The Smile Off Your Face (FringeTIX)
Ontroerend Goed @ Fringe Factory (Jelly Belly Room)
4:30pm, Fri 22 Feb 2008
Strap yourselves in, kids; this is going to be a long one. It’s probably going to be more than a bit spoiler-ific, too, so be warned.
The Fringe Guide makes it clear that this is about the removal of senses – you, the audience, are to be blindfolded and pushed around in a wheelchair. And, in waiting for my chance to engage in the Smile experience, I heard a previous participant exclaim to her friends “wow – there’s some real trust issues there!”
It had never occurred to me that, in being blindfolded and wheelchair-bound, I would be surrendering control. My feelings of discomfort about this were only exacerbated when, after being carefully guided into my wheelchair, a soft voice said “now, there’s going to be a bit of light bondage” – and tied my wrists together.
Shit shit shit.
Looking back at the Guide now, it explicitly mentions “tied up” – but I’d missed that. Completely skipped over it. And now, here I was: unable to use my hands, unable to see, seated in a wheelchair that was slowly zig-zagging along… and now stopped.
I hear things – scratching. Soft voices. Louder voices in the distance. People treading carefully, left and right. I crane my neck trying to gain some kind of bearing; but it’s futile, the noises are meaningless in a geographical sense. I’m straining for no gain.
I feel an unpleasant welling within my chest. I realise that it’s an embryonic panic attack – I’m starting to panic. It’s rising, up around my heart now, and I’m wondering what to do. Good art-house manners precludes me yelling out for help, as instinct would dictate; I gauge that a minor win, learned behaviour still dominating over instinct. I consider the best plan of attack… Just stand up? No – I might be disoriented and fall. Use my bound hands to shuffle the blindfold up? That would remove the claustrophobia.
Or I could just stay still, and try to enter a more meditative state. Calm down.
I hear some loops from a PJ Harvey song in the background. Ambient, familiar. Soothing.
The wheelchair starts moving again, a short distance, stops. Someone starts gently feeling my face, cupping it in their hands, stroking ever-so-carefully. They take my hands, part them, and wrap them around their face. It’s prickly, bearded. I’m afraid to move my hands – I feel obliged to explore the contours of their head, as they did to me, but opt not to. Shy. Reserved.
We roll on. Other hands take mine, coax me to stand. “Are you happy?” whispers a voice in my ear.
“Are you happy?”
The panic attack has long since subsided, replaced with the euphoria of the battle won and the thrill of the experience. Yeah, I’m happy.
And suddenly I’m pushed straight backwards. I thought the wheelchair was there, but it has disappeared; I’m flat against a wall, startled. “Sorry,” comes the whisper. “Ummm… OK. I.. trust you, I guess,” I feebly reply, craning again to orient myself. I hear the characteristic whir of a Polaroid camera, before being guided back to the wheelchair. Roll, turn, roll, turn. Gently encouraged to stand again.
There’s a female voice in my ear – warm, close. It’s soft, comforting, familiar in tone but unfamiliar in voice. “Left or right?” it says. “Sorry?” I reply in confusion. “Left or right?” it repeats – gently, not an ounce of derision to be found.
“Left,” I say with no reason – just instinct – and I’m jolted backwards again, falling falling falling… onto a bed. A body leaps onto the bed to my right, warm. Cuddles up next to me. “So… how was your day?” The tone is soft, gentle, familiar; the voice, gorgeously accented, foreign. But the situation was immediately soothing, calming. Except for the blindfold and the bound hands.
We chit-chat quietly, talking about everyday minutiae. I’m answering questions with questions. Then comes the topic of Love. It’s so utterly peaceful and pleasant there, and I’m a little sad to be gently lifted up and returned to my wheelchair. Roll, turn, roll, and another person is prying me with questions, feeding me sweets (mmmm, yummy chocolate and marzipan), encouraging me to feel the texture of a large carrot whilst asking me whether I liked Africans.
Ummmm… what the fuck?
The blindfold is lifted for the first time – it’s Saint Nick. I’m confused. The blindfold returns, roll, turn, roll.
Blindfold off again. Young man sitting in front of me. To my sides, black walls covered with Polaroid photos as far as the eye can see.
“I’m the man whose face you felt before,” he says. He’s barely got stubble, it felt like much more.
“I’m also the one who pushed you against the wall. I’m sorry about that,” he says. He’s leaning in a little, and appears quite earnest.
“That’s OK,” I reply.
“I also took your photo. Would you like to see it?”
I agree, and he shows me my photo. My head is turned – I was trying to chase sounds – and I’ve got a tiny smile on my face.
“See that smile? I like your smile. Can you smile again for me?”
“Sure,” I say, and smile.
“Can you lean towards me a little bit?”
“Hold it. Hold your smile.”
“I’m not very good at smiling,” I waver.
“Please, just… smile,” he says. I try to maintain the smile, but I feel my upper lip trembling. Our faces are inches apart, and there’s nothing for me to do but look at him. His eyes. His eyes are staring at my smile. I feel uncomfortable staring at him like that, but there’s really nowhere else to look. Just his eyes, staring unflinchingly at my mouth.
And then I see them – the tears. He’s crying. The tears, welling in his eyes, gather and begin to descend down his cheek…
…when the wheelchair is whisked away again, backwards. I’m retreating from this man who is crying over my smile. The chair turns, and I see Saint Nick again; the chair turns, I see the bed, the owner of that beautiful voice whispering in the ear of another. It’s all rushing away from me, like waking from a dream.
And then I’m back to where it all started. My bound hands have clasped themselves together and are gripping my chin in thought. Llysa sees me and laughs – “That’s exactly what I was doing!”
I look at her, unable to form a meaningful sentence for a moment. She breaks the impasse:
“Oh fuck yes.”
We find other souls in the bar who have just partaken in the Smile experience, and we eagerly compare notes – did you stroke their face too? What was your photo like? Did you choose left or right? And I’m taken by the fact that this discussion is like the earnest chatter within an exclusive club – and that maybe that’s what all this was about. Because this was an experience like no other I’ve had in over 500 Fringe and Festival shows; a profoundly personal experience at odds with the anonymity afforded by the lack of sight.