PuSh Blog

International Theatre Journalism Exchange Project: Part I Belgium

August 27, 2010

Alex Lazaridis Ferguson is part of an international theatre journalism exchange. He and two European journalists, Carmen Van Cauwenbergh (Belgium) and Alexander Schnackenburg (Germany) are investigating the PuSh Festival (Canada), PAZZ (Germany), and Het Theatrefestival (Belgium). Articles by the three writers are appearing in a number of publications including Urban Mag (Belgium), Realtime Arts (Australia), Plank Magazine (Vancouver), and a new website dedicated to the project called Performulations (Germany).

Exceeding Expectations at a Boutique Performance Festival

by Alex Lazaridis Ferguson

16 August 2010, Antwerp, Belgium

I sometimes forget that for most of the theatre-going public “theatre” means watching actors perform a playwright’s script. For this public the typical offering at a contemporary performance festival like Hetheatre (Belgium), PAZZ (Oldenburg), or PuSh (Vancouver) can be disorienting. What is the spectator supposed to make of a theatre work like Hey Girl! by Societas Raffaello Sanzio in which a petite blonde woman emerges from a latex cocoon, cries while beating a bass drum, pours Chanel No. 5 onto a burning sword, and is seemingly tormented by two flashing light boxes bearing the letters “L” and “R”? Or Thom Luz’s The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret (Die Verlorene Kunst, Ein Geheimenis Zu Bewahren) in which three men take turns inhabiting a dead writer while musicians play seemingly random samples of classical music, jazz, pop, and folk songs? Very symbolic, but what does it mean, where’s the story arc, and who are we supposed to identify with? How is a drama-loving patron supposed to get her cathartic kicks? The three festivals mentioned above don’t usually do drama-theatre. They do performance-theatre. But those two words haven’t always been easy bedfellows.

Theatre vs. performance—it’s been about fifty years since the debate began in earnest. Going back to the 1960s, the broad strokes look like this: visual artists started performing their work (some of it came to be know as action art or performance art); because they weren’t actors and were just “being themselves” they considered their type of art to be more authentic—traditional theatre was just cheap sentiment. Theatre people usually rejected the performance artist’s work as art-wank, certainly nothing you would call theatre (of course, the visual arts crowd didn’t care what theatre artists thought). Other theatre artists like Jerzy Grotowski, Richard Schechner, and Peter Brook wanted some of that performance art authenticity. Peter Brook achieved mainstream notoriety and acceptance. Others stayed comfortably on the outskirts of official theatre culture.

Fast-forward to the current situation in which a proliferation of boutique-size theatre festivals has sprung up, creating a global market for high-art performance-theatre. Okay, you might have just noticed that I put “performance” and “theatre” back together in the previous sentence. Tricky. Many performance artists continue to look on the theatre with suspicion. But over the past fifty years, some of the most innovative theatre artists have come from visual arts backgrounds, or have been scenographers, or have come out of theatre schools but rejected most of the basic assumptions of conventional, story-based theatre. Robert Wilson and the above-mentioned Societas Raffaello Sanzio are two emblematic examples.

Audiences for the kind of work presented at these festivals are cross-over audiences; the festivals feature performances of theatre, music, contemporary dance, installation art, and blends of all those, so the interests of the patrons are varied. Still, there are a lot of people that come with certain expectations of what theatre is supposed to look and feel like. A couple of years ago I directed Nanay: A Testimonial Play at the PuSh Festival. Nanay is an installation-style theatre piece that takes place in ten separate rooms. The audience moves in small groups through the settings, usually encountering an actor playing a Filipino domestic worker or a Canadian parent who employs them. The actors speak text extracted from interviews with real nannies and parents. Sometimes there are no actors, only sound environments or dioramas. After one performance, a veteran Vancouver theatre professional wrote on a questionnaire, “This may be good politics but it isn’t theatre.” Here in Belgium, some complain that the work at a festival like Het can only be appreciated by a niche patron.

