ART OF LISTENING, ART OF JOY

I’ve been thinking a lot about listening. About being heard and being seen and being acknowledged. About the ways that the world trains us to be dismissive and solipsistic and blasé.

It’s been a hard year. It’s been a hard year for nearly everyone I know – illnesses and breakups and deaths and accidents, but more than that, a sort of heavy, anxious, directionless malaise. A sense that everything just feels too much. A sort of global exhaustion. And I’m finding it seeping into the way I view art.

During Melbourne Festival, I was also shooting student shows at a drama school. I went from Taylor Mac one night to Titus Andronicus the next, and sitting there, as Lavinia was dragged offstage to be raped, as the boys playing Demetrius and Chiron fist-bumped in glee as she moaned and staggered with blood-soaked pants and a severed tongue, I felt so, so tired. I thought of the #metoo campaign, of the hundreds of women I knew talking about how nobody had stepped in to stop the jokes and the lingering touches and the groping. I wondered why anyone would do Titus now, with staging that forced the audience to sit still and shut up and take it while rape and murder cantered across the stage. I left the shoot feeling small and sad and exhausted. In the same fortnight, at a showing for a development piece, the cast performed an emotionally wrought scene of infidelity and trauma, full of abject despair and hurt. In the Q and A following, the director proudly announced that the actors had found a really good process for getting out of that space. I wondered how the audience was supposed to do the same.

I’ve found myself searching for art that does two things – acknowledges that I’m there, and reaches for a space of joy. I don’t mean the sort of jazz-hands-up put-on-a-happy-face ostentation that one finds at a Wiggles concert. I mean the sort of art that looks the horror of the world in the face, and offers out a hand. Makes an offering of goodness. Of kindness. Of love. And in that regard, the programming of this year’s Melbourne Festival felt so timely. Nearly every show I attended or photographed felt as though it was striving for a sort of profound connection. A moment of recognition with the audience. Of simple truth. These works looked back at the faces watching them and said, ‘You’re here, and I’m here, and it’s been hard, and that’s okay. That’s okay.’

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I found myself suddenly and arrestingly part of the joyous chaos that was the Guerrilla Museum’s All of My Friends Were There, an immersive work which saw one audience member bundled off on an adventure while 140 strangers prepared a surprise birthday for them. The audience moved through a series of performances and installations, and came together at the end of the show to throw a giant festival of speeches and cake for the astonished birthday person. I had never in my life been involved in something as unironically nice. Every night, I watched the birthday person watching video messages from their loved ones with baffled wonderment, and then I looked back at the crowd, and all of their faces were just shining. This was a group of people all doing something lovely for someone they didn’t know, and there was a particular kind of camaraderie in all of them, a satisfied sense of a job well done. They toasted their new friends and hugged each other and sang along to ‘Simply the Best’. When Marieke Hardy remarked backstage that she always makes work that puts people in situations that terrify her (namely, being the focus of attention of a group of strangers), I shook my head. No, I said, you’re creating spaces where people can be given attention entirely without judgement. A place of pure celebration without shame.

My contribution to the piece was to run a photobooth using a cardboard cutout of the birthday person. I welcomed audience members, swathed them in all manner of gaudy props and had them pose. What made this experience particularly interesting for me was that I didn’t speak for the whole show. I mimed throughout the performance. This made me realise how much my photography is tied up with talk – when I’m shooting, I prattle mindlessly, give directions and encouragement and adjustments. And suddenly, without that crutch, the experience with the audience became very different. I was suddenly able to observe how adept people were at reading non-verbal communication.

I’m fascinated by how people listen. I know some very good talkers who can’t listen at all – whose need to be foremost in the conversation means that they become performers rather than collaborators. Who don’t realise that listening isn’t the same as hearing another person speak. Good listening is profoundly complex. It requires the ability to simultaneously hear text, read subtext, track physical cues, and tune into what often feels like an almost psychic wavelength of emotion and focus. And so many people are terrible at it.

