Nat Cursio’s The Middle RooM
On this day, at this time, in this place, it will be just you and I. We will be ordinary and not. —Nat Cursio
In similar fashion to a time capsule, I am writing down what I think Nat Cursio’s The Middle Room, presented by Theatre Works as part of the inaugural Festival of Live Art (FOLA), might be before I see it so as to compare it to the experience of after — Robots in the home and Flying cars by 2010! Really? You can’t be serious? In writing down what I expect, as surmised from interviews and descriptions of the performance, I am laying open my anxieties and smallness where the interactive is called for. The name alone — Festival of Live Art — fills this quiet mouse with dread. Role play? Pick them, over there. Vocalisations? I am mute. Watch me shrink. Audience participation? I take a back seat, the seat furthest from the stage. But when there is no stage in formal sense and one is in someone else’s lounge room of some 13-odd-years, on their own, one highly visible, cumbersome audience member and one performer — what then? The idea of this performance fills me with intrigue, and though my inhibitions are many and I don’t relish being looked at, I am keen to explore and participate and engage with this work, I think, or rather, I hope. My feelings in relation to this are pendulum swing. As I booked the last performance of ten, I have reservations that I will be a poor audience participant for a grand lounge room finale; I feel the weight of own need to perform in this role. And this role, to be performed at 10.30am, is also to be documented, publicly, it transpires, on instagram ("at the conclusion of the performance season a series of images will be exhibited online, as a mini tribute to the participants and the little moments we have built”). I am really starting to second-guess my capabilities, by now, but then, I guess this is what such a 'conversation' is bound to confront. How will each different audience member shape what transpires? Will some be more playful and less inhibited?
Somewhere between Cameron Woodhead’s (The Age review, March 5th, 2014) ‘warning’ to floss and follow the standard Grandmothers’ advice to wear clean underwear and Cursio’s own statement that The Middle Room "is an invitation to notice, to slow down, to forget logic" sits, I anticipate, what I will encounter. To the unknown!
Push me through the door, like a visit to the dentist; I am brave, but not that brave, say my jelly legs and racing heart. Here goes…
A couple of days before the performance, Cursio emails me the address I am to head to: her apartment. I am also asked to let her know if I have any food allergies/intolerances. It has begun, and curiosity is piqued.
This is a performance that begins before you’ve walked through the front door. It begins with the address you are sent: your location, your X marks the spot. Furnished with the kind of details you would send to a friend, local signposts are highlighted: a one minute walk from the train station, a synagogue opposite, the brick colour of the building. I sight the landmarks of my mental map and note that this is one quietly thrilling introduction. Walking into this ‘theatre’ is different to other performances. I take the stairs, as directed, up to the top floor. My tread is silent on the steps, and my heart is galloping. The unknown awaits.
As instructed in the notes, I am to let myself into the apartment-theatre-performance space-cum-doorway-to-alternate-world and to take a seat on the small stool. A moment of panic: or was I to sit on the floor near to the performer on the stool? Have I remembered the rules of ‘play’ correctly? I quietly close the screen door behind me and my eyes adjust to the half-light of the space. I sight the small white stool but a metre from the door and elect to leave my bag just a little way behind me. It slumps to the floor and I immediately second guess my decision: have I placed my bag in the way on the stage? I sit down on the kids’ stool, right next to the performer quietly seated on the floor nearby. All correct thus far. I note my breathing. I wonder if my perfume is too intrusive in the space. I tuck my legs in closer to the stool and I note that I am on the stage. I am the participant not mealy the audience. There is me and there is Cursio, the performer and choreographer of the piece. She is sitting close to me, her eyes downcast. All is still. I am both in her personal space, her home, and I am on her stage, her carpeted, small stage. This is quietly confronting and unlike anything I have experienced. This is 10.30 on a Friday morning. This is a doorway to an alternate world. Outside I can hear the comforting noises from the street: a train rumbling, a car parking, a splintered conversation. There is still a link to the outside. There is still a way out.
Slowly, Cursio begins to make small movements. I am unsure where to look when barrier of stage and formal seating is removed. Does one look directly at their face, into their eyes, or is this too forward, too rude? I settle on feet. Bare feet near to mine. The light overhead is off; the space is dark and a comfort, like the muffled noises of the outside streetscape. This all serves to mask my own intrusion and I am thankful for it. If you think this is all sounding too much about me and not the performer you’d be right for it quickly transpires that what one focuses on is not the warm body of the person nearby but on one’s self. This is a sensory experience for you, the audience member, and an invitation to play and participate. I recall Cursio’s instructions not too worry if I am nervous, as she will be too. She traces the perimeter of the space we are both in with her finger. It makes a reassuring swoosh sound on the wall. I am in a landing. We are. It is being mapped out before me, around me. She traces its shape from the door I entered through in a clockwise direction. I note several closed doors, all white, one glass, off the landing I am sitting in. Cursio traces the wall and door behind me, and I listen to the sound of her finger as it glides over the different surfaces that she is familiar with. Do I turn and look or stay ears pricked? I wonder if the space feels different to her now that I am in it and it is a ‘performance’ rather than a ‘home’. Doors she would normally walk through en route to the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, are now transformed into performance space. I have no idea which door leads where and the Alice in Wonderland effect is heightened. I’ve no idea where I am, even though I saw on the way in; this is exciting. Cursio negotiates my small bag on the floor that suddenly feels like an elephant in the room. Just as a home has transformed into a stage, a bag has become an elephant, and all on an average weekday morning. This subtle altering of space and sensory perception is what makes this work so clever and intriguing, altering how we see and feel with a minimal amount of fuss.
