Re-visiting the Community: The Politics of Theatre Beyond the Theatre

Weakening spectatorship
What the trajectory of modern Western theatre shows is a drastic taming of the audience. Paradoxically, the discovery of the “physiological man” that realism and naturalism achieved, as Garner accurately points out, was accompanied by a perceptual deactivation of the audience’s own physical presence (2007: 116).
The limiting structures of perception and attention championed by the followers of realism, as well as the gradual casting of the audience in the role of “clients,” along with the elevation of professional artists, managers, public relation people, fund raisers and sponsors to the role of connoisseurs, not only sealed theatre off from the world but also discouraged any unruly responses, narrowing the repertoire of overt reactions on the receiving end to mere applause, thus making it, as Kershaw rightly notes, the major “expression of audience as community.” An audience “that refuses to applaud, an audience that is riotous, disrupts theatre’s harmonious ecosystem and exposes its shortcomings” (Kershaw 2007: 190).
As long as the performance was understood as the realization of an already complete project/play, an act of representation taking place in an already signified topos, the viewing experience remained relatively unchanged, despite occasional challenges. In the last few years, however, the reinforcement of theatre’s ecology and performative arsenal has changed many things, and above all, the way artists deal with the presentational qualities of theatre (for more see Lehmann 2006: 123-24). For example, the presence of narrator(s) on stage, or the use of non-professionals as actors, the activation of all the audience’s senses (not just their ears and eyes), the change of location and its emphasis on the art of the everyday, the use of video recordings, diaries, photos, interviews and other documentary elements, the use of microphones and more advanced hi-tech gadgets, have allowed the emergence of new ecosites and aesthetics of spectatorship (or “spect-actorship,” according to Boal).
These reinforce the image of theatre as an event that is more critical, more conscious of being there, “of being present,” as Kaye points out (2001: 1-12; also Hill 2007: 3-7 and Keidan 2007: 8-16); an event which, by provoking a crisis in the poetics and politics of representation, radicalizes once again viewing and understanding in a very different (and in many cases, more effective) way than other traditional modes of communicating. Using mainly non-traditional surroundings and boundary-pushing subject matter, contemporary artists leverage the power of live performance to provoke a deeper consideration of social, political, and eco-cultural issues. They invite audiences to deconstruct pre-conceived and fixed notions, and to build new understandings of their communities, their world and—why not—themselves. In a way, these artists are theatre-makers and community builders, artists who use performance as “a mode of cultural action and not a simple reflection of some essentialized, fixed attributes of a static, monolithic culture but an arena for the constant process of negotiating experiences and meanings that constitute culture,” as Zarilli claims (1995). They believe that the regular coming together of people would create, with the passage of time, a stronger sense of community, of the kind we experience attending marathon productions, whose duration gives people the chance to share meals, coffee breaks, ideas and to cultivate friendships. Whereas fifteen years ago a long, drawn out production would have scared them off, now it is common practice, if we judge from the festival popularity of shows such as Peter Stein’s twelve-hour Daemons, Lupa’s nine-hour Factory, Warlikowski’s five-hour Apollonia, and the six-hour productions: Dodin’s Brothers and Sisters, Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola!, and Howard Barker’s The Ecstatic Bible, among others. Barker is not exaggerating when he writes in his Arguments for a Theatre, that “one day a play will be written for which men and women will miss a day’s work” (1997: 24). Durational live art surely denaturalizes our mode of spectatorship and forces us to ask questions about the value of art and whether spending so many hours is worth the trouble. Some people think it is.

