Michal Imielski: An intimate Portrait of an Artist and a response to Unsex Me | True West Theatre & SHH Productions
I observe the human in the corner. I watch as his face lit by a laptop, uncovered the detail of a thinking face. He is curled towards his keyboard and a series of light switches on dimmers… a network of cables stream from a table, connected to lights arcing up as baby birds do, mouths screaming out white light. His furrowed gaze focused on the throbbing sound. Occasionally punctuating the voice of an actor with flippant flashes from his camera.
Bare Boards Brave Hearts wasn’t the first time I had encountered Michal Imielski or his work.
The end of 2009 was an interesting time in my theatre going. It had brought with it a desire to reconnect with a style of work I had always struggled with … non-text based, nearly installation art, site specific devised work. It had been a style of work which had been a steady part of my visual diet during Performance Studies degree and as soon as I had freed myself (and my long-suffering university department) from my academic career I had pushed away from attending that style of work. The examples I had been exposed to seemed self-indulgent, self-important and overly earnest, and to be honest seemed to care very little for the audience’s experience, let alone presence.
But in 2009 my curiosity had stirred in the direction of devised work – and I was compelled to ask if I still felt the same way – had the work changed or had I? As a re-entry point, I ventured out to see the work of PACT’s ImPACT ensemble. This was the first time I encountered Michal Imielski’s unique way of presenting ideas, interrogating assumptions about the world and art and culture in general. I wrote a piece about the show Public Bunnies (Op. in C# minor) which you can read here … And it remains with me, haunting me and probably always will.
In 2010, as the project coordinator for Queen Street Studio’s Blueprint Residency, I received an email, very late from Imeilski requesting that he could attend what was an in-house, invitation only showcase of the works. And after the showing we chatted, and he introduced himself as the director of Public Bunnies. At that stage, I had recently recommended his remount of Blind As You See It to be included in the inaugural Sydney Fringe Festival… I don’t remember much about the details of the conversation but there was something undeniable about his ideas, about his vision for a hybrid arts centre, something that felt like a searing urgency for and in pursuit of, art. I had, up until this stage, felt uncomfortable referring to myself as an artist – frightened of the pejorative sense in which it often regarded preferring instead to the title of director, curator or playwright. As with many foyer conversations where you feel as though you have been tumbled in washing machine, numbers exchanged, a coffee date promised – but not pursued.
In 2011, Bare Boards Brave Hearts showed a sample of Unsex Me – a devised piece by Imielski and his long time collaborator Nick Atkins about the pursuit of modern love – which was the fledgling taste (or test, or taste-test) for the larger work to open True West: Parramatta Riverside’s inaugural new works season. A man in a square of fluctuating light, and sound -bending and breaking under the attempt to articulate a desire for intimacy – intimacy as both in the sense of the physical (sex) and emotional connection (love).
A week afterwards, Imielski made good on his coffee request from 2010. Opening with some brutal and provocative opinion on art and theatre (especially as a devotee of non-text based theatre) he spoke wildly, candidly and forcefully about his dislike of text based theatre. It was a three hour coffee date – honest and passionate and unparalleled. It felt like two sides of a coin finally facing each other to discover that which they are pushing against was essential and necessary – each other. The conversation included a job offer which I gracefully declined, but I countered with an offer to attend a few rehearsals in capacity of rehearsal observer in order to document his process. He accepted. I had been accepted into his rehearsal room, possibly for an artist the most risky of acceptances – not only because what ever I experience can affect me as an artist, but also because the experience of having me there could affect the creation of his work. It’s a risk, allowing someone in. Both parties have much to lose, much they may want to protect, much they may reveal, much they may be judged on. There is much to fear and that is the essence and the beauty of intimacy.
Many artists know just how private and sacred rehearsal can be – it’s a place for failure, experimentation – a place where judgement is reserved for those who will solve the problems they identify. A place where only the invited may attend for at times, the mere presence of a person can change the exchange within the room – toppling the rehearsal into the realm of performance prematurely. I have had the great fortune – though seen as a reviewer, having the honour of attending many rehearsals… I pride myself on the tone and functionality of my rehearsal room presence… because I am so keenly aware of the fragility of creation.
