“Too Close For Comfort” – my exploration into the boundaries of personal space.

I couldn’t help feeling at least a little sympathy for the man. He was, after all, a business lecturer, and on the way up to his study he had to share the intimate space of a lift with an undergraduate sitting in the corner applying red varnish to her fingernails. When he reached his floor he stormed out and barked back at me: “As a degree student, I would expect you to have more sense than to paint your nails in the lift!”

I was not doing this out of slovenliness. I was – though I didn’t respond to the business lecturer as I giggled quietly to myself – very much at work on my degree. I am a drama student at Anglia Ruskin College in Cambridge and for my module “Performing Theory” I was asked to come up with a three hour act based on a quote of my choice. This was my chance to explore my interest in the boundaries between performer and audience. I did so by examining the, idea contained in “Too Close for Comfort”, an article by Helen Paris, currently a lecturer in drama at Brunel University in London and co-director of the performance art company Curious. How far can one go before the audience feels uncomfortable and when does it start becoming uncomfortable for the performer?

I then looked into the boundaries between private and public space. What actions are taken in private spaces that are just not socially accepted if done in public spaces?  I took a feminist approach to this, asking the question, “Why is it that women are expected to do a number of things in private and never talk about them in public?” These things included shaving, waxing and plucking. It is assumed that these actions are taken but if brought up in conversation it can cause people to feel uncomfortable. So here is where the scheming side of me comes out.

I began to think about a public space that is still intimate. I wanted to have an audience that was continuous, but not stuck with me for the three hours. The lift in the business department was the perfect space. So I found a spare stool from the drama department and trundled down to the lift with my bag of tricks to hand.

Image I then spent the next three hours horrifying most of the business students by clipping my toenails, painting them and my finger nails, shaving my armpits and waxing my legs.

I had a set of rules to follow as I completed the three hours, one of which was to always remain myself and chat to people if they so wished. However, if someone asked me why I was there and what I was doing my reply had to be, “I don’t have much time between lectures and I couldn’t find a spare classroom so I thought I’d get this done quickly here.” With the influence of TV shows such as Trigger Happy TV I had a number of people just about climbing up the walls of the lift desperately in search of a camera, absolutely convinced that this was a trick and they were being filmed for their reactions.

A number of male students asked me out on a date. One guy left the lift, wrote his number down on a piece of paper, popped his head back in and said, “Just seeing you paint your nails in this lift makes me want to take you out, call me.” Suppressing tears of laughter I just smiled sweetly and thanked him…little did he know I was shocked that someone had managed to out-odd me. I had thought I was the strangest thing in that building!

Confusion oozed from the lift. A couple of times people popped their head in to see what I was doing, apologised and said they would take the stairs. It was perfectly, typically English; seeing someone perform a private action, they would feel embarrassed and offer to leave, ever so politely.

The reaction from females was different as they seemed much more comfortable with what was going on. I guess having done these things themselves and understanding the pain of waxing they would congratulate me on doing it and were concerned about how much pain I was in. This created a little momentary relationship which was very pleasant and made me feel even cheekier when an unsuspecting male would walk in.

Some men would look at me in horror as the doors closed on them and they would stand there bursting with embarrassment at what they were witnessing. I had a group of males who seemed to just enjoy the fact I had my bare legs showing. On occasions they would leave the lift only to return with more ogling men, pointing at me and giggling like, well, like schoolgirls. Whoever knew this was a way to seduce a man! They took great interest in choosing which colour I should paint my toe nails arguing between themselves which colour looked better. Pink or Red?

The performance caused such a spectacle that after only a few minutes the university security guards came bustling over to restore order. They looked at me in disbelief and demanded to be told what I was doing, to which I replied, “I don’t have much time between lectures and I couldn’t find a spare classroom so I thought I’d get this done quickly here.” It took only a split second to notice that the security guard was beginning to see red but my lecturer swooped in and rushed them out the lift only to tell them the real truth.

Some may think my audience deserved a real explanation, especially for those who loyally travelled up and down with me but I couldn’t resist leaving the audience with those unanswered questions. My plan was to glide casually out the lift and merge into the surrounding bodies but just as I headed out the lift the guy that had just handed me his number was stood there looking curiously at me. All protection I had by being a performer now evaporated from me and I was left feeling extremely vulnerable. He winked awkwardly at me as a passed him. I opened my mouth to reply but instead felt some random sound be released that had no significance, I don’t think he heard. The shy side of my personality rushed through my cheeks and I wobbled out the room on my jelly legs.

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