UnLOCKed interview: Mirror Talk

Today’s feature interview is with Neta Gracewell, co-creator of Mirror Talk, a new production from High Contact Theatre. Neta is the co-founded of the theatre company and is also working on the creation of Junction Theatre (joining cultures through theatre translation). She is currently completing her MA in Advanced Theatre Practice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

An innovative 1-2-1 live performance, it is showing at the Camden People’s Theatre on the 8th and 12th September, with six slots available each day on the hour. The show lasts 30-35 minutes and runs as part of the Form(at) Festival.

I asked Neta to tell us a bit more about Mirror Talk and its genesis. My thanks to her for her time so close to the show’s opening.

How have you found lockdown as a creative artist?

Wow, that’s quite a big question to start with.

I think, first of all as a person, obviously lockdown wasn’t easy. Personally, it forced me (as well as Elysia Qiu, my creative partner for Mirror Talk) to leave in the middle of my masters in the UK and fly back to Israel, not knowing when and how I can get my life back on track. There was a period of a few long weeks where uncertainty bubbled inside me and affected everything. I felt like creativity, concentration and creation were all impossible and unreachable.

Then slowly I started finding little things, possibilities. I was living with my boyfriend in south Tel Aviv, allowed to travel for only 100 metres away from the house because of the pandemic. So I started taking photos of all the things I found that intrigued my in this tiny radius. There’s a lot of street art around, and suddenly I found myself doing street art for the first time in my life – street installations, all inspired by face masks and the new rules Covid-19 has forced on us. Asking political and social questions, being anonymous and allowing random people to interact with my interfering in the public realm.

I grew exhausted, being deprived of real space.

Neta Gracewell, talking about lockdown

Mirror Talk started as a Skype call, as Elysia is in Shenzhen and I’m in Tel Aviv. We were bringing up all sorts of ideas an references, all related to the loneliness of human living, thinking about how the current situation makes it ever more present.

There was a great opportunity to explore performance art, online performance, writing and even games, things I’ve barely touched before. I enjoyed the abundance of creative directions it opened for us. However, communicating through technological means only took its toll. As time passed, as much as we were excited by our progress, I grew exhausted of being deprived of real space.

Not necessarily the black theatre box. Just any space where things can happen. Being in the room. Preferably, with other people; but I would’ve settled even for just a space. Performing the work-in-progress version in Tel Aviv was a huge step, for a moment I felt alive again. Coming back to London and rehearsing at RCSSD was another great leap towards “going back to normal”, even though I know we’re not quite there yet.

Mirror Talk is specifically set up as a 1-2-1 experience. Do you think it will have a new meaning with theatre slowly coming out of a live pause?

I think it most definitely might. As a theatre maker, I always wish to focus on the relationship the performance, and performers, have with the audience. I want to give the audience a gift. I have finally found a way of doing it – putting the audience in the centre, and focusing on that one person, and their experience, from beginning to end.

I think that even when theatres come back, people will still be missing these intimate encounters. Covid-19 has changed us, and these changes are still happening. You see it everywhere. People interact less with each other (as if our addiction to smartphones wasn’t enough). People are, rightfully, scared.

The opportunity to go into a room and experience a moment of shared space with the performer, asking questions about the way we communicate with one another, offering a moment of reflection and perhaps empathy – I think there will still be a place for it.

Please don’t get me wrong, I miss theatre dearly. I will be the first in line to book those tickets when I can (actually already booked for a musical at Southwark Playhouse).

In any case, I am definitely keen to keep exploring this format of 1-2-1 and the possibilities it brings to communicate with the audience on a very specific level.

What can an audience member expect when they enter the space?

The audience is invited into a room where there is a table with several objects, and a mirror. They will hear the voice of the performer coming out of a speaker, and notice that they are alone in the space.

The performer will introduce herself as a worker at iContact start-up. The setting is an exclusive experiment the company is carrying out as part of the development of a new cutting-edge technology, of which more details about are revealed during the experiment. The performer will guide the audience through a series of questions and tasks, all related to eye-contact, all part of the experiment.

The performance is completely participatory and relies on the cooperation of the audience. I think saying more might spoil the experience!

Mirror Talk publicity image by High Contact Theatre

You mention the importance of eye contact. Has the imposed wearing of masks made you evaluate your original feelings about this, and if so, how?

Oh, yes. I think that in general, seeing other people’s faces is so important. The whole essence of face-to-face encounter defines, in a way, our most basic human communication. The current need to wear face masks just takes this fundamental aspect from our lives. It’s harder to recognize people, harder to guess their feelings or notice their reactions to their surroundings.

