The Intimate Process of DUET-ED
NIC ADAMS (CREATOR AND DIRECTOR): Duet-ed was a show created by What Holds Heat – a collaboration between myself, primarily a theatre-maker, and my friend Cori Marquis, primarily a dance-maker. Structurally, the show was comprised of five one-on-one experiences (“duets”) between audience members and performers. Emotionally, the show took as its central subjects intimacy, fidelity, betrayal, and monogamy. Each duet lasted around seven minutes, and were mostly generated by the performers in collaboration with Cori and myself.
The show was presented as part of The Exponential Festival, of which I am a producer, and was performed at Vital Joint. The show ran on Fridays in January with six consecutive, hour-long shows starting at 12pm. Because the span of day was so long, we double-cast the show and ended up with 11 performers (including myself and Cori pinch-hitting as swing performers) enacting 8 possible duets. A few of the performers re-interpreted pre-existing duets, but most helped to generate their own. Rehearsing, scheduling, and staffing were just a few pieces in an all-consuming, dynamic puzzle, the result of a decision to limit the show’s audience to five people at a time.
The duets were performed in five discrete spaces within Vital Joint, which is a basement: the bar, the bathroom, a stairwell, a closet, and an office. The audience congregated in the main space between scenes. Some of these duets included the game of “Seven Minutes in Heaven” you never knew you needed, a ritual in which audience members must choose between their partner and their regrets, future-tripping through the first two and a half years of a hypothetical romance, slow-dancing with a performer as they ask questions about who you’d like to be dancing with, singing goodbye to a really good lay, a healing ritual focused on pain caused and pain received, a conversation with a bartender about compersion, and transcribing a rhapsody of the fateful night which could end a marriage.
In creating a unifying concept for the duets we grew excited by the idea that the show was an induction ceremony into a society united by an investigation into monogamy and fidelity. This concept was probably most acutely perceived by the audience through production designer Aaron Amodt’s scenery. Recalling his first impulses, he writes:
“A lot of the aesthetic inspiration had come from my personal experience as a Boy Scout and my adolescence in the punk scene in Florida. All of those experiences were inside borrowed spaces: Baptist churches, VFW halls, coffee shops, bars, etc. We could have our own private societies for a few hours, complete with ceremonies and colloquialisms and costume, and then we could leave the space as we found it, taking our little society with us.
Being such an intimate performance, I felt that having capital-s ‘Scenery’ would feel too artificial and be a barrier to letting yourself be immersed. Over the course of many exploratory conversations, Cori, Nic and I landed on not seeking to totally transform Vital Joint, but to let the space be itself wearing our scenery like a costume.”
This reflection essay began as a dialogue with CultureBot editor Dan O’Neil about the tension between intimacy and endurance, as manifested by the marathon performances of our collaborators. Given that no two performances of or reactions to Duet-ed were alike, we felt the most effective way to describe it was to ask the performers and audience members the following:
Reflect on what seemed to be the most intimate or vulnerable moment you experienced in the show.
JACK TAMBURRI (12pm): The time I spent in the closet with the silent performer was absolutely the most intimate and vulnerable; the touch that was invited in that passage raised my “you’re not allowed to do this” alarms immediately and I had to breathe through that to remind myself that this was a performance experience and my partner, who wasn’t there, would not be hurt by what I was doing.
ANON (12pm): Moments that seemed most intimate: standing in a bathroom with someone while they worked up a sweat / primped themselves, upright cuddling, being held by Cristina [Pitter]. Moments that seemed most vulnerable: sharing a favorite song, sharing regrets.
CHRIS IGNACIO (PERFORMER BATHROOM): I was tasked with asking audience members to rub baby oil onto my back after having worked out, and also to feel my veins wriggling beneath my skin of my hand… each person was so unique that I wouldn’t say that there was one more intimate than the other.
NIKO TSOCANOS (PERFORMER BAR/OFFICE): I think it was just asking them fairly direct and probing questions about their romantic relationships (past and present), and about their personal experience with jealousy. There was a lot of room to let our conversation roam based on how the audience responded to my questions. Some folks opened up really fast. Others were very measured about how much they wanted share. I always tried to make sure they knew that it was okay to say they didn’t want to share anything.
JILL MELANIE WIRTH (1pm): I felt vulnerable when I was handed a note card to write down my regrets.
ANGEL DESAI (2pm): The cuddling was probably the most vulnerable, given that I don’t know the performer at all and was allowing her to touch my body in ways that only my most trusted loved ones may touch me. I didn’t feel violated, but I did feel… exposed, somehow.