Flash Mobs and public space
Flirting with the communal are also the interventions in public spaces organized by professional and non-professional performance enthusiasts, such as the American flash mobs, which appear from nowhere, mix with the crowd that happens to be there, frustrating distinctions between life and theatre. By inserting art into everyday experience, these events surface as a direct critique of the lack of communal activity. Their reason d’ etre is simple and direct: “We rarely go out to meet people,” their organizers say. Whenever we do, we make sure to carry our gadgets with us, to protect us from mixing with other people (iPods, cell phones). Public spaces no longer have the meaning of the ancient agora, a place for exchanging ideas and discussing issues of communal interest. As an answer to that, these interventions somehow try to put us inside the action (and the ecosystem) and momentarily turn us into a community, blurring the lines that separate us and the spectacle. In terms of traditional hermeneutics, these events challenge the tyranny of the typical, the predictability of the trite, the boredom of the everyday. You never know if something is going to erupt. By storming public space, they claim it and also momentarily transform it into an (eco) art that people cannot purchase, but only participate in, and thus generate their own spectacle as well.
I underline the importance of these public interventions not so much for their artistic merit but mainly for their political significations. Especially for us Greeks, for whom the streets are rarely used for art—they are usually a topos for parades, demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations and riots—events which reintegrate art and everyday life, remind people why they should re-discover the city and the community they live in. To walk in the city or to visit a museum are routine activities, no doubt, yet they could cast new light on how places are understood, used or misused. As de Certeau says, these activities are important because they can disrupt standard notions of place and transform it into a more creative, transformative optimistic space (1984). And it goes without saying that the success or failure of all these playfully anarchic and occasionally discomforting events depends on our willingness “to become cogs within a preprogrammed machine” (Muse 2011: 19), which is not always an easy thing to do, because they disrupt the delicate fabric of our certainties. Once overcoming our fears and joining in, we can develop a new awareness of the place we live in and a new awareness of being part of a community (for more Muse 9-23).

Dramaturgy of the spectator
This reversal of the traditional, habitual ways of participating and interacting, characterizes a number of theatre ventures taking place in Athens’ theatre life, among them Michael Marmarinos’ successful Athens Festival production of Dimitris Demetriades’ fiction-turned-into-drama Dying as a Country, which was realized with the participation of two hundred volunteers (the original planning was for six hundred) who walked together for some distance before entering the theatre.
Also, the German version of Prometheus, brought to the same festival in 2011 by Rimini Protokoll and staged at the Roman amphitheatre of Herode Atticus, involved 100 local volunteers from all social strata, who answered questions about illegal immigration and local politics as well as questions related to their understanding of the ancient play, its myth, Prometheus’ role etc.1 In cases like these, theatre is reintroduced as a public event partly conceived with and through the audience, shifting the emphasis to a dramaturgy of the spectator, which challenges binary oppositions and especially disperses any authoritarian pretence of objectivity. In these events, one does not simply attend; s/he attends the event and also participates in it, pretty much the way Peter Handke dramatizes in his Offending the Audience (1966) where he says: “You are the subject matter. You are the center of interest [….] You are the event.” And so we are.

Food collective
On many other occasions (I have attended about thirty in the last couple of years in Athens alone) the bait for this get-togetherness is the use of food, during, before or after the show. Sharing food with someone is direct communication—face-to-face, not interface communication. Sharing food honors speech and live experience, not virtual reality, says Marranca (2008: 112). And that partly explains why theatre has always flirted with the communicative potential of gastronomy. Ancient Greek festivals, for example, were suffused with intense aromas, including fruits, florals, grains, animal offerings, wine, honey and oil libations. In the lavish feasts of the Middle Ages, food did not just accompany a performance; food was a performance. Aristocrats used food as an opportunity for an elaborate and costly display of their power (Cole 2007: 92-104). Elizabethan banquets and popular carnival events also engaged the senses. In Hasidic culture, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett informs us, there is the tish, a kind of musical banquet during which the rebe (charismatic leader) holds “court in the community’s house of study [….] He will bless food, deliver a discourse […] and dance with his followers” (2007: 72). In the twentieth century, audiences of many avant-garde events, particularly those of the Dadaists, very frequently “honored” food by throwing it at the performers— tomatoes and eggs being the most popular, due to their splattering effect. In the post-war era we have numerous instances in which food is used, from Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Coke bottles to Alan Kaprow’s Apple Shrine and Eat Environments, to Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy with its celebratory sausages and chickens, to Fluxus artists such as Alison Knowles, among others (for more see Marranca 2008: 113-15).
With the development of performance in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the presence of food continued to appeal to artists. According to Marranca, the renewed interest in storytelling “parallels the ascendancy of restaurant culture. A meal becomes an event through the addition of good conversation that has more often than not less to do with the food consumed than the quality of companionship articulated.” In more ways than one, food helps the creation of culture and civilization (117). As Kishenblatt-Gimblett notes, discussing Great Small Works, the New York ensemble founded in 1995 as a collective of artists who keep theatre at the heart of social life, draw on folk, avant-garde, and popular theater traditions to address contemporary issues. The regular coming together of people creates with the passage of time “a sense of community.” Through “commensality, more than cuisine, these artists are redefining the nature and meaning of theatre” (2007: 83). This is something the Bread and Puppet Theatre has been doing for many years, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett reminds us. Preparing bread and sharing it with their audiences, they show that theatre is as important to people as bread. By connecting their puppets with bread, they make their shows more meaningful and less about “painterly and sculptural ambitions” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2007: 83).
It is obvious that the strong comeback of forgotten senses and communication channels betrays people’s need for intimacy in a world of loneliness. Especially in countries like Greece which have been experiencing a devastating fragmentation of their ecosystem, the collective spirit that is achieved through food explains its popularity in the theatre community. Since people cannot turn to their government for help, they turn to each other. One such recent example is the performance of Sylvia Plath’s work Three Women, a Poem, and Three Vices, (staged in SIX D.O.G.S, a bar-restaurant in downtown Athens, 2011), which took place in the bar’s kitchen, a place where, as poetry readers know, Plath loved to spend a great deal of her time. During the performance, the three actresses cooked for the audience.
In another performance, this time staged in a wagon bar, two actresses served coffee and cookies to the audience and the passengers of the train before confessing their personal stories to them. In the performance Food Recipes for Women Writers at Cabaret Voltaire (2011), the protagonist (Alexia Moustaka) used the recipe book she had with her to cook for the audience. In the performance of Robin Soan’s The Arab Israeli Cook Book, staged in the agora of Kypseli (2010), one of the most densely populated areas in Europe with a huge population of immigrants, the director Irene Spanou underlined the similarities between Arabs and Israelis through their food recipes. The spectators were invited to join them while they ate and told each other stories.

