A charming science

Various thoughts about live documentary, starting with Stefan Kaegi’s recent show Heuschrecken (Locusts) for Rimini Protokoll, at Schauspielhaus Zürich, September 16 2009. I somehow doubt this production will tour much, probably never making it to the English-speaking world, so I hope I’m not spoiling things for most people. If you plan on seeing it of course you might not want to read this one.

Photos taken after the show >

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The audience are sat either side of a long tube, about 4 metres wide and, at a guess, about 20-25 metres long, made of transparent plastic. Inside is a meticulously crafted sand-landscape with all kinds of ‘features’ – a sort of gorge running down the middle, photos on sticks, some written signs, a mini swimming pool, a kind of wire ‘border’ fence, etc. And crawling around everywhere, thousands (10,050 apparently) of locusts. At each end of the tube, sunk into the ground a bit, are scientists and, mixed in with them, a musician who, with only a cello and a delay / sampler thing, did a brilliant job of subtley shifting the tone throughout, building up tonal layers and scattering fine strokes and plucks over the top (it’s not often that music in theatre manages to be both beautiful in its own right, live, and yet unobtrusive to the overall event).

It was mad, huge, completely unfeasible perhaps in any other country than Switzerland. Like Cargo Sofia (the truck) and Mnemopark (the mini people, train sets etc), watching it you feel like you’re balancing between a) a kind of wide-eyed, smiley kids’ geeky-dream-world (‘imagine if we put 10 thousand locusts on stage!!”) that could go anywhere and b) something very serious, focussed, detached, journalstic. I think this could describe everything i’ve seen of Stefan’s actually, but this was intensely so. There was a lot of german, lots of info, and my friend whispering into my ear did the best she could, but i know i lost a lot of nuance – the mischievous interweaving of ‘Curious Bit of Info X’ with ‘Curious Bit of Info Y’ which together form something far more mysterious / funny / revealing and perhaps wherein lie his real aims. The music certainly seemed to suggest this – that there’s a world beyond the statistics to discover, something implied – almost certainly a vision of post-global-warming at it’s heart, our future selves played out by a huge team of unsuspecting actors.

This was a nearly final rehearsal, so of course things went wrong. The tortoise with a camera stuck to her shell, walking down the central gorge, stamping on the odd locust and eventually pushing aside, with exquisite nonchalence, the wooden barrier that was supposed to keep her from venturing too far down the space. Or one of the scientists walking slowly down the space between the audience and the tube with a locust balanced on his finger, blowing it gently to encourage flight (the image was pure reverie, something from Joyce’s early dream of the Artist, far from his assigned role for a moment). But the locust ‘corpsed’ and despite his prompter (the french call him ‘souffleur’)he didn’t budge and stayed perched, fascinated perhaps at the view from there, an astronaut’s, back at his world. (Perhaps this explains the final image: an actual astronaut space-walking through the tube, waving into the tortoise-cam…)

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astronaut

The scientists as performers, though, were pretty boring. I’m certain that everything they said was fascinating (the bits I got were), but as theatre animals they were quite flat. I wonder if that will change over time, if the idea is that they start to ‘inhabit’ the stage in similar ways to the locusts; ok, maybe not the mating and multiplying part, but they might start to come out of their skins and develop the organs and skills necessary for survival there.

The big question here is whether you think it’s OK to manipulate and ‘enhance’ the performative energy of your subjects, when directing a live documentary. This seems to divide practitioners in the field, and is something I’ll be looking out for when I eventually get to see something by Quarantine. I don’t really have a clear idea of where Stefan stands on this, but it seems like his approach is to take what comes, and be grateful. In two beautiful pieces involving artists working with their fathers – Martin Nachbar’s Repeater and Simon Bowes’s Kings of England project, it’s all about containment, restraint, chorreography. Vivi Tellas (who began working on her ‘live archive’ project partly as a result of seeing Stefan’s work in Cordoba) often speaks of getting the balance right. In an interview with her in 2004 we were at one point talking about her amazing show ‘Cozarinsky and his Doctor‘, and she gave an example of something she deliberately left ‘untouched’ –

AH – I like the way you let him [Allejo Florin, the doctor] perform with his back to the audience. So that whenever we see his face it seems almost a gift..

VT –  I pay a lot of attention to who they really are, what they give me and what they want to offer. He has this BACK thing that really has a sense for him, how he talks to someone else, and with his hand in his pocket throughout the whole thing. As a director it’s tempting to say TAKE IT OUT, be expressive…  but i’ve never said that.

but later explained how it’s often necessary to draw a performance from your subject – at this point we were talking about the other piece I saw on my first visit to B.A., ‘Three Philosophers with Moustaches’ which is still one of the most beautiful stage works I’ve ever seen –

V. But in the end it’s good to work – for them. In the end whatever they do they’re ok about doing it. If we come to the limit of what’s possible, it’s clear. Theyr’e not OBLIGED to do anything. With the philsopher’s too  – I mean they don’t have to take their trousers down in that way.

