Research Area F
In 2015 was a strange year. People were dying on our doorstep, fleeing Afghanistan and Syria, heading for Europe. The newspapers where full of pictures of people on the run, barbed wire and armoured police. At the same time, I was searching for a way to reach outside of my own private story. To see what happened with my texts if they bounced off things that went outside my private sphere. News-stories, ready-mades, things other people told me.
I found this photo-reportage from the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. The photographer Magnus Wennman had portrayed children on the run. Sleeping rough in fields, under bushes, on train stations and street corners. It had the title Where the children sleep (https://darbarnensover.aftonbladet.se).
I immediately sat down and wrote a short, performative text for eight voices. A rhythmical, choir-based piece, inspired by the photos and my reactions to them, but also consisting of ready-mades, or rewritten quotes taken from interviews of children in this situation, like this piece of an interview with a child on the run:
We left in the night
They told me we were going to Turkey, but I did not know what Turkey was
The text I wrote was a poetic assemblage (See the whole text here). A combination of story-telling, small monologues, outbursts, confessions and dialogue. Throughout the text, the way the text addressed the reader constantly shifted. There are introspective or descriptive parts and other parts where the voices reach out to the audience, or start to address each other in sections that resemble dialogue.
I have been collaborating with the Tromsø-based production company Ferske Scener for years. They performed my first full-length play, Strømmer, in 2006, and in their festival Scenetekstivalen in 2014, they produce the first staged reading of my play S O A R E.
Scenetekstivalen presents readings, seminars and performances, and in 2016, Ferske Scener invited me to do a trial reading of Where the Children sleep. The reading took place in April, and I asked myself – how was I going to go about it? Just doing a standard staged reading felt kind of passive, but to “act” out this texts, to turn it into theatre – felt impossible, even bad taste. Who would play these children on the run? And how? I was also worried about the more commentary or reflective side of the text. Would it be weakened by a realistic, theatrical presentation? How could I balance my aesthetic choices and my performative choices?
Since performing the text as a “play” seemed out of the question, we started to talk about whether the real potential in the material offered itself to a more "communal" event. Could we open up for a reading that also included the audience?
THE POTENTIAL OF THE “WE” IN A THEATRICAL SPACE
In the staged reading of S O A R E, the event took place in a gallery, a small white cube, where the audience and the actors sat together. There was just a small performance space in the middle of the room. There was no theatrical lighting. A percussionist produced sounds and music live as the play went on, and the atmosphere was low key, relaxed but intense. At some point during the reading, a feeling of shared experience arose and when it was over, people did not want to leave, but continued talking and hanging out together.
Could we create something like that again? And could we, through that, strengthen the confessional quality of the piece? The urgency of it? The feeling of it being addressed from an immediate here and now?
Director and dramaturge Kristin Eriksen Bjørn came up with a suggestion: What about creating a one to one situation? Each performer could have his or her own specific member of the audience to address. And then, another idea: What if the performer and the audience member were facing each other? The idea was to create a feeling of bridging the gap, of a direct and imperative address, and, by that – draw the audience mentally and ethically into the actual experience. To create a room for confessions, witnessing and afterthought.
I was excited by the idea, – but I knew that to make it happen, I needed to find the right performers, and that wasn’t easy, since I needed four of them to be children.
I decided to go for actors that had experience in improvisation-based work, and in my e-mail where I invited them into the project, I wrote: What I want to do on the 27t h of April is not a performance or a reading. I would rather call it an “audience-investigation”. The idea is that each actor will get their “own” audience-member, who will sit facing them – and then the job is to address him or her directly with the text. This a simple idea, but it means that you need to learn your text by heart before the rehearsal… It will be challenging, – but I hope it will be worth it…
I will be having a short presentation of my project before the reading. After the reading, we will open for discussion with the audience, where you all can participate.
WHO PERFORMS WHAT?
A staged reading usually involves a manuscript. This time, that was not an option. To achieve the one-to-one closeness between performer and audience-member, the text could not be physically present between them. I also needed an audience to be there and part-take under the rehearsals, to know what adjustments to do for the reading. It was impossible to plan, or understand the form of the reading, without an audience taking part. So although this resembled a staged reading in form, it was bordering on becoming a performance.
The first meeting with the audience happened in a cramped room at Rådstua Teaterhus five days before the actual reading. Eight actors and around 16 audience-members met. Eight of the audience-members seated in a circle, and then each one faced one actor. The rest made up an outer circle, watching what unfolded. In this situation, with the audience in an outer ring, a new potential for addresses and addressing appeared. The inner circle was made up of the one-to-one coupling between performer an a audience-member, and the inner circle was constituted by audience.