ALEX (3pm): Dancing in the stairwell…flashbacks to my first 6th grade dance, with my older brother pushing me together with a girl from his grade, also in a skin-tight velvet dress, and recalling the feeling of having hands [-] a thin clothing layer away from the skin of hips and ribs[…] close enough to take in another’s body odor profile (…enticing and terrifying), and wondering where to lay my eyes and whether to chit-chat or project mystery.
ANON (3pm): I’m going to go with the dance at the top of the stairs. That was a really beautiful moment and we had a really honest reaction.
HANNAH KALLENBACH (4pm): Lying on Cristina Pitter’s chest in the stairwell which is something I haven’t done since I was a child with my mother.
ANON (5pm): The most vulnerable moment in the show for me was listening to the character in the bathroom [portrayed by Sandie Cheng] talk about the ups and downs of her personal life. It felt open and intimate to the point of being uncomfortable, but also like an attempt for her to connect and reach a deeper level of self-understanding.
SANDIE CHENG (PERFORMER BATHROOM): When I asked the audience member to text the other man back, asking him to meet me tonight and insinuating the start of our affair. [There was sometimes a] sigh of disappointment or [the audience asking], “Are you sure?” before sending the final text.
Each audience member had a different order of scenes (someone’s first experience may have been your last). How do you think the order of scenes impacted your experience? Did you experience a shift in openness or responsiveness over the course of the show?
JACK TAMBURRI (12pm): My first scene was in the stairs and it was vital that that was my entrance point to the show. I cannot imagine being as open to the rest of it as I was if I hadn’t been primed so gently and expertly in that scene.
ANON (12pm): I started the show with the meditative / healing experience led by Cristina [Pitter], and it was a great way to open the whole experience. It put me at ease, made me feel warm, loved, and taken care of. [It was a] quiet moment, that felt private and non-invasive, it made me feel much more open to taking in the other experiences.
ALEX (3pm): [The bartender, Niko Tsocanos,] grabs hand, holds on, I feel a rush of excitement and affinity[. He] asks me to play fort with him and hide behind the bar as we look at naughty videos (not really naughty, but close enough voyeuristically watching two women giggle and snuggle).
My openness was challenged by [the] switch to the feminine; pursuing consensual male touch seems progressive, a step in the right societal direction; pursuing female touch, even when directed or enveloped by the performer, seems like Pandora’s box.
NIKO TSOCANOS (PERFORMER BAR/OFFICE): I had the benefit of a scene with a lot of improvisation. I had to hit some key points to keep us on track (in terms of an arc), but really my work (in terms of intimacy) was to be present, see the audience, and listen to them. I didn’t feel a lot of pressure to make a certain thing happen. I actually just had to follow them. That helped it feel easy to stay open and vulnerable with the audience because they were really my guide for the seven minutes we were together. [Over the course of the performances] I got to witness a collective or shared intimacy. When asking folks about their experiences of jealousy I listened to so many people recognize (some for the first time) how their jealousy is actually rooted in feelings of inadequacy or not being “enough” (i.e. good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, funny enough, talented enough, happy enough—and on, and on). In a way it’s not surprising that that is a pattern so many of us experience around relationships, or just in general. But we don’t always say it out loud, and even more rarely to someone you just met 2 minutes ago in a weird basement.
HANNAH KALLENBACH (4pm): As [performer Vanessa Koppel and I] were spooning I was thinking about [my partner] and how much I’d rather be holding someone I’m familiar with… Later on I went to the bar and was shown live footage of Vanessa with someone else in the cuddling room. I was positive I’d see [my partner]! And my heart leapt. Not because it would make me jealous or feel turned on. It actually made me feel like I would be violating the rules of trust we have as partners… I was wondering where [my partner] was when I was in the room cuddling with Vanessa. Was he watching me? Was I too much? Did I behave appropriately? I couldn’t remember. But I felt a lot of feelings thinking about trust and spying.
Did the premise of any scene challenge your expectations?
ANON (12pm): The way I was asked to imagine a narrative that I was a part of in an intimate, slightly uncomfortable situation. The question at the end [of Chris Ignacio’s bathroom duet], do you find me attractive still?, made me stop to think.
CHRIS IGNACIO (PERFORMER BATHROOM): Sometimes I would run out of patience and would just want to get through certain folks faster—either because I was hungry, or cold, or they weren’t being very responsive. I had to try to anchor myself each time to the new energy that each person brought into the room.
JILL MELANIE WIRTH (1pm): The piece in general was challenging, as I do not enjoy being touched by strangers. But I chose to trust that it was theatre, I was safe, and allowed myself to play.
ANGEL DESAI (2pm): Niko’s massage table scenario threw me – I thought I’d be getting the massage, and then was delighted to get that reversed.
