Why Theatre XL! program “Playful Participation” with Rimini Protokoll (1)
Written by Guido Jansen – part 1 of a series of blogposts
Whether they use gaming as an inspiration, or they work with games hands on, theatre-makers are developing ‘new forms’ of engagement in the theatre space (and outside). Rimini Protokoll is a performance collective that has been doing just this. On November 10 and 11 2016 we’ve been very fortunate to welcome Stefan Kaegi (maker) and Imanuel Schipper (dramaturg) from Rimini Protokoll in Utrecht, to talk with us on the topic of gaming aspects in performance.
This residency is organised in collaboration with Het Huis Utrecht, Theatre Studies (Utrecht University), the Media and Culture Studies Expertise Centre (Utrecht University), the Lectoraat Performatieve Maakprocessen (HKU), the master programme Scenography (HKU) and Residenties in Utrecht.
In this short blog series I will report on the lecture and the workshop that Rimini Protokoll held. With this series, I aim to not only show what we have experienced, but also illustrate the kind of collaborations Utrecht University’s Media and Culture Studies department forges with practitioners in the field of media and culture. In this series I reflect on how this collaboration with Rimini Protokoll constituted a mode of exchange between the different parties. What knowledge and expertise are being exchanged, and how? This first blog focuses on the lecture held on November 10 2016.
How do gaming aspects in Rimini Protokoll’s work shape the relationship with their spectators? Departing from my own interest in games and theatre, this was the question that I took with me when entering the lecture at Het Huis Utrecht. As part of the Why Theatre?! XL series, the lecture invited its visitors to learn more about the work of the Berlin based performance collective and enter into dialogue with them.
In the lecture Kaegi and Schipper naturally hopped between one another in presenting several examples of their work. While at first glance it might not have been apparent, but each work uses some form of spectator-positioning that is inspired by gaming-aspects. Kaegi and Schipper discussed multiple performances: Home Visit Europe (2015), Situation Rooms (2013), Remote X (2013) and World Climate Change Conference (2014). For more information on each performance visit the website. One in particular I wish to delve into. The technology used in Situation Rooms places the spectator in the position of the ‘main character’ that they are following. This is similar to how we step into the shoes of a video game character in a first person game. Situation Rooms is an elaborate set where the spectators are invited to enter the set through separate doors. Behind each door a story is about to begin, and there is a different story for each spectator. With a small screen in hand and a headset on, the spectators are led through the rooms and experience the story that took place within this room by matching the image on their screens with the image in front of them, thereby moving through the space in the same way that the character they are listening to did.
This technology leads to an interesting blurring of realities. We are observant to the story being told, as well as the protagonist in that story. We are in the fictional world of the story, as well as in the actual, non-fictional world of the theatre-set. It becomes even more confusing when we meet another character on the screen, doubled by another spectator on the same location in the set as the character is on the screen. It is at this point that we realize Situation Rooms is an elaborate mechanism where each participant is a cog in the machinery, and each room just a segment of a carrousel. By highlighting how the technology of Situation Rooms leads to a particular kind of positioning, Schipper illustrates how this performance incorporates gaming aspects. I recommend watching the trailer to get a better understanding of how spectators meet.
Link to trailer: https://vimeo.com/66642177
Another work that Kaegi and Schipper talked about was World Climate Change Conference. Like Situation Rooms this performance places the spectator at the heart of the action. Restaging a world climate conference, the spectators are divided amongst different nations and coalitions ‘present’ at this conference, trying to work towards the best agreement according to the principles of their assigned party. Although the results of this particular conference do not have real consequences (it was not a real conference after all), it is by allowing people to understand the complexity of this system and the negotiations involved (known as procedurality in game studies) that this performance goes beyond merely staging a story. In other words, the gaming aspects of this performance do have real-life resonance in the awareness that it creates. The trailer shows how far this performance went into recreating the logistics of the conference, with various booklets and pamphlets, and is worth the watch.
The presentation by Kaegi and Schipper was a nice way to get to know their work a bit better, and by that it established a common ground for all visitors. The lecture also presented a particular focus on the works that tied directly back into the evening’s topic on gaming aspects in theatre. With that, the lecture served as a starting point for responses and conversation between various people interested.
Marijn Lems, dramaturg at Het Huis, invited several professionals to respond to the lecture. Joost Raessens, professor in Media Theory at Utrecht University, Marcel Dolman, head of Interactive Performance Design at HKU and Emke Idema, theatremaker who has previously worked with game-structures, supplemented the lecture with questions departing from their own practices. The respondents added depth and reflection to the presented frame.
Marcel Dolman was interested in the creative/artistic position of the technician in the making process. He wanted to hear more on the experiences of Rimini Protokoll in how their collaborations with technicians took place. Schipper noted that in the ideal situation, the technicians are not just the builders of the technology, only working on their selected isolated part of the work, but contributors who also keep an eye on the larger work and process. Kaegi added that in previous experiences technicians viewed rehearsals as a way of testing the technology, whereas in the making process, rehearsals function much more as ways of trying out technology, and changing course accordingly. So in these collaborations there are different expectations and intentions that can be integrated. Though I am not familiar with how ‘tech-heavy’ the Interactive Performance Design is, this response by Kaegi and Schipper sounded like an invitation for those students.
Joost Raessens connected the work of Rimini Protokoll with the question for societal relevance. How do their performances contribute to social movements? Especially their performance World Climate Change Conference seems to steer quite strongly to a social movement, being in part a way of raising awareness of issues regarding climate-change and global warming. Kaegi’s response was that they do not explicitly or actively steer towards social change, but that they do wish to create the time and space for reflection on existing structures, as they did by with World Climate Change Conference by illustrating to the spectators the complexity of this event and the related decision making.
Emke Idema’s question was closely related to the one posed by Raessens, albeit with a slightly different angle. Within her own work, Idema is interested in the question of how to have people make ‘real choices’ within the theatre. In the safety of the performance setting, the spectator has the freedom to make decisions he/she would not make in real life. Kaegi and Schipper respond to this by highlighting that within their work personal choice does not interest them but personal experience does. It is within this personal experience of the spectator that they wish to invite him or her to experience a different ‘sphere’ than he/she is used to. Or, as they state it on their website, they wish to ‘allow unusual perspectives on our reality’. For example, Situation Rooms literally invites the spectators to step into the sphere of experience of the narrator. Idema’s question served as a valuable added articulation to the work already presented. With this question, the visitors were provided an added ideology to the strategies that Kaegi and Schipper discussed.
These responses helped to broaden the discussion by talking about the making process, question the societal relevance of performance work and sharpened the understanding of Rimini Protokoll’s aims. In the format chosen for the evening, we can see how exchange takes place in response and dialogue with the work and discourse of Kaegi and Schipper. I was left wondering however whether and how more exchange between the presenters and the audience was possible. Is there a format that can facilitate a mutual exchange between all parties involved, as opposed to the mostly one-way communication of a lecture? It is perhaps a bit much to ask, especially considering the amount of visitors (my estimate is over a hundred people), but I’m eager to continue thinking on this, as I will in a later blog.
Despite this, it was clear that the visitors to the evening had more than enough to talk about. Quite a number of people remained in the theatre space, and many of the discussions at the bar of Het Huis delved deeper into the different works presented and the responses. So perhaps the event was more of an exchange than I initially thought and perhaps I need to reconsider what exchange should be, rather than what it can be.
The next blogpost (2) will present the activities of the workshop held by Rimini Protokoll the day after the lecture. I will discuss what we did, and how, and come back to the question of mutual exchange.