This article originally appeared on VICE UK
It's Saturday evening in an east London cinema and Jonathan Ross is curled up on a bean bag, sketching on a notepad, and vaping. He looks remarkably relaxed considering that both of us, along with a bunch of other paying guests, are about to be blindfolded and dragged around a room for the next hour.
It's all part of Tapestries, a production put on by artistic and theatrical company BitterSuite that aims to change the way you listen to music by manipulating your senses—or, in their words, making "you feel the music with your skin, taste the rich harmonies, and smell the tonality."
The plan is for the performers to blindfold us and lead us through a space where a reworking of Leoš Janáček's String Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata," composed by Fred Thomas, will be performed live by an orchestra and feature the words of poet Kayo Chingonyi. We'll be fed foods and liquids and sprayed with various smells designed to conjure different emotions. As someone whose last dalliance with immersive theater harks back to a hip-hop reimagining of an Artaud play in GCSE theatre, I'm initially wary.
My anxieties about being touched by strangers melt away when I meet the show's creative director, 27-year-old Stephanie Singer. "I've always had a very imaginative relationship to music," she says. While she listened to music as a child, she'd "see birds flying around the room and I was very struck to discover other people didn't."
I tell her that I thought synesthesia—the condition where sparking a sensation in one of the senses can trigger another sense—was reserved for 16th century musical prodigies and people who bang their heads in accidents. "We're not replicating synesthesia as such. We all have cross-modal correspondences where we perceive things with all the senses at once, and I became fascinated as to how you could create experiences and bring people closer to the primary modal—in this case, music."
So here we are. Someone sticks a number on my shirt, and I'm handed a pre-show drink—the closest descriptor I can give it is of a butter beer latte. A few minutes later, a group of actors sweep into the room and approach their allocated audience members. My performer, Marianna, finds me and I'm handed a spoon with a little red aperitif on it. Marianna blindfolds me, politely caresses me, and leads me into another room.
What happens from here on in is hard to explain. I know I'm in a large space and Marianna's touch rarely leaves my body. Once I get over my initial feelings of claustrophobia, I let go and try to focus. Violins play inches from my ears, people whisper from behind me, and Marianna squirts tubes of deliciously sweet, sometimes sharp tastes into my mouth as she walks me around the room. Intermittently she dances with me, and I assume I look like some sort of corpse bride. I have moments of very lucidly imagined landscapes and scenarios; I am in a house, sat in some long grass over which I can't see a horizon. I am being watched by someone.
The score is intense and full of off keys and flat notes that reverberate around my stomach. At one point, I'm lowered onto the floor and fed something fleshy. There's something comforting, infantilizing, and a bit melancholy about relinquishing all control and being moved through the space.
There is one particular moment where I'm laid on the floor and wrapped up in a rug. I'm swung around like a baby in a bath towel and it feels incredible. When I'm unraveled from my itchy chrysalis, I wonder if I'm supposed to feel re-born. The truth is, somehow, I managed a little nap. So when I'm summoned into an upright position and my blindfold is removed, I'm rather disappointed that the experience is over. I look around the room at the clapping people, the musicians and the performers, and, mostly, I'm overwhelmed.
There's something disarming and wonderful about feeling as though all four of your senses bar sight are suddenly cranked up to a higher volume. I can't think of many other theater experiences devised by young people that hit similar markers. There's less of the giggly, wink-wink nature of things like You Me Bum Bum Train, and a lot more innovation and scope for introspection than Secret Cinema's dress-up experiences, or the Goosebumps Alive show from this past spring. What works best is how intimate an experience Tapestries becomes, where your "handler" strokes, nudges, and pirouettes you through a piece of classical music that could otherwise be pretty inaccessible.
Later, I chat to Stephanie about the performance. She says that, for most people, this piece of music evokes "woodlands and folklore," and the deep-touch choreography creates sensations like "vines creeping around the body." I quickly ask what some of the most surprising reactions have been. "Tears. Lots of emotion. We had one man who afterwards told us it was the first time he'd been touched in seven years." Definitely not the average Saturday night out in Shoreditch, then.
BitterSuite's Tapestries show will open to the public in London in May 2017. If you fancy being blind-folded, find out more here