Last but not least is the example of the 2011-12 ticket sales policy for The State Theatre of Northern Greece: for certain productions (five altogether, hosted under the umbrella term “Social Theatrestore”), instead of cash (normally something between 10-20 euros), people handed over food at the ticket booth. The first production that launched this initiative was Enda Walsh’s Chatroom, for which dozens of spectators showed up carrying bags of pasta, sugar, flour and even toys and baby clothes. As Sotiris Hatzakis, the artistic director of the State Theatre put it, “We are creating a solidarity network that works in terms of direct
democracy. And we intend to keep it going next year too, since all signs show that the crisis is set to endure.”
This is not to say that a large state theatre like this, which lives on state money, has suddenly turned radical. What I am arguing here is that radical social changes (of the kind that Greece has been experiencing for the last four years) equally trigger inventive ways to inspire audiences, engage communities and also discuss burning national issues that directly affect their lives. 2

Are they political?
As already mentioned, by grouping all these trends together I do not claim that they are the same. Many of them are situational responses to specific grievances or desires. Some feel that there is something fundamentally off-kilter and unrepresentative about the way our life is organized. Some others feel that corporate globalization has greatly weakened national governmental power to regulate the life of their citizens. What unites them, however, is their concern and restlessness about the reality (mainly economic) that globalization has created. They all see that new problems have appeared which demand new methods. Brecht speaks for them all when he says: “Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must change. Nothing comes of nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new” (1974: 51).
Brecht is more interested in asking questions and provoking thought in his audience than providing pre-digested answers. And so are many contemporary artists. The fact that they are highly alert to ideas of context and site, and also very attentive to the complexities and sophistication of contemporary audiences—and their cultural values, identities and expectations—makes them political (in a very Brechtian sense).
Contemporary artists are political because they invest in ideas of immediacy and reality and create new spaces for their audiences to re-consider what it means to be here, now, this moment, to participate, to explore unknown performance cartographies, to wonder about the political and ecological context that governs their habitus. To talk about things forgotten or never talked before.
To share food or inhale the fragrance of simmering food or pay to eat what the actors have cooked during the show, thus forcing them to break free from the constraints of social decorum and become ”spect-actors” with the goal of applying what they have learned to their own lives.
Contemporary artists are political not because they necessarily dramatize political issues as such, but because they interrogate the way in which we receive and translate information in everyday life. By breaking standard norms, by doing away with clichés and entering uncharted territories, by disrupting boundaries, disciplines and senses, they bring to our attention issues that matter to the legislature, “that enervate the elements that pacify the effects of theatre, that stir up emotions and senses in more interesting and engaging ways,” as Kershaw soundly observes (2008: 203).
Contemporary artists are political because their antidote to what globalization and commodification have brought, is a theatre which creates the conditions for the emergence of an audience with a new attitude towards place, viewing, sharing, participating and mainly consuming theatre. An audience ready to pose questions about the meaning of theatricality, of re-enactment, authenticity, participation: Who is making art? How is s/he making it? Where? Why? For whom? Questions that challenge us to explore the (im)possibilities of theatre and also interrogate our own citizenship in a world that is constantly in a state of flux.
In these ventures, Brechtian distancing and Boalian spect-actorship intermingle, aiming both to entertain and to engage. At the same time, it should be noted that by entering situations that disturb theatrical space and affect perception, the spectators are inevitably confused because they are not presented with an independent artifact, a separate semiotic system that draws a line between belief and disbelief, artistic and conventional norms. Once art severs itself from its signifier status and claims a life of its own, it becomes an event—an event which opens up the possibility for all participants to experience a metamorphosis. Its object no longer depends on the meanings attributed to them. These events remind the crowds that anywhere (and anything) can become a performance. At the same time, these events also pose a big problem: Who’s to judge?

