Gob Squad’s Simon Will (photo, in cowboy hat) delves into communication, collaboration and Venice Beach as part of the theatre collective’s upcoming production “Western Society”.
Founded in Nottingham in 1994, the seven-member Gob Squad has long been a staple of the Berlin independent scene. The German-British troupe specialises in a brand of multimedia-devised performance that ranges from the Warhol parody Kitchen to a video time capsule in Saving the World. Their 2012 work Before Your Very Eyes, in which a group of children go through fast-forward adolescence, garnered them international acclaim and an invitation to the Theatertreffen. Their latest, Western Society, revolves around a mundane Youtube clip of a family gathering which then serves as a springboard for dissecting the brave new technological world and how it affects human relationships.
How did you find the video?
Sharon [Smith, Gob Squad member] brought it to the group first. And then like a week ago, we asked her why she was looking at it in the first place. Because this is one of the least-watched videos on the internet – it had something like four hits. And she couldn’t remember how she found it, the only thing that we could come up with was that the singer was singing “Pretty Woman”, and she must have searched for that.
So will the video appear in the piece?
We’ve attempted to contact the owner, but he’s never replied to our emails. And the lawyers tell us that even if we could reach him, we’d have to get some kind of permission from every person in the video and there’s about 20 people. But actually, that in itself is quite interesting.
Ownership and privacy in the digital age are clearly still undefined, and the NSA scandal didn’t make it better…
I think all of us are in the midst of something whose borderlines are still shifting. Technology is thinking up ways for us to communicate with each other that none of us have thought of before. This is actually at the core of what we’re been thinking about while making Western Society. The theme we’re calling ‘together alone’ – from the book Alone Together – is about how, on the one hand, technology enables us to connect and to communicate and, on the other, we’re glued to our technological devices now: we see it every time we see a couple out to dinner and they’re both looking at their smartphones.
How is that idea going to translate on stage?
That’s the big question [laughs]. We don’t deal with scripts. We construct moments and we arrange material; it’s all very fluid right until the last moment. At the moment the core text is this video that we’re not allowed to show. We’re kind of in a process of reconstructing it and projecting on it. The nice thing about this video is it’s nothing you would normally watch – it’s not a cat on a skateboard. It’s just so ordinary that it becomes a very rich picture of a family. And it’s a picture of a society. There’s a dancing grandma, a bored teenager. There’s a lot of people eating cake. We’ve transcribed the path of all the characters in the video and we’ve described in detail exactly what they do. So it’s now possible to perform the three-minute pathway of a character from that video. But there’s a thousand different ways to reconstruct it, and to a certain extent that’s our enemy.
What’s the next step?
At the stage we’re in now, we all accept that we have to stop making material and make sure that there’s some sort of through line. Will the audience get to the end and have any idea what we were doing? We’ve produced lots of material which has a very strong atmosphere to it, and that’s where you can start to use phrases like ‘performance art’. Because with theatre your concerns might be narrative and representation, while with performance art it’s more about what does this make me feel, what does this make me think. Gob Squad often falls between those two things. We have a sense of drama and theatricality, but we also feel very in touch with a visual power and an atmospheric sensibility.
Does the theme of family in the video bring out the family aspects of your collective as well?
Us as a collective and how we work and collaborate together has started to emerge in our work more and more. In this work we’ve continued that conversation between each other as a family, and also bring out our own family histories. We might be looking at a character in the video and I’ll say, “That person is like my mother, and my mother likes to have a drink, and when she has a drink she gets a little bit out of hand.” And someone else will say “Simon I also seem to remember you drink quite a lot.” So there’s a bit of a tri-logue there.
The Center Theater Group in Los Angeles invited you to develop part of this in residency in California. What was that like?
We went out there to get to know them and to dip our little toes into the California swimming pool of Western society. A dominant point of Western culture for the last 100 years was Hollywood, and now Google is the new Hollywood: they hold the shape of things in their servers. It’s quite interesting to think of California as a shaping force of cultural power in that way.
Has something of California made it into the piece?
Venice Beach is full of really crazy characters so we mixed in with them a little bit, to let some of that wash off on us. We started making videos and talking to people, and as is always the case in America, people love to talk.
And they really tell you a lot. It’s this way of talking that we’ve transported into the material. We were talking for hours and hours to people, about all kinds of really crazy far-out shit. Life stories where they’ve been in jail, managed to get out of jail; they were on drugs for decades but then they managed to come out of it. There are tons of kooky characters who’ve gathered together in one of these rare public spaces in Los Angeles and they perform for each other in a way.
What advice would you give young theatre collectives?
I think one of the amazing things we do on a regular basis is sit down and formally talk to each other about how we are and how the last process went. The comparison to family is a strong one. It’s challenging to navigate yourself inside of a group of lots of people, and it’s really important to just put down the content and talk to each other. You have to pride yourself on the right to fail as well. When you’re trying something new you also sometimes fail, and that’s a very important part of a rich cultural life. I can’t imagine being an artist in America and being surrounded by the culture of success. You have to be able to fall over in order to be able to stand in a new way.
WESTERN SOCIETY Oct 5-7, 20:00 | HAU2, Hallesches Ufer 32, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Hallesches Tor
Originally published in issue #120, October 2013.