Wednesday 21 May 2008

Call-cutta in a Box

Rimini Protokoll are big news on the European International Festival circuit. Their Big New Idea – Theatre of Reality – is essentially a step beyond verbatim theatre. Instead of recording people talking about themselves and then getting actors to play them, they simply get real people and present them as themselves. The material they cover seems to be largely related to various occupations – at Munich’s SpielArt festival Rimini Protokoll founder Stefan Kaegi presented a fairly typical example where members of Munich's and Sao Paulo's police forces talked about their work. Other shows have seen audiences driven around in the backs of lorries while being addressed by the drivers.

Call-Cutta in a Box is a development of last year’s Berlin-based show Call-Cutta in which participants (audience seems the wrong word to describe the one-on-one interactive experience of this show) were directed about the city by someone from a call centre in Calcutta (geddit!?!?), while being told about Ghandi, apparently. …in a Box transfers the one-to-one experience into a small makeshift office built in the lobby of Helsinki’s Kiasma museum of contemporary art. The participant enters alone, having been instructed to pick up the ringing Skype phone inside. You are connected to someone in a call centre in Calcutta. They ask you questions and prompt you to undertake various actions. Without describing the nature of the questions or the actions that is pretty much the whole of the 50 minute show.

Seeing the show as one of a larger group, it was possible to compare notes and discover how much was similar and how much variation occurs between these ‘personal’ experiences. In many ways, it is reassuring to discover that the majority of their side of the conversation is if not exactly scripted, then at least certainly follows a clear sequence of events and directions to specific questions. Beyond this, the personality and personal circumstances of one’s interlocutor certainly play a part and there is enough latitude to actually get to know them a bit.

To an extent the success or failure of each performance of this show will depend partially on the interaction of the two parties on different continents. I found my opposite number, and consequently the show, to be charming and interesting. As a piece of theatre, it is harder to get to grips with. Questions of ‘acting’, the performing of the self and participation - not to mention the fact that fifty per cent of the performance is taking place on another continent - all raise their heads.

While the content of the show is perfectly charming and engaging it is the construction and form that really fascinates (more 'meta-interesting'): the way that it evokes an actual call to a call centre, the questions it raises about globalisation and distance both geographical and cultural. It also raises less comfortable questions: do call centre workers get paid Equity minimum? Should they be? Is outsourcing in general ultimately exploitation or invaluable investment in emerging economies. It is impressive that such a small piece can raise so many questions, and there is a sneaking feeling that it is these concerns which underpin the direction the much of the scripted questions take. So while feeling slightly politely bland, there is a sense that we are being led in a certain direction. That this direction is not fully signposted allows us to be at least partially responsible for the creatiuon of meaning within the piece. And it is this, more than anything, that suggests that this is indeed challenging theatre at the same time as not being at all difficult.

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