Durational theatre, says Malcolm Whittaker, focuses on either the accumulation or the deterioration of a subject over time – in other words, a story builds upon itself, or things gradually come apart. So too with relationships, it could be said. Star******s dwells in both realms, as a four-hour durational theatre piece created from the real-life stories of a ten-year relationship – that of Whittaker and his partner Laura Caesar.
The idea for Star******s came to Whittaker during a lonely stint of overseas research and development (as did his 2010 A Lover’s Discourse – which involved the exchange of love letters between strangers). At the time, he says, there was quite a bit of durational performance around, and he was also becoming interested in what might be gained collaborating with ‘non-artists’.
“Laura epitomised this in her refusal to ever be considered an ‘artist’ – whatever that is; and despite her being more well versed in the art lark than she gives herself credit for,” says Whittaker.
“I asked Laura if she would like to make a work with me, just the two us. And this way Laura could also accompany me on future trips if the work was to tour. Laura enthusiastically agreed.”
Developing Star******s was “two-tiered”, says Whittaker.
“Firstly we devised a ridiculously long list of lovers. The lovers on this list are made up of the contemporary and historical, fictional and non-fictional, biblical and royal, political and incestuous, bestial and promiscuous, famous and common and A- through D-grade in celebrity standing.”
“Simultaneous to this we commenced keeping diaries reflecting on our relationship. This began three years ago and so the seven years before that have been recounted in a retrospective manner – a toying with our own memories and nostalgia. What do each of us respectively remember? Why? And How?” (Laura has a terrible memory, he adds).
The ‘two tiers’ are literally moulded together in the finished work: diary entries are pasted into the pages of gossip magazines and read at random during the performance. Once read, each entry is torn out, shredded and sculpted into a miniature papier-mâché caricature of a pair of lovers from the list.
“Each miniature couple is laid out on a long table that alludes to a red carpet – a seemingly infinite catalogue of lovers are conjured in makeshift caricatures. The caricatures, like us, are caught in an ever-failing attempt to find a lasting duration of stability and contingency. Which we are doing as performers of the work over the four hours as well.”
The durational form, says Whittaker, simultaneously compresses, stretches and traverses a sense of time:
“Stories accumulate over time and everyday narratives undergo a seemingly never-ending process of construction and re-construction. […] The audience has the agency to arrive, depart and return of their own accord; and feel as though they are missing both everything and nothing in their choices to stay, leave or come back.”
“Contrary to what the four-hour time frame suggests, the durational form is also good for combating short attention spans.”
Caesar and Whittaker’s choice to use their own relationship, rather than create a fictional work, “raises interesting questions regarding authenticity and pretense on the stage,” Whittaker says.
“The relationship almost becomes a fictionalised one by way of the storytelling…similar to the slippery authenticity of the gossip magazines and media sources that people follow celebrities’ lives through.”
“This is what closes that distance with the audience…baring all creates a rather intimate and vulnerable quality where who we are as people is essentially put on trial… This ‘baring all’ is the most difficult thing about the piece – and the source of a ‘drama’ within the work, where a traditional sense of drama has been dispensed with.”
The self-exposure at the heart of Star******s, and its partner, curiosity, together point deftly towards popular culture’s obsession with the private moments of celebrities. It’s a tactic that sits a little uneasily, though.
“Laura has been reluctant in divulging certain material from our lives. Which has made me reluctant, so as to respect her feelings… Laura feels like the making public of our time takes away from these moments of ours, as it is almost [like] handing them over to others and therefore not special anymore.”
Caesar and Whittaker’s “time in the spotlight” is allegorised, Whittaker suggests, “as trash, truth, fiction and farce”.
“This is further pushed by the pulping and sculpting of our stories into representative caricatures of other couples from the spotlight… Perhaps this raises the questions of – Why does society know so much about these lovers in question? Why it is that we care? How is the world modelled around this grand obsession with that outside and out-of-reach of our personal?”
Vehement though he is in his aversion to celebrity gossip, Whittaker admits that while creating Star******s, Laura would often catch him reading the magazines they were using. “Laura doesn’t mind the celebrity magazines,” he says.
“Both Laura and I were fond of the unrequited love of Dale Cooper and Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks. We longed for them to get together, in a manner that is particularly uncharacteristic of Malcolm. Alas, it wasn’t to be…”
Laura Caesar & Malcolm Whittaker
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Thu 6 – Sat 8 Sep 2012
(03) 9322 3713