It is characteristic of theatre – and the theme of this conference – that while most of today’s theatre takes place in structures created for such dramatic productions, some take place in other venues, and have done so since the beginning of theatre itself.The ancient Greeks, as I understand it, created tragedies in threshing circles which became the orchestras of their earliest dithyrambic performances. Medieval and early Renaissance theatre was staged in the streets and in innyards, requiring no more than “two boards and a passion” according to Lope de Vega. In 1947, Jean Vilar created the Avignon Theatre Festival in the coeur d’honneur of the Palais des Papes in that city – and such historic venues have become the staging areas of hundreds of productions elsewhere in Europe ever since. (I saw Vilar play Olysses there in La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu in 1963.) Street Theatre too has become, since that time, a similar venue for dramatizations, particularly with a political thrust, all over the world.
Today, though, I’d like to talk about mobile theatre, where the action of a play not only takes place in a non-theatrical structure, but in more than one space, with the actors moving from one space to the next, and usually with the audience following them around.
There is nothing terribly new about this. The medieval festivals in York and Chester and other English towns were hauled from one performance location to another during the day, and while the audience could stay in one staging locale through the entire series of performances, they could also shuttle from one locale to another to see what they wanted and when they wanted. On the European continent, the scenery didn’t move but the audiences did, going from one “mansion” to another to watch the series of performances on, say, the Lucerne Weinmarkt. A day-long passion play I saw a few years ago in a small town in Mexico did just this.
Contemporary theatre has given us a host of these mobile theatres, where the audience is moving along with the performers.
I’ll mention first Travis Preston’s 2002 all-female King Lear took place in an abandoned Thomas Edison electric plant in Los Angeles, with the 140 audience members sat in a traditional set of risers – but the bleachers were on casters and rolled about the gigantic space to follow the actions of the play. “We sought to literalize this journey by having the audience move through five adjacent spaces, each embodying a stage in Lear’s progression,” Preston explained.
Silviu Purcarete’s spectacular Faust, at the Radu Stancu Theatre in Sibiu, Romania, is one of the great productions of the century, mobile or otherwise. In its home location, where I saw it last year, the audience enters a cavernous, abandoned factory on the city’s outskirts, where they sit on risers, and when the curtain has been ripped down, we see Faust’s study where the Doctor is surrounded by a crowd of “students,” hunching terrified over their laptops. The “stage” is filled with piles of wooden chairs, thousands of newspapers stacked and strewn about the floor, and the floor starts shaking as bodies and animals rise and fall from below – while behind the doctor’s back, peering out from the top of a bookcase and petting a dead red-tailed hawk, is an androgynous Mephistopheles (played by a woman).
But that’s just stage one, for suddenly there’s Walpurgisnacht! The back walls of part to show an even large stage – apparently afire – behind it. We are summoned from out our bleacher seats by a 90 character chorus, wearing giant hog masks and similar horrific attire, and led through the study to the hellfire, roaring music, and serial copulation between hogs and whores of the witches’ sabbath in full blast behind it. A giant rhinoceros, with two dandified 18th-century aristocrats on its back, lumbers onto the new stage behind us. A riotous band plays above us and fire-eaters ignite their torches and blow great clouds of fire into the air – while others writhe in tortuous acrobatics above our heads and a naked, blood-soaked woman carries a hogshead on a platter through our midst. This is, in fact, no Feast of Witches; it is sheer Hell, and we have walked right into it – of our own free will. Eventually we return to stage one; it has been a searing experience. (“I may never see a grander, more theatrical event in my life,” concluded Euan Ferguson in his review of the production’s Edinburgh performance in The Observer.)
One theatre company is dedicated entirely to mobile performance, or what Stephen Burdman, its artistic director, calls “Panoramic Theatre.” This is the New York Classical Theatre, now in its thirteenth season; the company trademark is to stage all of its classic plays – mainly Shakespearean – outdoors; mainly in New York’s Central Park, with the audience assembling at a park entry and then following the actors, and the action, as they move among the park’s abundant rocks, lakes, and trees. In recent years, the company has expanded its playing venues to Battery Park, Governor’s Island, and on and off ferry-boat from Manhattan to Ellis Island (for Twelfth Night) – it has now played more than 400 such performances.
I do not think of any of these productions, however, as site-specific, which I consider a term more applicable to plays that are presented in the environments that where they would occur – or have occurred – if they were real-life actions. Such a production was the 2011 Temptation of Cioran, written and directed by Gavriil Pinte at the Radu Stancu Theatre of Sibiu, Romania, which, as it takes place on a moving streetcar (tram), is both mobile and site-specific.