During the rehearsal, there was a feeling of real, intense listening in the room, and of contact. A one-to-one contact that one does not normally get in a reading but also a feeling of community. Of sharing.
As the rehearsals went on, I also opened up for one of the monologues of the children to be acted out. Letting the child actor, lets call him Sondre, break out of the one-to-one confessional situation, to stand up and address everybody as if this had really happened to him and that he wanted everybody in the room to know about it. The result was a kind of a hybrid, and the only thing tying the different segments together, was the constant stream of addresses floating between the performers and between the performers and the audience.
For the reading/audience investigation, Ferske Scener had chosen a room on the lower levels of Tromsø’s public library, in the children’s department. A space they call Eventyr-rommet, the Fairytale-room.
The room was circular, bright read, and we could seat around 40 people there. Since I wanted to give the reading an intimate setting, 40 people would be a good number.
During the reading we could from time to time hear the sound of children laughing, or shouting, or talking outside. This gave the whole event another layer. A feeling of being in a world inside another world. Our fictional world giving voice to children on the run, surrounded by "real" children doing stuff children do, gave added meaning and context to the situation.
There was a rush for people to see the reading: festival-goers, parents, industry-people, and fellow researchers, and in the end, we let in more people than we had planned. This meant that the reading lost some of the intimacy and immediacy from the rehearsals. Today I think think that around 35 people would have been an ideal amount.
The whole event and the discussion that followed was documented as video (see presentation here, reading here and conversation here).
THE AUDIENCE EXPERIENCE
I encouraged everybody in the room to come with some feedback. A dramaturge and playwright that was there stated the same and continued (my translation): I think it was the mode of addressing that you used that did it for me. The way we were sitting, and the room itself. There were also people in the room who did not speak English. One wrote this on mail: For me it was like a musical composition: the words, repetitions and sound were carrying the meaning for me – there was no need to understand every single word. This made the reading a very interesting experience for me.
Another, sitting in the outer circle wrote (my translation): The interaction with the audience created a need to linger and stay with the material.
Most of the actors said that they found the experience strong and meaningful, but one of the actors felt that the audience was trying to fulfill their duty. Being polite, not knowing where to look or what to do with themselves, and that this not necessarily gave intimacy and presence to the experience. One of the people writing back to me confirmed this. She was sitting face to face with one of the performers and for her this situation did not produce intimacy, she wrote: As an audience-member, it was quite a demanding situation to be in, being so close, having to look people in the eye. I became quite self-conscious. Was I doing a good enough job? (I am quite shy when I have to relate to people I do not know) For instance: Have I failed if I do not meet their gaze or look down? I liked that the performers sat in a circle. It gave associations to a life-boyo. And it gave a real feeling of a «we» – but I am not totally sure whether that «we» also include us, the audience members.
It seemed that this tension was stronger in the reading than in the rehearsal. Maybe it was the space. Maybe it was the festival setting. Maybe it was a nervousness that was transmitted from the performers, all a bit shaky since we had only had one rehearsal and the reading demanded a certain timing and there was a lot of text to remember. Or maybe we are just all different. One experiencing these kinds of situations different from the others. Today I think it is all these things combined.
WHERE THE CHILDREN SLEEP 2
After the reading in Tromsø, I got an invite to do a reading in Oslo, at Ingensteds, a nightspot in Oslo, for the production company Kompani Camping and Vega Scene.
This time I was going to give a standard reading. There was a stage, there were microphones, this would be a frontal presentation without any real contact between the performers and the audience. Since it was no time for preparation, the performers would have to have the text with them on stage and read from it.
After the reading I wrote in my research blog, trying to sum up the experience: This was quite another experience than the reading in Tromsø. First of all, everything was a bit chaotic. Some of the children did not turn up, and we had to call for reinforcements, so some of the performers did not have the chance to rehearse at all before they went on stage. There was a lot of smalltalk in the audience, people buying beer etc. – so I did not feel that intense concentration that occurred during the reading in Tromsø. I must admit, although people complemented me on the text – the exercise felt a bit void of meaning.
When the chance to do a third reading came, I knew that I wanted to try to recreate and develop what we had done in Tromsø.
