A movement in the performance community is seeking to create works or art that activate more than our senses of sight and sound. That’s because its members view performance art as a holistic experience that helps bridge the gap between audiences and artists via tactile engagement. As a result, their work is moving outside the constructs of traditional theatre spaces and taking place at parks, gardens, personal and public places, as well as cultural hotspots and dinning establishments.
In Chicago, The Hypocrites have been using food as an essential building block for their long-form performance experiences. It all started with Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses, a play that was set to be four and a half hours with two intermissions. For Artistic Director Sean Graney, the impulse to bring food into the process was initially one of necessity and practicality; intermissions soon became meal times, providing audiences incentive to eat with one another instead of leaving to find something to snack on around the neighborhood.
“We just felt that not to feed the audience would be detrimental to their experience. [We wanted to offer them] something substantial, and not just a bag of pretzels. It’s a very communal [and forms a] bond. It’s different than most theatre experiences because even though most theatre is about actors sharing [something] with the audience…but sharing food really creates a social bond that is hard to get without the food.”
This is especially true when performances become all day events, stretching for over 12 hours. In these particular cases, an audience is asked to commit an entire day to sharing the space with the artists and other audience members, while creating a place where communities can form and conversations can occur between strangers. “You would sit there and just talk to strangers for an hour while you were eating this meal. It really was part of this amazing experience.”
Detroit-based performance company A Host of People places food at the center of its work. Co-Directors Sherrine Azab and Jake Hooper work with artists in both domestic and community spaces to investigate what’s possible in performance and community building.
“Perhaps, one difference in the way we use food versus the way we’ve seen it used by other theater artists; we treat it as quite, rather than as some fetishized or ritualistic idea. Of course, that can be very effective, too, but our audience passes around pizza boxes or casually chats over a party punch bowl. It holds a lot of meaning, but the idea is for it to be unpretentious; to be in an element that quite naturally brings us together.”
All of this can feel very new and really progressive. For those of us raised on traditional theatre, the idea of sitting in someone’s living room and sharing punch, being fed by hand, or eating dinner with an performer before the last act of a play – can truly feel like something else entirely.
As the world shifts, the performance community is looking for inspiration in our traditions – communal eating being one. Fact is many of us are anxious at the thought of having to participate in a performance without notice because it can make us feel vulnerable or exposed. Food evokes a level of comfort in situations that might otherwise feel overwhelming.
Note* Images sourced from websites of featured performance companies, respectively.