Political framed by the personal, that is framed by the artistic

Review of improv theatre project after seeing it once in Ljubljana, talking to its director twice or thrice and seeing its Berlin version on video

Our Lives: Community

Directed and co-author: Maja Dekleva Lapajne
Performers and co-authors: Alenka Marinič, Alexander Georgiev Mitrev, Beatrix Brunschko, Gilles Delvaulx, Audrius Bruzas, Mia Møller
Live music, composer and co-author: Hannu Risku
Production: Družina umetnosti Narobov and Zavod Federacija
November 2017, Ljubljana; March 2018, Berlin (video)

Our Lives 01 Photo Marusa Rems

EU production frame

It’s impossible to detach the frame of the EU project from the artistic aspects of these four performances.

Our Lives: Community on first impression comes across as an EU funded project – which it is. We’ve all seen those. Pick one performer from every state in European Union, put them on stage and spend most of the creative process with people getting awkwardly acquainted with one another. While resorting to the most general lowest common denominator topics – as people do in such circumstances – should somehow speak about the plurality of voices in European Union. The umbrella project, Our Lives, run by Gorilla theatre from Berlin, seems to be aware of this issue and attempts to tackle it with the repertoire of improv theatre skills. Foremost with one of the original tenets of improvisational theatre, which is embracing the spontaneity of its performers, trusting them to be honest and unfiltered in their responses to daily topics and one another. Improv also nurtures other specific skills that should help with the emergence of collaborative creations, namely skills of listening to co-performers (“yes, and …”) and following each other’s initiatives (“follow the follower”).

Maja Dekleva Lapajne frequently focuses on a personal monologue and combines it with collective movement/dance scenes, creating a situation which is intrinsically poetic and at same time allows for more narratives to co-exist

That being said, “Our Lives” includes 28 performers from 28 EU countries, very much by the book. These were divided into 4 projects, each being allotted 1 musician, 3 female and 3 male theatre improvisers, with different backgrounds, depending on improv theatre scene in their country of origin. The production frame was limiting, allowing each group less than one week of rehearsal before each of two showings. As such it’s impossible to detach the frame of the EU project from the artistic aspects of these four performances. If anything, being transparent about the nature and constraints of their creation, can turn these into showcases of improv theatre tools on community building and creative exchange. Our Lives: Community draws from artistic strategies developed by its director Maja Dekleva Lapajne (Last Wish, 2017; Community, 2017) and the Slovene collective Narobov (Call, 2006). Her methods differ significantly from “north American style” of improv which relies on the use characters and theatre scenes as principles for theatre creation. Instead, she frequently focuses on a personal monologue and combines it with collective movement/dance scenes, creating a situation which is intrinsically poetic and at same time allows for more narratives to co-exist. These are also the hallmarks of Our Lives: Community.

Our Lives 02 Photo Marusa Rems

Our Lives: Community I

It’s also a warmup for the audience, getting us acquainted with the slowly unfolding principle of collective images

It starts with a 10-minute group movement improvisation. Performers would walk around the stage, copying actions of others, creating a sort of collective stream of thoughts; or herding; or both. It’s a warmup for performers to get into the collective vibe of rolling with the group. It’s also a warmup for the audience, getting us acquainted with the slowly unfolding principle of collective images. It’s not a dance improvisation though – the actors would use gestures and basic emotional expressions as that universal language in which people from different cultures, speaking different languages, would try to communicate since time immemorial. We saw people jumping, people imitating dogs, people screamingly follow one another, people bowing, people clapping, people making “baa” sounds.

The repetition of gestures or actions creates a slowly unfolding image, whose nature is different to narrative based theatre improvisation.

After the initial phase, the performance would jump into its main format: a performer would approach the microphone stand at the side of the stage and formulate a question of one or more of performers, sometimes to all of them. “A question to all women! What is the sexual education of children in your country?” “A question to Alex: Why are you asking this?” “Because this is nešto mnogo važno.” The scene following a question would most commonly develop in a monologue, or simultaneous monologues, with other performers creating a supporting image. Such as Trixie in tears explaining the rise of a far-right party into the Austrian government, while the other performers were running to the back of the stage and hitting the wall, repeatedly. Or the scene could be one of a collective action, like Trixie, Mia and Alenka demonstrating with gestures three different interpretations of how to explain sexual reproduction to children. In both cases the repetition of gestures – “where do babies come from” – or the actions of people running into the wall, creates a slowly unfolding image, whose nature is different to narrative based theatre improvisation.

