[Take Over!] The Crying Room

Getting through life can be a challenge at the best of times, but 2020 has been a special nightmare. The world as we knew it has been turned upside down by the pandemic, and for many of us, these uncertain times have been an ambush of familiar and unfamiliar emotions. There’s an ever-growing need for space to process all that is going on within us individually and collectively. Marcus Ian McKenzie’s new work, The Crying Room, built on deeply personal responses to events in his own life, presents itself as one such space.

The idea behind this work is drawn from the small, soundproof isolation spaces (crying rooms) usually located at the back of churches or theatres, designed to conceal disruption (usually crying children) by creating a space that facilitates a one-way experience of the main event. McKenzie turns this idea on its head and asks “what if a crying room was actually a space dedicated to emotionality? A place not to conceal tears, but to invoke them?”

A sneak peek into the development of this work was livestreamed on August 1, 2020 as part of Take Over!, a partnership between Arts Centre Melbourne and Melbourne Fringe. For about half an hour, an online audience received a unique behind-the-scenes glimpse into this work, which included a tour of McKenzie’s studio space, a look into his creative process, a preview of scenes, ideas, and text that form parts of the work, and a Q&A session where the audience asked questions and engaged with McKenzie and each other via live video chat. In addition to attending the livestream on August 1, I also had the privilege of a phone chat with Marcus McKenzie where he generously shared more about this work and his artistic approach.

Backstory

The Crying Room does not have just one single point of origin. For instance, McKenzie’s first encounter with the concept of a crying room was about six years ago, when he first experienced part of a live show from that sort of space with a friend at the MTC. He realized how different it was to engage with a show when the expectations of standard audience protocol were removed, when there was freedom to respond out loud without causing disruption to the performance or the rest of the audience. And there is a sense in which a Zoom livestream in 2020 can create a similar effect.

The most significant and most recent beginning of this work, however, is a place of personal grief. This is a work through which McKenzie is processing the loss of a beloved brother several months ago, and all the emotional complexity that comes with an experience of this magnitude. McKenzie sees all his work as always being a blend of what is personal and what is intellectual, something that different people can engage with in different ways, and hopefully find their own points of resonance, and not find impenetrable. Regarding emotion, he says that in theory he has prized it for a long time, but in practice, being emotional has sometimes been difficult – but less so lately. Transformative events can certainly impact one’s relationship with emotion.

The period following his brother’s passing, especially since the first lockdown in March, was an intensely creative time for McKenzie, who has also been working on a novel, and wrote something like 50,000 words during this time. There are also parts of this work that have been drawn from things created before this event – including elements that were originally created for previous shows with his brother’s input and involvement, and are now fittingly included in this show as a tribute to his role in McKenzie’s artistic life.

This re-creation of elements that have been seen in previous shows is something McKenzie regards as a characteristic feature of his work – a kind of self-plagiarizing, but with a dynamic, creative quality – as even revisiting old things can turn into an act of new creation. McKenzie views his works as living organisms that continue to grow even when they are completed, that constantly adapt to his own growth and reinterpreting, as well as to the energy of the audiences receiving them. In that sense, the contents of this work have had their conception at many different points in the past, and will continue to evolve even after they find a final form in this show.

The At Home Residency Showing

The Take Over! at home residency showing (the August 1 livestream) came across as being simultaneously a behind-the-scenes tour as well as a self-standing experimental online show. It was performed in part pre-recorded and part live-performed segments that flowed into each other, compiled into a somewhat trippy sequence, generating responses in the spaces of intellect, imagination, and emotion. McKenzie led his audience through a consistently engaging, steadily changing landscape of abstract ideas, themes, twists, and tech-influenced emotional states.

There were several intriguing themes and ideas addressed in this presentation. The intro scene immediately drew the audience into a space of individual experience, calling attention to the coexistence of reality and imagination, the mind and the senses, encouraging a taste of journey, conflict and acceptance. Then there was the intense, rhythmic, escalating call to “wake up” – a scene which for me personally invoked resonance of sleep paralysis, sharing the same haunting, vaguely terrifying sense of being awake but not in control, reaching desperately for what is just out of reach. Another significant moment was the audio-visual impact of Marcus McKenzie crying on screen in autotune: a quirky yet powerful creative choice, one that seemed to impact several of the online audience members in unique ways. For me personally it led me to reflect on the idea of emotional authenticity, on the qualitative experience of performed emotion. McKenzie confirmed that the performance of these tears was authentically felt, even if the emotions involved in the performance of the crying were different from what invoked the crying in the first place. In my mind this ties back to McKenzie’s view of all his creative work as living organisms, which continue to evolve and grow and take on new meaning, remaining authentic and personal even as they change.

Every part of this show bore a mystical and poetic essence, which was especially emphasized in the opening and closing texts. “I am in Pentecostal stupor”, McKenzie says in one part of the final poem, as his words take on increasingly abstract, increasingly intense, increasingly feverish emotions and imagery. When I asked McKenzie about the context for this metaphor, he revealed his fascination with the spiritual energy of Pentecostal worship, of glossolalia (speaking in tongues), of congregations “whipped up in a frenzy by an atmosphere of ritual”, a parallel to performance. I can certainly see an experiential parallel between McKenzie’s description of “Pentecostal stupor”, and the way he has crafted this work.

What’s Next

The Crying Room will be presented in its fully developed form at Melbourne Fringe in November 2020. It is not yet known what final form this show will take, whether it will be performed in person, or be a virtual experience as the Take Over! showing was. It has been difficult to accurately predict most things this year, but I’ll take my chances and predict that regardless of form and format and final content, The Crying Room is likely to be an intriguing, thought-provoking performance.

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