I saw - or rather, experienced - The Smile Off Your Face at the Sherman last Friday, and it was lovely. I was nervous as I waited my turn but once I was safely tied and blindfolded, I relaxed completely and surrendered to what was going on.

Then the touching started. One person I spoke to afterwards said she'd thought the touching was being done by a penis. I was fairly sure it was a nose. I was disappointed by the touching and the gentle shoving. It's very easy to create a sensation by touching. And even easier to create a sensation by stepping over everyday social boundaries. But to what purpose?

When the questions began, I thought I might feel under pressure or put on the spot. But it was all easy stuff (my answers - yes; yes; seven years; yes; one I liked because she was thoughtful and industrious, a second I didn't like because he was lazy, a third I didn't like because he was posh and my class prejudice knows no colour boundaries). But the questioners would not answer questions themselves. I felt stupid then because I'd misunderstood the contract: I thought I was being invited into an exchange, where the barriers between performer and audience would be dissolved, but clearly not. It was all one way traffic.

And then at the end - the beautiful reveal was beautiful, but spoiled for me by the man making himself cry. That left me feeling put upon. When another human being is in tears, only a psychopath does not respond with some sympathy. Yet of course I knew his tears were fake, summoned for the moment, and my only response was admiration for his technical skill in being able to cry to order.

In the theatre all emotion is fake, and I wondered why other displays of fake emotion had not left me feeling put upon in the same way. I realised it was because in this one-on-one context, a fake of a real human encounter, my response was also under scrutiny. But because I am not a performer, I could or would not fake sympathy as the performer could fake tears. By contrast, as an anonymous member of an audience, there is no pressure on me to summon up a fake response to fake emotion. I can simply appreciate the performance for what it is - a performer, responding to other performers, in a game of let's pretend.

By foregrounding these points it may seem as though I didn't enjoy The Smile Off Your Face, but that's not right at all. These were tiny instants of discontent which I was quickly able to put behind me and which I recall now in tranquility. For the most of the twenty-five minutes I felt very peaceful, happy and amused. Normally I am quite a worried person: I worry about the energy crisis, the public debt crisis, global warming, world poverty, the rise of extremism, and certainly, taking a break from all these worries sure did help a lot.

After the performance I had a drink with the person I had come with, and a friend whose voice I had heard in the auditorium, and who I had phoned and summoned back to the otherwise empty Sherman bar. We all agreed we were very glad we'd come and had enjoyed the experience: the person I'd come with remarked she might book herself in for a pamper day at a spa before too long.

A couple of girls passed us, just having left The Smile Off Your Face. I over-heard one say to the other, "I'd much rather come and see something like that than a play." This alarmed me, because I write plays for a living. But after a moment's reflection I had to admit that I, too, would rather see something like The Smile Off Your Face than go to a play. Because however many times I say that going to a play should feel like a delight and a joy and a treat, the truth is, plays are always pretty hard work. You have to keep in mind who all these characters are, what they're up to, why they're getting so vexed about things, and what you think about the things that are vexing the characters. And The Smile Off Your Face was nothing like that. It was relaxation, and surrender.

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Comment by Ffion Glyn on July 5, 2009 at 17:45
I experienced The Smile Off Your Face at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago, and have continually raved about it since then - it was such an unique experience that a lot of it has lasted with me. And yes, like yourself, I found myself questioning what was it exactly that I enjoyed and what provoked me to open up my heart to a complete stranger (I don't know of course how much the work has developed since then). However, as a performer and deviser it has spurred nd stimulated me to explore how what I experienced can be translated in other forms - I still think that the communion of a collective audience is such an integral part of theatre - and despite the greatness of The Smile Off Your Face, it is an experience which I can only truly relive privately. So for me, it's a vital ingredient to where I'd like to see theatre develop, but not the only spice in the pot.
Comment by Deborah Powell on July 4, 2009 at 19:28
I've not experienced SOYF, or from all accounts thus far, anything even remotely like it (well, not in public anyway!!), but I am intrigued as to why any of this sounds like pleasure?
Speaking as someone who still sees much joy in the 'hard work' of plays,
it seems that it takes a lot less to get me engaged with a performance than strangers invading my personal space in the expectation of making me part of the evening's entertainment ... isn't that just a lazy approach, theatre's equivalent to 'real-people-are-the-stars' reality tv?
It's evident that this type of 'faked', 'one-way' interaction has its audience, but Gary, please don't fret too much and please, don't give up YOUR day job!

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