How good, how bad?
In the arts there is always someone that claims the authority to ascertain whether the event succeeded or failed, which, however, does not seem to fully apply here. When someone radically departs from standard poetics and spatial frames, when he searches for a theatre beyond the theatre, things become more complex and confusing, due to the equally complex oscillation between presence (the corporeal) and representation. Fischer-Lichte makes the point that once the artist ceases to be the god of the event, the “poetic genius” described by Coleridge and other Romantics (and later on by modernists), but rather a subject engaged “in a continuous process of determining and being determined,” it goes without saying that s/he no longer exercises his/her free will on the spectators (Fischer-Lichte 2008: 164).
Each spectator brings forth meanings according to subjective conditions, contributes to the show and is influenced by it (2008: 148, 154). Which means that the effect is a reciprocal process. The spectator-participant co-determines the course of the performance, and by doing so s/he opens it up to the endless game of possibilities (Fischer-Lichte 2008: 165, 163). In situations where the “as if’s” and the play of illusion are erased and the audience’s experience acquires utmost importance, the question is no longer how far can performance (or theatre in general) go, but how far the spectator can go to accept a show as an artefact?
Summing up
Most of these performances (from Greece and elsewhere) which mingle with people, stretch the limits of established practices, integrate unpredictable elements, dangerously flirt with the possibility of art without illusions, or “theatre beyond the theatre,” have one thing in common: to reconnect us with life by making the ordinary appear conspicuous, and thus extraordinary. They want to “show the endless possibilities that performance brings to the formation of unsuspected modes of attention” (Banes & Lepecki 2007: 4). As noted earlier, some of these performances are more concerned with cultural negotiation, which suggest a more pragmatic interest in theatre aesthetics; others are more political through their goal of a more critical reflection on things, whereas others have less specific social concerns. Ultimately, what counts is a commitment to extending the theatre’s topography and democratic participation through active collaboration with different communities and social groups. What we see developing is theatre as cultural force mediating change, what it means to be in the world and its variable ecosystems. In these ventures, theatre is not an abstraction, a thing “out there” in a darkened room, but an embodied experience; or better, a re-inscribed experience.
Theatre, no matter in what form, shows once again its transformative powers. Whether what we see of late is the short(est)cut to utopia or a cut that is beautifully drawn between high art and bullshit, time will tell. Until it does, let us at least enjoy the trip.

1 This same participatory spirit dominated an earlier work of theirs, the reenactment of an entire parliamentary debate live in Deutschland 2—Berlin Back Up, which lasted sixteen hours with two hundred volunteer-participants (Brandl-Risis 2011: 61).
2 A similar tactic is followed by the N.Y based Foundry Theatre, which organizes feasts that bring together the artists and the spectators. Instead of money to get in, each spectator brings his/her own wine.

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Savas Patsalidis

Professor of Theatre Studies, School of English,  Aristotle University of Thessaloniki