I found myself in the week preceding a rehearsal room visit, drawn into a different type of intimacy as Imielski’s presence in my day to day life intensified. Without plan, or want, I surrendered to the obvious and the delightful danger of a new relationship – dangerous as perceptions are difficult beasts to wrangle – and decided that it would not interfere with my role as rehearsal observer, nor would it be undeclared in any written response to the work. I take refuge, at this precise moment, in Alison Croggan’s openness/writings about her husband playwright Daniel Keene: and I include some of my favourite posts here and here… and the decision to declare the personal in the professional realm feels risky and dangerous – but to not declare it would ultimately be deceptive.
The first waking moments of rehearsal are filled with practical fussing. Imielski’s Ford Meteor is emptied of essential rehearsal tools – a collection of lights, a foam mattress, a sheet, a laptop, a wooden bucket, a microphone stand, a folder, paper, cloth, a box of pastries and juice for morning tea, balloons… like that of a roaming gypsy – anything could happen and everything is included. We push our way through the doors of the Blacktown Arts Centre – a silent and white gallery yawns before us, on our way to the black curtained performance space. Performer Nick Atkins is readying himself – bubbly and light in his body, balanced by a voracious and heavy mind. All things are kept within him – all movement, all voice culminating in a selection of moments. Imielski and Atkins nest in the space – setting up physically and textually the day’s rehearsal. Most conversation is debriefing of their worlds – work, world, yesterday’s rehearsal… Imielski dives in setting up – light and mic stand, sound. Music starts. Atkins dances awkwardly.
A question from Imielski – “Let’s examine the idea of what is sexy and what’s not… I think we’ve nailed what’s not.”
They play. Imielski feeds back what he saw, what he liked , offers some ‘what ifs’ to Atkins… “What is the show about, if we think about it in terms of what happened yesterday? Perhaps that sexuality can be moulded by experience and memory?” They joke and laugh and play. “Where I think we are heading with this show is that it is more about love than sex”…
Atkins spews forth a jukebox of love songs. It’s awkward and breathless and funny. Clumsy and familiar – cliches roll and ricochet. it’s all true and completely awkward.
The lights are turned off. Atkins isn’t afraid. “It’s good to start in the dark, or start in a dark place, ” he says.
Things feel safer in the dark, words sound more philosophical, softer, more poetic.
The sound of a voice in the darkness like that of a lover whispering a confession or a declaration.
Anecdotes and stories are scrutinized – where does the thinking around love and sex and intimacy lie – a confessional? A declaration? A question? An observation? An anecdote about dating/love?
An attempt at audience participation. An idea is offered by Imielski – the awkwardness of dating – “I am watching you pretending to feel comfortable – what keeps you there? Stubbornness? Wanting to push through? Awesome that despite the awkwardness that love continues… it’s so dangerous… sometimes it’s good not to know, despite the excessive bombardment of social codes of being sexy , it is still unclear what is sexy. What is not.”…
I am watching Atkins offer, and re-offer and ask and reveal – his body, his thoughts, his voice, his culturally saturated perspective. I watch Imielski question and support, and celebrate moments of spontaneous delight – I am watching two artists – equal in intensity, intelligence and passion walk forward through a maze of storytelling, at times acknowledging there is too much material, and acknowledging things that don’t work, aren’t working today, acknowledging the shift in how Atkins is relating to objects, to the space, to the empty audience. It’s a constant dialogue – looping back, feeding back – suggestions are made in how to handle the objects or the space – Imielski communicates in images, not direction – and seems to know exactly the language to use to trigger a response in Atkins. There is a synergy here that I am not a part of, but I am privvy to. there is a common language, a intimacy between performer and director – there is pure trust between them. Trust based on vulnerability and optimism, faith in one another.
I watch as the moods shift like blood-sugar levels.
I watch as Atkins’ is dissatisfied and defiant, and as Imielski offers an image to solve the problem.
I watch as they battle and banter and giggle and offer and work – Imielski’s compositions rise and fall in time with the balloon animal butterfly that arcs over a makeshift boat.
