Zero Feet Away Reflection
[Originally Published January 2018]
How old are you?
How did you get here?
If you could be a fictional character, what fictional character would you choose to be?
What you’re about to read is intentionally queer. Queer in the sense of diverse sex, gender and sexuality, but also queer in the older sense of strange or weird.
Earlier this year, I’d looked to do a review of a show called Zero Feet Away, a queer theatre piece which I’d been connected with as both a workshop participant and audience member since some its earlier stages in 2014 through to the present day. Alas, time got away from me as I continued a PhD and travelled extensively in North America, and I never got around to actually writing the darn thing.
Even so, I’ve intended to write something about the show, something reflecting upon my experiences of seeing it grow and flourish, in tandem with the personal impact that being involved in explicitly queer theatre brings about. So, rather than a review, the likes of which are often churned out overnight in an effort to attract audiences, this will be a reflection, a longer piece looking into the trajectory that Zero Feet Away took from its inception to the present day, as well as my own personal experiences as a workshop participant and audience member.
Rewind to mid-2014. I was in the middle of an self-imposed break year between undergrad and postgrad studies, and things weren’t good. My physical, mental and spiritual health weren’t at all well, and I’d had a significant breakup with my boyfriend at the time. In searching for various means to introspect and heal, I started to pay attention to body (diet, sleep, exercise), mind (engaging with a CBD-based psychologist) and spirit (getting involved in Buddhism).
What is your relationship status? How do you identify in terms of your sexuality?
Then, through various queer friends, I’d heard that a company called Act Now Theatre was looking for same-sex attracted young guys to participate in the development of a project. Having been involved in community theatre productions over the past few years, I was immediately interested.
As I learned, Act Now Theatre is a socially conscious theatre company creating youth-led participatory works that engage directly with audiences, with the intention of empowering them to become agents for change in the world around them. Co-founded by current artistic director Edwin Kemp Attrill in 2007, the company has gone from strength to strength over the past few years, as exemplified by acclaimed works like the ‘Responding to…’ series. Here, school or community audiences are presented with a sequence of topical scenes (such as racism or homophobic) embedded with acts of discrimination or abuse, after which the same scenarios are repeated but with the ability for audience members to stop and alter the scene. This can be either passive (through suggesting changes of dialogue or action) or active (inserting themselves in the scene alongside the actors to alter the narrative), in either case familiarising or empowering audiences with an awareness and appreciation of their agency for change in their own communities. Generally, each work undergoes an extensive developmental process, gradually refining the piece through workshops and community engagement into the multilayered interactive result, and ZFA was no exception.
Where’s the best placed to be kissed? What’s the best out of chest, legs, or butt?
When was the last time you had sex?
The 2014 incarnation was produced with the support of with Gay Men’s Health (now SAMESH), which sought to raise awareness of then-recently available PReP and PeP medications. Initial workshops took place, with young gay or bi men coming together to share personal reflections on our experiences of intimacy within the queer male dating world through various theatre games and group activities. Whilst a testing ground for theatre concepts, technical interfaces and means of gathering research data, the workshops also created a positive and welcoming environment for the participants, many of us forming fast friendships over a communal meal at the end of each session.
For myself, coming from a broken down relationship, compromised mental health, and recent reintroduction to the online world of dating, the opportunity to hear and connect with others’ life experiences was emboldening and consoling. I felt shared highs and lows that were common between us, and the opportunity to anonymously share some of my personal perspectives was cathartic in a time when I needed to process the past few years of my life, a chance for which I’m ever grateful. Partway through the process, an app was developed, a simple program inspired by the array of smartphone dating apps on the market. Accessed by smartphone web browser, a user could input information via a simple text box, which would then display in a feed below. Questions could be posed by an administrator, and answered by anyone, creating a tapestry of anonymous information to be used creatively.
By the time that the show had reached the stage for Feast Festival 2014, situated in the upper levels of the AC Arts building on Light Square, the elements at play in the workshop had settled into the aspired ‘performance experiment in virtual intimacy’. Deriving its name and inspiration from the queer community’s lived experience of using dating apps, the show took the act of sharing intimate information with strangers and extrapolated that into a community space.
As a cast, Edwin oversaw and guided the production as director, with Matthew James, Harry Bulitis, Tyson Wood and Andrew Thomas as the newsroom cast. Ben Flett provided subtle background music on guitar, with Alexander Ramsey tending to the tech.
