Sensory Labyrinth Theatre: Applied Immersive Theatre for Community Building
This research considers the potential of Sensory Labyrinth Theatre (SLT) bringing about communitas, by asking which experiential elements of this immersive theatre method contribute to its emergence. To facilitate this investigation, a training was conducted at Wits University in September 2017, which resulted in the co-creation of the SLT performance entitled Many Holograms of Me. Data was gathered from both performers and spectators throughout the process, and analyzed through the lens of Josephine Machon’s extensive theory on immersive theatres and Victor Turner’s definitions of communitas. The main themes that surfaced following the data analysis were: the senses; awareness of self and presence in the moment; language and conversation in the encounters; journey; and connection.
‘The world would be a richer place if we knew that when we meet a person we are about to enter a labyrinth, where we cannot ask for maps or itineraries from travel agencies or behavioral psychologists or politicians.
If you do not get lost, you do not find yourself.’
Enrique Vargas (cited in Pagliaro, 2016, 55, transl. by researcher).
Spectator, Many Holograms of Me (2017)
This research aims to explore Sensory Labyrinth Theatre (SLT), with a focus on the experiential elements of SLT which contribute to the emergence of communitas. To this effect, the creative research consisted of an SLT training and a performance which was co-created with the participants, entitled Many Holograms of Me.
SLT is an immersive form of applied theatre created by Iwan Brioc and inspired by Enrique Vargas and his work with Teatro de los Sentidos (Theatre of the Senses). In SLT ‘the audience is invited to experience the piece from within through a sensorial journey devised by the performers.’ (Bird-Shaped Theatre, 2015). Individual spectators travel through the play ‘and along the way encounter moments with the performers/inhabitants of the labyrinth, leading to an awakening of the senses and a heightened sense of presence and connection.’ (Bird-Shaped Theatre, 2015). Sometimes a part of this journey takes place through a darkened space, or blindfolds are used, in order to enhance the other senses and add to the immersive dimension of the performance.
After meeting Iwan Brioc and participating in an SLT training in 20121, I was drawn by the method and by the field of Applied Theatre, subsequently continuing to learn and work as an applied theatre practitioner. While some of the Applied Theatre forms are effectively used for community engagement and community building, SLT is not widely known as one of the methods for this kind of work. Practicing and exploring SLT for the past five years has led to a desire to investigate the notions of individual experience, shared experience and communitas in SLT, and how the method could be used for community building.
In terms of the structure of this research paper, the first three sections cover the context and problem statement, the research questions and the rationale for the research. It continues with the theoretical approach which examines topics such as immersive theatre, SLT and communitas. In the creative research methods section, the training and performance methods are detailed, as well as the methods for data gathering and analysis. The data analysis section includes the thematic analysis of the relevant data. The research paper is completed with a strengths and limitations section and the conclusion.
Context and Problem Statement
In his description of Sensory Labyrinth Theatre, Iwan Brioc talks about the connection between SLT and communitas:
'One function of this technology is to support the emergence of ‘communitas’ - the quality, first described by anthropologist Victor Turner, without which community is just a term to describe a group of people and not a feeling of common humanity with a shared meaning within that group of people. Sensory Labyrinth Theatre has the capacity to bring about ‘communitas’, a unifying sense of meaning from having touched together the ineffable mystery of our being, undermining any cultural, religious or ethnic barriers that otherwise divide us.' (Brioc, n.d.).
Through this research and the SLT performance that was created, I intended to identify what experiential elements of SLT bring about communitas and attempted to articulate how this might be achieved.
What experiential elements of SLT contribute to communitas being a result of SLT performance among audience and performers?
How do individual experiences in SLT result in a shared experience between performers and spectators?
What is the significance of communitas in SLT work?
This research not only looks at the use of an immersive theatre form as applied theatre, but in seeking to deepen the understanding of shared experience and communitas in this context, it also points towards its potential use with communities or for community building.
This section describes the theoretical approach which was used to support this research. It concerns immersive theatre and in particular SLT, along with theoretical considerations of the latter. Definitions of communitas and various types of communitas are also reviewed, as well as how community might derive from it.