Our Lives 03 Photo Marusa Rems

Improvisational theatre frame

“North American style” leans towards verbosity. Result is commonly easily digestible information that slides down the chain of signifiers, as performers on stage repeat what the audience is mostly already familiar with.

The type of theatre improv practice developed by Collective Narobov from Ljubljana or Combats Absurdes from Lyon tries to open a space for a different type of theatre improvisation from the one dominating the European scene, which is colloquially called the “north American style”. The latter generally follows the ideas of theatrical realism: each person would play a character for the duration of the scene; the scene would be developed through dialogue and framed by a narrative. In the realistic model which mimics drama theatre, film or television, actors tend not to use their bodies as means of on-stage expression, instead the style leans towards verbosity. Result is commonly easily digestible information that slides down the chain of signifiers, as performers on stage repeat what the audience is mostly already familiar with. As most of improv theatre practitioners are trained in this method, new formats can be devised instantly by slapping a couple of guidelines on a sheet of paper. The underlining methodology is one of uniformity where actors never disclose themselves personally and often stay in within narrow confines of never questioned methods of representation.

Shows based on bodily physical expression would unfold slowly, creating intense images which would engage with the audience on various levels – from visual to emotional, from personal to fictional – leaving an impression not easily paraphrased.

One alternative to this paradigm of improv which mimics drama theatre is embracing the practice of physical theatre, as done by Combats Absurdes (also a partner of Our Lives project). Their shows based on bodily physical expression would unfold slowly, creating intense images which would engage with the audience on various levels – from visual to emotional, from personal to fictional – leaving an impression not easily paraphrased and thus more open to individual interpretations. Maja Dekleva Lapajne’s approach is similarly influenced by physical theatre and clowning, but with a more light-hearted whimsical tone. Her unique angle is combining movement-based scenes with monologues, which are primarily oriented towards personal statements, anecdotes and experiences, creating a more poetic tone.

Our Lives 04 Photo Marusa Rems

Our Lives: Community II

Gestures and movement-based images allow for many parallel situations on stage or each performer doing their own thing. This makes it possible for performers with different backgrounds and performative skills to co create a scene on an equal basis

Scenes structured as images function differently to scenes shaped by narrative and characters. Images can be more horizontally structured as opposed to the hierarchy in which an actor would be subjugated to the character they play, which is in turn subjugated to the collective narrative. Thus, gestures and movement-based images allow for many parallel situations on stage or each performer doing their own thing. This makes it possible for performers with different backgrounds and performative skills to co create a scene on an equal basis. Which comes in handy with a project like Our Lives: Community as some of its performers are skilled in north American style of improv, some also in physicals theatre, some in drama theatre. The approach also allows performers to speak in their own language on stage, regardless of how well other performers understand them, if at all. Gestures, movements, images – all these are more open than words, creating emotional impressions, and allowing for different individual interpretations. Hence the heterogenous structure Maja Dekleva Lapajne establishes isn’t limited to stage only, but is also in allowing different entry points for different audience members.

As statements are grounded in performers’ lives and current mood, this also allows the audience to connect what they’re seeing to their own personal experience, rather to some collectively produced meanings.

Another Maja’s signature artistic strategy is using a personal monologue, which is in this performance framed by the protocol of questions via the microphone. Crucial to this approach is allowing performers to be honest and personal in their responses, but they’re never private, everything is consciously staged. By encouraging actors to link their answer to their personal experiences the show steers away from resorting to national clichés and lowest common denominators. As statements are grounded in performers’ lives and current mood, this also allows the audience to connect what they’re seeing to their own personal experience, rather to some collectively produced meanings.

Our Lives 05 Photo Marusa Rems

As collective playfulness is a form of group behaviour, Maja Dekleva Lapajne’s approach requires more rehearsals for players to behaviourally understand the format and get a feel for the group.