And then Cursio closes the front door. The sound changes. I feel now the elephant in the room. I am in someone’s home, invited, but alien. I sit up a little straighter on my stool and tuck my hands in close. The sound of Cursio’s feet as she moves across the carpeted floor and explores her own familiar and perhaps now unfamiliar space is enhanced. She gives me a reassuring smile with her eyes and I marvel at her ability to be both welcoming and yet also very much a performer on the stage. There is a barrier, in the best sense of the word. It tells me that I can still hold the comfortable position of Audience and I can step into the role of Participant at my own pace. Or perhaps not at all. I wonder how long other people take to feel comfortable in this space. I wonder how much they do things to govern the performance. I wonder, too, if I'd respond differently if I were not in a domestic space. Am I governed by the unwritten rules of politeness when one enters someone’s home? It is a privilege after all to be trusted to come into someone’s house. Would I be bolder with my own movements if I were in a traditional performance space? Or would I be even more inhibited on a stage?
Without revealing too much of the performance, so as to keep it a surprise for those who have the opportunity to attend it in the future, I was invited to play. To literally and marvelously play. It has the effect of relaxing me immediately. I am invited to play with Lego. I am presented with a small bowl of coloured pieces and Cursio has a small bowl of white pieces. I have safety here and a clear role. She goes first, and I follow. We draw on a green base of Lego with our pieces one at a time, responding to the earlier moves like a children’s game of chess. Our ‘drawing’ from Lego, to me, resembles a little pier with tiers and small platforms that can swing out over the green sea, and it swings outside the framework of the base piece in a pleasing fashion. Cursio has been performing this work this past fortnight, and I think about the other models she will have drawn with other participants. Did we all do similar? Did we all build upwards and outwards? (Cursio is documenting each Lego model made and posting them to instagram. They will serve as portraits of each performance.)
I am also invited to play on an electric keyboard and Cursio moves in response to the notes I awkwardly hit. I alter the setting to trumpet and make high notes and like some fantastical marionette, up go her hands, her fingers pointing to the ceiling. I hit a low trumpet note; down go her hands. She has made herself a series of musical notes; I mentally note another conjuring trick. This feels like the type of game you would play in your home. It is light and uncharted. It is fun. The noise is also a welcome third person in the intimate space. Later in the performance, my shoe, which she had earlier removed, is placed on the keyboard and I am invited to see my shoe in a new context. Again, so simple and effective. My shoe now fills role as both noise maker/musician and stage prop. Its companion hangs on the wall, hanging from its laces tied in a bow. Inside it, a battery operated candle. One shoe, a musician, and the other, a lamp! Now if only I could remember if it was my left shoe that was an ambience transformer or my right? Which shoe has musical leanings?
Cursio retrieves a small teapot and two cups from somewhere just out of my view, and proceeds to pour me a cup of iced water. Her considered moves make this a performance. Again I am reminded of how the little rituals we perform each day can become or rather, are a dance. Trust is called into play here too. I sip from my cup, holding it in both hands and lo! Cursio has transformed into a mirror. Her movements mirror my own and I feel conscious of my own choreography. I take another sip and try to swallow quietly. My inner objective throughout, it seems, is minimal interference. I take the cup to my lips with one hand, Cursio follows suit. This mirroring of my movements is both disconcerting and playful. It teeters between the two, but never loses balance. This invitation to play is nothing if not brilliantly conceived. Confronting without being ‘in your face’. It is a safe space in which to explore your own response to things. New things and familiar things. To strangers who become familiar. To shoes that reveal musical bent. To the simple everyday ritual of sharing a drink with someone. To noticing the sound water makes as it is poured. It enables you to look at things differently, in a new light, be it your own gestures, as with the cup, which highlights my natural reserve. This must be interesting for Cursio too, watching how each participant responds and seeing what they do, perhaps altering her moves accordingly.
During the performance, which lasts about one hour, Cursio draws my portrait in chalk on a small piece of blackboard. She positions me standing. With one hand extended out before my torso. I note that this will be a hard pose to conjure; foreshortening never was my strength. The other hand she places above my heart, close to my collarbone. I am on edge of nervous giggles. It is, when challenged so, my default setting. I am five again. (What’s that, transformation number 6? I’ve lost count.) My portrait revealed with an 'oh dear' reciprocal laugh, I am to now draw her portrait. She assumes several poses before I realise that I am being asked to place her limbs where I want them. I place her right arm extended out to the side so as not to tackle the issue of foreshortening. I draw something that was I in a life drawing class the tutor would look askance at: I’ve left myself no room for the feet! I’ve hobbled my dancer! I can just fit in her kneecaps. I unintentionally thicken a waist that is not thick, and I shorten an arm that is not short. I anchor my figure by including a suggestion of the door behind her. I shake my head at my efforts, but I am grateful for the opportunity to be at leisure.
It is a simple rendering of body, light, sound, shape, play and connection — both an escape from and a return to the world in which you and I live. —Nat Cursio
It is this chance to play and see things from a new perspective that I am most grateful for and what I am drawn to most and remember from this performance. Cursio's movements, a natural seamless extension throughout, are harder for me to describe because my own focus was so inward. I listened to her feet trace over the carpet, I heard her breathing patterns alter, and I felt her fingers check my pulse. I leave this performance in altered state. In counterweight to my soundless arrival, I open the wire door with too much gesture and it swings and crashes against the brick wall. I emerge fantastically bemused. In the distance, a train hoots. Behind me, the door closes and Cursio goes back to her home.
Notes: All quotations from Nat Cursio's notes on The Middle Room on her website.