For the set, a theatre-in-the-round styled newsroom had been chosen, with the desks and performers situated in the middle of the room with the audience surrounding. Within view of all was a large screen, broadcasting the feed of information from the phone app that each person, performer and audience alike. Arranged in this way, the audience was able to connect over the show’s length as a makeshift community, both in situ seated amongst one another, and, much like the real-life app experience, online as observers and respondents and to the information asked and shared. Anonymity and freedom were offered - you could post whatever you liked answering each of the questions, or actually write anything that you wished - but there also a certain responsibility that came with participating: a mutual trust emerging through the shared capacity for nameless and faceless vulnerability and revelation.
In the absence of a static narrative goal, the creative team had decided to collate some of the questions that had emerged from the workshop exercises. Grouped by various themes such general personal circumstance (how old are you, how did you get here), relationships (when did you last go on a date, what does it feel like to be loved), physical intimacy (when did you last have sex) and whimsy (what fictional character would you be, would you go on a date with Cory Bernardi), you got the feel instead of a personal reflective process, allowing the space and time to consider your own journey of personal intimacy as it related to your core values and also to the advent of the online dating world. Each question was read out, and after a period of answering, responses from the feed were read out by the cast. Interspersed within and between the sections, the cast read out (in first-person) collated personal stories garnered from the workshops.
As these exchanges continued, drawing out unique experiences shared amongst us, they built to a concluding, sincere monologue from a cast member, who bravely recounted their experiences of sexual assault facilitated by dating apps, and their gratitude for the availability of PreP at the time. Whilst this obviously (for those in the know) fulfilled the primary goal of the show, it also revealed complex layerings to our online exchanges: the building of trust with strangers, the thrill and fears of the unknown and unexpected, the relief of safety. After each show, the cast and audience intermingled, sharing joy, surprise and comfort through their newly forged connections.
You can check out highlights from the 2014 show at https://vimeo.com/124916629
Describe your ideal first date. What was your worst date?
Describe your ideal partner. Is your soul mate still out there?
What’s the best thing about being single? What’s the best thing about being in a relationship?
How do you feel when you are loved? What’s the best thing a partner has done for you?
A couple years passed, and in December 2016 came workshop callouts for the next stage of the project. In the absence of funding requirements to feature the previous PReP content aimed at queer men, Act Now was free to explore broader experiences of sexual and gender diverse queer people, opening up the workshops to everyone in the community.
What’s the best thing about dating apps? What’s something you would never tell a stranger?
What do you lie about online? What have people lied to you about online?
Not long after, Edwin and the team had developed the next incarnation of ZFA (January 24-28 2017). Set in the cosy confines of Ancient World on Hindley Street, there was an immediate transformation from the earlier presentations. The venue’s onsite bar and stage conjured the nightclub sentiments, but with the many seats and multiple screens dotting the walls of the adjoining rooms, localised community areas emerged amidst the larger community within the performance space.
Here too, a different audience emerged. Although intended and developed for the queer community, the piece was also welcoming to all adult audiences, meaning that a broader scope of experiences could be shared to everyone’s benefit (especially, IMO, the straight audiences with little familiarity or understanding of queer lives, intimacies and relationships).
Reflecting the changed workshop and audience dynamic, the production team too increased in diversity. Edwin was supported as Director by Associate Producer Chiara Gabrielli, and the cast comprised of Jamila Main, Jason Miraglia, Melissa Maidment and Matilda Bailey. Matthew Gregan’s music on solo guitar conjured the speakeasy basement atmosphere, and Alexander Ramsay returned to Lighting Design and Tech.
The phone app returned, but with some further tweaks that lent themselves to good theatrical effect. Whilst the 2014 production included live video streaming of the performers throughout; the phones were operated by a second person as if part of a staged filming. In the new version, each performer was able to take selfie videos from their camera, adding to the authentic experience of people sharing their own intimate perspectives with a much wider online audience. Technically, this allowed for effective transitions between content (especially the text feed), creating an increased sense of pacing and direction.
How do you break hearts? How has your heart been broken?
When did you last have a breakup? How do you get over a breakup?
The partitioning of the show into themed-question sections also continued, but with a more comprehensive and dynamic script, developed to be flexible enough to involve audience content as well as performers’ management of the show’s mood and energy throughout. Actors read out answers again after each question, but each section was also summarily recapped in second-person: “you are 25; you are bi; you came to see a show, but it wasn’t really a show, just a bunch of strangers asking invasive questions”. In the break between sections, the streaming of content on the text feed remained open, allowing the audience the possibility of anonymous dialogues in the background.
