Stewart Laing founded Untitled Projects in 1998. According to the company’s website,
Each project is driven by a personal aesthetic vision that attempts to re-configure the conventions of theatrical space. Each project is imagined individually and a different approach is taken to each, with a specific group of freelance practitioners every time.
In 2012, the company presented The Salon Project at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, with seven performances in October, followed by the Salon Project Revisited, presented at the Citizens Theatre Glasgow for seven performances in March 2013, and, in conjunction with the Wellcome Trust, in April 2013 at the Pit Theatre in the Barbican Centre in London. I attended that performance together with Susie Hennessy, and below is a conversation about the production.
Each performance had space for around sixty members of the audience, to be admitted in three groups of around 20 people at 6pm, 6.30pm and 7pm, and asked to leave at 9pm, 9.30pm and 10pm, respectively. Tickets were allocated on a first come first served basis. Audience members had to provide email contact details, and a member of the Salon Project team contacted them by email a few weeks before the performance with a request to enter their measurements on a tailor-made website, and provided a link to a video instruction that would help with this. A few days before the event, the Salon Project representative sent a further email reminding audience members of the event.
|Salon Project, 6 April 2013, Barbican Centre London|
On arrival at the theatre foyer of the Pit Theatre in the Barbican Centre in London on the 6th of April for the 7pm admission, we were welcomed by several Salon Project staff. Female staff wore contemporary formal dress, and had applied slightly very light-coloured make-up; their hair was elaborately styled. Male staff were in evening suits and had also applied make-up to render them pale. There were also some regular Barbican front of house staff, who looked a little bewildered and amused. We were asked to leave our coats in the wardrobe area in the foyer, and to wait until asked to enter the dressing area. When our time came, we were asked to assemble around the major male master of ceremonies, who gave us an introduction to what was to follow. We would be led by our dedicated guide for the evening, who tuned out to be one of the female staff who had initially welcomed us; she had disappeared at some point during the time we were waiting in the foyer and now reappeared dressed in period costume. She led us through a maze of narrow passages in the backstage area of the theatre to the dressing areas, also backstage, one for the women, one for the men.
With hindsight, the air of “neither one thing nor the other” that pervaded the entire evening became apparent the moment that we entered the foyer of the Pit Theatre. There was an atmosphere of uncertainty amongst both staff/performers, and spectators/participants, and some confusion as to where “pedestrian” possession (bags etc.) should be placed, prior to entering the inner sanctum. As the master of ceremonies greeted us and ran through certain formalities and housekeeping hints and tips, whilst we stood upon the threshold of the experience, his affected attitude of “I am not performing, but observe my skill, as improvisational actor, as I casually, yet efficiently, deliver to you all the information you require”, had, sadly, already been undermined by the fact that we, the third group of entrants, had heard the same speech, verbatim, as he reeled it off the group who had gone before us, entering, as they did, at around about the time that we were initially scheduled to board. The sense that we had been expected to assume the mentality of grateful and easily-pleased children, entertained and excited enough by the mere fact that we got to put on costumes and mix with the “actors”, was only exacerbated by the MC’s asking if we needed to visit the conveniences before we ventured in.
Here, costumes were ready for us on clothes racks with our names to the section with the clothes prepared for us. There was also a rack with additional garments in case prepared clothes did not fit. Once our clothes were sorted, we were led on to the make-up desks where we had make-up applied and, where appropriate, hair was styled. Small groups of spectators who were ready were then ushered into the actual performance space, square and white—with white walls made from wooden panels or sheets of cloth, a white floor, and a white cloth ceiling from which a number of elaborate chandeliers were hanging.
Even before hindsight could be benefited from, alarm bells rang upon entering the “dressing rooms”, as one was ushered or, rather, herded, to an available makeshift dressing table, where a mixture of bemused, forthright, friendly, inexperienced and ambivalent amateur hair and make-up “artists” did their best to play at assured and confident dressers. Their masks were paper-thin, however, as some of them dared not so much as apply a layer of hairspray without the nod from at least two of their counterparts, and the introduction of a short-haired female seemed a thing completely unthought of and unprepared for. The costumes themselves demonstrated the strange array of inconsistencies that seemed to betoken the entire production, some looking decidedly Victorian, some art deco bohemian, and some betraying Grecian and even Restoration elements. It is not clear whether or not this was quite deliberate, a result of mixed resources, or some kind of supporting statement, uttered in sympathy with the overall mise en scene; and that was part of the problem, or the curiosity, surrounding this project: it was just not clear what it was trying to be. Upon entering the “space”, there was, indeed, a period of amusement, as the novelty of the situation brought out the photographer in most guests, who were permitted the 21st Century technology of smartphones and the like, in this supposed simulation of a French salon setting. Close inspection was no friend to the “set”, which lost as much, if not more, from the unconvincing and inelegant panels, cheap not-quite-mirrors, crudely cut holes and visible wires, as it gained from the resplendent chandeliers. One staging element remains particularly worthy of note, however, and this came from a lighting effect which rendered it permanent daylight in the “salon”, as the impression of sun shining outside the “windows” was created; this did create a rupture, or an elongation, in the normative passage of time. That said, whether it should not have been rendered dark outside, for greater authenticity, is perhaps another debate.
