Street theatre and the art of being together – Ana Desetnica 2015, Part 1

Theatre critic navigates through his first Ana Desetnica festival 2015. Part 1.

Ana Desetnica 2015, 18th International Street Theatre Festival

1.7. – 4.7 2015, Ljubljana.
Production: Društvo Gledališče Ane Monro

Ana Desetnica 2015
Part 1 – The Art of Being Together
Part 2 – Where is the Magic? (Narrative in Street Theatre)
Part 3 – The Shape of Ljubljana  (Space in Street Theatre)
Part 4 – Dramaturgical feedback of “Alone in the Crowd” by Ana Monro (Slovenia) 
Part 5 – Review of  “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” by Bad Rabbits (Lithuania) 

Ana Desetnica 2015
My talks with the artists on the 1st day of the festival – “Who is this guy?”

So, a theatre critic walks into a street theatre festival…

My first day in my full capacity as a theatre critic at any street theatre festival was spent trying to orient myself and find entry points into this performative practice. Probably the festival was figuring the same thing about me – Ellen (the intern) said it would be less intimidating to present myself as “a reviewer” than “a critic”. Instinctively I tried to fall back on my reservoir of knowledge regarding contemporary theatre practices and performance art, not to much success.

Instead Tom Greder stressed the importance of being together face to face with the audience, the physical interaction, the tactile nature of it, both in using the props and in getting the audience to participate physically and vocally. This put me down the path of seeing being together with the audience as one of the crucial aspects of street theatre.

My talk with Tom Greder regarding his interactive show All Aboard pushed me in the right direction. In this show, a shorter version of a longer indoor performance, Tom frames a narrative of taking the audience on a train ride, while connecting it to a story of growing up in a small town, where the train presents a door to the outside world. The emphasis of the show seems to rest on how audience’s interaction is expected and requested and how most of its humour and dynamics spring from the audiences “failure” to properly act their part. With familiarity in contemporary theatre formats I tried to frame it as a question of the audience’s co-responsibility for a success of the performance, and while Tom agreed up to a point, he didn’t see connections to those performances that try to put public in discomfort (a tactic used by buffons, but also frequent in contemporary theatre). Instead he stressed the importance of being together face to face with the audience, the physical interaction, the tactile nature of it, both in using the props (wooden train) and in getting the audience to participate physically and vocally. This put me down the path of seeing being together with the audience as one of the crucial aspects of street theatre, and reminded me of a part I wrote about improvised theatre in “Improvising FOR the audience or WITH the audience?”:

Ana Desetnica 2015
Tom Greder playing with the audience in All Aboard.

“Both audience and performers share the same space. They share it as nobody controls it, they are both witnesses to things emerging outside anybody’s rational control or theatrical strategies.”

“As an audience member, I, in general, distinguish two different ways in how performances address us. One path is in making an impact: a performance would employ one of different strategies to create a specific desired effect for the audience, while the audience will try to figure it out. Audience will thus engage the performance in the way it is expected of them and try to follow the proposed direction. Such a performance would happen in the line between the performers and the auditorium. (The “desired effect” could be one of a broad range of different artistic strategies and their correlated effects. The “effect” doesn’t need to be a narrow one, it could be openended, offering multiple successful engagements of performance and the audience.) The other path is a performance that in a way engulfs the audience within the space it inhabits, it’s not the audience who is facing the performers and vice versa, it’s all of them occupying the same space. In the first type of performances I am, as an audience member, observing the performance, reading it, discerning the signs and interpreting them. In the second type, the most I can say is that I’m a witness to things going on. This type isn’t about active participation, but togetherness – both audience and performers share the same space. They share it as nobody controls it, they are both witnesses to things emerging outside anybody’s rational control or theatrical strategies.”

In the improvised (indoor) theatre “improvising for the audience” would mean trying to make a specific impact – be seen as funny, shocking or surprising. Whereas when performers would be “improvising with the audience”, they would also be trying to surprise themselves, thus putting themselves on the same foot as the audience which in turn would create a space that both performers and audiences share. Performers and the audience would share the space where the performance takes place. Whereas many types of theatre make both these approaches possible and legitimate, my impression is that street theatre strongly favours the latter. Mainly because of the absence of the black box and weaker or non-existing 4th wall.