I had also become increasingly interested in the act of addressing itself. It was an eye-opener to see the strong effect of an exchange of gazes in this intimate setting, and to explore how an address could feel personal in one minute, and then change to become general or directed towards everybody in the room in the next. I was eager to explore the effect an interaction between the two could have. It seamed this could be a way to summon the empathy and the investment of the audience without keeping the focus on just one individual or one story. How could I utilize this in my playwrighting. How could I go along with these findings, paring them up with compositionary tools and other rhetoric tools. All of a sudden, I saw a new and powerful potential for igniting drama through different types of imperative address. If the goal was to instigate a kind of chain-reaction of initiation and response, what was the best way to go about it? I was first and foremost interested in utterances that directly demanded a reaction from the one it addressed. Addresses like:
– Stay with me.
– Don’t leave.
– Are you still here?
I saw how these imperative addresses immediately could pull the listener in. I had seen the effect of the combination of removing the forth wall, and the introduction of these types of addresses in direct contact with the audience – and I started to wonder if addresses like that could be a primary mover in the dramatic text.
An entity that could produce a feeling of urgency and presence, as well as an ethical tension, and that this all together could provoke a kind of “we” (See: Stay–Leave. Don’t Go.).
All through these readings I did with Where the Children Sleep, I never did any major changes to the text. Maybe due to its strict, melodic and repetitive form, or maybe because there was enough possibilities to play around with the text being what it was. It had its strengths and it its weaknesses. What really interested me was the potential it entailed in creating a shared space between the actors and the audience through different types of addresses. The knowledge derived from that then fled into other texts, like Corridors and Rooms and Sweatshop - Aleppo.
WHERE THE CHILDREN SLEEP 3
The third reading was organized by the SAND festival, a festival for children and young in Kristiansand, produced by Assitej. The festival had invited me, and I was now eager to further explore the potential I had discovered in Tromsø.
During the short time I had available with my performers in Kristiansand, I managed to try out and vary the way the performers addressed each other – when they turned their addressing inwards, as inner monologues, to each other, engaged in dialogue, or took contact with the audience. For instance I let the grown-ups in the group address each other as a collective, cutting out the audience all altogether. I also let them break out of this group, one and one or all together, addressing the audience as if seeking support for their "messages" or emotional states. This opened up for moments of afterthought or attack, forcing the audience-member to take a stance. Through this, another type of engagement came about.
I also worked with sequences where the performers formed a collective, addressing each other or reaching out to the audience "as a shared body". In that process, I discovered a potential for developing an intricate but organic pattern of a polyvocal choir-structure, based not only upon statements or dialogues and monologues, but upon different ways of addressing – internally and externally, together and individually through texts, body language, attitude and gaze. I saw a potential for these patterns to create both emotion, affects and reflection.
When I started working on the City-Dwellers project, I wanted to explore this further.
The idea was to work with sound and with a series of isolated adresses combined in an immersive space. Through that, I wanted to further explore how addresses – imperative, personal, directed, collective or communal – could constitute a community, and I had a need to further explore the power of the voice. How an address had the potential to behave differently not only though the way a text was formulated by the writer, but through the interpretation, attitude and imperative present in the interpretation of the reader. I also wanted to look more closely at how the sound of the voice itself, its tonal qualities, its temperature, age, attack etc. could give added meaning and direction to an address in an immersive performative text (see the City Dwellers complex).
AUDIENCE-INVESTIGATIONS AS WORKSTATIONS
In Kristiansand, the reading took place in a Black Box. Although we moved the inner and the outer circle onto the stage itself, a black box is a black box. This was a space for theatre. There were no sounds of children – laughing, running, or shouting – seeping through these walls. This was a room designated to make theatre happen, and it became self-evident to me that we were not doing that. This was performative, yes – but it was not in itself theatrical. It did what only theatre can do, but I am till this day not sure, whether it was “theatre”.
This meant, that the theatrical setting brought a more sombre and situated context to the event, which gave a less immediate access to the here and now. At the same time, a richness in the level and interaction of the various addresses had started to come about, and that created a larger dynamic and complexity than the reading in Tromsø had.
All in all the three readings had given me ample opportunity to explore both performative and formal qualities of the text. Some of these explorations might have had more to do with theatre directing than playwriting, but it all informed me in my future projects, and made me reflect further on both the formal and the ethical questions at hand.
What did it really mean to be together? In a text and in a room?
And what did it take to make a text work on the stage, as a performance, using documentary material portraying children in the most vulnerable situation? On the run. exposed. Defenseless. Asleep on a pavement, at a railway station, in the shrubberies. Lost and cast aside in a contemporary Europe.
Doing this I had to consider how to write and put together the material, the way it was presented, the audience role in it and the space where it took place. And when it was time to sum up the work with the three readings of Where the Children Sleep, it had become obvious to me that these readings had taken on the function as “work-stations” for me. As places for investigations, for testing of material together with the audience, on site.
