Actors become accustomed to performing in front of large rooms full of strangers. But Sophie Cadieux is about to spend a week in a small room performing for one stranger at a time – a more intimately terrifying experience.
"I'm not fearful, but there's something very vertiginous about all that possibility," she says, over the phone from Montreal. "Anything can happen the moment when you close the door – that big, heavy door."
A prominent theatre and television actress in Quebec, Cadieux is on stage this week as part of an unusual immersive show that launches the season at Montreal's Théâtre Espace Go.
Created by the 35-year-old actress along with director Alexia Bürger, Je ne m'appartiens plus (I Don't Belong to Myself Anymore) has transformed the Plateau Mont-Royal theatre into an eight-room apartment. One spectator at a time will be sent on a solo journey to explore the different spaces in this phony home where they will stumble upon Cadieux, dancer Sophie Corriveau and others along the way.
While one-person shows have long been widespread in the theatre, one-person audiences are a relatively new phenomenon. Recently, however, there's been an explosion in productions designed to be watched by a single person at a time – perhaps catering to a social-media-mad world's desire to experience a more intimate and interactive brand of performance.
Only 30 audience members get to participate in Je ne m'appartiens plus each night, but that means that Cadieux will be delivering a five-minute monologue – in an extremely private room, but she wants to keep the location a secret – about 10 times an hour for three hours straight, with only a one-minute break between visitors.
Cadieux compares the audience experience at her "experiment" – a non-narrative meditation on the mysteries of what goes on behind closed doors – to being a witness rather than a spectator, while, on her part, she says it requires an entirely different style of performance.
"It's a kind of non-acting," she says. "Because of the close proximity to the spectator, there won't be any artifice.… I'm going to try to make it seem as if you've known me for a long time."
Solo-spectator theatre can be as simple as American performance artist Marina Abramović sitting across a table from you at a museum, as she did in her 2010 installation The Artist Is Present. Or it can be an elaborate spectacle like the offbeat British hit You Me Bum Bum Train, in which one audience member at a time is given the starring role in a variety of silly scenes populated by more than 200 performers.
It's rare, however, to find yourself mano-a-mano with an actress as well-known as Cadieux, who was a cast member on the hit TV comedy Rumeurs and is about to star in a new Radio-Canada series called Adam & Ève this fall. (Created by Claude Meunier of the Quebec sitcom La petite vie, it features the talented comedian Cadieux and Pierre-François Legendre as a couple at three different ages – 25, 35 and 80.)
Cadieux's local celebrity status means she can draw mainstream audiences to boundary-pushing theatre they might not otherwise consider buying tickets for – as she did last season at Espace Go when she performed in a subversive and barely penetrable work by Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek (and converted me, at least, into a fan of the Nobel Prize-winning writer). "I do what I like and hope that people follow," she says.
At Espace Go, Cadieux is now halfway through a three-year artistic residency that is very unorthodox for an actress. Artistic director Ginette Noiseux has allowed Cadieux to not only program one of the season's regular shows, but also given her free rein to use the rest of the theatre's space in whatever way she likes.
For Cadieux, it's been a great opportunity to work with people from her generation who inspire her, like the thirtysomething director Bürger, who frequently collaborates with provocative playwright Olivier Choinière on outside-the-box performances.
"We devise a project together, but then they direct me," says Cadieux. "I'm not a director or necessarily an author, but an actress – I like to put myself in their hands and have them help me push beyond."
This season at Espace Go, Cadieux is exploring the concept of intimacy, particularly as it pertains to women. She'll be back at the theatre in February to spend three nights reading Virginia Woolf's A Room of One'sHer Own – very fitting, given her current project – in its entirety in front of an audience that will be invited to lie down with her to listen. Then, at the end of the season, she'll perform in an adaptation of writings by Nelly Arcan, a Quebec novelist whose star was on the rise before she committed suicide three years ago. "She has a lot to say that I find very pertinent to being a woman in her 30s," says Cadieux.
For this week, however, she'll be entertaining 150 strangers one-on-one – an experience she expects to be exhausting, but also an adventure. "There will be timid people, there may be people who want to leave, maybe people who want to talk to me or touch me," she says. "It takes as much courage to attend as it does to do, though – there are a lot of people who you talk to about projects like this and it traumatizes them."
For your eyes only: Four more shows for solo spectators
Vancouver's Theatre Replacement was at the forefront of one-person shows for one-person audiences with these bilingual shows about first-generation Canadians. They were created in 2007 and toured as far afield as Germany. Each mini-documentary play was performed in a tiny black-box theatre worn on an actor's shoulders – and the language of the performance could be changed with the flip of a switch.
Sleep No More
This immersive Macbeth-inspired playground in New York created by the British geniuses known as Punchdrunk can accommodate hundreds of audiences members at a time, but each night a select few are pulled into a secret room by a hotel porter for a one-on-one show-within-the-show. Stars such as Neil Patrick Harris, Alan Cumming and Evan Rachel Wood have popped by for a night to guest in this role.
Maybe If You Choreograph Me, You Will Feel Better
In Lebanese artist Tania El Khoury's interactive performance – which recently visited Toronto's SummerWorks Festival – a male audience member is given the opportunity to give her instructions on how to move among strangers along the street while watching from a window above. No longer strictly speaking a single-spectator show, now an additional female audience member is allowed to listen in on the private conversation.
The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding
It's hard to imagine a more intimate performance than this one by Adrian Howells that caused a sensation at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011. In a hotel bathroom, the Glasgow-based artist bathes his solo audience members by candlelight, then wraps them in a towel and hugs them.