Most of the audience moved where they were directed. They understood when I intimated that they might be in love with the cutout and laughed at my inane weird-auntie behaviour and thanked me as they left. But at least a third of the people who came in were immediately thrown by my lack of speech. ‘What do you want us to do?’, they’d bark as I placed them in front of the glitter curtained backdrop. I’d start gesturing towards the props table, but they’d barge in. ‘What does she want?’ they’d ask their friends, who grinned at me and looked apologetic. They’d look bewildered as I mimed putting on party hats and get belligerent when they were directed to move. Some of these people were drunk. But many were sober. They’d often react to my silence by loudly talking on my behalf. ‘SHE WANTS US TO HOLD THE CUTOUT’ they’d yell to the group. ‘OOH IT’S THE BIRTHDAY PERSON.’ ‘LOOK, A CAMERA.’ When one man stared straight past me and bellowed ‘I DON’T KNOW WHAT SHE WANTS US TO DO’, I had a sudden, wicked thought: I bet you’d be terrible in bed.

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I was nervous about how Melbourne would receive In Between Two, Joelistics and James Mangohig’s piece about coming from mixed-race Australian families. The work was so straightforward, so simple – two men just telling stories, with a little projection and rapping thrown in. I worried that it would be dismissed as daggy, as dated. As trite. Instead, and to my great relief, the production earned rave reviews. The audience on the night I saw the show without a camera in hand were leaning forward in their seats, laughing, gasping. Joel and James riffed off the crowd, ad libbed, coloured and characterised the script with the energy of the room. The stories of their parents and grandparents were stories of racism, betrayal, bankruptcy, religion, depression, drug use, abandonment, abuse. But these themes never overwhelmed the fundamental narratives: people just trying their best to make their lives work and to keep their families together. The audience was transfixed. When Joel told the story of his grandfather walking into the banana ripening room at his work, lighting a cigarette, blowing himself up, the audience audibly folded, caved. A ripple of shared grief lapped the walls of the theatre. And there was no schmaltz to that story. Nothing poetic or affected. The script constantly distilled complexity of emotion into elegant, sparse, humorous prose that spoke so clearly it nearly sang. When Joel described the abiding emotion of teenagehood as being one of constant, lingering embarrassment, I felt almost shocked by the accuracy of the description. In Between Two was a celebration, an act of forgiveness, a call to understanding and connection, and a reminder of the clarifying power of music.

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I took my boyfriend to see Two Jews Walk Into a Theatre, where Brian Lipson and Gideon Obarzaneck played their fathers, to both great comic effect and great emotional power. A snapshot: Brian, as his father, leaned back in his chair, reminiscing. ‘I remember Brian coming up to me when he was about five, and giving me a kiss goodnight. I remember, I said to him, ‘You’re a bit old for that, aren’t you?’’ A pause. ‘He never kissed me again.’ And Gideon’s father, coming home to find his nine year old son having neglected his chores in favour of doodling over his mother’s expensive drawing paper. ‘I told him that he was the most cold-hearted person I’d ever met.’ A pause. An intake of breath. ‘Well, I’m sure your son won’t remember that,’ said Brian. The audience gave a beautiful warm sigh, a sort of sad, diluted chuckle. A woman two seats to my left sobbed quietly. On leaving, my boyfriend stared pensively into the middle distance. ‘I’m going to call my dad. And the next time I see him, I’m going to give him a hug and tell him I love him.’ Great art transforms us. Suddenly having insight into your father’s fear of intimacy, making a decision to break that fear down with love – that is an act of transformation.

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I bumped into a friend on a tram. ‘What’s it like, being there for Taylor Mac?’ he asked. I thought for a second. ‘It’s like being in a really lovely cult.’