For me, writing Where the Children Sleep, had been about coming face to face with something that was happening in the world there and then. Later, it made me discover the potential of a text when it was not staged as such, but rather as a meeting place between the actors, the text and the audience. Not as a result, but as a process. Since the process of the meeting itself was what made the text come "alive", the situation created was what was of the essence. Maybe that was why I retrospectively think that the first rehearsal at the cramped room in Rådstua was the “best”. Or at least I enjoyed it the most. The small group, an everyday setting, all this gave the event a feeling of both risk and intimacy. This points towards another form of performativity and to theatre as a process and a meeting.
Responding to the project and the process, dramaturge, author and director Kristin Eriksen Bjørn points to audience participation and the one-to-one situation, not the space as the tipping point for her. The change-maker was being an audience member sitting face to face with the actor. She writes: It (the text) hit me at its strongest when we did that rehearsal in Tromsø. The reading at the library left me a bit cold. As a bystander. I think it was crucial for me to be a part of the circle, that we were there, inside it, together.
I was myself never part of the circle, so I can’t comment on that, but I think a small audience in an intimate everyday room could be an ideal for this text, or this type of text – and that is probably what I would do, if I was going to do it again. But since I am not a director, or a stager of mine or other writer’s texts, what’s more interesting is what it has done for my research when I look at other texts I have been writing.
LOOKING BACK IS LOOKING FORWARD
During the process, the text became a platform for me to explore from. A solid centre.
At the time when I was doing the first two readings, I was already involved in and working on a new project – a commissioned site-specific piece for Oslo National Academy of the Arts and the Italian festival Quartieri dell'Arte. The project was situated in the village of Vitorchiano, and was a part of the MAO project, a locally instigated project working to induce artistic project in the community.
The project was supposed to be a collaboration between actors and writers. No directors or dramaturges was involved. This meant that I would participate in a similar process to the one I had just undertaken with Where the Children Sleep, and I knew instantaneously what I wanted to do. I wanted to write a text that not only pulled the audience close through direct addresses, but to see if the addressing itself could create the fictional world that the audience was invited into. To see if I could engage them in an imaginary reality, a space that was not there, but that came about through addresses. A "reality" that based itself on being addressed, and that came about as an agreement between the performer and the spectator, at least for the time of the performance (See: Corridors and Rooms). And so I did.
CORRIDORS AND ROOMS
I wrote the text during some hectic weeks, the summer of 2016. In July, I visited the place, a small village in Italy, and the building I had chosen to work in. It was an old convent that later had been turned into a hotel. Before that, it had also functioned as a school. For 12 years, it had been closed off as a crime scene, and the text drew inspiration directly from that history. What separated my work with Corridors and Rooms, from the work with Where the Children Sleep, was mainly its fictional character. While I in Where the Children Sleep used already existing material and related directly to a political situation here and now, Corridors and Rooms related only to place. All the stories and events that the main narrator or guide brought to life, as the audience walked with her through the corridors, glancing into and even entering some of the rooms – were made up for the occasion: an old dying judge, a little boy and his family. A wedding party and a nun.
While the text stayed stable in Where the Children Sleep, the text of Corridors and Rooms changed many times. First to fit the event it was going to be a part of, these changes was about form and length – and then to accommodate the space.
Parts of the building that I had originally written for, became closed off for the actual performance, and the text had to be adjusted accordingly. And during rehearsals, the space started to influence even the events being played out in the text. In this piece – text and space came together. The room where we ended the performance, a columned walk between the two sides of the building, played into how one could interpret the text, and by that, offered us another ending than the one in the original script.
All this work was done in close collaboration with the actress, Sarah McDonald, who also learned Italian, so the text constantly switched between Italian and Norwegian.
The text was performed for a small group of people and the actress addressed them directly. She was also free to touch the audience, and she did. The goal was to build an intimacy between her and them, – and the performance ended with her choosing some of the audience members, stroking their cheek, kissing their forehead, even embraces were allowed. Sometimes the audience answered back. Hugging her, holding her hand, or even kissing her cheek as they left the space to go and join the other events at the festival.
BEYOND THE TEXT
Both these projects took me beyond the text. To the place where text meets its audience. To the intimate space between the text and the audience – and I became fascinated with that space. With the potentiality in that meeting. Allthough I did not go deep into the wild and rich world of interactive theatre, this took me further into the potential of the hybrid text. A text consisting of different types of performative and dramatic text, fused together by a composition that ties together even diverse and contradictory parts. A form that functions more like a container, than a story. A form that gives space for a variety of voices, universes and forms of addresses.
