I receive a warm and official welcome at the box office desk. I proffer my name, which is written down on a gold-rimmed place name that goes into a ‘wedding guests’ pile to be laid out in due course. I make my way slowly through the reception (café) space soaking in the décor and the ambience. Snaps and film-stills of weddings are projected onto in the disco-lit dance floor area. This opens up into the main function room. Bunting crisscrosses the ceiling in low hanging swathes. Long tables, set-up in a horseshoe, are covered in clean, white lace tablecloths. Waist-level activity catches my eye: children dodging in between the milling grown-ups. Two dummy parakeets sit together atop a perch on the head table brimming with buckets of foliage.
I don’t get far before I bump into someone I know and say my hellos. Within minutes I find myself being approached by two dashing long-haired brunettes (my type), all doe-eyed and intent on holding my gaze. This dishy pair – Benoit Gouttenoire and Joao Carreiro – are a double act in matching black trousers and red shirts with electric green stripe detailing. They’ve been swanning around the crowd. Now I feel the focus bearing in on me. In unison, they tell me something to the effect of: "I’ve loved you a long time, ever since I first met you. [Bowing slowly on to one knee] Will you marry me?" As they descended I had this slightly lurchy feeling (oh God, do I have to answer?) I look from one to the other and then up at the onlookers, torn, ambivalent, my hands going up and down in a weighing scales gesture. Shall I, shan’t I? Which one? Both? I feel oddly reluctant (come on Flora, it’s just a game!) The daunting idea this will implicate me in some of the night’s proceedings arises. But there’s no time to dither; I feel terrible keeping them waiting… tick, tick, tick. So I sort of fluff it and take both of their hands, prompting them each to produce a Haribo ring, which they then stretched on to my ring finger before gliding away.
I’m left a little in shock. This softens into feeling pretty chuffed with being awarded this token. Nothing smug or anything, but it’s definitely lifted my spirits. What am I, six? Weird. I notice I’m feeling more extrovert than usual. I wander up to a couple of strangers and strike up a conversation. We discuss arranged marriages, dating websites and how the two of them ended up coming here tonight. Before long I’m herded into a formal wedding shot. Echoes of co-choreographer Rachel Lopez de la Nieta’s primed ‘inner dictator’ persona emerge through her role as Director of Photographs. A group of us are made to hold awkward positions for uncomfortably long exposures. More volunteers are roped in. The drama of the scenes she stages escalate into brawls and naughty couple shots. Garter props are enlisted; ‘Yeah, just pull it off with your teeth.'
On to crowd control: Lopez de la Nieta’s microphoned voice cuts through the chatter of the guests, announcing we should find our seats in the next few minutes. Once this hunt is over and we’re settled down and the evening’s proceedings are outlined and key people (the Dog Kennel Hill Project hosts), are introduced. We hear a speech by one of the participating performers emphatically, poetically imposing the rules of engagement. It highlights and parodies social codes and decorum/nuisance around celebrations, and is reminiscent of the ‘house rules’ I heard read out at a twenty-first birthday party not so long ago.
Food is served on big plates that we pass round in get-to-know-your-neighbour fashion. The food is beautiful and delicious. There is a toast to the absent bride and groom, whom we are told are on their way and insist we go on without them, before co-choreographer Henrietta Hale instigates the ‘bride or groom game’. This is where we were instructed to have a conversation with a nearby partner where we make up how we know the bride or groom and swap notes and stories on them: a practice in the technique of small talk. Both my partner – Sherini – and I commit, but it’s surprisingly hard work to keep the fictional ball in the air. I think our big error was both of us met the groom quite recently, and missed the opportunity to paint his back-story. But discussing his attributes was fun: he loves his dancing, but you wouldn’t guess it at first; he's a bit of a dark horse; he's outgoing for sure, but doesn’t give much away. It actually doesn’t come that naturally to me; I struggle with the believability of it all. I thought I’d be better at this. Hale fires toy gun (almost inaudibly) to signal the end of our roleplay: “congratulations – you’re an actor!”
