STREAMING REVIEW: Change Your Own Life (BATS Theatre)

Review by Irene Corbett

[Potent in Any Medium]

Jean Sergent’s solo show returns from Fringe to the stage and your nearest screen. Change Your Own Life is a guide to navigating where the body, immense love, and overwhelming grief intersect. 

With the lockdown and social distancing closing theatres and keeping audiences apart since March, transitioning to an online platform has become a popular alternative for theatres and performers (two such theatrical productions have been reviewed by Theatre Scenes, Butcher Holler Here We Come, and ATC’s adaptation of The Seagull, though both of these works relied on pre-recorded material). Returning following its debut in the 2020 NZ Fringe, Change Your Own Life joins the new wealth of online material via a livestream direct from BATS.  

So how does a livestream differ to a re-recorded performance? 

For starters, if the email stating the start time for the livestream is wrong (as in the case of the email I received from BATS) then you’re only going to see two thirds of the show (and have to then go back to watch the first). 

Without the usual maths of: doors open minus the time to pick up the tickets plus one drink and one bathroom trip equalling arriving at a time generally early enough to counteract this type of confusion, the accurate communication of show information becomes vital to the audience experience. The livestream experience means that you, the audience member, are in many ways now the box office, usher, and technician. It feels like a lot more responsibility than simply getting yourself to the theatre. Sound, stream quality, and even the ability to pause the stream is now in your hands! A certain amount of enjoyment is reliant on internet quality. But despite this, the main concern for the avid theatre-goer is obviously an inevitable loss of atmosphere. Many of us enjoy the expectant buzz before the show begins, the laughter or breathless silence as the action requires, the sensation of being present, being seen, and, for certain material, the feeling of being held answerable

Change Your Own Life successfully transitions to the streaming medium. A rich sense of atmosphere is achieved through the superb quality of the audio. Sergent appears to be wearing a microphone pack which transmits her voice with total clarity, no sensation of movement or muffling. There is also clear audio of the space, the almost imperceptible hum of theatre lights, laughter from the small live audience, and incredibly, dead silence when Sergent commands her in persons audience’s fullest attention. The sensation of baited-breath came through the computer, I did not think this was possible. It was shockingly engaging and you very much feel the presence of the in-person audience. While still a very individual theatre experience, the stream possesses a warmth and an intimacy I had not expected.

At the heart of the show is the tragic loss of Sergent’s best friend and flatmate Michael, and of her younger brother within the same year. From these events Sergent guides the audience through the process of returning from such unspeakable grief with a mixture of humour, raw wisdom, and astrology.

The strength of the show lies in Sergent’s performance. Sergent has a slightly husky, warm voice, with a great range of inflection. She often speaks with a tone which gestures to an ocean of pain, but maintains a sense of control that makes it clear the tide will soon turn again. The voice is supported by a stillness, a physical restfulness which acts to ease you through the material. The main movement is to retrieve props, a tender dialogue forming between Sergent and the items which populate the stage space. A bookcase brimming with books, artworks and images, oversized tarot cards, a comforting looking white mat beneath Sergent’s feet, each item soaked in meaning and used by Sergent to weave herself, her brother, and Michael together. 

Much is conveyed in facial movements, with Sergent’s glasses seeming to catch the light and magnify the eyes. Ripples across the brow and little flickers of memory and emotion filling pauses and adding unspoken depth to stories. In the upper third of the mise-en-scene, level with Sergent’s eyes, hang some images and what looks to be fabric collages. This was a very effective way of combating the usual black box dead space as this area became a visual focal point when watching the livestream.

Sergent speaks candidly about death, real friendship, love and sexuality, and, most importantly, about how the mind and the body are one; grief illustrates this truth more tangibly than any other state. It is a fantastic show, Sergent never relies on pity or sympathy.

I hope I get a chance to watch the stream again, it is available online until Thursday 18th of June here.

Change Your Own Life streamed live from BATS on Friday 12 June 2020. 

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