NIKO TSOCANOS (PERFORMER BAR/OFFICE): I was challenged to let go of any assumptions I had about how folks would respond to the questions I asked them and how that would work with the rest of the scene. It was the scene that had to adjust to whatever the audience brought into our conversation, not the other way around. The more I discovered my assumptions and let them go, the more engaging and exciting the scene became.
HANNAH KALLENBACH (4pm): I expected to enjoy spooning more than I did, that was cool for me. To think about how strange it felt to hold her [Vanessa Koppel]. Unfamiliar. It made me miss my partner.
JILL MELANIE WIRTH (1pm): [The show caused] me to reflect on intimacy, fidelity, and desire in my personal life, [and] how much I love my husband!
What were some things you thought, discussed, or felt upon leaving the show?
JACK TAMBURRI (12pm): I felt less alone in my own anxiety around the tension between safety and restrictiveness in monogamy. I felt a little naughty for having seen a piece of theater in a basement at noon on a weekday. I was excited by the touch and by the closeness to bodies — the physical dynamics usually reserved for high-context relationships. I felt GOOD as I walked away.
ANON (12pm) [I thought] how strange it felt to be so physically intimate with so many different people! [My partner and I] also chatted about how it felt to be put on the spot to reveal intimate details, how it can become more about living up to the expectations of the performer that is asking us to give or share something, and how that sometimes mirrors the pressure of being on a date or the pressure of living up to someone’s expectations in a longer relationship.
ANGEL DESAI (2pm): I found myself reliving intimate moments in past relationships, looking at them through the lens of some of the questions asked (verbally) in the show. I found myself surprised and intrigued with where my thoughts went.
ALEX (3pm): The innocent, child-like act of learning a circle dance was contrasted with the adult-themed questions of partnership, polyamory, sensual touch.
ANON (3pm): I had just gotten engaged to be married a few days before the piece so I was in a very euphoric state, and discussing it with the cast was very fun and beautiful — I don’t think the show anticipated that, but I think the performers adapted very well to that fact…there was a lot of truth not just for the performers but between me and the performers, acknowledged on both sides, which was really beautiful and uplifting, satisfying and fascinating.
HANNAH KALLENBACH (4pm): The more silent interactions where I was led through body cues I felt like it was a genuine conversation. I had to listen to talk to understand and they would lead me through that.
ANON (5pm): I felt like I had been given a unique experience to explore intimacy and connect meaningfully with five new people (even though they were playing characters). The experience felt like a gift and an offering to the participants.
THERESA BUCHHEISTER (5pm): [It] reminded me of why intimacy is valuable and risky. At the same time, I was like – Oh, this is not my way of being and that doesn’t mean I cannot love deeply. It shook me, as the kids say. And I see a lot. And experience a lot. And I felt shook.
CORI MARQUIS (CREATOR AND DIRECTOR): As creators, it was infinitely rewarding to have our expectations challenged by the actual experiences of audience members that came through, and the thoughtful feedback we received from scores of people. Our central thesis, that immersive theatre could be an effective vehicle for pushing the boundaries of intimacy, was loudly supported. Just like our relationships with those with whom we experience genuine intimacy, or just like any work of theatre, even the most traditional, no two experiences can be duplicated, even if we want them to be. No two audience members had the same experience, as each show was a different collection of scenes and cast members. For performers, no two scenes were the same, as each audience member came in with their own assumptions, tendencies and reactions. The value of the singularity and transience of our experiences–and the lasting impression they have the potential to leave–is summed up by Duet-ed’s Production Designer, Aaron Amodt:
“The hardest part of the entire install was figuring out how to make it removable in about an hour, then how to reassemble it in the same amount of time (and not so complex and intricate that I was the only one capable of doing so). I ended up using a lot of Command™ Hooks, string, and safety pins, which actually lent to that “borrowed space” motif. Everything looked quite ephemeral, which is the very nature of the intimate scenes being performed.
In addition to the handful of hats I wear in theatre, I’m also a photographer. I’ve mainly been interested in capturing long stretches of time in one image. I make these images using a variety of cameras, but my go-to is a large format pinhole camera that I built specifically to take photos in theaters. At first I only shot on film because of the immense amount of detail you can get versus what you get with digital, but then I started to get really passionate about the chemistry.
Conventional photographic film uses light-reactive silver particles suspended in gelatin, and when those particles are exposed to light, they harden. When you develop the film, the unhardened, silver-soaked gelatin is washed away, so you’re left with a fossilized imprint of the image you’ve captured.
I like to apply this process to theatre, because even though theatre is frequently designed to be performed the same way every night, it is still ephemeral. Even in a tightly scripted and choreographed show, you can never account for how the audience will feel the performance. Through this method of photography, the very photons that have illuminated the set, the actors, and the audience are then bounced back into my camera and chemically transform the silver particles into a physical object.”
Special thanks to Angel Desai for editorial contributions.