The work got the title Corridors and Rooms, and was a kind of re-living the past of the place, inhabited by voices, events and destinies.
There has been a lot of discussions concerning the term interactive theatre. With interactive theatre, one understands theatre that seek to dissolve the division between the viewer and the performer, the stage and the audience. To create a common room. A more democratic room. A real interaction between the two, where the audience sometimes can take part in, or influence, what is going on on stage.
As a live art form, the theatre has the potential to do just that.
Historically – many theatre-praxis’s has been communal activities. Some have been close to the parade, or the ritual, and in performance theatre and political theatre, interaction has been seen as a central tool, sometimes even an ideal.
The theatre theoretician Lisa Marie Nagel has done a lot of work trying to theorize and think around interactivity, especially in theatre for children and young. In an interview with Kultur-tanken in 2018, she tries to formulate this trend. Traditionally, she states:
– art has been viewed as a work, or an object. Something that has a value and that exists separate from the viewer or the audience. To see the artwork as something valuable in itself, as autonomous, has been central to the modernist way of thinking around art-production and arts role in society, but today, she states, – one can also find meaning in experiencing art as a meeting place. One can see the artwork not as something separate from us, but as a part of something relational. An exchange maybe, between the work itself and the one that engages with it. One could even say that the viewer creates the work. That he or she brings the work to life, by engaging with it (my translation, https://www.kulturtanken.no/tankebloggen/2018/6/5/om-kunst-og-om-kunnskap-om-barn?).
For me, performative art is about producing something out of nothing. Through language, gestures, movement, space. In theatre, the audience are the ones to connect the dots. There is always an exchange between the performance and those who watches it. When the audience engages, through “theatrics”, emotive and thematic events or narrations, that is when the performance take form. Sometimes as more of a display, but at other times, it can take form as more of a collaboration. A place where this space or this event is something that we create together. Theatre offers that potential. It is a live art form and the audience is present. Jacques Ranciere calls it the paradox of the spectator. There is no theatre without a spectator (Jacques Ranciere, the Emancipated Spectator, New York, Verso Books 2010-11).
I do not know whether the readings of Where the Children Sleep was something we created together with the audience, if it was a real meeting or whether it was interactive as such – but at its best, at least I think we listened together. That we were present in the same event of active listening that connected us. And when that process of intimate and interconnected listening, of addressing and being addressed occurred – it created a room of intimacy. A room where the audience were needed. It gave a feeling that this particular event, this particular reading could not have happened without them.
Arranging the three readings of Where the Children Sleep opened something up in me. And after writing and staging Corridors and Rooms, I took the experience with me for the work with my stage collective STATEX, in the performance State and Extacy (2016) (see video here), and DIY – manuals for a potential future (2018) (see video here).
Not all the work I have been doing in my research period has the aim of engaging with the audience in this way. Some of my playwriting is just playwriting (See: S O A R E, Sweatshop – Aleppo and Darkness). Here, the texts does not consider the audience as a participator in the same way. But I have experienced, as in the reading of S O A R E during Scenetekstivalen 2014, that even here, situating the audience and the performers together in the same space can open up for another kind of listening. Another way of being together in the performative space. And in that, situate the audience inside the space of the text itself. Not to influence it, but to create another kind of flux between the text, the performer and the ones watching and listening.In my work, I have strived to find ways to locate a potential “we”. Not in the social world outside the text, but in the theatre space that the text share with the audience. To create a place for polyvocality, for several faces, several voices and even several places within the same text.
Emancipation begin when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting, Ranciere states in the Emancipated Spectator:... when we understand that the self-evident fact that structure the relations between saying, seeing and doing themselves belong to the structure of domination and subjection. It begins when we understand that viewing is a1so an action that confirms or transforms this distribution of positions. The spectator also acts like the pupil or scholar. She observes, selects, compare, interprets. She links what she sees to a host of other thing that she has seen on other stages in other kind of place. She composes her own poem with the element of the poem before her. She participates in the performance by refashioning it in her own way by drawing back for example, from the vital energy that is supposed to transmit in order to make it a pure image and associate this image with a story, which she has read or dreamt, experienced or invented. They are thus both distant spectators and active interpreters of the spectacle offered to them. (Jacques Ranciere, the Emancipated Spectator).
Jacobsen, C., Doktor Nagels dilemma (in) Kulturtanken, Oslo 2018 https://www.kulturtanken.no/tankebloggen/2018/6/5/om-kunst-og-om-kunnskap-om-barn
Ranciere, Jacques, the Emancipated Spectator, New York: Verso Books 2010-11
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