A. Yes what’s going on there??

V. They say do you have marks of arrows on your body? Scars? I needed a moment in the show where we have more body presence. They are so cerebral it’s like they don’t have any body. So first i put them in touch with archery. And i thought it’d be a disaster…

[Occassionally, in this small studio, the three elderly philosophers take it in turns to fire arrows at a target using professional archery equipment]

A. That’s a thing, right from the word go there’s a physicality to the work – from the archery at the beginning, to how they move as we spoke about…

V. That was my job, to take them out of their thinking into some action, to the body, or to relate it all to the body. And then i said well i want to see their flesh. How? So i asked them do you have any marks on your body from wounds? Eguardo said ‘a man bit me here, i have a mark’. The others were surprised, and said , ‘wow, what passion! what happened?’ Turned out it was a fight. Another showed another scar, an operation. And then Alfredo pulled up his shirt and said I HAVE A SCAR IN MY HEART THAT YOU CANNOT SEE, THE WORST KIND. A LOVE SCAR. To show their scars they’ve had to partially take their shirts off. Now, to tuck in their shirts, they undo their pants. That’s the way you do it, it seems! Do you know Coca Sarli – trash movies in Argentina about sexy, kitch woman with big tits etc. From 50’s mostly. So, I told them ‘When you do that, you have to imagine you’re in a Coca Sarli movie, and you’ve just had sex with her – all three of you, one and then the other’. And they laugh at me, I’m always making SEX JOKES because they’re so masculine. They get embarassed and go red, when i talk about sex.

Maria, Vivi’s assistant chipped in at this point

> But whenever Vivi’s not around they’re always very bad, talking sex jokes all the time!

V > Everything you see in 3Phillosophers… has a ‘behind the scenes’ construction to it, ie. ‘imagine you’re doing this’ – ‘. I try to give them this kind of thing SLOWLY because at first they can’t think that way, in a theatrical way, that they’re ‘holding’ something and calling it to their imagination in a way that will take them to other places.

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So, can we talk about ‘manipulating’ the performance of a subject without that meaning that something is being forced out unnaturally? I love this idea of identifying latent energies which can contribute in some way (as here, tapping something perhaps better left in the dark in order to offset an otherwise over-cerebral world), and introducing the whole idea of theatre, imagination. To make it clear, slowly, that THEY can manipulate the moment, be in charge of something in a way.

I haven’t used the word ‘authentic’. It confuses me a lot. In an email conversation with Tim Etchells the other day, he touched on this (informally / thinking aloud) –

There’s a long conversation to be had about documentary work too i think.. to do with staging the authentic, relying on the authentic as a currency.. which i think can be quite problematic in perf as it is in film/tv… and im really wondering these days if i think the ethics of documentary performance is *better* or easier to negotiate than those of film/tv documentary.. i dont know.. complex stuff to think around. Jerome Bel’s Veronique Doisneau is quite good in dealing with this.. but in more general terms i can wonder how much further this line can go…

(Amazed and very happy to find Veronique Doisneau on youtube – heard so much about it… it’s unspeakably beautiful: grab all four parts here while they’re still up…)

He’s right, there’s a lot more to go into here – I hope we’ll have that conversation. For the moment though, in what may be very reductive ignorance, I’m wondering if the ‘currency’ of authenticity which may be driving interest in this kind of work might in some ways boil down to simple charm. I don’t think it’s over-generous to say that everyone can be charming. It’s like when people are switched to ‘on’ rather than ‘off’ – we sense it immediately, and we don’t get bored of it. And when there are people on stage who we know are no less qualified to be up there than us, exuding an unforced charm and allowing us access to a particular world of which they are ‘specialists’ (the word Stefan has always used, which I love), I can’t help feeling the joy of those moments is fairly uncomplicated. It’s just very hard to achieve, and therefore quite rare.

The information in Stefan’s work involves different pieces of knowledge combining to imply things which go beyond a sum of its parts, an elegant, backdoor approach to new understanding which is intensely charming! But I’m left wondering why the performances often end up seeming unmined. Even scientists who spend most of their time hanging out with locusts can be charming, if pushed a little.

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As the audience enter ‘Three Philosophers with Moustaches’, the action’s already under way, the men taking turns to fire arrows, precarious and wobbly with the enormous bows, already heavily involved in challenging each other, trying to trip each other up with new angles on old theories.

Ant – I love the way it just … starts… slowly, inperceptibly. There comes a moment when we realise you’ve drawn the curtains [behind the audience, enclosing the studio space], people all have their seats, there’s no more extra sound, and we can start to hear better the conversation. And then in each show that talking stops, and we have the first framing device: seats turning, or finger clicking.

Vivi – and Alfredo – thinking about his finger clicking. So i would say to them – THINKING IS SEXY! you have swing also. You are thinkers and you are sexy, anyway, so come on!! And they laugh – yeah you’re right!!

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3 responses to “A charming science

  1. Great review of the area and review of a piece most of us won’t get to see. Thanks.

    Question….

    Is it really either/or? Documentary or Theatrical? What you describe in Vivi’s work seems to confront one reality (people who are philosophers) with another (the stage situation which involves archery) and through the elegance of this confrontation to cause a performance which eludes both categories.

    Isn’t it the questionable state of the ethics in this elusion what spikes our interest in a way the tropes of performance no longer reach? Isn’t it our uncertainty with how to read it and our queasiness about who is controlled and controlling that makes such work so live in this moment after the rationality of markets and the people who run them?

    Sorry couldn’t resist a bit of theorising.

    Cheers
    P

  2. anthonyhampton

    hey Peader

    Yes, I agree mostly. For sure in the work’s acceptance of fiction / framing / flux as part of the so-called ‘authentic’. But it’s hard to say whether it is or isn’t a documentary, and how exactly you’d elude that term, as mostly it isn’t done ‘live’ so there’s nothing much to base it on. Certainly by the very fact of it not being on a screen we’re in totally new territory, where something very interesting can happen.
    I wrote a comment the other day about this, here
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2009/oct/11/reality-verbatim-theatre?commentid=0e775db8-03fa-48bf-b41a-151bb0ae6f89

  3. Pingback: Our Plays are 100% Locust-Free - The Theatrefolk Weblog

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