by Allison Browning
The fascination started six years ago. There came a thrill, a hunger, to pull apart what was real from what was unreal after I’d attended a theatre performance. I had always felt high from theatre that crossed artistic genres but this was different. This was crossing boundaries, but it was also pressing buttons and messing with heads in the subtle kind of way that lends respect.
The Secret Room
I was in Perth back in 2004 and I’d been a dinner guest for The Secret Room. Between seven and twelve guests (audience members) arrived for a meal at a couple’s makeshift home. (Back in Italy or Melbourne they would use their own, more permanent home). Below was a gallery space, above, a small apartment where they were staying. Guests were greeted, seated, dinner was served and Bosetti quietly muttered, You will hear what you usually hear, you will see no play, there will be no playing here tonight.
Over dinner, Roberta Bosetti, who ‘plays’ herself, tells stories from her childhood. There is a point in the performance where she dumps a stack of paper onto a dresser in her bedroom mid-way through a dense monologue, explicit about sexual abuse. Bosetti had just given graphic detail about her past and now she casually slaps the paper down and states it’s all there in the script.
There will be no playing, we had been warned.
Not long after, we were told to leave and directed down a back stairwell. And the nattering began. How much was true? I can’t believe… But how could she…
The Institute for the Art of the Actor
The theatre company Institute for the Art of the Actor (IRAA) is composted of Bosetti and her husband Renato Cuocolo who blur lines and in confession their work resonates in a perverse yet familiar way. Their work is drawn from their personal lives but as an audience member you’re never sure of what is real or just how much of their own lives is steeped in what you’re witness to. Their performances are often interactive and you can’t be sure if you are speaking to Bosetti the person or Bosetti the performer, perhaps another version of herself.
Founded in 1978, IRAA has created and performed a series of six trilogies that have been presented in 18 nations on 4 continents.
The most recent works of the company have been received with great success and critical acclaim in numerous Festivals such as: Vienna International Festival, Melbourne International Arts Festival (4 times), Adelaide International Festival, Sydney Olympic Arts Festival, Sydney Festival (3 times), Turin Festival (3 Times), Prato Contemporanea and Genoa European Cultural Capital 2004.
The Diary Project
Later in 2004, I spoke with the couple in Melbourne after seeing their piece The Diary Project. The show was situated in the Melbourne Arts Centre where they had set up home for two weeks. The Diary Project was premiered with full houses and rave reviews in Genoa (European Cultural Capital 2004) and in October it was presented as the central event of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, reaching a live audience of 35,392 people. Throughout their fortnight in the Art Centre’s open-plan gallery space they were watched by audience members through windows in their makeshift abode till all hours and, at scheduled intervals, the audience entered the space and Bosetti read from her diary.
During one diary reading Bosetti, while lying on the bed in the middle of the gallery-come-residence, recounted the beginning of a pregnancy, one that was never to come full-term. She confided that she had had a curette to remove the child whose heart stopped beating. She stood, clearly emotional, and walked to the back of the room to a dressing table where she undid the front of her dress. She drew a circle in red lipstick onto her flat belly and stared at herself in the full-length mirror. Bosetti, no hysterics or theatrics, cried audibly and visibly.
The audience were ushered out by Cuocolo who then went to comfort her. I was still standing there, awkward, due to speak with them about the work. It was clear that this was not scripted. This was not part of the performance. But then which parts were?
This is always the question.
And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Standing in the gallery space I then became a performer of sorts—being watched through the windows I was in limbo, neither audience now nor performer, but both. I was offered wine and a seat on a plump couch.
We had to stop a performance the other night; I was too emotional, Bosetti tells me. And I ask how she manages to get through the intensity of this work she chooses. Dah, she says. Do you have that word in English? I shake my head. I just do.
In 2005 the couple presented Private Eye in a Melbourne CBD hotel, part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. To gather footage for the performance Bosetti was followed by a private detective who recorded her movements. Upon arriving at the hotel I am directed, alone, to Cuocolo’s hotel room where we are seated on single beds in front of a television. I am uncomfortable and sit politely as I watch footage of his wife in normal and more suggestive locations. He hands me a swipe card and room number. Tells me to take the lift and enter. Just enter? Yes, you use the card and enter, I am told.