Sensory Labyrinth Theatre is situated within the broader framework of immersive theatre approaches:
‘Immersive theatre is discernible as that practice which actually allows you to be in the 'playing area' with the performers, physically interacting with them. […] The direct participation of the audience member in the work ensures she or he inhabits the immersive world created. This live(d), praesent experience, the participant's physical body responding within an imaginative environment, is a pivotal element of an immersive experience and a defining feature of immersive theatre.’ (Machon, 2013, p. 67-68).
In immersive theatre the boundaries between performer and spectator are blurred and reinvented. The ones between performance space and everyday space may be unclear. The spectator may be entirely surrounded by the world of the performance, is active, interacts with the performers and explores the space. The experiences are usually multi-sensory and they can take place outside or in unconventional spaces (Machon, 2013; White, 2012).
One of the main themes of SLT is the metaphor of the labyrinth. Described by Brioc as a ‘uni-circular path [in which] there is no goal and no wrong turns to negotiate’ (2010, 39), it provides the spectator with moments of encounter with actors who ‘use their presence to bring the visitor to the present moment’ (Brioc, 2010, 39), thus experiencing change on a cognitive level. Enrique Vargas speaks of the labyrinth as a place of getting lost and finding oneself, of discovering ‘where we are and who we are’ (cited in Pagliaro, 55). Both descriptions situate the labyrinth as a liminal passage that one enters and then exits transformed, referred to by Victor Turner as a ‘crossing of a threshold which separates two distinct areas, one associated with the subject’s pre-ritual or preliminal status, and the other with his post-ritual or postliminal status.’ (1982, 25).
Turner created ‘definitions of the relationships between ritual, community and the potential for change inherent in ritual action’ (Kuppers, 2007, 21). He describes communitas as a deep personal interaction, a liminal state in which people can be liberated of social distinctions in a joint experience (Kuppers, 2007; Turner, 1982). It can be a moment of clear shared understanding on an existential level, a moment in which all problems feel like they could be resolved (Turner, 1982). This type of communitas is referred to as spontaneous communitas, with Turner (1982) describing two other types: ideological communitas, representing the concepts which aim to explain that deep personal interaction, and the subjects’ memories of the experience; and normative communitas, a structured system in which a group tries to maintain the spontaneous communitas and the relationships that were formed. However, while a social structure tends to exclude based
on social distinctions, communitas is inclusive and thus represents a contrast and an alternative to social structure (Turner, 1982).
Thus, a connection achieved through joint experience could potentially activate a sense of community, as stated by Helen Nicholson: 'a deeper sense of belonging to a community [...] derives from shared interpretations of experience' (2005, p. 94). Recognising one's own experience in others' and sharing an interpretation and understanding of their values and stories can lead to the construction of communities of identity (Nicholson, 2005).
Creative Research Methods
The aim of this research was to create a Sensory Labyrinth Theatre performance, as a result of a training with actor and/or non-actor participants, and subsequently address the notions of individual experience, shared experience and communitas in a focus group involving some of the participants and spectators, as a means to locate and articulate through which experiential elements SLT may bring about communitas.
The creative research comprised of three phases. The first two phases took place over six consecutive days, with the first phase consisting of the training in Sensory Labyrinth Theatre and a collective creation of the path that the spectators went on. In terms of data collection, feedback from participants was recorded during moments of reflection after activities representing key elements of the method. Phase two started with a dress rehearsal which gave the training participants their first experience of performing SLT for people outside of the training, and concluded with one performance. In this phase the data collection involved both training participants and spectators, with the latter leaving feedback informally during a moment that was integrated at the end of the performance. The performers gathered afterwards and some of this feedback was read to them, after which they got a chance to reflect themselves on the experience, with these reflections being recorded as well. Finally, the third phase consisted of a focus group.
The SLT training represents a series of journeys for the participants, building up to and mirroring the journey that the spectators undertake themselves. Some of the key elements of this training, which were developed by Brioc, are: Journey Into Now, which allows one to create an installation of their own journey from birth to the present moment; Sensory Journeys, the first exercise, done in pairs, where participants go through an individual experience of sensory
exploration of the space; Synaesthetic Poetry, a writing exercise covering all the senses through the memory and imagination of the participants; and Sensory Experience, in which two groups perform an SLT experience for one another, with the two sometimes forming the basis of the final SLT performance. The latter activity did not take place, due to the small number of training participants. A detailed training plan is available in Appendix 1.