The art of being together

The difference from indoor theatre situation and the street theatre seems most prominent in the case of buskers and one wo/man shows where there is just a single performer leading the creation of a performance, with no or little help of the scenery.

Absence of the black box is the absence of isolation which makes certain theatre strategies impossible – in particularly those that require time or precise reading of the signs the performance generates, making it harder to create a coherent, detailed narrative in a street situation. On the other hand, a street performance is an organism that lives with its environment and can use the environment to its advantage. A street performer versed in improvising can use the unpredictability of the street environment and integrate it into the show they’re creating and thus surprising the audience and themselves, often in a humorous way. The busker Clown Barabba and the magician San Sebastian were the masters of this, often with pre-prepared answers to wandering dogs, crying children and other calamities. Their preparedness enforced the narrative and the atmosphere they were creating while at the same time being humorous. The first “lesson of the buskers” is that performers don’t have to pretend that they’re not on the street like a drama actor would be trying to pretend they’re not an actor on the stage. (It is however possible to interpret the street situation in an imaginative way and bring it into the special kind of reality the performance creates.)

A performer exploiting the clashes between the show’s narrative and the reality of the street environment can count on the audience backing them up, creating humorous situations along the way and thus also rewarding members of the audience for their persistence with the show and their investment as spectators.

The audience is also a willing participant in this game between the performance and its street environment and can be trusted to bring along a hefty dose of the willing suspension of disbelief. If in an indoor theatre the audience often tries to forget that they are indeed there, in the street theatre the audience is aware that they are on the street. A performer exploiting the clashes between the show’s narrative and the reality of the street environment can count on the audience backing them up, creating humorous situations along the way and thus also rewarding members of the audience for their persistence with the show and their investment as spectators. The longer one watches the show, the more they invest in it to support their willing suspension of disbelief; and the more they willingly immerse themselves in the show’s narrative, the funnier the clashes with the environment can be for them. In this way, the shared knowledge creates a community between the audience members through the duration of the performance – they’re the one “in on the joke”. A bicyclist inadvertently crossing the improvised “stage” at the beginning of a show may come out of it just by a few chuckles, but doing the same towards the end of the show can result in quite a riot.

For all practical purpose the stage doesn’t end where audience begins, rather it ends where the audience ends – street performance engulfs the entire space of the audience inside its logic.

With the absence of the black box, there is also a weak or absent 4th wall. Even though performers might inhabit a separate physical space than the one the audience is in, for all practical purpose the stage doesn’t end where audience begins, rather it ends where the audience ends – street performance engulfs the entire space of the audience inside its logic. If performers create a too strong 4th wall, they isolate themselves from the audience and lose audience to the street, when they should be isolating the audience from the street environment, bringing them inside the show’s organism. Example of this would be too much textual/narrative information delivered too fast, which can be harder to absorb in a street environment full of noises and distractions without a luxury of black box’s isolation. Or it could be when characters are performed for creating a specific effect and response from the audience, turning them into signs to be discerned, instead of being living characters that can interact with audience and guide it.

“When the show goes wrong, the performer’s instinct is to do more, faster, when they should instead be doing less, slower.” (Invaluable advice from Tom Greder)

Tom’s advice orients us at interdependence of the audience and the performers in a street situation – they both need one another to be able to move from the space of the street into the space of the (street) theatre.

Tom’s advice orients us at interdependence of the audience and the performers in a street situation – they both need one another to be able to move from the space of the street into the space of the (street) theatre. Performers guide the audience, the audience actively and willingly follows, so a care must be taken to be sure they do follow, giving them time to catch up and stay together. Audience is participating differently in the street theatre than in indoor theatre – the black box isolation of the latter allows the audience to follow richly detailed narratives and invest into identification with characters. In the street theatre a willing suspension of disbelief already caries with itself a certain cognitive tax, but also the gaze is more open, noticing various connection between the theatre situation and the street situation. Because of the more open gaze and audience members leaving and entering, the slower pace of introducing new information gives everybody time to catch up and to form a stronger community as an audience. Thus, we came to the second “lesson from the buskers” – don’t pretend the audience isn’t there, invite them in.

There are various strategies of how to incorporate the stage and the auditorium into one and the same space.

What happens in an improvised situation, happens right then, right there, strengthening the bond between the spectators, which include the performers themselves.

