Unusual production for an audience of one
By Davida Singer
No distant cousin to Chaucers Canterbury Tales, The Coutesan Tales at P.S. 122, are the au courant brainchild of performance artist, Nicole Blackman. Blackman has culled an original group of thirteen stories, any of which she presents to a blindfolded audience of one, in a uniquely intimate experience she likes to call radio theater for the senses.
The Courtesan Tales is a strange hybrid, she said. The stories each use touch, taste, sound smell and lots of imagination. Theyre mostly whispered into the ear, and they evolve around you.
As a New York native, Blackmans career evolved from growing up in a family with roots in vaudeville. She got her formal training at the Academy of Arts, and immediately after college, dove into solo work, performing her poetry downtown at the Nuyorican Café. Shes made her name as a spoken word artist, with a published book (Blood Sugar), appearances on at least 20 albums, and numerous performances both locally and on the international touring circuit. It was at a festival in Belgium in 1999, that the idea for the Tales came to light.
There were 3000 people there, recalls Blackman, making me think, where do I go from here. I considered going smaller to keep myself challenged, and wondered how small that could be. What if I did something one-on-one with audience members? It would be very intimate and the scariest thing I could do. That audience member doesnt have anyone else to talk to, and the patron also becomes a performer. This was a whole new vocabulary for me, less theater performance and more of a service, in the realm of prostitutes, masseuses, therapists and palm readers. It needed to have storytelling at its base, because thats what I do.
Blackman first tried out her idea five years ago, as part of the Chicks Cook performance art dinner series at Collective Unconsciousness, where she was invited to do a food-related piece. She created a tale about food, blindfolded someone, told the story and fed them at the end. People couldnt get enough. To date, shes done seven more performances, and has gotten so over-booked, shes trained a second courtesan, Eve Prince, to help her out with this new run.
I write my stories backwards, because I choose the food I use first, Blackman explains. And theres always a twist at the end like Hitchcock. The way it works is you book a courtesan, and get to choose the type of story you want to hear. Before everything, you can enjoy some food in the lounge (set up like a whorehouse/boudoir), then the hostess helps you select a story from a menu. Theres magical, disturbing, sensual, erotic (21+), and nostalgic.
According to Blackman, each tale runs seven minutes, but feels much longer. Patrons enter a room with a dim, red light and rocking chair, sit down and put on a blindfold. Then the courtesan comes in and gently adjusts leather wrist restraints, necessary, she says, in order to maintain control in the performance, and frame the story.
Everyone likes touch and a mystery, Blackman notes, and I hope they also receive an increased realization of their sensuality and how we rely on sight. We have all these other senses were not using. People often write amazing things in our guest book, like how moving it was just to be touched, or to have memories evoked through the stories. For me, the challenge is that this is a bit like walking a minefield. I have to be careful not to push peoples boundaries. Its like opening up the imagination so both facts and fiction come alive. Its that slippery point between stations. Im really trying to make this a guided tour, where everyone needs to get to their destination in their own, individual way.