Fifteen spectators participated in the resulting SLT performance entitled Many Holograms of Me, entering the performance one at a time every five minutes. The performance consisted of five different moments, each performed by one of the trained participants, and a moment of reflection at the end. For a brief description of the performance see Appendix 2.
In SLT both the performers and the spectators undertake journeys, potentially transformative passages from one point to another, with the performance being a representation or an echo of what the whole process is for the performers. While the performance is just a part of the process, performers do not go through it themselves, thus only having an idea of what the experience might be. Being a collective creation of the performers, it is an experience that they share with the spectators, usually in one-to-one encounters. This type of encounter and human interaction provides connectivity which is often missing from everyday life (Machon, 2013). At the end of the performance, spectators leave their messages that are later read to the performers. This exchange creates reflection moments for the performers, in which shared meaning-making can take place.
Each participant performs one scene for as many times as there are spectators, thus giving the performance a ritualistic aspect. The two journeys of the performers and spectators, the ritualistic manner of SLT, and the metaphor of the labyrinth situate the experience in a liminal space, a state of being in-between, in which all of the people involved find themselves at some point or throughout the performance. It is in this space, and in the sharing of this space, that there is the potential for communitas to emerge, for the feeling of solidarity and togetherness.
Taking place one week after the performance, the focus group included three performers and one spectator. It allowed its participants to share their experience on yet another level and address topics such as the relationship between performer and audience, and notions of connection. Data was gathered from the focus group, the feedback from the spectators, and the reflections of
the performers during the training and after the performances, and a thematic analysis of the data was carried out.
A digital platform was created for the examination of the process, which includes training plans, photographs, and other materials created during the training (e.g. creative text written by the participants, feedback from the spectators, description of the performance). This website will be made available to examiners and faculty members. Written consent was obtained from participants for the use of the materials. Some of the materials were shared on relevant websites and social media, such as those of Drama for Life and Bird-Shaped Theatre.
This section presents the findings from the data collected during the SLT training, and during and after the Many Holograms of Me performance, exploring the different themes that unraveled as a result of the experiential elements of SLT, and how these themes may be relevant to the potential emergence of communitas. Through a process of thematic analysis, the following relevant themes were identified from the data sources mentioned in the previous section: the senses; awareness of self and presence in the moment; language and conversation in the encounters; journey; and connection.
One of the main themes which was discussed revolved around the use of the senses, a central theme in SLT practice. During the training, participants mentioned an awareness, awakening or heightening of their senses, which in some cases came through taking away the sense of sight through closed eyes or blindfolded activities:
‘I discovered a lot of things by sense of touch, rather than seeing. You get to experience much more. More senses are awakened.’ (Participant 3);
‘Even if I close my eyes I notice the light. It gets more dark if there is someone in front of me […]. Even the smell, like the sense of smell is more heightened. I can smell my surroundings.’ (Participant 1);
‘I didn’t know how water felt like.’ (Participant 5).
Through an experiencing of one’s own senses, participants could then be more aware of how those senses could be used in the performance. Speaking of improving the upcoming public performance, Participant 3 described his experience of the rehearsal as a way to ‘make the
experience better, for me to understand what I think I could offer for these people and what senses I am heightening for them.’.
The theme of senses came up in the spectator messages as well:
‘I was forced to rely on my senses to make it through.’ (Spectator 2); ‘I also learnt to pay attention to sounds.’ (Spectator 6);
‘There is nothing like touch when the struggle for freedom has imploded.’ (Spectator 12);
‘I went through a sensory experience. My senses were awakened, was aware of everything in that space. […] we forgot that all the senses take part in your performance.’ (Spectator 11).
This is what two performers and the spectator had to say about the senses during the focus group:
‘The whole process was quite symbolic and I feel it was spiritual. Yeah, you know, you feel connected to all the senses and you just want to be. You just want to be.’ (Participant 2);
‘I felt my senses heightened […] There’s different energies and levels and then…. Even to use the senses, I wasn’t aware about the senses, that the senses can do such wonders. […] I’ve discovered now it’s like a sense of healing in a sense, cause now I rely on my senses
I was like being a blind man, but then it’s a sense of healing, every time I get to use my senses it’s like I’m reusing or re-awakening some of the unused muscles or senses if I may say.’ (Participant 1);
‘I had this, you know, amazing experience, sort of sensorial experience with my senses.’ (Spectator 1).