As we were in the 7pm group, those spectators who had tickets for the 6pm and 6.30pm entries were already in the space and looked curiously at the newcomers and their costumes. Similarly, we all looked at each other and the people already in the space. In due course we were welcomed by Laing, his voice amplified by a mike attached to his face, and there was also a lady in her late 50s who seemed to have some more formal function than a mere audience member, mainly suggested, initially, by her attempts to be and look important, and the fact that she was miked up as well. She gave an address at the end of our time in the venue, and was identified in the programme as the Salonière. At regular intervals, and in different locations in the salon, the assembled audience was treated to a special event.
Some of the more interesting aspects of this whole experience were born of the fact that one did not know who was there simply as spectator, who the “actors”, if indeed there were actors as such, were, to what extent the “guest speakers” were giving genuine academic papers, and to what extent they were performing, and general observations of other “audience members’” affected behaviour in this alien situation added to the disorientation. Once in costume, it appeared that many of our co-participants developed something of a character, or alter-ego, which cancelled out the modesty that usually declares the public taking of a proliferation of photographic self-portraits, “selfies” as the Facebook generation would call them, rather conceited. Mob-mentality did take over in the salon, and suddenly the entire spectacle did become a glorified photo opportunity that we all grasped with both hands.
The “casual” addresses and provocations made by the Salonière were, at best, awkward, at worst, embarrassing; this may have been the desired effect. It is not certain. Unfortunately these “moments” were just not well-thought-out or stimulating enough to capture the imagination, even the interest, of those present, and those who did engage were those liminal beings who were already on the threshold between spectator and performer.
At first, John Bowers, Professorial Research Fellow at the Interaction Research Studio, Goldsmiths University of London, gave us a list of developments he was predicting would happen in the future, speaking from a point in time of 1899, and asked us to applaud or boo the items he listed. This was initially fun, but wore thin quite quickly as the predicted inventions were presented far too fast to be able to respond to them fully, and in very random order, and for too long.
The Bowers episode really set the tone for what was to follow; this was neither performance, nor spontaneous event, nor academic exercise. I wonder if Bower deliberately “dumbed down” any academic content that his “paper” may have had, in order to make it accessible to a wide audience; a grievous error if this was the case. At the end of Bower’s “turn”, there was what seemed like a horribly-staged “spontaneous” question from the audience (or a performer of sorts, it is difficult to say), which allowed Bower to make a very shallow argument that united those present in the ground-breaking realisation that the atom bomb is a bad thing . . . His solution to the problem of the existence of the technology which enables the production of these Armageddon-bringers amounted to either killing everyone who is “in the know”, or waiting for them to die.
After some time of unguided presence in the space, Molly Crockett was introduced as a rising star in the world of science, having just graduated in neuroscience from Cambridge and now with a Wellcome Trust fellowship to do further research—into moral enhancement. She introduced us to her research into ways of changing people’s moral behaviour: adding substances to the diet or depriving the diet of subjects in lab experiments allegedly have an impact on the way they respond to questions relating to choices in morally challenging case study situations, which seem to be well worn in philosophy: subjects whose brain has been deprived of the neuropeptide serotonin will respond differently to the scenarios than control subjects who have not had their brain chemistry changed. The question was whether the amount of a certain neuropeptide in the brain can change behaviour—apparently it can. There was no indication that such research is potentially already now ethically problematic, or, in terms of the research itself, whether the act of interference itself may have had an impact, rather than, or in interaction with, the predicted impact of more or less serotonin in the brain at the point when the moral decision has to be made. Crockett’s performance (?) as a wide-eyed, enthusiastic, exited, scientist, with a pronounced American accent, exuding childish pride whenever she was able to throw in the word “lab”, distracted from the potentially serious nature of what she had to contribute, and her CV and list of presentations at the highest levels of academic research, to judge by the names of the institutions that have invited her to present her research to date, were undermined by her performance.