The play tells the life story of the brilliant 20th century Romanian philosopher, Emil Cioran, who, though living his adult life entirely in Paris, was educated in Sibiu and was born in the small town of Rasinari, about ten miles away. And so the production was staged on a streetcar that ran on abandoned tracks between these two cities. So when we travel with Ciorian (marvelously played by Marius Turdeanu), and he guides his “friends” (and us) through his life, we are being led through places where his life actually took place. We begin our trip in a lovely clearing in the Dumbrava forest, where pretty girls in white dresses lead us, under transparent parasols, to observation points where we watch black-garbed drummers hammer on wooden planks and other girls swinging gaily on swings, as if in a Fragonard painting. Cioran is introduced, speaks briefly to us, and then the tram rolls up. He boards, leads us in, and then, as the tram begins its voyage, narrates our ensuing ride to his home town. Though he considered Rasinari “not a village [but] a paradise,” he also thought of it as part of his “painful Motherland.” “My country obsesses me,” Cioran tells us as we roll along the tracks, looking at it. “I can’t tear myself away from it and I can’t forget it.” Cioran’s obsessions travel with him on the streetcar, as he chats with his girlfriends, explains his culture, his drinking, and his many deliriums. We stop by political demonstrations on the side of the tracks, with workmen rioting, women crying, and buildings being lit on fire. “Romania’s destiny is almost unbearable… it’s the country of failure,” Cioran tells us. When we finally arrive at Cioran’s “paradise,” we debark and view four scenes set up in separate six-foot “cubes” in a town square, where Cioran philosophizes with the local inhabitants on his four major themes: time, Hell, faith and death.
After this, the cubes are burnt to the ground and the tram returns to the Dumbrava forest, as Cioran dies a lingering death. “The fact that life is meaningless is in itself a reason to live, the only reason, actually.” These Camusian apothegms, along with the glorious baroque music that Cioran loved (“Bach’s music is the only argument proving the creation of the Universe cannot be regarded a complete failure”), and the beautiful Carpathian scenery that our tram passes through, make the pessimist’s despair a panorama of enlightening self-discoveries.
Finally, I’d like to talk about immersive theatre, created by the Punchdrunk in 2000, in which the audience and actors are mobile throughout the production. Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More opened for a short run in three abandoned warehouses in New York’s Chelsea district last April and is still running, playing to full houses – 80 persons maximum, entering the space in timed intervals. One enters the theatre, which we are told is the “McKittrek Hotel” which was built in 1939 but never opened because of World War II. As we wander into the space, in complete darkness, we are guided into a bar, given a full-face mask and told to put it on, and sent upstairs in an elevator and invited to wander about the four floors of the “hotel,” exploring all of the 100 decorated rooms and following whatever actor interested us. The all but wordless action of the “play” is very loosely based on Macbeth, but since the performers are almost entirely silent, and what they are saying is unrelated to anything in Shakespeare’s play), and you are only seeing and hearing what is happening in one of the one hundred rooms, you are basically making up the story of the play by yourself. Everyone in Sleep No More sees a different play – indeed, a wildly different play.
And, moreover, we – in our masks – are also the chorus of a different play. It is an unforgettable experience.
AND IF THERE IS TIME
One more example of immersive theatre – though somewhat less mobile – is Boris Bakal’s Vacation from History, which he wrote and directed for his Shadow Casters of Croatia. In this production, which I saw at the Interferences Festival in Cluj, Romania, you are led by the hand to a comfortable bed in a dimly lit hospital room, with white sheets separating the beds, and given a whispered invitation lie down. You have a pillow placed under your head and a wool blanket (in a color you chose) spread over you, and then your escort (mine was Bakal himself) murmurs a sweet “Good night!” as he tiptoes away. There is somewhat of a story line, but it is hard and sometimes impossible to hear the actors for much of the hour-long event; rather the play – if you can call it such – is a collage of whispers and muffled voices, only half-heard and largely unseen in the darkened room, lit, as far as I could see, by a single candle on a far-away dining table). But many things can, as Mad Tom says, be “got ’tween asleep and wake.” A young woman sits between me and my next-bed neighbor for two or three minutes, whispering to us the story of what she claims is her youth (she was Cinderella, it seems). We hear sounds of people pulling up chairs and sitting around the table that, if we crane our necks, we can see faintly from afar. At one point we hear brief shouting, weeping and a violently slammed door – or did we dream that? And, for those who notice (I didn’t at first), earphones appear next to our heads towards the end, and putting them on permits you to hear part of a wistful, meandering monologue. Described by Bakal as “a travel on the edge of collective and individual consciousness, through the realms of dream and death as the only safe refuges from history,” Vacation from History tells no story and so we eventually make up our own. Essentially, the work is a real-time collaboration between ourselves, Mr. Bakal, and the rest of his young troupe, whom we only see when they lead us into the performance areas before the play and back into the “lobby” for a glass of champagne afterwards. The experience, however, is very powerful; achingly reminiscent of trying, as a child, to listen to one’s parents talking in another room after one has have been put to bed with the lights turned off. The bravery of Bakal and his company in ushering us into this half-asleep, semi-conscious state, and disallowing any applause or even attentiveness to reward his performers and their performances, had an immense payoff: we become more familiar with ourselves and our long-hidden fears and memories.