When you wake up in the morning singing the first tune from the performance you saw the night before, you know it was a memorable experience. To say the least, this is exactly the impression Nicola Gunn’s shockingly unique and bravely quirky Hello my name is leaves on its audience.
Set in a room equipped with a plethora of rainy day activities, pancake ingredients, mood lighting, and too many chairs, Nicola portrays a startlingly convincing French woman named Eva. The predominantly invariable lighting and sporadic use of sound are designed by Gwen Holmberg-Gilchrist and Luke Paulding respectively, but it’s how Nicola commands the space that is the real focus. Between frequent and bizarre anecdotes, her character Eva is an excitable woman on a mission to show her guests of the “Community Centre” a good time.
Reminiscent of a drama class, the success of this solo performance is daringly dependent on the open-mindedness of its audience and their willingness to participate. As they are entirely unprepared and most likely shy, this is hugely trusting on Nicola’s part, both in her audience and herself. Her perpetual energy, warm nature, and subtle, relentless humour prove to be enough encouragement to loosen up her audience.
Somewhere between intimate and crowded, the performance is better suited to a small or moderate-sized group. At times the space was almost claustrophobic. With less people, the group would have found it easier to be more inclusive of one another and better engage throughout the show.
Despite only being in development before the first full season at Theatre Works in Melbourne, Nicola’s show already stands on its feet as unique and bold. Part performance and part conversation, each stranger in the room learnt to accept the situation and become immersed in the experience. The moments where Nicola energetically guided the audience were the most effective, while moments of greater freedom for the audience lacked direction. A monologue while they were preoccupied with something else, such as impromptu life drawing, also leaves the participators uncertain as to whether they should listen or concentrate on their activity.
Without an overarching narrative, the experience is very much a message about how strangers interact and associate themselves with others and be open to the possibilities. Due to the absurd and fresh nature of the performance to demand far more from the audience than usually expected, it risks losing their attention. While there is always room for improvement, as it occasionally flounders for structure, the experience itself is ultimately fulfilling. However, a more concise rendition would achieve the same purpose and maximise eager involvement.
Taking participatory theatre to the next level, Nicola and her co-creator Carlee Mellow have raised the bar on this unconventional performance type. The audience leave the space confident to open up with their fellow participators and exchange positive feedback. Although a little baffling and potentially tedious on an unsuspecting audience, it is an ingeniously crafted and brave piece of work that offers an enduring experience.