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Proximity and the dynamics of inclusion

Dec 5 2014

An engaging live performance can provoke thoughts we would not otherwise have; it may make us feel connected to others — or isolated— or invite us to rethink our past experiences. It can shine a light on injustices or inadequacies in our society and inspire the audience to reflect internally and externally on these issues. 

This was the case during a recent Faculty Fellows lecture at The Clayman Institute entitled “Performing Proximity” created by professor of theater and performance studies, Helen Paris. Paris’ work leads us to the discovery that proximity in performance has many parallels to the dynamics of inclusion. When proximity is a factor, our initial perceptions of others start to fade, awareness of individual experiences and social identities increase, and an open dialogue then builds understanding, acceptance, and inclusion.

With this framework as the basis for her live performances and research, Paris seeks to provoke and engage the audience at large by addressing gender and political themes including relationships between women, vulnerability in an uncertain world, and family.

During the lecture, Paris presented excerpts and discussed her interactive live performance “Out of Water” (a collaboration with artist Caroline Wright and composer Jocelyn Pook), which encourages us to consider the simultaneously tender and tenuous connection between performer and audience member, mother and child, individual and society. Paris has not only performed the piece across the world, but it is also included as a case study in her book (with co-author and faculty fellow Dr. Leslie Hill) “Performing Proximity: Curious Intimacies.”

As is evidenced by “Out of Water”, performance art can be an effective tool in raising awareness about gender dynamics. While women and members of other underrepresented groups may be included in spaces from which they were previously excluded, they may lack the proverbial rope or lifesavers they need to succeed in that environment. This, said Paris, speaks to the “push and pull of connection and dissonance.” 

To illustrate this point, the “Out of Water” performance piece is typically orchestrated on a beach, at the water’s edge. Audience members, who have earphones on with original music playing, are led to the sand where a group of performers looks out to the sea with an “unbroken gaze.”

The performers then pick up a 100-foot long rope accompanied by a haunting melody: “heave ho my dear, heave ho.”

 As the performers put down the rope, they approach audience members and take their hands, leading them to the water one by one. In this action, Paris aims to evoke feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty initially, which then follows the performers as they move towards inclusion and connection.

According to one “Out of Water” audience member, this “participation is a release of tension” and to another “it teaches me to trust my footing, recall the story of a mother teaching her daughter to swim.”

As the performance continues, audience members and performers form a “V,” representing the unity and strength of the group, as the performers slowly walk into the ocean. Then, “like the tide itself,” said Paris, the performance concludes.

Paris finds that “performance interaction can be intoxicating, intimate and intolerable” all at once. It raises feelings of empathy between audience member and performer, “establishing a caring rhythm” similar to the relationship between a mother and child. During times of uncertainty, we wonder, “Who is going to save us? Who is going to send us a lifesaver?”

Paris’ research and performances explore how close proximity between performer and audience member shapes the theater experience. “Feeling the breath, noticing the patterns in the iris” of the audience member, said Paris, creates a very different experience than the traditional audience member-performer distance. Thus, this physical closeness may evoke strong emotions.

“Moments of connection are fleeting… There is something implicitly political about focusing on everyday, face-to-face encounters,” noted Paris.

It is this close proximity and intimate human interaction in Paris’ creative work that allows the audience to connect with more emotional aspects and questions surrounding gender equality, including the need for awareness and inclusion from others. While the performance is experienced individually — with each person listening to music on their own headsets — there is ultimately a collective awakening that occurs when all audience members are personally escorted to the water’s edge not by an artifice like a rope, but by the guidance and support of another human hand. 

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.