As is becoming alarmingly traditional, I must begin by apologising for my lengthy absence. This time I've actually got a valid excuse, though. For the last five days I've been attending the SpielArt Festival in Munich under the auspices of the concurrent FIT Mobile Theatre and Communications Lab programme, as one of two British representatives acting partially on behalf of the LIFT festival (my co-Briton was, confusingly, the British-born, Australia-raised, Britain-domiciled creative director of the Total Theatre organisation Pippa Bailey). Snappy introduction, huh?
I actually got back from the Festival on Wednesday, but have been putting off posting because attempting to summarise the experience of the festival and the FIT Lab seminars is dauntingly similar to being asked to put the North Sea in a jam jar.
Over the four days we were there, we saw a total of six pieces, alongside a packed programme of discussions and workshops. And "pieces" is about the only catch-all term that comes even close to being able to encompass the sheer range of work on show. The theme of the workshop strand was the need to discover new ways of writing about emerging and innovative forms of "theatre". As with the recent debate on ways of talking about non-mainstream forms of work, terminology immediately becomes a significant preoccupation. By the end of our stay we were starting to ask where the boundaries of what you can describe as “theatre” actually lay. We had seen accomplished work that had so challenged our understanding of the term. Hell, some of the work made me wonder whether there was much value in having terminology at all. Below, I’ve tried to give a rough idea of what the pieces we saw were like, and have given them all faintly reductive possible genre-labels to break up the text a bit. In the next day or so, I'm hoping to offer a similar overview of the ideas that arose from the workshop programme. In the meantime, get this:
The first piece we saw, after a long day's travelling, was Heiner Goebbels/Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne’s Stifter’s Dinge (trans. Stifter’s Things - Stifter being a 19th century German writer, who one of the Germans in the group described as having a reputation for being fiercely boring).
The most striking thing about the piece was that it contained ABSOLUTELY NO ACTORS. No performers either. Apart from a couple of stage-hands who appeared early on to construct three low troughs and shake salt over them, there were NO HUMAN BEINGS ON STAGE. In a densely contested field, this must still rank as a pretty extreme example of boundary-breaking radicalism. I'm pretty sure that most definitions of theatre I've ever read have specified that there at least have to be people watching people for the act of theatre to be engaged. Well, Goebbels blows that idea clean out of the water. Instead of human subjects moving, standing and speaking, the piece consisted of a virtuoso display of special effects, lighting and sound technology. As a display of technology it was astonishingly accomplished. But at the same time, it still felt satisfyingly "arty". Without even the ability to understand the occasional extracts of German speech, the "performance" became an exercise in decoding signs to create narrative, or meaning. An interesting issue which arose from this, to which I intend to return, was the difficulty of cultural baggage and/or specificity.
Durational work / Installation
Deconstruction made by the Belgian group Needcompany seemed almost tame by comparison. For British readers, as far as I can make out, the best shorthand the best way to imagine Needcompany is by picturing a Belgian Forced Entertainment. Not wholly typically of their work, Deconstruction is a durational performance installation, which was housed in Munich’s Haus der Kunst art gallery. It took the form of a sort of large island made from wooden packing crates and polystyrene shapes, taking up most of the centre of a large gallery space. Within this, a cast of wackily attired performers moved around: a girl in tight t-shirt and shorts go-go danced while wearing a large, shiny, white, plastic, bullet-shaped, stylised rabbit head; a Japanese girl dragged herself across a different platform wearing a large animal pelt. A band experimented with reverb and delay effects, producing something that might turn up on a Radiohead b-side. Elsewhere an actress read text into a video camera behind a two-way mirror. This was shown on one of the many television screens woven into the fabric of the island’s haphazard structure.
At one point during our time there, the band suddenly launched into a song (unknown to me, but possibly extant - sounded not unlike some Nick Cave or possibly Will Oldham) and the whole cast joined in singing. This moment was quite hauntingly beautiful. Parts of the lyrics from this song were written on one of the packing cases. It suggested a hitherto unsuspected coherence to this seemingly random assemblage. If we hadn’t had to rush off to the next piece, this moment would have easily seduced me into staying for the whole afternoon to see what else would happen.