How worried should the festivals be about these of attitudes? PuSh festival programming has grown increasingly challenging over the years. The 2010 edition was perhaps the most cutting-edge. Executive Director Norman Armour has been rewarded for his efforts with bigger and bigger audiences. Sell-outs have become the norm. Overall attendance is around 85%. Based on what I saw in Oldenburg in May, the PAZZ festival is similarly successful, with similar programming. The bulk of the PAZZ audience is a combination of the same people who attend the Oldenburg state theatre and the younger, university crowd. Curator Thomas Kraus keeps one eye on satisfying these local patrons and the other on PAZZ’s place in the national, continental, and global theatre ecology.

Being newcomers to the international theatre festival scene, Armour and Kraus have relative freedom to program their festivals according to their own tastes. In its 20th edition, Hetheatre festival is a more established beast, one with a history of more conventional text-based work. Under the four-year curation of festival director Don Verboven and his juries, Het has been pushed away from its text-oriented past. This has caused a bit of a backlash from some old guard patrons and critics. For Verboven the question becomes, “How much can you stretch your audience, and how do you know if you’ve gone too far?”

Of course, this is a question for any adventurous theatre programmer or artist. We hypothesize who our spectators might be and what they might be able to handle. We try to judge, in a number of ways, the success of our endeavours. Did the audience clap loud enough? Did they laugh hard enough? Did they seem engrossed in the performance? Did they nod or grunt knowingly in the right places? We try to be mind readers, and we are partly successful—we probably have enough in common with our patrons to be able to read their facial expressions and body language. Ticket sales can tell us something. If people aren’t coming back for more next year, maybe we haven’t developed a rapport with them, maybe we’re not speaking the same language, maybe the work is beyond them (or possibly below them).

There’s another way to find out whether the experience has been meaningful for the spectators. We can ask them. But this is labour intensive. In order to get a big enough sample group you have to interview a lot of people, and let them talk for a long time. To my knowledge, only Dutch scholar Peter Eversmann has undertaken such a study. His sample isn’t huge, but it’s the best one we have to date. He finds that, above all, spectators value a theatre event in which they are so absorbed they lose their sense of past, present, and future. They feel an expanded sense of self, or a transcendence of ego. They get into the flow of the experience. “Flow” is similar to the kind of peak experiences described by athletes. One of the main factors that enables the spectator to achieve flow is whether they feel the artist has created her work with integrity. This often means the work has a unified feel to it. What it doesn’t necessarily require is a traditional script. In interviews and questionnaires, Eversmann’s respondents almost never mention the playwright (if there is one). That’s partly because, during performance, the spectator tends not to separate the actor/character from the words she or he is speaking (if anything is being spoken). The spectators describe their most valued experiences as ones in which they felt the impact of the performance as somatic force, as if they were being physically overwhelmed. While semantic content is important, body language and vocal quality are more important. The impact of text-based theatre is related to the quality of the performers’ physical embodiment of the words and the director’s scenographic sense. Theatre that isn’t text-based depends on the same factors. Text vs. non-text becomes a moot point.

The other thing spectators tend not to do during performance is cling to the separation of actor and character. While they are aware that a trained professional is playing a part, the representer and represented become one for much of the performance. This throws into question the performance-art notion of authenticity, at least from the perspective of the viewer.

So if spectator engagement isn’t dependent on text, and if separation of actor and fictional world isn’t important, why is there still a division, for some people, between legitimate text-based theatre and other kinds of theatrical performances? Why do some patrons’ expectations of theatre keep them away from performance festivals like PAZZ, PuSh and Het? It puzzles me. I’ve been so consistently disappointed with conventional text-based theatre I rarely go anymore. It’s only at these performance festivals I find the inspiration I’m looking for. Am I a freak? Should I join the throng and head back to Broadway or the West End? I think not. Like Eversmann’s subjects, I value the peak experience—and I know where to get my fix.

[This blog also appears on Plankmagazine.com]