Over the course of the show, many themes of queer experience in the contemporary and especially online realms of intimacy were explored. Humorous for the experts and educational for the less familiar was a run through of dating apps basics, where a live demonstration of the apps took place on the room screens. Each feature was broken down: gender, name, description, age, body type, position, ethnicity. Of course, there was heavy suggestion of the need to be the ideal – attractive, masc, muscular, white, straight acting, shirtless. A case in point was the profile ‘sexyjock’; another featured pictures taken in front of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial.
Others emerged throughout the show:
The experience of connections with people overseas, and the possibility of continuing meaningful relationships through social media
The shallowness and superficiality that can be experienced through dating apps vs. meeting people live
The experience of loneliness and isolation as reinforced by dating apps
The struggle with coming to understand new identity in the face of religious persecution.
The impulses emerging from technological use, needing to be in touch with another person online.
The social and cultural struggles of queer experience
The prejudices in the queer community, particularly as related to sexism and racism.
A brief history of online dating by means of a story sent into the team via Facebook – one lady had matched a fellow Adelaide Uni colleague on a program built for the university’s computer (filling a room at that time) back in the late 1960s, and had recently celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary
If we’re fighting for equality for queer people, how you know you’ve won?
When have you felt the most queer pride? When did you realise it’s ok to be gay?
What are you not brave enough to do yet?
Then came the affecting crux of the show, signalled by the congregation of the actors into a closed circle in the middle of the audience. As transcripts of interviews, texts messages, news coverage, police messages were read out in chronological sequence, and we gradually realised we were hearing the recount of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando FL. We heard about how the shooter had used the club’s Facebook page, watched successive text messages sent by victims to loved ones in their final moments appear on the screens around the room, learned how social media wasn’t just documenting but actually changing the course of events, as the public saw the events unfold with communications between those in the building and those on the outside. A sombre mood fell over our own room, as the audience realised the many parallels between our setting and Pulse, as a queer community in a queer space all relying on our phones to engage with one another. Actors recounted their own experiences of hearing about the shootings, about how a queer co-presenter had to point out straight-washing of the attack in a UK Sky News panel, about how they understood queer nightclubs to be safe havens for queer people and how they felt that safety crash and burn after Orlando, about how the shooting could be one of the too many forgotten tragedies as another transitory story appearing in the black hole of the newsfeed.
The collective mood poignant, a call for resilience, the rejection of ghettoisation, and the breakdown of the gay bar’s walls rang throughout the venue.
Who would you call if you found out you were dying? What is the physical sensation of loss?
What have you sacrificed to get you where you are now? How do you get yourself out of hard times?
Ending with a cadence of non-violence and love in rejection of fear and hatred, it was again cathartic to reflect ZFA’s importance to the local community and to me personally. Since 2014, South Australia had significant LGBITQA+ law reforms, and in later 2017, the difficulties and eventual success of marriage equality came to national public attention. The need for creative reflection and perspective on queer experiences - by queer people for queer people - is paramount, both to celebrate our dynamic, cornucopic lives, and to convey to non-queer people our struggles in the face of systematic and firsthand indignities and erasure. For these and many more reasons, the advocation for resilience and positivity in the face of adversity has become something cornerstone of queer communities, and I feel that ZFA is a rewarding conduit for this to the SA queer community.
What is your New Year’s resolution? What was it like when you didn’t own a phone?
For me, the personal impact of ZFA can’t be understated. When coming through of my personal hardships in 2014, the early workshop’s experiences provided me with a platform to express my own experiences as a queer man, to connect with other queer people and their shared experiences, and to renegotiate my understandings of online and personal interactions post-significant relationship breakup.
Then at the 2017 performances, after a couple years of explored my sexuality with others through dating, casual sex and short-term flings, I found myself again in a reflective mood. Surrounded in a room with friends, strangers, people you’d seen online, previous partners, and a new boyfriend beside, I was struck by the tapestry of connections, of information, of people, of community, of indifference, of lust, of love. As a piece focussed on people gathering in a room, posting anonymous personal thoughts online for collective viewership, an interconnected intimacy emerged through physical and virtual sharing. At a time when social media viewership is apparently decreasing, and the value of mindful presence is increasingly recognised, Zero Feet Away captures a glimpse of hopeful and meaningful social exchange, asking of us:
You make eye contact with a stranger. You want to talk to them. You go up to them. What do you want to say?