Taylor Mac understands audience dynamics better than any performer I’ve ever seen. Every second of that twenty-four hours, judy was primed, attentive, rapt, leading the audience through chaos and desire and shame with the most profound delicacy and joy. Taylor knew exactly when to let the audience work out their energy, when to throw the space open for a moment of audacity – a war, a singalong, an ejaculation of streamers. And when it came time to focus the crowd, it was the work of a moment – a chuckle, a breath in, a breath out on a ‘shhh’ – and hundreds of people were pin-drop silent, enraptured.

Australians are not taught how to listen. We are a bawdy bunch. We laugh. We heckle. We talk over each other. We compete for attention. We resent earnestness and intimacy. This is our national character – the beer-swilling larrikin committed to comedic oneupmanship and deeply suspicious of feelings. I’d been in enough stand-up comedy audiences to see these qualities shape the behaviour of a crowd. This show was the first time that I’d seen them expressed in a theatre audience.

Taylor would often choose middle-aged, straight men to bring up on stage. In the spotlight, their instinct was to perform, play for laughs. One such man was being complimented by a woman using typically feminine phrasing (‘So pretty! So beautiful! What a lovely girl!’). He turned out to the crowd, swung his hips, curled his lip. Taylor called out from the audience, ‘You know, you can pretend to be a woman without making fun of women.’ Later, another man pulled up to be a physical representation of the patriarchy latched onto the word ‘gay’ in Taylor’s monologue and threw out a limp wrist, started mincing across the stage. The audience drew in a breath. Taylor sighed. ‘You drunken fool.’

The more this type of thing happened, the more I began the feel the weight of a creeping, collective shame. Several of these people were at the full 24 hours, and I was staggered by how long it was possible to spend in the middle of a ‘radical faerie realness ritual sacrifice’ and not for a second realise that maybe this wasn’t the place to be making fun of gays. This one, sacred place where the queers in the audience could weep and laugh and hug and kiss without fear or shame. Where instead of being sneered at in the shadows, they could be brought into the light.

Taylor reiterated at the start of every chapter that ‘everything you’re experiencing is acceptable’, a mantra that strongly echoed Adrian Howells’ ‘it’s all allowed.’ And yet. It felt like there was a delicate but important line between ‘you’re allowed to feel anything’ and ‘you’re allowed to behave however you want.’ A 24-Decade History of Popular Music was bold and brash and huge, and to work, it required the audience to play along. And sometimes, they didn’t.

Two hours into Chapter IV, Taylor had the audience stand and find a partner of the same gender. The band launched into a cover of ‘Snakeskin Cowboys’ by right-wing musician Ted Nugent, a man who once, in response to accusations of homophobia, began his defence with the words ‘I’m repulsed at the concept of man-on-man sex, I think it’s against nature.’ Instead of having to listen to and recreate the original song, composer Matt Ray took the lyrics and recomposed it, to create a sweet, prom-perfect slow dance. (Listening to the blaring, foot-stomping original having come to the song through the show is quite the jarring experience).

The audience shuffled and giggled, whispering to each other. I saw Taylor notice a straight couple in the front row arm-in-arm, and demand that they separate. ‘Come on,’ judy said. ‘This isn’t what this is for.’ In that moment, Taylor’s voice took on an intensity that I hadn’t heard over the preceding twenty hours of audience wrangling. There was a tiny twinge of the fed-up exhaustion you hear in the voices of parents of toddlers. I trotted around the audience banks, snapping photos of grinning, twittering dancers. Taylor brought Machine Dazzle onto the stage, folded into his arms and addressed the audience. Now that they’d had a verse and a chorus to get the laughter out, they were to take this next bit seriously. To dance tenderly, close, loving. In what had become a recurring motif of the show, Taylor framed this dance as a ritual, a spell, ostensibly to kill Ted Nugent. The subtext was gentler, though. This little same-sex prom was a reclaiming for the queers in the audience, the queers I saw clutching each other with such fierce, visible love. I thought of the same-sex ballroom dancing troupe I’d photographed one night at the Fringe Club the year prior, and how I’d suddenly welled up with tears, realising that I’d never seen a gay couple ballroom dancing. And for the straight people in the audience, especially the straight men, this little song was a time to kick down barriers of physical intimacy. To spend three minutes undoing years of no-homo backslapping, of equating tenderness with sissiness. I wondered how many of the straight men here had ever held another man.

