Photo by Judith Buss
Lily Kelting revisits some of the highlights of this year’s Theatertreffen. She concludes with some thoughts on Stückemarkt’s TRANS-, language, presence and criticism.
I have done this acting exercise – "describe everything that you see." I don’t remember when, or the exact provenance of the exercise. But it makes sense. By noticing, you are grounded in the present moment as a performer, in your five senses. It’s not such an easy thing, actually, presence. The more present you can be as a person or performer, the better. Hence the million-dollar mindfulness industry telling people to just do nothing but notice their surroundings.
So before going to see TRANS-, I was full of bluster. Obvious! Derivative! The room is going to be full of theatremakers who all know this stuff already! And the first minutes of the performance were, in fact, pretty boring. "I see a green exit sign." "I see scuff marks on the floor." The audience sat in a circle around the four performers, who rotated slowly in a tight cluster. I started to count counter-rhythms to the metronome-ticking soundtrack. I wondered why they didn’t choose a more interesting space. I wondered if this was going to go on for a whole hour. The performers might have been grounded in the physical space ("I see a tangle of wires"), but I was daydreaming.
And then at last, they start describing us.
First, our bodies: "He tenses his fist", "She raises her eyebrow." Let the games begin – I start looking at the people the performers describe, watching the interplay between the mounting discomfort of the audience under the performer’s scrutiny and the description of these physical responses, in turn, by the performers. I try to sit still and avoid their attention. Then I try to make eye contact, daring them to try me. I wonder if they’ll describe Andrea. They don’t.
After some time, these descriptions leave the realm of the physical. Danish performer Piet Gitz-Johansen turns a slack-jawed face in my direction and with soft eyes intones, "American. Brooklyn." It feels magical. Maybe this is what theatre can be: mind-reading, recognition. How could he pick maybe the only American in the room out of a line-up? I compose a tweet in my mind. I anticipate the likes rolling in. Being recognized is, too, an act of narcissism. Once, at a party, a friend read my tarot cards. The accuracy of her predictions mattered much less than the fact that for ten unbroken moments, someone was paying very close but kind of disinterested attention to me. To be seen, to be an object of study, even – I think a lot of us want this.
"To go beyond the habitual body"
This section of the score went on a long time. I regretted everything I had said upstairs about the obviousness of this as an exercise. Yes, the movement score is minimal: they eventually leave the clustered foursome and sweep the space in a line before re-clustering. There are few sound and light effects. But I was rapt. Because in TRANS-, two woman machine show and Jonathan Bonnici have stripped theatre bare to two elements: a power-exchange between performer and audience member, and language. The cutting away of almost everything but description makes the relationship between the two powerfully apparent.
The artist statement, like many artist statements, is difficult to pin down: "TRANS- is a type of ceremonial construction…It is a space that allows us to responsibly investigate ‘immanent violence’ – that is, the tyranny embedded in language itself and that which appears like a Hydra, as the apotheosis of contemporary violence. Normativity will be reproduced when we fail to go beyond our habitual body, though we dream of finding cracks in the language system from which a new sympathetic magic could emerge." But reading this again, it’s all there.
Being read correctly is a powerful act of connection that might deserve the ritual language the company uses to describe the event. Being read incorrectly as a "Greek student on a foreign exchange program," shows the ways in which language fails as a descriptive tool and social glue. Being insulted shows the ways in which language fails more generally and more destructively. Which is to say, being called a "bully" with an "aggressive", "puffy body", shows the way in which language is a system of power. It’s one thing to sit and read Derrida in a library. It’s another to make eye contact with a stranger who is calling you mean and fat. At one point, the performers are describing a small young woman slumped into her chair. "She is unhappy." They go on like this for an uncomfortably long time. Despite my silent wishing, they won’t leave her to move on to the next. Actually, she looks as though she might throw up. She looks like she wants to die. To disappear. Sticks and stones may break my bones, and, yes, words can hurt me. But then, the performers stop speaking. The sound designer speeds up the recorded track as the comments from the last few minutes overlap into a solid mass of sound and cut away.
You might have noticed that each of my contributions has been, well, personal. The blog team has done such a thoughtful and thorough job writing reviews that it felt a bit silly to replicate this by doing it again but in English. Better, maybe, to just speak from my own experience. So I have tried to stay grounded in that presence. I have tried to be clear, knowing, to follow the logic of TRANS-, that clarity is a destructive tool just as it’s a creative one. I’d like to conclude my contributions for the blog with TRANS-, because it explored not only some disturbing dynamics at the heart of performance but also at the heart of criticism – its selfishness, its power-game with language, its necessary failure. And still, we keep writing. TRANS-, more than anything else I saw at Theatertreffen, turned the medium inside out to look for a new form of sympathetic magic. This might be the task of the critic, too – to take things apart in order to let the light shine through the cracks. Thanks for reading.
Read more at the Theatertreffen Blog.