From the above quotes, there is evidence that the participants and spectators engaged in multi-sensory experiences, which opened the possibility ‘for a new protocol of interaction and exchange to establish itself, reconnecting an individual with her or his own body as much as connecting an individual with other bodies.’ (Machon, 2013, 80). The interaction and exchange that lead to this connection will be detailed further below.
Awareness of self and presence in the moment
Another theme that followed was an awareness of self and the presence of oneself in the moment, described as ‘the moment you become part of the moment’ (Participant 4) or simply having to ‘be in the moment and flow with whatever is happening’ (Participant 5). This presence in the moment along with the interaction between performer and spectator contributed to the awareness of self:
‘That process of you becoming more connected to yourself in those decisions that you made’ (Spectator 1);
‘I’m also more aware of myself now.’ (Participant 2);
‘To be free is to know yourself for the first time.’ (Spectator 12).
The spectator in the focus group referred to the connection between presence and the senses, and that feeling of presence continuing even after the performance:
‘You’re so deeply in that moment because, and also when you are blindfolded, you are more present which I’m sure is part of the purpose. You just have to be present.’ (Spectator 1);
‘I think it was that release from the blindness back into seeing, but still in a way being present in some kind of sensorial thing, so even the writing’ (Spectator 1).
While a spectator’s actual physical presence and interactions with the space and the performers are a certainty in SLT, the presence in the moment comes from the spectator being ‘anchored and involved in the creative world via her or his own imagination’ (Machon, 2013, 62).
One of the elements that triggered the imagination was the perception of the different senses as well as a fusion between them, which led the spectator ‘to feel the ideas and states of the performance in the moment’ (Machon, 2013, 80).
Language and conversation in the encounters
The next theme emerged from both performers and spectators to describe the qualities of the encounters between two people in SLT, whether during the training or the performance. The concept of a language in the absence of words appeared, in some cases this being a sensory language, which lead to conversation/dialogue taking place:
‘We started having a language of like, if I need to step up then he would actually lift my arms or something. We started having a dialogue without speaking, a non-verbal dialogue.’ (Participant 3);
‘People reveal themselves without even saying a word.’ (Participant 3); ‘…the conversation of the silence... ’ (Participant 4); ‘And you had this language like [sounds].’ (Participant 2);
‘That translates directly into me because of the touch.’ (Participant 3);
‘It was also a beautiful conversation to have with him [...] there was a hand every now and again coming into that conversation as well, so it was like a punctuation.’ (Spectator 1);
‘Responding. […] attuning in creative response.’ (Spectator 8).
Victor Turner suggests that communitas can ‘emerge from dialogue, using both words or non-verbal means of communication, such as understanding smiles, jerks of the head, and so on, between us’ (Turner, 1982, 58). With each exchange and each conversation a new language had to be found, with both performer and spectator having to respond to each other:
‘It was an enriching experience and also how different every single person was, just by being, in the space, and how that person without saying anything guided me also to do what I actually did.’ (Participant 4);
‘It was an experience to meet every single person and welcome them in and how different they were and how that changed my experience.’ (Participant 4).
These accounts of the interactions that provided the potential for change, underline the transitional quality of SLT moments, which, along with the entire journey, are situated in a liminal space.
Journey and liminality
The SLT performance usually takes the shape of a journey for its spectators, and it was framed as one for Many Holograms of Me, with spectators starting the performance by receiving a suitcase. The theme arose from the spectators, in the context of the performance and beyond:
‘The rope I followed was like my journey but where? [...] To unfolding my journey which was dark throughout, my hands getting cleansed, my legs and feet wondering which way to go.’ (Spectator 7);
‘You’re enabling others’ creativities, enabling others’ journeys.’ (Spectator 1);
‘I’m definitely taking what I have experienced here to my journey as an actress.’ (Spectator 11);
‘Thank you for the journey...’ (Spectator 1).
