Backstage

On the Cusp by Emilie Collyer | A response to Fleur Kilpatrick’s Yours The Face

Yours The Face by Fleur Kilpatrick. Performer Roderick Cairns. Image Sarah Walker
Yours The Face by Fleur Kilpatrick. Performer Roderick Cairns. Image Sarah Walker.

Emilie Collyer is an Australian playwright, author and creator of Between the Cracks website and blog. This month we feature her response to Yours the Face by Fleur Kilpatrick as part of FLIGHT Festival.

It’s unusual to see a group of teenagers in the front row of an independent theatre show on a Friday night. I sit behind them with a twinge of apprehension. Will they squirm, talk, or be hostile? I’ve read on social media that performer Roderick Cairns shares my apprehension. No mean feat to perform a solo show full stop. Let alone a solo show described as ‘gender bending’, containing full frontal nudity, to a school group, with most of them sitting in the front row. The show starts. Cairns strikes several model-esque poses. The students snicker, wriggle, settle in.

This shouldn’t necessarily be the focus of my response to Yours the Face, a play written by Fleur Kilpatrick, directed by Sarah Walker and performed by Roderick Cairns. It’s not a piece about how young people behave in the theatre. But this is what’s so wonderful and – at times – terrible about this form. We don’t watch in a vacuum. Our response is tainted by that of those around us. The giggles, restless legs, guffaws, silences, the latecomers, the person who really must eat that foil wrapped lolly because they apparently have no way of getting through a one hour show without sustenance – it’s all part and parcel.

I couldn’t help but partly watch Yours the Face through the eyes of the young people in front of me. I was aware this was an unusual, perhaps foreign experience for them. I have theatre audience training. I know what to expect and what to do with my body and my reactions if I am moved or startled or bored by a piece of theatre. What is so scary and brilliant about being in an audience with a group of young people is that they’re not yet quite as savvy about the rules.

The first character we meet is Emmy, a nineteen year old model. She’s American. So Cairns is playing cross gender, cross culture and cross accent. He does it without a hint of irony or apology. It is gentle, sinewy and subtle. The students in front of me are all boys so my frame for consuming the first five minutes of the piece is adult woman / teenage males / adult man / teenage girl. We’re all performing our roles, some of us safe in the dark, Cairns in full view.

This initial moment captures for me what is powerful about Yours the Face. There are many tangible, theatrical things to engage with in the work: writing, performance, lighting, choreography, sound, image. But what strikes me most is how the work as a whole facilitates a fluidity of experience. Its form is its content. It invites us to question what we see, how we create our frames, where we put our gaze. The structure of the show and Cairns’ performance demands this. In this way it offers the best of what theatre can do: provoke a lived experience in our bodies as we watch and therefore provoke a shift in how we see the world outside of theatre. Once we leave the space we are changed, simply by virtue of having our perceptions of reality (male / female / face / body / beauty) mixed up and messed with for an hour.

When Cairns flips to the second main character in the show – male photographer Peter – there is a palpable rumble of relief from the front row. They were fine with Emmy, they took her on board, but here, with Peter, they are more comfortable. Peter is blokey and direct. He’s funny. I’m pretty sure Cairns eyeballs a few of the front row. This is smart. Whether he does it in every show or his actor instincts kick in and he knows it will work in his favour to make a genuine, human connection with those in the audience least sure of how to react and what their relationship with him should be.

From here the show rockets along. As a writer I relish being witness to Kilpatrick’s skill in character creation and storytelling. In this regard there is something delightfully old-fashioned about the play. I don’t mean outdated or irrelevant. I mean ‘good old-fashioned story telling’ – create characters audiences connect with and put them in a situation where we want to know what happens next. Yours the Face is beautiful story telling. It’s warm and human. It has body and blood. It isn’t cynical or despairing or cold or clever for the sake of it. I am in a room with a writer who likes people. I sense her genuine curiosity about what makes us tick. She cares about us humans. She wants us to do well while being well aware of our flaws.

Kilpatrick writes about the fashion industry and the world of modelling in both a very obvious and a completely surprising way. The beauty, the emptiness, the photographer in love with beauty, the older man having sex with the young woman, these are things we expect or are at least familiar with via other narratives we see of this world. We can situate ourselves. We bring our own baggage and prejudices. We like beautiful images too but we know that what lies behind them can be ugly. We are in an arena that is part and parcel of our daily, image saturated lives.