Improvisation is the most general one as it’s hard not to improvise in an unpredictable environment of the street, but also, as noted above, it puts the audience and the performers on equal footing, both being surprised by what occurs. What happens in an improvised situation, happens right then, right there, strengthening the bond between the spectators, which include the performers themselves. Improvisation in street theatre can include everything from a fully improvised show, improvised passages connecting rehearsed parts, interactions with the audience, to a fixed show with a couple of gaps where the performers can react to the audience in a spontaneous way and thus allow their performance to “breathe”.

“Many street artists have special skills, like acrobatics, fire breathing, that the audience can appreciate. The only skill we have is one of improvisation, but we hope the audience can appreciate it in the same way they do those other skills” (Craig Weston of The Primitives, quoted from memory).

Ana Desetnica 2015
Craig Weston setting up the perfect mood for the Three of a Kind performance.

The characters presented are of three lost, confused and bewildered middle-aged men. These serve as a narrative hint into a non-narrative show: “See”, they tell us, “we’re as confused as you are watching this, we’re in this together”.

Three of a Kind by The Primitives is a completely improvised street performance with no narrative or plot, aside from whatever happens inside of it. A nonverbal performance is a free flow of associations embodied by three middle aged male performers. Usually one of them would set up a scene with a body motion or a movement that the other two would follow and they would develop it together in a manner of the psychical theatre (for me similar to a cross between contemporary dance and pantomime), till the next impulse comes along and another small situation establishes itself. What sets the performance apart from similar approaches in indoor improvised theatre I’ve seen, is the quicker flow of successive scenes that create a purely associative series of events. Reason for this difference is the shorter attention span of the street theatre situation (or rather the black box allows for more elaborate scenes to be created). The other interesting attribute is the use of characters as the entry point for the audience. The characters presented are of three lost, confused and bewildered middle-aged men, uniformed in everyman’s three piece suits. These serve as a narrative hint into a non-narrative show: as those three men are confused, lost, and bewildered at what is occurring to them, the audience is invited to observe the show in the same way. The lower status, this enacted state of confusion gives the performers, also opens up the space: “see”, they tell us, “we’re as confused as you are watching this, we’re in this together”.

Interaction with the audience is also a frequent strategy in street theatre and very pronounced in busker and one woman/one man shows. Asking audience members to participate both strengthens the connection between the audience and the performance and gives the performers an unpredictable element which they can use to improvise around, often to a humorous effect. It’s a common strategy that performer takes a lower status that the audience, appearing lost, incapable or just vulnerable, with the idea of coming across as more inviting. A higher status would risk being seen as arrogant and would make it harder for the performer(s) to lead the audience through the show, if these would not be willing to tag along. A lower status is on the other hand more inviting and more open in adapting to whatever happens in the street situation as performers never pretend to be in control and are as surprised as the audience.

Ana Desetnica 2015
Clown Barabba milking all the humour from his audience member “victim”.

While the show was composed of numbers whose focal points were acrobatics, juggling, fire breathing and an occasional magic trick, it was driven by the clown’s skill in how he guided the audience to these focal points.

Talking to the busker Clown Barabba after his show, he was explaining to me how he slowly lowered his status with years, becoming less arrogant and more inviting. What I found crucial about his show A Clown Who Wants to Breathe Fire is that, while it was composed of numbers whose focal points were acrobatics, juggling, fire breathing and an occasional magic trick – all which could be considered “4th wall effects”, made to impress – it was driven by the clown’s skill in how he guided the audience to these focal points. It wasn’t as much about virtuosity, but the fun we had together along the journey full of unpredictability coming from street intrusions and semi-capable participants from the audience; the impressive stunts functioned more as rewards for the audience tagging along.

MOFUG2015
Sam Sebastian probably knows what he’s doing. Probably.

Sebastian draws from the nostalgic treasury of backwater semi-capable magicians of the eras long past, who were trying hard to somehow impress their audience and occasionally torment children participants, as the ancient magician’s code commands.