For the performers, the journey also included the training. However, they did not only refer to the idea of the performance being a journey for the spectators, but also referred to their encounters with them as journeys:
‘…especially in my journey what I do is I let them take charge of the string and once they go somewhere halfway and then I take over, in order just to keep the journey moving…’ (Participant 3);
‘You could tell who is where in their life in their journey.’ (Participant 3);
‘I could feel how the person sort of like changed. Or went through some kind of change from there to letting them go. I could actually sense that. [...] And I also changed. With every single journey with them something inside me also changed. And it was amazing for me how you can connect with someone that you don’t know.’ (Participant 4).
The performers here allude to the liminal space in which the spectators find themselves, and the transitions the spectators go through during their journeys. At the same time, the performers find themselves in a constant state of in-between, with each encounter possibly provoking changes for themselves as well. The performers do not get to experience the SLT performance as spectators, and their experience is restricted to the moment that they perform over and over again with/for the different spectators, which is the journey that they take with them and/or take them on. Thus, the
whole journey for the performer could be the sum of all these different encounters, with each in turn intending to reveal different facets and reflections of themselves. This speaks back to the title of the performance, which came from a fragment of the text a participant wrote during the training: ‘a kaleidoscope of many holograms of me’.
Connection was one of the themes that was captured throughout the research project. Participants described it in different terms, such as harmony and balance between them; trust2; having a common rhythm and flow; connecting to each other; and being one. During the training this connection was established through one-on-one exercises through which trust was built as well as a sense of knowing each other better:
‘So from The Gaze everything just connected. I got to see her, I didn’t just see her, I got to know her a bit as a person.’ (Participant 2);
‘I felt like we know each other.’ (Participant 1).
Different participants expressed similar thoughts about the idea of two people becoming one. According to Turner (1982, 47), this experience of unity between two people extends to the feeling that others are also a part of being one, and this feeling is one of the qualities of communitas:
‘At some point you were one entity […] so you ended up just one thing.’ (Participant 6);
‘It brought us to one thing because we can gel […] we end up becoming one so we are like comfortable. Ok, if you know, like… We make it gel, we make it work.’ (Participant 7);
‘We’re sort of one in the moment.’ (Participant 3); ‘You are like becoming one’ (Participant 1).
The training and co-creation of the performance provided the connections and links between the different performers, between different moments of the performance, and between performer and performance:
‘The training helped a lot to become part of the performance. If we didn’t have that training before, we wouldn’t have had that flow of all of the five of us in different spaces and how it actually connected us. So we were connected and then we could go out.’ (Participant 4).
This preparation and relationships that were formed in turn lead to the ability of the performers to connect to the audience - ‘I could connect with the people that were coming in.’ (Participant 2), and for the audience to connect with the performers:
‘I really felt held as a spectator and really really did feel the sense of connection, in terms of with the individuals that I met. And then those that I didn’t see but felt. Each space I felt welcomed, seen, witnessed.’ (Supervisor).
While the presence in the moment led to an awareness of self, the shared experience taking place in the moments of encounter and conversation between spectator and performer led to a connection between them and to a deeper connection to the self. In a sense, connecting to the self was also a part of the joint experience:
‘So there is that deep connection at the time, but… and like right now, I’m feeling like ok I’m connecting with people that I’ve just met, right? So there’s a sense of I’m connecting, but on that day itself, beyond the connections that I was feeling within the labyrinth it stopped there in a sense. […] Maybe I was connecting more with my inner self afterwards […]’ (Spectator 1);
‘To be able to connect with so many different people that I didn’t know made me definitely more connected to myself also, to who I am and what that connection can actually […] how I can give it back, not necessarily to those people that I met, but every single other person that I meet after that. And how I really, I looked at them in a different way, cause I felt more connected to who I am and what I can actually contribute.’ (Participant 4).
What the spectator outlines here is the quality of live and lived performance of SLT, in which the event itself is fleeting and all about the moment, but there is a lasting ‘embodied memory of the event’ (Machon,2013,44). This momentary aspect also characterizes the experience of spontaneous communitas, while the memory of communitas is present in ideological communitas (Turner, 1982). Thus, following Victor Turner’s theories, one can conclude that spontaneous communitas took place during the SLT performance, while the focus group, without being an element of the SLT methodology, provided the space for ideological communitas to arise.
Furthermore, the participants’ desire to multiply SLT and collaborate in this respect could form the basis for normative communitas:
‘And I am thinking of doing this in my area, maybe with the kids.’ (Participant 2);
‘I think it would be really something amazing in the township schools for them to experience. It is something that I think I would like to embark on.’ (Participant 2).
