sometimes they could run and jump or say only yes and no, sometimes they formed a group making up actions in unison, or became a mirror image of another person. For the most part, it was a collection of basic theatre exercises enlarged and developed for performance.

This approach prioritised improvisation over content, and meant the piece at times lacked depth. Talking to director Karla Livingstone-Pardy, it was clear that she had major theoretical ideas in mind – the nature of performativity versus performance, phenomenology, physical ways of being – but translating abstract theory into a work of theatre proved difficult.

The result was sometimes interesting, sometimes tedious. The best moments were when two performers were able to interact with one another, sharpening their focus and producing more natural and genuine reactions as they played off one another. The limited options for communication made any successful connection far more poignant. One of my favourite sections was when they ganged up on an individual cast member and began pushing her lightly, saying “sorry” with each shove until she gave up and collapsed, at which point the group moved onto the next person. I read it as a physicalisation of microaggressions and the toll they take.

A wholly improvised work requires an incredible level of concentration and connection from the cast, and they didn’t always manage to get there. Given they were aiming for live unpredictability, the performance could have been improved by more responsiveness to interruptions like car doors slamming or children screaming, or bolder interactions with the audience. I got the impression that the actors were a little intimidated by us, as they always kept their distance. At times I saw the performers lose focus or ignore an impulse, and then create an artificial one when they thought it would make a better ‘moment’. But when they fully committed to their actions and let themselves respond instinctively, the cast created some really beautiful exchanges. Sara Di in particular delivered a standout performance, with impressive focus and imaginative improvisations, giving every moment her full energy.

Asher Elazary and Leo Palmer’s sound design was fantastic, with the throbbing beats and eerie noises serving to add momentum and atmosphere to the show while Livingstone-Pardy skilfully modulated the levels and transitions in response to the cast’s movements. The grey concrete and flickering fluorescent lighting made for an effective performance space – desolate enough to emphasise the performers but lively enough with ambient noise to keep things a little weird. The neutral costuming also worked well, offering no visual cues and instead directing our attention towards the physicality of the actors.

There was something bracing about standing among a crowd of people on the steps to John Medley at 7pm in late July, and it wasn’t just the cold. The audience was excited to see something different and experience something unusual, and Unknown delivered on that.

Kate Weston
Open Body Theatre’s Unknown|show|Unknown|location ran from July 28th to 30th at the University of Melbourne.

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