Street magician One Man Magic Show by Sam Sebastian follows the similar pattern – the show is composed of numbers, each of them revolving around a specific magic trick, but again it’s more about the journey we, the audience, and the performer, share together. What sets this show apart is a strong narrative frame that establishes very clear rules as what the audience is to expect and tolerate. Sebastian draws from the nostalgic treasury of backwater semi-capable magicians of the eras long past, who were trying hard to somehow impress their audience and occasionally torment children participants, as the ancient magician’s code commands. Audience is thus prepared for the magician putting “volunteers” in somewhat awkward and occasionally “dangerous” situations. At the same time, the magician’s character is portrayed as somewhat clumsy and somewhat capable (I’ve seen the show in the windy and cold March when this was pronounced), which allows Sebastian to navigate between being likeable and eerie enough for the show to generate the needed atmosphere and excitement.

Ana Desetnica 2015
Kajetan Čop’s costume lets the audience know immediately who’s running the show.

Princess Cry Baby demonstrates how a capable, seasoned improviser doesn’t need any impressive tricks, skills or even a narrative frame.

Kajetan Čop’s Burektheatre performance Princess Cry Baby puts an interesting counterpoint to “classic” one (wo)man street theatre shows as it demonstrates how a capable, seasoned improviser (Kajetan studied theatre improvisation in Prague) doesn’t need any impressive tricks, skills or even a narrative frame. All he needed was a silly costume to make sure everybody knows he is running the show, a chest full of stuffed animals to occupy the kids and some notes from Wikipedia to amuse the adults. Kajetan builds two parallel narratives from scratch: one for children participants who were all too happy to get a stuffed dragon, a princess, and run around the improvised stage; on the second level, he is performing an improvised stand-up comedy show for adults. On Ana Desetnica both narratives revolved around the structure of tragedy, picked up from Wikipedia, and interpreted in the way that seemed the most amusing and engaging for the audience involved, adding the usual “let’s the audience participate” spices into the mix.

Ana Desetnica 2015
Luke Rigg’s character blending in with the environment.

Performers try each time to open up the show, find gaps in between pre-set dance sequences in which they can address the audience and the situation on the street.

Where the above examples were about either fully improvised performance or mostly improvised performances with some pre-set routines, where the main dynamic of the performance developed from interaction with its environment and the audience, it’s interesting to see how a precisely set performance can adapt to the street situation. Two Old Men by 2 Faced Dance Company is a precisely choreographed routine of street, break and contemporary dance depicting two old men drinking in a public space, going from their daily routine into a personal reminiscence of their youth. Dancers I’ve talked to, Luke Rigg and Jason Boyle, aren’t the original cast and learnt the performance by simply copying the choreography. However, as they’ve gained more experience with the dance material, they try each time to open up the show towards the environment and the audience, find gaps in between pre-set dance sequences in which they can address the audience or the situation on the street. They apply two types of adaptation – as dancers they simply try to position the fast and sometimes acrobatic dance movements into a narrow place between the audience and physical attributes of the space. As the result, they would often, after an elaborate dance sequence, end up face to face with an audience member, stopping just inches before them, usually coupled with a smile, creating excitement and adrenaline rush. As actors, they can also allow their characters to interact with the atmosphere of the place. Of their three shows I’ve seen, the one in old town provided the least in this regard, as the audience surrounded the duo in front a wall of a building, creating an almost black box situation. However, the Sunday morning performance in the festival’s park – the place where Ljubljana’s old, homeless men would usually sit and drink – provided an apt backdrop for the characters, which they happily explored.

The living street environment by its nature pushes a street performance into responding and adapting to it, improvising, and breathing with its surroundings. This creates a sense of community with the audience on the level hard to create indoors.

Even with a set performance the living street environment by its nature pushes the performance into responding and adapting to it, improvising, and breathing with its surroundings. This creates a sense of community with the audience on the level hard to create indoors. A temporary community exists between the performance and the audience, firstly by simply sharing the physical space and interacting with one another. Secondly the community is formed as both performer(s) and the audience are investing in the performance and its dynamics and are thus making it separate from the dynamics of the street. Thirdly the community persists as through the duration of the performance new experiences are created which in turn form new shared knowledge between performers and the audience.

[continued on the link below]

Part 2 – Where is the Magic? (Narrative in Street Theatre)

Samo Oleami, December 2015

Photos: Luka Dakskobler

Author: Samo Oleami

Reviews drama theatre, street theatre, improv theatre, contemporary dance, intermedia, boardgames and stuff.

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