Finally, another element of spontaneous communitas is the interaction between two people as they are, ‘free from the culturally defined encumbrances of [their] role, status, reputation, class, caste, sex or other structural niche’ (Turner, 1982, 48), or as one participant stated after the SLT performance:
‘So, as much as we are all different, we’ve got different personalities, cause it’s so interesting how you could like identify different personalities from different people, but to
me it came to one thing […] that at the end of the day we are people, and that, you know, that human significance […] cause you know most of the times we are all about race, gender or whatever, you know […] this actually […] made me realize that at the end of the day actually we are all people and we’ve got that […] common connection.’ (Participant 5).
SLT takes spectators on a journey in which they become more aware of themselves through heightened sensory encounters with the performers, in which dialogue happens in languages beyond words. The re-connection to self is aided by the liminality of the journey and the connection and trust that takes shape between audience member and performer, and its occurrence for both adds to the qualities of shared experience beyond the sensory theatrical moment. The exchange further allows for the differences between the two to dissipate and for communitas to be experienced.
Through this research, the experiential elements of SLT leading to the experience of communitas among audience and performers have largely been indentified. However, it leaves questions regarding the potential of shared experience and communitas between spectators, in the context of SLT being an individual experience. Also, while the presence of communitas in SLT opens up possibilities for its use as an applied immersive theatre form for community building, this topic could be further explored.
Limitations and strengths
This research is innovative in that it approached a relatively unexplored subject and method. The researcher’s extensive experience in SLT provided a sound framework for the training and performance to take place. The creative part of the research was essential in testing the experiential elements of SLT, as well as providing the possibility of communitas to be experienced. Another strength was the use of varied methods of data gathering over the course of the research, which complemented each other. The value of the method was identified by both performers and spectators, along with a desire to further multiply SLT into various communities, and potentially collaborate in doing so.
Time proved to be one of the limitations of the research, due to various factors such as participants’ punctuality, and the lengthy process of transforming the space through an installation. More time to refine the performance moments could have created even more meaningful interactions and connections during the performance. The number of participants in the training
was quite small compared to other SLT projects undertaken in the past, which led to the decision of having one performance instead of two. Two performances would have allowed for more spectators to take part in the focus group, and for notions of shared experience and communitas to be explored among the spectators. Finally, due to the scope of this research, an investigation of how communitas can contribute to community-building could not be addressed in-depth.
If meeting a person can be compared to entering a labyrinth, as Vargas (cited in Pagliaro, 55) suggests, then the opposite could also hold, as entering a labyrinth represents a series of meetings and connections with different people and with the self. It is this dual process that was a point of significance throughout the course of this research.
SLT is an immersive theatre method in which spectators journey alone through the liminal space of a theatrical labyrinth, having a personal experience in which they become more aware of and re-connected to their senses and their selves. This occurs through trust and connection in the moments that they share with the performers, who themselves experience a profound awareness of self. The encounter and the conversation it entails, as well as the shared understanding of the individual connection, foster the experience of communitas.
The research has mostly addressed the questions that were posed. However, one question that lingers is the potential of communitas being experienced among spectators, even though they experience the journeys on their own and do not usually encounter each other. One could argue, though, that while theirs is not a joint experience, they could share understanding on the level of ideological communitas. This could be a potential path for another research journey.
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Appendix 2 – Performance Description
Many Holograms of Me took place on September 16, 2017, at Wits University. The spectators arrived at the Wits Art Museum Café where they were greeted by the researcher and informed about the research, as well as given participant information sheets and consent forms to fill in. From there, they waited to be picked up, one by one, by the first character, a mysterious poet who would only talk to them in verse, inviting them on a journey by giving them a suitcase. The spectator walked alone with the poet, listening to his words and carrying the suitcase. The poet’s journey with the spectators ended at the door of the Wits Nunnery, with the rest of the encounters happening inside.
Crossing the threshold from outside to inside, from light to darkness, the spectators walked through a dark corridor by themselves and, passing different smells, they reached a checkpoint. There, a woman asked them what weighs them down. It was a moment of confession, but also one of offering something in return for passage. In the end spectators had to leave the suitcase, symbolically leaving behind what weighed them down. The language here was of weight and weightlessness.