The space created between the collective movement-based improvisation and the personal statements is one of playfulness. Performers are free also to not answer a question, answer it in pantomime, wait for the scene to slowly generate an answer. What we’re seeing on stage is a flow of actors co creating images, while also giving them time to fully develop or change direction. As collective playfulness is a form of group behaviour, Maja Dekleva Lapajne’s method is all in establishing this collective state. Unlike the “north American style” of improv where improvisers with same training can create a “new” show by writing down some notes on a sheet of paper couple of minutes before, Maja’s approach requires more rehearsals for players to behaviourally understand the format and get a feel for the group. In Our Lives: Community this process was made easier by some members of the group having collaborated with Maja before and thus they could help other members of the team inhabit the behavioural principles of her approach. In particular: another Narobov member Alenka Marinič with her experience in physical theatre and the musician Hannu Risku, whose improvised musical composition were crucial for the creation of mood and on-stage images.

In the first show first show specific theatre backgrounds of performers were more noticeable, whereas in the second all the performers managed to find a similar middle ground between the personal and the performative.

As the show was performed twice with four months in between and only a couple of days of rehearsals at each location, there was noticeable progress from the first show in Ljubljana in November 2017 to the second show in Berlin in March 2018 in Berlin. In latter the performers knew instinctively better how to perform inside of the format and how to inhabit it. For instance, in the first show first show specific theatre backgrounds of performers were more noticeable, whereas in the second all the performers managed to find a similar middle ground between the personal and the performative. The collective movement scenes became more playful, fluid and creative. Even Trixie’s (Beatrix Brunschko) disruptive style of improv was copied by some other performers.

Our Lives 06 Photo Marusa Rems

Conclusion

So, we are not quite the same, and yet, this was expressed within a temporary staged community.

“But what does the project tell us about living in the EU?”. Well, dear hypothetical questioner, let me break it down in various ways. Maja Dekleva Lapajne’s method is in finding the mentioned middle ground between personal and performative with the result being distinctly poetic. The entire Our Lives project decided to include only seasoned (middle aged) performers as they have accumulated more personal experiences. In this way the political can be addressed from the viewpoint of the personal and then the audience can also connect the situations on stage to their own experiences, avoiding generalisations. In Our Lives: Community we could see the usual geographic divides of Europe, Northerners VS Southerners, Westerners VS Easterners, and the demographic, ahem, division of females VS males. But perhaps these are merely background coordinates onto which we can try to position different testimonies of how it is to live in this or that country. At the same time, pronouncing local differences is a very European thing to do. No wonder that a question which was repeated in both showings was: “what do we have in common?”. As the performers joyfully embraced how each country, they come from has … well … “people”, “children too”, “we all feel love”, “beer” …, when the freedom of speech was mentioned Alex from Bulgaria (Alexander Georgiev Mitrev) started making sinking sounds. So, we are not quite the same, and yet, this was expressed within a temporary staged community.

The ability of performers to engage in the full range of their performative and personal spectrum and then share this within a playful situation in which art helps process the political of both the performers and the audience into a sort of a joyous release, is I feel, nešto mnogo važno.

The quality of Our Lives: Community is in creating a temporary community encompassing both the performers and the audience as we both participate in the zone of playfulness. The medium of physical theatre, collective movement and gestures is used in a playful way that encourages creativity and evokes an emotional response, rather than movement being abstracted and serious. It seems this playful vibe, that the performers need first ten minutes of the show to get into, also allows them to open personally and speak about their experiences and feelings. But, the crucial part of Maja Dekleva Lapajne’s method is that it is a method. Personal is always combined with artistic, the “how” matters as much as “what”. And this “how” are the slowly unfolding impressions, playful collaborations, poetic moments. It’s what also makes us, the audience, aware of us being there. We’re not consumers, we’re deciphering the impressions, we’re engaged in observing this or that detail, we can connect performer’s statements with our own personal experiences. Political is framed by the personal, but personal is framed by the artistic. And in Our Lives: Community the artistic is shaped as a playful horizontal exchange including music, movement, gestures, songs, rage, politics, prejudices, middle class existence and silliness. The ability of performers to engage in the full range of their performative and personal spectrum and then share this within a playful situation in which art helps process the political of both the performers and the audience into a sort of a joyous release, is I feel, nešto mnogo važno.

Our Lives 07 Photo Marusa Rems
Preparing for the show.

Samo Oleami, May 2019

Photos: Maruša Rems

Offical Page

Author: Samo Oleami

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s