I think you’ve said it all there Daniel. Another instalment of “Academia Light”/“Pop Academia”.
Her presentation was followed, in between unguided meandering, by a piano recital (with the score on a tablet), the recital of a song, presented by a soprano accompanied by piano. She, too, was in costume, and I wondered whether the fact that her performance, although competent in so far as she had memorised words and tune, lacked vocal support and beauty of tone, was indicative of what entertainment in the French salons on which this project experience was meant to be based would have been like, or whether it was another aspect of the project not having been thought through enough.
Both the piano recital and song lacked the finesse and/or virtuosity that one would expect to be presented with, if asked, or subtlety encouraged, to direct one’s full attention to a solo performer for any real length of time. This “project”/production, whatever you wish to call it, throws up so many difficulties when it comes to discussion of it in the context of a theatrical event. Where was the performance? Where was the theatre? The word, and I would like a better word, that keeps coming back to me is “amateurish”.
A nude tableau vivant had been part of the publicity for the project, and a reason, presumably, for the age restriction, but during our presence in the salon, there was none. At some point the master of ceremonies and the guides arranged the chaise in two rows and asked spectator-participants to arrange themselves around those chair for a group photo. At the same time the lights in the chandeliers dimmed and started flickering, and the sound system produced a soundscape of low-pitch droning of aeroplanes. A TV screen on another side of the venue started showing clips, in a loop, of children engaging in mysterious activities, and nude adults draped around unexpected scenery spattered with unambiguously fake blood, surrounded by daggers and samurai swords.
It is not clear whether the six-form-drama-student-esque video loop was intended, in fact, to be the nude tableau vivant, but this was a real low point of the evening, and betrayed a certain pretension behind the production’s endeavours. This hideously crude attempt at a “Theatre of Cruelty” moment was poorly executed, unsophisticated, and patronising, where, one can only presume, it was meant to strike unease and wonder into the hearts of those present. The most unsettling part of this episode was the heat produced by many costumed bodies in a confined space, and the combination of the uncomfortable shoes and vagueness of seating arrangements, which led to a fleeting desire to pass out, in true “period style”.
At 9pm, the first group was asked to leave, at 9.30pm the second, and our group at 10pm. Wine had been on offer throughout, offered in plastic (?) glasses from silver plates carried by costumed waitresses. There was also water available, in plastic tumblers via self-service, and at the end, small quantities of whiskey were offered in small plastic cups. Laing talked for a while, then the salonière said a few words about death, and a fervent elderly male spectator offered her an affair with the promise of killing her after its consumption—she graciously declined, not without suggesting he was merely trying to impress his wife.
The refreshments provided were another jarring point, providing less elegance and intoxication, and more “essence of plastic”. Hmm . . . there is a metaphor for the whole thing there I think. The closing dialogue involving the salonière led one to wonder if the character she was aiming for was, in fact, drunken, probably slightly bitter, middle-aged woman to be avoided at parties. If it was, she did a good job.
Altogether certainly a unique event, but, as some reviews in the daily newspapers commented as well, the spectator experience was not sufficiently well and carefully guided; the talks on the night we attended were not suitable to spark much debate, certainly not among people who had never met before.
As neither one thing nor the other, a juxtaposition of the present and some bygone era, something about this whole project just didn’t “work”. One fellow participant, prior to our entry into the salon, spoke about what was to come in terms of “immersive theatre”. In so far as all persons present being clumsily immersed in an environment, that seemed to signify nothing, goes, this was an immersive experience. As far as “theatre” goes, however, it is really difficult to comment on the merits, or otherwise, of this particular evening, as though it yielded anything that we might call theatrical entertainment. The blurring of boundaries between performer/non-performer, the quality of set, refreshments, make up and costuming, and the standard of the performative “turns” that were given, made this an enjoyable experience in much the same way that attending an amateur panto is an enjoyable experience – and I say this with the utmost sincerity. The whole thing was an entertainment, of sorts, and there was some fine company; I just don’t think that the disparate elements of this production pulled together to form a whole that titillated the spectator for the intended reasons. The project was perhaps not experimental enough, although it seemed to think that it was quintessentially avant-garde, shocking even, not mentally-stimulating enough, and not theatrically-forthcoming enough, to challenge an experienced/intelligent audience. It would be very interesting to know what exactly the “aesthetic vision” that fuelled this production was, as no coherent vision or purpose shone through, which was a shame as, on paper, this promised to be a theatre academic’s paradise. The Salon Project was, I’m afraid, a dilution and mismanagement of some, essentially, intellectually exciting and potentially aesthetically divine ideas.