‘If your words were the only thing a little girl could hang on to in this maddening world, what would you say to her?’ That is certainly a good question, one of those cool hypothetical ones you know you will never have to answer. Or at least, that is what I thought. Instead, to my great surprise, that is exactly the situation I found myself in on Monday when I attended ‘ESAF: Bhumi Collective Presents Charlie,’ one of the shows included in the On The Rocks program.
When I arrived at the Barron, I had no idea of what to expect. The information given about ‘Charlie’ were very scarce, just that question and a couple of lines informing that she ‘has spent the majority of her life in a room, but knows the time is coming for her to meet the world’.
The event itself was quite unique: five hours of uninterrupted performance for which one just had to book a slot. The fact that it was a highly personalized “one-to-one” performance lasting around 15 minutes made it even more unique and exponentially increased my curiosity. However, that was just the start of an experience which still goes beyond my full comprehension. Once at the Barron, I was welcomed by a deathly silence and a festival volunteer, who gave me a piece of paper with some ‘instructions’.
‘Thank you for agreeing to participate in this research experiment. You have been assigned sample Charlie’. These were the first two lines. You might imagine my perplexity while reading this since I had not agreed to do anything of that sort. The text continued with a list of things you were asked NOT to do with or to Charlie. At this point, I was really confused and in my mind, I started picturing a myriad of possibilities. Everything was incredibly surreal. I was expecting a standard performance, maybe a monologue, but what I found instead was a sort of parallel reality. Once in the stage room, I finally met Charlie: a girl of undefined age wearing simple, white pyjamas, sitting on a mattress, covering herself with a soft, white blanket, surrounded by some colourful drawings. The first thing she noticed about me was my long, black coat; she told me ‘The Professor’ had a similar one, but white. Of course, I had no idea of who she was talking about. We started talking, and what seriously surprised me was my total inability to detach myself from the situation I was living and simply think ‘this is just a performance’. Everything I mentioned, from the roses on my favourite blanket to the sun and the sky, was completely unknown to her, to this poor little thing whose only means of escape from her unconscious captivity were her dreams, which she had drawn on pieces of paper.
In our conversation, we talked about many things, from the concept of ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’, to what is ‘outside’ like and even my favourite colour. It was like being immersed in a parallel dimension, an incredibly fascinating universe in which even the most basic thing in the world is not given for granted, in which even the word ‘world’ is not given for granted. What I can say after such an experience, is that it certainly managed to make me question the whole concept of language and social construction, of reality and existence, all this, thanks to the incredible performance of a single actress.
Whatever one might want to call it – play, interactive game, parallel reality – ‘Charlie’ opened a series of interrogatives in me I am still trying to answer, pushing the boundaries of theatre towards a completely unexpected direction and undoubtedly offering a once in a lifetime experience I am extremely glad to have had.