[2013069] The Smile Off Your Face

[2013069] The Smile Off Your Face

Ontroerend Goed @ State Theatre Company Rehearsal Room

2:00pm, Thu 28 Feb 2013

At the Festival Launch last October, I was delighted to see that Ontroerend Goed were bringing a trio of their immersive performance art pieces to the Adelaide Festival; they were the first three tickets I actually bought. And so it was that I was in the first group of people for the first performance of The Smile Off Your Face; poor timing (and a sleepy haze) saw me running stupidly early, the first to arrive at the little waiting area just inside the Playhouse. A lovely chat with the Festival staff, some friendly words with the other five patrons who turned up (none of whom had taken part in this performance before), and before I knew it I was descending the steps on my way to the STC Rehearsal Room with another punter… the first two people to participate in the 2013 revision of The Smile Off Your Face.

After an amiable chat as we sat across from each other in the low light of the “waiting area” prior to the Smile experience, I offered the woman who had come down with me the first spot; I’ve already experienced this performance, I told her, and I playfully ignored her curious queries as to the nature of the piece. And, as I watched one of the Ontroerend Goed crew quietly bring in a wheelchair and gently introduce themselves to my fellow audience member, the memories came flooding back: The wheelchair. The blindfold.

The binding of the hands.

Oh shit – the binding of the hands. “There’s going to be some light bondage” – that’s what had been whispered in my ear five years ago, and I started remembering the mild sense of (eventually) swallowed panic that had accompanied the initial engagement… and all the other memories that had been rattling around my skull (which were more feelings and broad features, rather than minute details) disappeared in a rush of apprehension.

But I was soon in the wheelchair myself. Comfortable… familiar. The blindfold… yep, I’m good. The binding of the hands again… my heart flutters a little, and I take a deep breath as my wheelchair is pushed, swung around corners…

…and then I hear a looped snippet of PJ Harvey’s Catherine (from one of my favourite albums ever), and I’m instantly at ease.

Just like last time.

So much of the experience is familiar: I’m still lured into a world defined by my lesser-used senses. I drink in the ambient noises that accompany Polly Jean, hearing the woman that preceded me in the temporal distance; I’m left alone just long enough for me to start wondering whether (maybe) I’d been forgotten. The nose-rubbing with (what turned out to be) the “bearded” bloke; taking the left side on the bed again (some habits die hard), with a sensuous female voice whispering in my ear. The tactile double entendre of the carrot and red-lace of Saint Nick… and then the denouement.

The “bearded” man greeted me again, and showed me the Polaroid taken earlier, just after I’d been pushed up against a wall; the photo showed a genuinely happy version of Me, grinning whilst craning to hear sounds. But then he looked at me, just prior to the finale; “I like your smile,” he said.

“I’ve done this before,” I pre-empted. “I know this is the part that fucks me up.”

He faintly nodded and smiled in acknowledgement, and that caused me to grin, too. He seized the opportunity – “hold that smile,” he insisted, before the tears started rolling down his cheeks as my wheelchair was pulled away, his arm outstretched towards me.

And, once again, I was left emotionally mangled by the experience. Once again, I walked away from the venue elated and shattered and spent, grinning and aching and silently delighted that I got to go through That Experience… again.

But, as I walked up the stairs of the Festival Centre, I suddenly remembered that I’d done this before. I’d written about this before. Out came the phone as I stood mid-flight and compared notes… and I was genuinely surprised to see how much I have changed… and how much Smile has stayed the same. The similarities and changes in my reactions.

By seeing The Smile Off Your Face a second time, not only was I subjected to a wonderful piece of performance art, but I was also shown my own growth… and that, in itself, makes for a pretty amazing – and deeply personal – experience.

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