For your eyes only: The latest theatrical craze features a single performer with a single audience member

'One-on-one' is fascinating an entire new generation of theatre-goers. But is it drama at its most gripping? Or a dangerous and exploitative power trip?

Many's the time my enjoyment of a trip to the theatre has been undermined by the walrus-like grunts of a snoozing punter somewhere in Row H. And usually it's tedious having to squeeze past bulbous strangers to get to my seat. On the other hand, half the fun of theatre is sharing this show or that with dozens of other people, all looking the same way in the dark. Theatre is communal, right? It's about disappearing in a crowd, while the talented folks get on with it on stage?

Wrong. Theatre can be, and increasingly is, a solo experience – and a new generation of artists is bent on dividing their audience up into units of one. You want your feet washed? Fancy dancing with a stranger? How about being introduced to a friend's friend on a park bench, or to a glamorous would-be partner on a speed-date? Solo "audience members" are now rushing to participate in encounters that, until recently, few would have called theatre. "It's experiential," says David Jubb, co-artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), which is hosting a festival of one-on-one work, "and people want to be part of it."

They must be brave souls – in The Pleasure of Being trilogy, for example, live artist Adrian Howells bathes his audience members naked, cradles and feeds them. (Now that's what I call audience participation.) Howells was an early adopter of one-on-one theatre, having grown frustrated with the conventional alternatives. "I was in a lot of shows," he says, "that involved me divulging personal information to 700 people. And nobody cared. I was never really being met. Perhaps that's the deal with audiences who buy their tickets and sit in the dark: there's a distance between them and the stage."

One-on-one is about reducing that distance, and tackling the impersonality of conventional theatre. "Often in theatre," says Jubb, "you sit in the audience, and feel that you could wave and shout and nothing would happen. It would all just carry on, whether you were there or not." To one-on-one's proponents, this is a betrayal of the unique liveness of theatre. Film and telly can do slick, but only theatre can make an audience feel that its presence is essential, that a real connection is being made. "And one-on-one theatre takes that connection to the nth degree," says Jubb.

The BAC festival brings together 30 such productions, and demonstrates what a "broad church" (in Jubb's words) the movement has become. But the art form's USP is intimacy. These are micro-theatre shows that focus on the minutiae of human relationships that traditional plays often ignore. In Folk in a Box, you'll get sung to, in a box. US artist Nicole Blackman's Beloved – part of London's Lift festival next month– features 14 separate "acts of kindness" offered to the participant by the performers. Several shows at BAC dramatise therapeutic or doctor-patient relationships.

Blackman admits that, when she first made one-on-one work in the early 2000s, "I had to explain to people that it's not necessarily a performance any more than it is a personal service, like a masseuse or a hairdresser or, I suppose, a prostitute." Howells too describes his work in utilitarian terms. "You go to my shows to get yourself revitalised, recharged, re-energised." (But he doesn't "want to push the form just for the sake of it. I'm not interested in doing a live sex show.")

To Howells and others, one-on-one's popularity is a response to the intimacy deficit of 21st-century living. "We are in an age of rapid technological advance, and are more and more disconnected from ourselves, and other people. We spend huge amounts of time in front of computers, and having virtual relationships via email and Facebook. But we don't meet people eye to eye, flesh on flesh. And nothing can substitute for the nourishment of one human being meeting another in real time." One of Howells' shows is called Held, and in it, he just holds the participant in a series of different embraces.

But one-on-one isn't just about supplying intimacy, it's about contemplating it. "A good book never gives you love," says Alexander Devriendt of the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed, "but it gives you an insight into it. A work of art isn't a substitute, it's a mirror." After all, how authentically "intimate" can an encounter with a paid performer be? Devriendt should know: his speed-dating show Internal got into hot water last summer in Edinburgh by exposing the artifice of staged intimacy. "We wanted to show how fast you could build a meaningful relationship with a stranger," says the director. But the show's use (abuse?) of private information relinquished by its audience members reduced some participants to tears, and drew criticism of its "unethical" behaviour.

Devriendt doesn't know whether to be delighted by this – as a Duchamp aficionado, he's excited that art can still shock – or appalled. "I was baffled that people believed in the reality of it," he says. What Internal revealed was that, after years of passively receiving theatre, audiences are unpractised in disentangling reality and illusion; and that one-on-one's exponents have a duty of care towards participants. "One-on-one throws up those questions," says Jubb. "Who is in control? Who's the author? Who is responsible to whom?"

The artists I speak to are all sensitive to these questions – which is what distinguishes one-on-one from traditional "audience participation" (ie, being dragooned on to the stage at a panto and serially humiliated). "I cannot bear audience

participation," says Jubb. "But the work in this season has a huge sense of generosity to and engagement with the audience. A lot of it is edgy, but I don't think there are any pieces that will humiliate you." (Its exponents are determined it should not exclude the shy – or attract only wannabe stars.)

Ant Hampton runs the Rotozaza company, whose show Etiquette has toured the world. He too can't stand audience participation. "When you've got actors on stage, they're coated with this veneer of the rehearsed performer. No matter how hard they try, they know what's coming next and you don't." For participation to be truly non-exploitative, you need to remove this imbalance – or remove actors altogether. Hence Etiquette, in which there are no performers, and in which two audience participants act out the "play" according to instructions delivered over headphones.

If that sounds like the opposite of intimate, be reassured. Hampton argues that Etiquette – and his recent show The Bench, which brokers friendships between strangers on a park bench – encourages a more profound communion between two people than conventional theatre allows between 200. It's an important point – given that one-on-one is often criticised for encouraging selfishness over sharing. Theatre (runs this argument) used to be communal, but now it's becoming just another personalised consumer artefact. It's in response to this charge that Jubb and co-director David Micklem host their festival. Here, numerous one-on-one shows run simultaneously, so that hundreds of participants can share the same experiences over one evening – and talk about them afterwards.

A festival is also the only way to render this type of theatre cost-effective. One-on-one is no money-spinner – but it's got novelty value. The solo-audience show It's Your Film (part of the BAC festival) by the theatre company Stan's Cafe has been performed over 4,500 times around the world. "These shows are high-concept and unique," says director James Yarker. "The criteria against which they're measured are of your own making so your success is guaranteed. And promoters can usually grab the idea quickly." One-on-one is also popular with audiences who often give theatre a wide berth. "When I talk to my friends who hate theatre," says Jubb, "this is the event in our programme they want to see."

Anticipating a wild, unmanageable festival at BAC, with solo shows bursting out of the building's every space, Jubb and Micklem believe that the performing arts world can learn from one-on-one's blurring of the lines between art and participation, authorship and consumption. "With one-on-one, artists are actually creating work with audiences, and really rich ideas come from that," says Jubb. "That may raise hackles among those who see art as being created exclusively by trained artists. But we would say, 'Well, some of it is. And some of the best stuff,' we would say, 'definitely isn't'."

BAC's One-on-One festival runs from 6-18 July (020 7223 2223). 'Etiquette' is at the Gate Theatre, London (020 7229 0706) from 19-30 July. 'Beloved' is at Rainham Hall, London, as part of LIFT (020 7093 6340, liftfestival.com) from 14-18 July

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness