Closeness and comfort: making performance personal

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Closeness and comfort: making performance personal

by Simone Barley-Greenfield on Monday, April 30, 2012 - 2:03pm

Professors Helen Paris and Leslie Hill

A fantastic discussion gives participants new perspective, and a talk that leaves the audience analyzing the metaphorical significance of even the technical difficulties experienced before the talk began is exactly this kind of dialogue. In an ironic twist of events, Helen Paris and Leslie Hill’s Artist Salon discussion on intimacy and proximity between the performer and the audience was slightly delayed by a PowerPoint glitch that had the display screen projecting the presenter notes and the presenter screen showing the slideshow, switching the perspectives of both parties. Cross-boundary viewpoints and the overlap between performer and audience roles fascinate both Paris and Hill as artists and academics, and the rest of their April 12 talk and film-screening at the Clayman Institute centered around the very issues their unruly MacBook raised. 

Drawing back the curtain

Helen Paris performing

What do we expect when we go to a performance? We expect to sink into the plush red theater seats and enjoy the spectacle displayed before us. What do we expect to see when we look in the mirror? Do we not inherently assume we will see ourselves gazing back? Imagine walking into a theater to see a play and finding the only seat placed front and center on the stage. Imagine lighting a cigarette in front of a mirror, and, in that moment of illumination, seeing another’s face flicker in the glass. What happens when the divide between artist and observer melts away?

Helen Paris and Leslie Hill, both Associate Professors in Stanford’s Drama department, ask this question in many of the projects they undertake as founders of the London-based company curious. From the first moment of their presentation, Hill and Paris put themselves on the same level as the attendees, even flinging a mail bag full of the letters that birthed the company as a way to absorb the audience into their thought process. Driven by “an intense curiosity about the world in which we live,” Paris and Hill use performance to explore, challenge, and shrink the distance between performer and audience and merge the two preconceived roles, using everything from double mirrors to shots of tequila.  

Intimacy as a creative catalyst

Intimacy in performance inspires and energizes both artists, and Professor Paris describes the rejuvenating nature of establishing one-on-one connections with her audience, sometimes four or fewer members at a time, and allowing that proximity to create a unique and moving experience as “a kind of addiction.” Their projects, including On the Scent, 14 Lines of Love, the moment I saw you I knew I could love you, and a new film collaboration with Andrew Kötting, Sea Swallow’d, infiltrate the mind and senses, evoking visceral, gut-wrenching feelings, be it childhood nostalgia for the smell of a Zambian rainstorm or intense compassion for the man who still goes to the matinees in Stratford-upon-Avon to honor the memory of his Marianne, “A Lass Unparalleled”.  

Paris and Hill’s projects seek to tune audiences to their own personal investment in a production and reform perceptions of artistic expression not just as entertainment but a journey of self exploration for all parties. Their work highlights the borders that define typical artist/audience roles, but, by blurring those lines, Hill and Paris inspire audiences to think about the ways in which people are connected and the contexts that establish those connections. By shattering the dividing boundary of the stage and inviting the audience in, these two unique women ensure that something meaningful is left, a connection created, even after the curtain has fallen and the moment has passed.


Leslie HillLeslie Hill is currently an Associate Professor teaching courses on Performance Making and Critical Theory in Stanford’s Drama Department.  She also co-directs the London-based theater company Curious, and her work through this company has been featured around the globe.  Before moving to the UK, Hill studied English and Philosophy at the University of New Mexico.   She then went on to earn an MA at the Shakespeare Institute and a PhD in Theater from the University of Glasgow

Leslie HillHelen Paris is also currently an Associate Professor of Performance making in Stanford’s Drama Department in addition to having cofounded Curious with Leslie Hill.  She earned her doctorate from the University of Surrey studying the virtual and the visceral in live performance, and she continues to research the senses in performance as well as intimacy and proximity.  Her work with Curious spans many artistic media, and she tours all over the world.

Simone Barley-Greenfield is a sophomore at Stanford majoring in Marine Biology and a member of the Clayman Institute's student writing team.