Following Deconstruction we saw two of the films in the Tragedia Endogonidia cycle made by Italian director Romeo Castellucci/Societas Raffaello Sanzio - a beautifully made record of the series of performances which Castellucci devised in various cities to reflect the particular tragedies of those cities. We watched Strasberg and London. Strasbourg was perhaps a little opaque, revolving around a bus load of people arriving in a square at night to watch Hitchcock's Psycho projected onto the side of a building. While another sequence saw a Panzer tank advancing and reversing round a floodlit sandy ring like some sort of a dancing horse.
London, on the other hand, was gripping: part contemporary dance, part nightmare, it sees a woman disrobe, be seduced by a gargoyle door knocker, go mad and part bury herself in a large old fashioned stone tomb, before bleeding to death on the floor. A second sequence sees a man before a mirror, seemingly tortured into madness by curious bearded children and voices in his head, cut out his own tongue. What it all means was anyone’s guess, but somehow felt irrelevant. It didn’t feel as if the project was all that interested in exact meaning, but in a whole panoply of pregnant signs and possibilities, combined with a very immediate, visceral sensibility.
Site-specific verbatim theatre without actors
Monday offered two further puzzles. The first, Soko Sao Paulo, made by Lola Arias and Stefan Kaegi (the latter being one of the founders of newly seminal European festival circuit group Rimini Protocol), takes two of the most hotly debated forms currently on the margins of mainstream British theatre - verbatim plays and “site-sympathetic” work, combines them, and in the process makes the British approach look hilariously stage-y and old-fashioned.
The nominal subject of the piece is the use of guns by police in Sao Paulo combined with insights into the life of the Munich police force. It is easy enough to imagine the British verbatim play on the subject: conduct the interviews, cherry-pick the strongest moments, edit the whole into a satisfyingly play-like dramatic shape, complete with thesis and easily grasped message and deliver the finished script to Max Stafford-Clark. The approach here is somewhat more radical. Yes, they have conducted video interviews, and they have people relating stories, but they have arranged them over two sterile floors of a largely disused downtown office building, Punchdrunk-style. Moreover, all the “performers” are the actual people whose stories are involved. No actors playing other people here.
The audience is free to wander around an impressively large number of installations. Several rooms offer various video recordings, in others members of the German police force sit, telling their stories, while further rooms offer a series of practical demonstrations of police training methods.
What is striking about the installation was how comment-free it seemed. Impressive, given that in one demonstration, a Brazilian police officer smilingly demonstrated with paintball gun and life-sized drawings how not to shoot civilians before shooting a sketched gunman in the head. By the time I saw his demonstration, it must have run a fair few times, so there were, what? seven bloodied paintball explosions on the crudely drawn head? The resonance was inescapable, and it sat uncomfortably with happy films of German police choirs merrily singing away.
After an hour and a half of wandering around, the audience was herded downstairs to don headphones and sit around a miniature football pitch on which the various “performers” from the installation played a full on game of football, while we listened to the roar of a football crowd and a running commentary on the game by one of Munich radio’s real sports commentators. It was a surreal ending to a fascinating piece.
As a non-German speaker, much of the information was lost on me, but it is striking how far beyond anything we’d be prepared to call “theatre” in Britain Soko Sao Paulo goes. In fairness, there was some mixed dissent among my German speaking colleagues as to how successful it was as either a piece of theatre or as a “living museum”. Perhaps experiencing much of the thing in an alien language set up a greater series of resonances and a profitable sense of dislocation which worked better for the subject matter than straightforward information could.
Technology and Liveness
Monday’s next piece - O_Rex made by Belgium’s Eric Joris/CREW - was perhaps the most fascinating of the week. Along with Stifter’s Dinge it set up a series of challenges to where the boundaries lie in the field of “innovative” “theatre”.