I also feel that eye-contact is more avoided, although it’s probably the only means we have left to see each other in the public space and communicate. I keep smiling at people, and only then am reminded that they can’t see my mouth at all. But perhaps they can see my eyes smiling. I think wearing face masks makes the need (even craving) for a one-to-one encounter, face-to-face, even more valued and needed. We are more at home, and when we go out, we try to be as cautious as possible, avoiding others…

The face mask is like the symbol of all our new social behaviours, imposed by the current situation. So in a way, it just makes me more passionate about bringing Mirror Talk to audiences; I’m really curious to see how they find it and interact with it.

In general, face masks as an idea, material and new social code has entered our lives quickly and forcefully, and I interrogate my relationship with it all the time with my street art work, using the disposable blue face masks as the main material.

Where did the idea for Mirror Talk originate from?

I think Elysia and I both felt like there is something inherent in our modern society and way of living that lacks connection. We both thought about technology-driven communication as a phenomenon that fuels this, and realized lockdown is going to impose a greater challenge to people from this aspect.

We started exploring themes of togetherness, distance, intimacy, with the idea of technological means always in mind and practice. We explored between us all sorts of communications – only through voice messages, sending songs to each other, even written letters (!).

We used every app you can imagine: Emails, Whatsapp, Telegram, WeChat, Skype, Messenger, Google Drive, and practiced writing and making short videos as prompts to each other, task-based performance, a little improvisation. Whatever was possible and felt accessible to us.

It took us a while to settle on the theme of eye-contact as the main symbol of connection and communication we will focus on.

We also noticed that along the way, all the versions we tried on friends had some sort of reflective manner to them; putting the audience in the centre, helping them go through some sort of process… and we realized this is probably also something that would manifest itself somehow in our final version (it’s funny to say final version, as we still consider it, in a way, a work in progress. Every iteration and every encounter with audiences changes it a little and will continue changing it).

A lot of the Form(at) Festival is utilising digital as well as live performance, or instead of. Was this something you ever considered for Mirror Talk?

Yes and no. From the very beginning Elysia and I insisted on making a performance that will happen in a live, physical space. We explored all sorts of online performances and references, and although many were very inspiring, we came to the conclusion that anything that happens online and is dependant on you using your laptop or phone, is bound to compete for your attention with a million other things.

You might say, ‘yes, this is exactly the challenge!’, but I didn’t want this to be our challenge. We wanted to create a whole and full experience for our audience, even immersive, if you like, and allow them to take a pause from anything else they’ve been doing and just be part of this experience. Honestly, I don’t think any online performance managed to engage me for more than 10 minutes, and that is although some of them were brilliant. It’s just me.

For me, theatre is first and foremost a physical space.

Neta Gracewell, on digital theatre

It’s also related to the fact we were then taking our third term of our MA in Advanced Theatre Practice at RCSSD online, when all our classmates are spread across the globe, and classes take place on Zoom. I found it extremely difficult to engage in the work, needing to detox from technology every few days. It was consuming all my mental and physical energy and a way I haven’t encountered before.

All the first versions of Mirror Talk (before it even had a name!) were tried out online (since it was the only way we were able to work together and communicate with our cohort and tutors). We did think of making two versions – one that is online and one that isn’t – but eventually we found the way and the justification for this to happen in a physical space, and I am extremely happy and grateful for that.

I think that making it a one-to-one was also a strategic decision, assuming it would still be possible to produce with minimal risk for performer and audience. I think we both wanted to bring people into the space, as much as we wanted to bring ourselves to it. So if it wasn’t possible to perform it, and I am truly grateful for the fact it is, we would have just waited a little longer. Settling on an online version wasn’t enough for this project.

People have probably said it before me in a much better articulated manner, but for me, theatre is first and foremost a physical space.

What is your message to those audiences considering returning to live theatre?

The theatre misses you as much as you miss theatre. Come back – cautiously, considerately, slowly, compassionately – take your time – but do come back. Artists want to make more work for all those wonderful audiences out there.

The pandemic and its many social, political and also very personal outcomes have inspired and will continue to inspire us to ask old and new questions. The theatre is one of the greatest spaces where this dialogue between work, artist and audience can take place. Let’s make it live again.

Logo for the Form(at) Festival 2020

Tickets to experience Mirror Talk are free and can be obtained from https://formatfestival.co.uk/projects/muji-038/.