What surprises is the humanity. The simple and fierce survival instinct of Emmy, the pragmatic romanticism of Peter. The hints of their lives that got them here and the waves of possible futures planted in the last few moments of the play – this is the stuff that lifts us, sideswipes us, takes us somewhere else. This is the stuff of all of us, regardless of what we do for a living or how much our faces are worth. We all try to connect and find a place to belong. The play doesn’t slam the fashion industry, it doesn’t judge the people who work in it. We are presented with moments, images and pictures that allow us to build our own meaning.

My front row friends continue to react verbally and physically through the show. Yes they squirm a bit when Cairns takes off his clothes. But not for long. The strength in the writing, the direction and Cairns’ performance leave no room for awkwardness. Here is a body, we are being invited to look at it. Again, form and content marry. In popular culture the male gaze is privileged. Images we see, from fashion pages to cinema, from catalogues to billboards, television ads to product endorsements have been, still are – on the whole – created by and seen through a male lens. To be specific (although perhaps less so in high fashion than other more commercial endeavours) a male, white, cis lens.

During the nude section in Yours the Face, the audience is cast in this role. We are gazing at a male body as it morphs between a male and female gender. This body is appealing to look at. It’s long, lithe, and muscular. The key difference between this interaction and our usual interactions with images is that in this one the subject – Cairns – is active, not passive. We are consuming him but he is in control of how he presents his body. This kind of nudity invites connection not objectification. He is three dimensional, not flat. This is theatre, it’s live and it’s a conversation, a dynamic, between actor and audience. We’re in it together.

The characters we meet in Yours the Face are not queer. But the very fact of watching the two (and more) characters inhabit one body invites certain shifts in awareness and gaze. We see that of course a vulnerable female energy can be present in a male body, a male face with hair can voice the pain of having sharply beautiful features. The form and the embodiment of the piece opens up alternative ways of seeing and experiencing gender.

As the play enters its final third something shifts in the audience. I put it down to three key elements. The first is that we hear the characters talk about a couple of key moments in their past. We are once more in the world of ‘old fashioned’ story telling. It’s powerful. We’ve come to know these characters through their actions. At just the right moment Kilpatrick then deepens our connection with them by allowing them to reveal something of their past. In each of the stories there is a moment that shows a weakness, a vulnerability or an act of cruelty.

Second is that one of the characters, in the here and now of the play, performs an action that also has elements of cruelty, selfishness, amorality.

Third is that the ending is left open. These two people have met, they’ve impacted each other, but that’s it. A moment in time. Any kind of future might unfold for these characters.

The thing that shifts in the audience? The students in front of me are all leaning forward in their seats and they are completely silent. They’ve been invited in. I don’t know if they are conscious of it, but the play and the performance are generous enough to make space and say to us: You are part of this. There are gaps in this narrative for a reason. Theatre is where we start conversations but we don’t finish them. I sense that by the end of the play the young people in the front row really care about these characters and they want to know what will happen to them. I also think they care about the actor. They respect what he has done and want to show their appreciation for that too.

After the show I try to catch some of the conversations between the students. One stands out to me. A young woman telling her friend that at the moment when Peter was describing how he let a bee sting him and then photographed it as it died, she thought that in the play, at that moment, it would be revealed that Emmy was dead. I could hear her excitement at making meaning from the image, and the fact that the play offered, time and again, these clues and then subverted them delighted rather than frustrated her.

I don’t think Yours the Face was specifically written with young people in mind. But by the end I see it is a perfect piece for this audience. Teenagers are smart and they live so fully in the world. They have opinions about models and beauty, fashion and images, sex and love. They also have bodies and they are right on the cusp of those bodies becoming part of the adult world, of work and trade and value and betrayal and ambition. This play pulls no punches and offers no easy answers. Rather it opens up a plethora of conversations and meditations on what all of that might mean.

As I leave the theatre I am happy to have been in this audience on this night. It makes me think that this is how we should always approach both making and attending theatre. As if we are on the cusp of change, as if transformation is possible, as if a new way of seeing the world is about to open up.