As the music continued, and Taylor crooned, something happened that hadn’t happened before. People didn’t shut up. Taylor asked again for quiet and focus, and it didn’t happen. Even the breath-out-on-a-shh trick didn’t settle the room. Giggles and talking susurrated through the crowd, waves of burbling syllables, and I realised with a sick horror that Taylor had lost the audience. Not all of them, not even most of them, but some of them, and it frightened me – partly because I was exhausted and overemotional, but also because I’d developed an unshakeable belief in Taylor’s ability to hold a room, to hold a community, and people were slipping away. I knew who they were, the ones who were joking and sniggering. They were the new people, the people who hadn’t been here for the previous 18 hours, the people for whom the holiness of the space was invisible, intangible. And they were people like the couple Taylor had just separated, who managed to spend almost the entire 24 hours misbehaving – sniggering and talking and drinking. The white, middle-aged, middle-class people who had snuck back into the audience bank after Taylor had banished them to the suburbs. The people who got pissy when their chairs were suddenly occupied by the tiny handful of people of colour who Taylor had welcomed into the now empty seats. The people who spent 24 hours in the Forum, and who listened to Taylor speak and sing and whisper and cry out invocations for that whole time, and didn’t truly hear a single one of them.

The slow dance continued. I was staring straight at a well known lawyer and the man he was dancing with – the sort of awkward ‘let’s keep our torsos and dicks well away from each other’ dance that Taylor had specifically warned against. The man was talking – not whispering – talking, loudly, even as Taylor asked once more for quiet. I stared at him. He locked eyes with me, and my shut-the-fuck-up-you-rich-fuck-you’re-ruining-this expression slid right off him. He turned to the lawyer, and said, ‘The boys at work’d be thrilled to know you and I were slow dancing! The rumours on Monday’ll be wild!’ And then they both laughed uproariously as Taylor looked out at the audience with eyes whose trademark loving sparkle had wavered.

I was shattered. I wanted to barrel both of them backstage by their collars and hiss ‘Do you really think that here, of all places, is the right place to be making these juvenile homophobic jokes? Don’t you know that there are people in that audience who have never, ever danced together in public, because they’re scared of people like you?’

I stood in the aisle trying not to cry, listening to those men laugh, and all the other people scattered through the audience laughing too, feeling sick. I looked up at Taylor and I thought, ‘we don’t deserve you. We don’t deserve the way you hold us, and the way you try to make us better, and the way you look at every single person onstage with love, even the drunk idiots, even the ones hamming for their girlfriends. We don’t deserve the way you pour out love. We don’t know how to accept it. We make fun of your love because our culture teaches us to be suspicious of kindness and tenderness. We only know how to act out, like schoolchildren. We don’t deserve you.’

I knew that most of the audience was tearing up and getting goosebumps and holding their breath at all the same times as I was. Was even now quietly holding their dance partner and swaying. Many of the people Taylor pulled onstage were giving and generous and kind. When they were dragged up the stairs, they stood, humbled, hushed, awaiting instructions. When Taylor touched them, their eyes lit up. They played their parts with grace and humility – and, in the case of one woman brought up to perform guttural vocals during the 80s section, achieved a level of passion and focus that felt almost transcendent.

But I wondered about the rest. I wondered about those giggles in the margins. I wondered about how we’re not often taught how to listen. Not often taught how to hold space for others. Performance so often asks us to be dumb, mute spectators, and when we’re allowed to react, we feel the need to step into the spotlight. We’re not taught how to endow focus. How to know when we’re not the most interesting person in the room. How to be taught, how to be changed.