We carry on tucking into our supper. The toy gun, now out of commission, has been replaced by that old-fashioned attention grabbing method: tapping a glass vessel with a knife. It creates the desired hush. About four performers on different tables rise to their feet and start talking about their experiences of weddings. I hear from one of my fiancés, Gouttenoire, about his going to Greece with his girlfriend for a wedding, and how he ended up on the head table, a massive bonus for all its foodie privileges. The story winds up and loops round again, same phrasing, intonation and body language. However, the second time round, he’s caught unawares by a chicken drummer flying through the air in his direction. He’s genuinely surprised, perturbed. “Sorry!” calls an audience member a few seconds later, “I was aiming for the bin.” The speech briefly elapses, his confidence a little dented, before he rises again and goes on. He is sensitive and nervous – just like anyone giving a speech would be. Oh, the horror of being heckled or pelted during a performance! I detected this same vulnerability during the hiatus moment after he ‘proposed’. I pondered whether this guy was very experienced or quite inexperienced as a performer. I couldn’t be sure, but there was something in the mixture of earnestness and vulnerability that made me think he might be the latter.
I know (and we are told in the programme) that the cast of wedding guests are participating performers from the local community and beyond that came forward in response to a call out. The proposition was to workshop ideas around the social ceremony of weddings, before devising and performing a theatrical fictitious wedding event. Though the project is short – Dog Kennel Hill Project have been in residency at The Albert just 10 days – this human research pool is rich and deep. People are bringing themselves to this social enquiry for their own interest, their own sake. This motivation is palpable and great. Unsurprisingly, they are far outnumbered by audience and in large part they feel like performers with a small ‘p’ since they aren’t grouped and demarcated from the audience spatially and I honestly feel like I can talk to them like normal people. It’s not all scripted, and so this relaxes our interactions. The stuff that comes through the cracks – the ‘public’s’ natural behaviour in response to proceedings – is fascinating. The context of performance heightens my awareness of what’s happening in the room.
Mid-supper, lots of the performers go up in a line and do a side-to-side step dance with their eyes closed. It’s a satisfying moment, simple yet personal; they’re all doing it heart-warmingly individually. Later on, we have a communal Wedding Dance Medley where everyone’s invited to join in the dance moves compilation that final co-choreographer Ben Ash demonstrates. The vocabulary includes: waving arms, jogging backwards and forwards, show your ankles (to someone), running man, wiggle at your partner, the side-step. I’m up and at ‘em, but about a third of the room stays seated. As ever, the dancing thing is a little divisive. Sherisse Carty, a another of the participants, answers our questions about life and love. “What do I do if I don’t believe in God?” Her illuminating reply: “Just try and find your purpose. Everyone has a purpose, whether or not they believe in God.” A cheer from the audience – good answer! The supper is brought to a close by strawberry sponge cakes being served ceremoniously. The performers then crawl slowly over the tables, pausing to slowly squash them before trailing on. It’s both sad and gleeful to behold. The aroma of the cakes wafts towards me. DJ CanCan strikes up and hits all the right cheesy chords. A wave of nostalgia and familiarity comes over me. Decorations pop. A pink glittery curtain comes down and gets processed around. The last image to hold me in the night is the children messing about with it, chucking it over one another, pulling it taught this way and that.
There are so many correlations to a wedding it’s uncanny: the cross-generational crowd, the social meetings, collusions and divisions, the rigmarole, the technical faults, the overwhelming sense of historical precedent. All encompassed in an highly organized event crowned by the unpredictability of people.
Dog Kennel Hill Project: Ben Ash, Henrietta Hale, Rachel Lopez de la Nieta
Wedding guests (participating performers): Sepideh Ardalani, Sherisse Carty, Hanna Jensen, Valeria Tello Giusti, Elizabeth Jankowski, Benoit Gouttenoire, Joao Carreiro and Trevor
Catering by D & D: Lorraine Woods and Tania Simeone
Disco by DJ CanCan: Caren Owen
Wedding photographer: Maya Glaser
Wedding video: Anthony Wadham