becoming friends: a response to Neighbourhood Watch

State Theatre Company SA have done this to me before.

I know I am an audience member, sitting in a theatre. I know they are actors, on a stage.
But Tuesday night, I was with Ana and Catherine on Mary Street, in Budapest (Lally Katz's Neighbourhood Watch): State Theatre Company actors are not actors on the stage. They embody their characters and invite us into their story (Hamlet in 2007, for instance, in which I forgot he was an actor portraying Hamlet, and only saw Hamlet, dying ...).

It is not only State Theatre Company: Windmill took me into the nightmare of Girl Asleep; Bell Shakespeare bring Shakespeare's plays into today's world; Royal Shakespeare took me inside Hamlet's story). So what is it about these productions that strips away the theatre to create a world that audience and actor inhabit together, not just as audience and actor, but as Ana and Catherine, actor and audience both?

In the case of Neighbourhood Watch there are a couple of things that I think created this world for us to inhabit.

The first is the writing. Katz's script contains sparse dialogue, the characters not engaging in lengthy conversation, but clipped dialogue, at times snatches of conversation. And there are no self-exploratory or -revelatory monologues. Katz leaves gaps into which the audience must imagine …

I found this quality in the story of Esther and Mordecai as I wrote my honours thesis last year. With gaps in the narrative, in the dialogue on stage, the author / playwright offers an invitation to the audience to collaborate with him / her to create the full story. The writer's craft is to give their audience enough information to hint at the fuller story, to show it, and then to trust the audience to work with them to fill in the gaps.

Into the gaps of the Esther narrative, the audience creates the details of a trusting relationship of mutual care and reliability between Esther and her guardian Mordecai. We are shown enough in the instructions she follows from him early on to know she has learnt to trust his wisdom. We are shown enough in his coming to her with important information for the king in earlier scenes to know that he has learnt Esther can be trusted to act wisely.

So when it comes to the pivotal scene of Mordecai's entreaty to Esther to act (to take a risk with her own life) on behalf of her people, we have identified deeply with the mutual trust in this relationship, are with Esther and Mordecai on opposite sides of the palace walls, are able to see them and connect with their trust in each other when lives are at stake.

I have only seen it once, and know it far less intimately than I do Esther and Mordecai's story, but Ana and Catherine's story contains gaps, too, into which I felt invited to create the richer story. As the play's run still has a couple of weeks to go, I am not going to discuss the details of the story. But there are gaps in which we work to fill out Catherine's story of the absence of her love. There are gaps in Ana's story of loss and love and marriage. Talking after the show, I discovered that mum and I had filled these gaps differently, and the beauty of story is that each recipient of a story comes to it with their own story, their own imagination, and will connect differently, create different details into the gaps.

Katz doesn't create a mystery-type story: you hardly even realise she is building towards the two 'reveals', because we are invited into the natural unfolding of this friendship, with the gradual sharing of  themselves. As audience members identifying with both Catherine and Ana, you wonder, as you do when you meet a new friend, what is the full story behind that comment, what experience led to that behaviour: where is Martin? Why doesn't Ana have any children? And in the wondering and imagining, you begin to connect, to identify, from the stories you yourself have lived.

The sparseness of detail leaves room for the breadth of stories audiences bring to connect, with the emotion, so that the differences in detail still separate their stories from ours, but in order to allow the stories to stand for themselves as we step back and see you, and me, more clearly.

In Neigbhourhood Watch, the staging of plain ivory houses that gently opened and turned beautifully supported the story. As they opened, we came inside their homes; as they turned, we left Mary Street for a neighbourhood watch meeting, Budapest, small Hungarian towns, the movie theatre. Lighting, including lights within and projections onto the houses created the local chemist, dawn and evening, shadows and openness. We were invited to go with the actors from today into memory, by the subtlest of scenery changes, and the deftness of acting. We didn't need the houses to move much to know where we were.

These changes in scenery were smooth, with actors and stage hands visible but unobtrusively moving behind the main action; the use of lighting minimised the need for more physical changes to be made. This all combined to remove interruptions between actor and audience, thus helping to create that world for us to inhabit together.

The actors. Ultimately, the creation of this world for us to inhabit depends very much on the actors.

The work of the voice and dialect coach gave consistency and authenticity to the spoken language. Clumsy accents were not present, and so did not interrupt our connection.

Clearly the two women in particular embodied Ana and Catherine superbly. They were these women, lost, found. Miriam Margolyes created her younger Ana with changes in voice and body that made me see a young girl before me. Eleanor Stankiewicz entered Ana's story and came to understand her neighbour. At no time during the performance did it feel as though Ana and Catherine's actors were anyone but Ana and Catherine.

And that is the ultimate invitation into the story - embodiment. It is through the surrendering embodiment of the actors into their characters that means that Ana and Catherine themselves invited us into their stories.

The audience has a part to play in the creating of the space between them and actor, this world to inhabit. As much as the actors must authentically embody the characters and their stories, the audience must be present with them. The audience are issued and invitation - but no writer, director, actor can accept it for them.

I felt invited. I was ready to be invited. Accepting, I was drawn in, intrigued, connected, invested in the creating of this storied moment. And the story has become part of me.


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