(I attend one more rehearsal in Parramatta. In the intervening days before bump in dramaturg Chris Hurrell comes into the room to assist shape the material. I make the decision not to attend when Hurrell is attending – out of respect and out of desire that the rehearsal doesn’t take on the guise of performance with so many non-performers observing.)
As with all theatrical events much can be said for panic – the show itself has been worked on to include audience interaction (as opposed to audience participation) and a preview is vital to gauge what is working and what isn’t. Imielski is still in the process of refining his composition – as the composer on the project he has a hard task cut out for him – and his boss is relentless and demands perfection and diversity, and new material. He is underscoring 80% of the 1 hour show… and keeping Atkins on track, tightening and loosening the performance. There is a friendly crowd for preview, open to the delight and surprise of the work – after all this is physical theatre the text is fluid and devised. There are still questions to ask, challenges to conquer. Hurrell offers pages of notes as concerned and collegiate outside eye. Imielski listens, weighs and considers Hurrell’s reading of the work. In some cases Imielski is swayed. In others, Hurrell is corrected. Imielski is flexible but firm in his ideas and aesthetic – always choosing to regard the audience with an element of regard which says – ‘this is for you, I know you will understand.’
A thudding bass, twee claps in the opening soundtrack. A large red balloon is on stage. Atkins is preset dancing, watching us as we select our seats. Imielski is operating lights and sound… and walks on stage to set up the space. Unlike the portion showed at Bare Board Brave Hearts, he is an active participant in the creation of the stage space – at times stage hand, at times a roadie, at times he is being ordered by Atkins to fetch or set, or photograph. Director becomes the performer’s ultimate butler. A true servant to his art – and to his performer. Silent except for his music and the sound of his boots walking up and down the stairs, we are watching him, voyeuristicly enjoying this voluntary enslavement.
Part confessional, part dance, part stand-up comedy, part self-help guide, part art installation part impersonation, part cautionary tale – Atkins and Imielski have created a truly unique theatrical event, filled with humour, nostalgia, love, memory, awkwardness. We find ourselves drawn into the world of Riley, a 23-year-old yearning for intimacy, trapped by his past, his experience, his expectation, his social context – we laugh with him as he fails at being sexy, we feel terrified at his loneliness, we are delighted by his optimism, we are confronted by our own guardedness, confronted by the reality of ourselves as cliche. Any unwillingness to be as intimate in our engagement with him as he is with us as he stands alone and vulnerable on stage – speaks volume about our own fear, our own expectations.
We watch as Atkins performs the unthinkable – and despite the title, there is nothing pornographic (nor particularly Shakespearean) in this production. Unsex Me’s unthinkable act is what I believe to be the greatest of our societies current taboos – pure honesty and openness. Unsex Me is utterly intimate: offering the ugly and the awkward and the ungenerous and the unglamorous. Without such offers true intimacy would not exist. Without openness, you would not be reading this, feeling closer to me than you would otherwise as I publicly declare my new relationship. Without the extreme, and pure openness of Atkins – and he transforms without pretentiousness – we are privy to the vulnerable, trembling side of the pursuit of connection… we watch his rejection, his confession, his yearning, his failure – we watch his humanity unfurl. And it’s at once terrifying and hilarious.
Theatre is an inherently intimate act. Our hearts, our minds, our sensibilities are opened up by it’s immediacy and transience. Like love, it demands our undivided attention, our ultimate compassion and eager generosity for the experience to be ultimately fulfilling, thrilling and transformative.
Imielski’s Unsex Me is a visual and aural poem to the pursuit of intimacy. He asks us not to follow closely numbered dots to draw a picture but instead offers a curated collection of ideas and moments to trigger memory, empathy and nostalgia. He asks us to intuitively reach within ourselves, out experiences, our expectations of theatre (and love) and asks us to admit to our own frailty, fragility and failure – to confess our desire, our need for love, our foolishness – and invites us to be at peace with the idea of love as something that is not found externally, at a night club or in a fancy new shirt, but within oneself- intimacy’s ultimate resting place.