And I do.
I walk in and Bosetti reprimands me for coming in without knocking. I am impolite I am told. She seats me on a bed anyway and begins to talk about this space. She asks me to lace her corset. What are your fantasies? she asks quietly. This is not an upfront seduction. This is not in your face tack, but it is provocative in the way I question my own discomfort, how I feel talking about myself in this strange place, how should I behave in this situation, how much to reveal.
I listen to Bosetti. I’m trying to take in words as I fight my discomfort, an audience of one. A while passes and then she shifts into another gear. I am shuffled into a wardrobe via a mirrored door, told to be quiet. Someone is coming. There is a small stool inside and I sit. I expect darkness and claustrophobia once I am settled but I realise I can see through the cupboard door. It is a one-way mirror. Someone leaves from the cupboard beside mine. They walk past my mirror and I realise I have been watched this whole time. I feel raw as I watch her next prey enter.
The Persistence of Dreams: The Sandman
This year I experienced IRAA’s piece The Persistence of Dreams: The Sandman.
The staging wasn’t a constructed space, a gallery or a stage; IRAA invaded your space. In this case, the stage was my own home.
An audience of ten were seated in my lounge room when the ‘couple’ entered, though this time we saw their relationship changed—they were brother and sister.
Is this the house? Cuocolo asked Bosetti. Is this the house you dreamt of? She said she was not sure and she wanted to be shown through my home.
We were then blindfolded.
What is your greatest fear? We were asked. After an opening preamble Bosetti moved into a monologue about memory and stories from her childhood. She relayed ETA Hoffman’s short story The Sandman as her mother had told it to her as a child. The Sandman is a dark character that would throw sand into the eyes of children who would not go to bed. The sand would make their eyeballs pop out and he would feed the eyeballs to his own children.
This character seems a symbol of Bosetti’s greatest fear, one that is only hinted at, but it is understood that this fear was realised, a fear that seems to echo the memories I had of Bosetti’s confronting Secret Room monologue
Bosetti describes her and her brother’s intense fear of The Sandman. The stories she tells focus on bedtime, though something far darker is alluded to, that fear, the happening, that is left unsaid. She often trails off, leaving sentences unfinished. This was not usual for IRAA’s work, where themes of loss and violation are described graphically and creep up frequently. The Persistence of Dreams was gentler on its audience than previous shows have been. The same darker themes were present, but in what was not said. There was a sense that something sinister had happened in Bosetti’s youth but, in this show, it’s nearly lost in the mix.
Bosetti held tension in the room as she threatened to leave many times over and I found myself fearful that she was going to. Cuocolo keeps her in check and while playing her brother in this story, he still maintained his usual role of ‘director’, controlling the action almost with his presence alone, just a verbal intervention here and there.
At one point he accused her of veering away from the script. She was only reciting something from Emily Dickinson, she explained. She was reprimanded; the script was presented to her and she resumed.
In The Secret Room this device, the reminder that there is a script, was necessary to relieve the audience. To take away some of the responsibility to feel some kind of ‘real’ pain. Bosetti’s confessions were raw, visceral and brutal. And so the script was referred to, shown to the audience. The script, the object that acts as a protector when needed, tells stories, lies, in the same way theatre usually does, ‘It’s ok this is not real,’ it says. Though the question always lingers after… Is it?
The chances are high that much of what you’ve been privy to has been drawn from Bosetti and Cuocolo’s personal lives. The Persistence of Dreams searched the traces of an ‘otherness’ that refuses to be completely tamed—the disturbing effect of the unfamiliar in the familiar, of the untameable or uncontrollable in domesticity.
Thematically the show moves quickly. An argument about the merit of fruit-and-nut-chocolate transitions to Cuocolo dispensing a block of the chocolate communion style. We were then quickly shifted into a dense Bosetti monologue wherein she removes her shirt. We remove our blindfolds as instructed and we find her this way. Naked, we were told, you have only your fears and memories to carry.
After our wrists are cut free and the duo leave there are questions lingering as usual. How safe do we feel at home? Perhaps, even if no one is there to cause threat, we are still haunted by our own fears? In true IRAA form, The Persistence of Dreams tacks references, moments and stories together with ragged thread to propel questions without any comfort of resolve or answers.