The basic set up was as follows: At the beginning, members of the audience in the bar volunteer to be “inside” the show. One is selected by a show of hands and is ushered off while the rest of us file into the auditorium. The thing begins. Brilliantly. A soundscape is followed by a little remote controlled car - audible in the darkness - writing on the stage in a luminous marker while telling the whole of the Oedipus story. The lights come up and a compere welcomes the audience to the Muffathalle Theatre. While he does so, a giant projection of Google Earth on the floor around him zooms in on our location, until he is standing on a projection of exactly where he is standing. As uses of technology actually enhancing “liveness” go, this is a pretty neat one. Most of the computers, lighting boards and sound desks are also on the stage, adding the extra dimension of the use of technology itself being a performance.
The compere reintroduces the guy we’ve chosen to be our Oedipus, Zlatko, standing outside, shown on CCTV. By means of a radio headset, the compere talks him back into the building through a series of rooms as we watch his progress on a large screen. Eventually he is wheeled into the auditorium on a stretcher, and to symbolise Oedipus’s self-blinding, a large virtual reality-type video helmet is placed over his head. Zlatko is told that the helmet has video cameras on it, which feed into the screen inside the helmet. In fact, what he is shown is the video feed from an entirely separate set of cameras, elsewhere in the building - or perhaps pre-recorded (or both, it wasn’t entirely clear).
For the rest of the piece, Zlatko wanders around the stage lost in a virtual world, while the compere talks to him, sketching out a sort of memory/dream sequence for this lost Oedipus. It is fascinating stuff - perhaps most especially for Zlatko - but it is also limited. In spite of the extra visual elements on stage - laptops on remote controlled cars showing video sequences of crawling men and body parts - and the occasional live soundscapes provided by a female singer, there is nowhere near enough content to justify the length of time we get to watch Zlatko/Oedipus in exile. The conclusion of the piece, when our man removes his helmet and realises he has been nowhere like where he thinks he has been returns a sense of human drama and interaction to the thing, but it may be too little too late.
The fascinating thing about the show is the sheer level of advanced technology on display. Eric Joris at a subsequent post-show discussion, and on panel discussion the next day, comes across as a near-messianic Timothy Leary-style advocate of virtual reality as the future for theatre. The problem is, as he readily admits; only one person is really “inside” the show, and the rest of the audience is “outside”. While it is reasonably interesting to look into the fictions being beamed into another’s mind, without any real interaction or tension, the audience becomes slightly superfluous after a while. If this is to become theatre, Joris and CREW need to find a way of presenting its fascinating work in a more outward facing way. That said, the frequent question asked about work termed “experimental theatre”: “What’s the experiment?” cannot be applied here. CREW’s work is pure experimentation. And there is an ongoing risk that temperamental technology may cause the entire show to seize up. But, in terms of the technology/liveness debate, this is as live as anything I’ve seen. The compere talks directly to the audience, Zlatko/Oedipus is directly in the moment. What he is watching (to the best of my understanding) is totally live, and, I rather suspect, it would pass Chris Goode’s Cat Test with flying colours. Actually, the introduction of a couple of cats, or maybe a goat or two, might liven things up a bit.
Science and Theatre
We only saw one piece on the final day (following the final workshop and a panel discussion in the afternoon) - Tip of the Tongue by Plasma Theatre. Plasma are a German group who seem to be interested in exploring ideas about science in theatre - apparently this is quite a significant movement in Germany, with books and conferences on the subject. Despite being performed in German, the piece is easily the most comfortably normal bit of experimental theatre I saw all week. Imagine a Frantic Assembly show as performed by a four-strong Oxbridge sketch comedy group - that’s about where Plasma are at. The show is one of those slightly mathsy devised pieces where identically dressed performers go through similar routines with one occasionally falling out of step for comic effect. The piece is pretty text-heavy, but since the text itself has apparently been taken from learned scientific research journals, knowing German isn’t apparently even much help to the Germans in the room. The point here is not to communicate the science as it is with, say, Unlimited’s Ethics of Progress, but rather to use the text as pretext for routines, humour and perhaps some sort of reflection on the implications of the neuroscience described. While it is an enjoyably enough trot though some nice routines and funny material, a selection of false endings toward the close seemed to highlight a feeling in the room that Tip... has run its course and could do with maybe fifteen minutes knocking off.