And yet. One of Taylor’s skills was the ability to play into the audience’s judgement and grossed-out fascination with the edges of sexual experience. Taylor was beautifully able to take a ridiculous sexual encounter, have the audience in slightly revolted hysterics, and then suddenly turn the story on a knife’s edge, to profoundly humanise the moment. A story about hooking up with a truck driver who offered to remove his teeth would be met with audience hoots, when suddenly:’It was actually wonderful! I highly recommend it!’, Taylor would proclaim. Without a hint of irony. With a smiling, sweet sort of love. Similarly, a story about going home with a man who had to unstrap his loose skin from sudden weight loss became a joyous sexual encounter ‘just like a slip and slide!’ These stories were outrageous, and they provided a beautiful message – no matter how weird you are, you are valid. You are worthy. You can be loved. You are allowed to be fucked.

There were also moments of profound grace. Of pin-drop silence. When Taylor imagined Walt Whitman sitting at the deathbed of Stephen Foster, speaking of burying all those dead boy soldiers lip to ear so that they could always whisper together. Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses, Taylor’s voice pressing on every repetition of the word ‘yes’ like a hand on a heart. The audience providing the repeated ‘ha, ha, ha’ vocals for Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ as the lights shuddered down to a single backlight on Taylor, and then darkness.

And for all the moments of ridiculous audience interaction, there were also smaller, sweeter ones. Right towards the end of Chapter IV, Taylor invited all the lesbians onstage. They passed around beers, lounged in deckchairs and grinned. The Lesbian Avengers’ Dyke Manifesto was read, and at the line ‘We’re not waiting for the rapture, we are the apocalypse,’ the room burst into thunderous applause. At one point, I slid into a chair in the front row and a woman in a hijab turned and whispered to me. ‘Should you be onstage?’ she asked. ‘Because I should be onstage. I was in the toilet when Taylor brought everyone up,’ she said, ‘and I’m too embarrassed to go up now. Plus,’ and here she paused for a second, and ran a finger along her headscarf, ‘I probably shouldn’t be photographed up there.’ I nodded. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I know you should be up there. I see you.’ She smiled. She thanked me. And we held hands.

Later, when Taylor was singing the final song of the show, and the audience was repeating back the chorus over and over – ‘You can lie down, or get up and play,’ and I was trying to sing and shoot and sob all at the same time, she leaned over, and put a hand on my shoulder while the lights went down. I know that others wept on strangers’ shoulders and told secrets to their neighbours and fed grapes to people while they were blindfolded and made all manner of tiny, precious exchanges of human care across the various chapters.

I’m not much of a crier. But I walked backstage when the show was over and wept for half an hour straight. One of Taylor’s crew passed me, smiled, and said, ‘I know. I know.’ In the green room, the team toasted the end of the show with champagne, and I sipped at mine, feeling shattered, exhausted. That night, my housemate found me standing in front of the fridge at 2 am, crying quietly in the watery light. ‘I don’t know what’s going on,’ I said. ‘It’s a feeling I haven’t had in years. It feels sort of like having been at a teenage party, where you desperately want your crush to notice you, and they don’t, and you have to go home alone. I feel strangely bereft.’ The next morning, my boyfriend watched my sudden crying jags with real alarm. I said, ‘It honestly feels like grief. It feels like someone has died.’

In a world that felt so full of horror and cruelty and judgment, Taylor and the Dandy Minions and the whole giant crew of the show had created a space of kindness and acceptance and laughter and truth. A show long enough for complexity and imperfection. A place of recognition. A place where the lifting up of people was to be celebrated. These were the strongest moments of the whole 24 hour spectacle. The moments where those who were not seen and heard were pushed into the light and told that they were good and worthwhile. The moments where people could stop fighting for a second, because in that space, they were important. The moments where Taylor stood onstage and said if you have felt ostracised and ignored and hated and discriminated against, I hear you. I see you. Here is the space for you. Here is the space for you to stand up and be seen and be celebrated and be told that you are loved. You have not been loved enough by the world, but I love you. We love you. You are enough.

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All photos by me.
S x

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