Following a rope, spectators reached a space where the next performer came out of the darkness, inviting them to a small space with a piano. There, sitting down, whether they could play the piano or not, spectators could create music, with the performer dancing in response.
The hand of a woman waited underneath the cloth, inviting them to the following moment, in which a small light and a birdcage transformed the space into a bigger cage. The spectator had a short poetic conversation with the performer, about the senses, before being invited to put on a blindfold and pass through a door, into the unknown. However, the true language of the encounter was that of light and shadow, of sight and darkness.
A multi-sensory moment followed, were most of the senses were engaged, through a sculpting of hands and of clay, and a play with sounds, completed with the spectators feeling a sudden rush of water over their hands. Afterwards they were guided outside and asked to open their eyes, taking off their blindfolds. Paper, pens and crayons awaited them in a space where they could leave a message behind, the instruction given being ‘leave a message to us’.
My first encounter with Sensory Labyrinth Theatre came about in 2012, in Belgrade, Serbia, in one of Brioc’s trainings called Metamorfoza (Metamorphosis), with people from several European countries participating. In the following years I worked on various other projects with Brioc as part of the Republic of the Imagination, an international network of organisations and applied theatre practitioners. I also collaborated again with about a third of the participants of Metamorfoza. I believe this was due to a range of factors including: the existence of the network; being involved in Brioc's projects together; a desire to make SLT again; and also a sense of friendship and of creating something together in Metamorfoza.
In one of these collaborations from 2014, community artists and applied theatre practitioners gathered in a small town in Italy in order to create an SLT performance for the local community. By involving the local youth orchestra and members of a literary society in moments of our creative process, and using the streets and the main square in the performance, we managed to achieve a connection with the community. With spectators finishing the performance at different times, even an hour or two apart, we were surprised that at the very end more than half of the audience were waiting for us in the main square to thank us, despite the play ending at night and in the rain. This revealed to us a significance for the spectators beyond the performance, and a connection between us and them beyond the traditional performer-audience relationship.
With this in mind, but also noticing spectators’ strong reactions to their individual experiences, I decided to investigate what qualities of the individual experience of SLT transform it into a collective experience as well.
The theme of trust developed gradually throughout the process, with the participants first trusting themselves through the embodied exercises - ‘you learn to trust your body’ (Participant 5), then through a series of activities learning to trust and feel safe with each other:
‘Wherever he took me I felt safe.’ (Participant 4);
‘The training made us become physical, trust each other.’ (Participant 2);
‘For me leading and being lead in certain instances felt the same. Because while I was leading I also discovered and I was just hoping that you’ll feel safe.’ (Participant 4).
Apart from leading to a reliance on the other senses, taking away sight also placed participants in situations in which they required to trust each other: ‘with the exercise with the eyes closed it came down to trust’ (Participant 2).
Trust between participants grew progressively throughout the training:
‘At the beginning when we started I was so uncomfortable with so many things and now it’s just so easy to touch another person and let them into your personal space, feeling safe doing that’ (Participant 2);
‘So we had to go through all of those exercises to trust one another for the betterment of the show on Saturday. It was really trust I think.’ (Participant 2).
It prepared them for the interaction with the spectators by placing them in both roles on both sides of an encounter, thus allowing to meet spectators with empathy and to take care of them throughout the exchange, as one spectator suggests:
‘I’m sure that your experience with your eyes closed was very important so that you would have empathy for us. And I did feel that empathy […] I felt looked after which was very… it was very important and it felt precious. That you regarded us as precious and important enough to look after. So even though being blindfolded is so hard, and that for me it’s about control and not trusting, I still knew that I was in an environment where I could trust the people who, you know… who were leading me, helping me, playing with me, you know, whatever it was. So yeah, that was wonderful, thank you.’ (Spectator 1).
Spectators referred to the presence of trust during their experience in the messages that they left at the end:
‘Dark stretched me to trust in something I could not have anticipated.’ (Spectator 4); ‘I learnt to trust other people to guide me through the unknown.’ (Spectator 6);
‘I have to trust & learn to trust more. Thank you for guiding me.’ (Spectator 1); ‘A dance of trust and curiosity of attention and attentiveness.’ (Spectator 8).