20 February 2017
Emotional Affect at the Battersea Arts Centre
The art of performance may consist of several different motivations and aims, but perhaps they can all be boiled down to one general goal: to affect the audience. In Theatre & Feeling, Erin Hurley defines “affect” as the “immediate, uncontrollable, skin-level registration of a change to our environment … responses we cannot consciously control” (13). To me, an audience is most easily affected in this way through a performance’s reliance on emotion, which has the power to make audience members laugh, cry, or feel momentarily moved or changed. “I told my mum I was going on an R.E. trip…,” performed at the Battersea Arts Centre, was one of these performances in which a meaningful connection between audience and performer is formed as a result of emotional content like the honest portrayal of women who have experienced abortion. Through the use of personal accounts, conversational tone, and interspersed song and spoken word, this show tugs on the heartstrings and succeeds in having affected its audience once they leave the theatre.
“I told my mum i was going on an R.E. trip…” is a nonfiction play with a twist. It presents four actors who portray four real people and speak their actual words gathered in interviews. For the most part, each actor plays a consistent character who is not a character at all, but a person with a true story to share. The knowledge that a performance is based on true events always causes a shift in my mindset as an audience member; my suspension of disbelief does not have to work as hard, which means everything that happens onstage greatly affects me. The actors gain credibility in my mind because I can trust that everything they do is real, or was real, because it actually happened. This shift makes me far more emotional when the characters undergo hardships, which does not make very much sense because it is not like I knew these people personally. It is simply the knowledge that they exist in the world instead of in my imagination as I watch a performance that causes me to connect with the characters on a deeper, more emotional level.
This connection to the real person as opposed to the actor is amplified by the method of recitation the actors execute. For the entire show, the actors listen to their personas’ speech through MP3 players and recite what they hear, so the audience hears exactly what the people thought and said, and, we can assume, how they said it, as well. The actors’ inflection and word choice are not their own, but given to them through their headphones. This adds a sense of authenticity to the performance that is rarely seen. The actors would occasionally stutter or pause for long periods of time before continuing their sentence, mimicking everyday speech as opposed to grammatically perfect, well-rehearsed lines. The tone shifts occasionally, but is often very conversational, since they are listening to and portraying an actual conversation. Between each section of the performance, the actors would break character to sync up their MP3 players and say “standing by” until each one is ready. What I found particularly engaging was the fact that there would often be playful banter such as “it’s always someone” while waiting for the last actor to sync up. It was clear that these instances were the actors themselves, not the characters, so this added a new layer of authenticity to the show. As an audience member, I felt included, in on the joke, in these moments, like I was joining the actors in their journey through the story. This feeling caused me to let my guard down even more during the show, and trust that what I was getting was not performers pretending, but a performance that was honest and real, if imperfect.
The aspect of the show that made me the most emotional was the portrayal of one of the stories by the actor Dorcas Sebuyange, who played the character of Cousin. She stood out from the other women because she often presented her story in the form of spoken word or song. Some other members of the audience that I spoke to after the show thought that this was an inauthentic way to portray a true story. Alongside such vividly realistic portrayals, this one did seem quite abnormal and perhaps not as practical. Alternatively, I felt it was the most genuine presentation of sorrow and struggle of them all. Singing allows one to bare one’s soul even more than regular speech, even if the speech is personal and traumatic. The voice can be more expressive and can reveal pain, joy, loss, and everything in between with perhaps fewer words if one is singing. Even if a story is not explained detail by detail, if it is told through song, an audience can easily connect with it emotionally. It makes me question what is most important for an audience member to take away having just been told a story. To me, the facts are not nearly as important as how one is engaged with the teller of the story, how one feels when it is told, and how it changes one afterward. When I think of this show weeks after seeing it, Sebumange’s performance comes to mind and I am not only reminded of the raw talent she possesses, but also of her character’s fear and grief due to her song. This is what I took from the performance, what affected me and will continue to affect me whenever I think back on it.
“I told my mum I was going on an R.E. trip…” was funny, heartbreaking, and most importantly, genuine. Though the content was often political and controversial, I didn’t feel like I was getting preached at while watching it, but more simply like I was hearing someone’s personal account on the matter, which I was. The method of performance with moments of musicality throughout was a successful way to get members of the audience to feel engaged in the topic, emotionally invested in those affected by it, and become affected by it themselves.