Art of thinking outside and inside the box

A simulated truck journey from Bulgaria to Dublin, in which the audience is human freight, is as close to 'reality theatre' as it is possible to get, writes Christine Madden

Von Christine Madden

28.04.2007 / The Irish Times

When he was a boy, Swiss theatre-maker Stefan Kaegi was puzzled about the long lines of trucks he'd see queuing up on Europe's motorways to get through passport control and customs."I used to wonder what they thought about while they were driving for hours and days, driving truckloads of commodities for us to consume," he says. As most young boys stuck in cars with other siblings on family holidays tend more usually to wonder how best to annoy their sisters, this early instance of sociological contemplation seems to have been a pointer to Kaegi's future career. As a maker of theatre that observes and analyses contemporary society, Kaegi teamed up with colleagues Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel to form the company, Rimini Protokoll, in 2000. The piece, Cargo Sofia, which comes to Dublin on Monday as the opening piece of We Are Here, a season of site-specific work in the docklands (see panel, far right), was created under the banner of the company, but is something of a solo album of Kaegi's. Cargo Sofia, which places audience members in a freight truck and simulates a drive around European cities, slots neatly into the repertoire of Rimini Protokoll, a revolutionary theatre company that has become a cult on the Continent. The company's name refers to the idea of a protocol as a research record of a high standard required with regard to relevance, validity, reliability, integrity, authenticity and confidentiality. As for Rimini, Kaegi admits playfully: "We've never been there, have you?"The company's work, which frequently goes under the heading of "documentary theatre", nevertheless bears little resemblance to the dramatic re-enactments of trials and tribunals that usually make up the genre. The term "reality theatre" might hit closer to the mark. No, they don't cram bolshie C-list celebrities into a hermetically sealed building for weeks, make us watch them prance along solitary beaches or bitch-slap each other in barbaric modelling showdowns. But they do use "real people" in their work to investigate little-known and much ignored aspects of our society and political lives. In the case of Cargo Sofia, it's not the celebrities but the audience that gets packed into a box, in the shape of a former refrigerated truck that has been kitted out as a mobile theatre. The performance simulates two Bulgarian truck drivers' journey from Sofia to Dublin, as up to 47 spectators become human freight on a real yet virtual delivery. "It's as though," Kaegi explains. "You were a piece of cargo and could look out of the truck." He pauses. "Unrefrigerated," he adds. The scenario carries an uncomfortable echo of the incident in late 2001, when eight asylum seekers were found dead in a freight container in Co Wexford. The sealed metal container held 11 Turkish nationals, including a Kurdish family, one Albanian and one Algerian, who had paid thousands of pounds to be packed away for a 53-hour sea trip through a force-10 gale. No lives will be at risk in the production, but the piece holds added resonance for Irish residents, who can only begin to imagine what it means not only to be a consumable commodity but also human cargo as a refugee desperate enough to submit to such conditions in the search for asylum and a peaceful life. "There was a movement to discover new kinds of space on the stage," says Kaegi, who studied philosophy and visual art as well as applied theatre performance. "The idea was to get away from the cynicism of normal theatre, and not to rely solely on text for the work." RIMINI PROTOKOLL'S productions feature "real" people, as opposed to actors, on whatever "stage" or performance space they use. In the case of Call Cutta, the performance space was virtual: a phone line connecting an audience member in Berlin on a mobile to a "normal" person in Calcutta in a call centre. The operator on the subcontinent navigated the participant through the streets of Berlin, flirting with them along the way. For the participants, it was an occasion to become acquainted not only with living conditions in Calcutta but also with overlooked and unexpected aspects of their Berlin environment.Another solo piece by Kaegi, Mnemopark, involved five model-train enthusiasts navigating one of their engines across an enormous, stage-filling model railroad painstakingly constructed by members of model-train clubs in Switzerland. "The train enthusiasts," reasons Kaegi, "are actually theatre- makers - they take a big reality and make a smaller version of it." Kitted out with a camera at the front, the train filmed the model landscapes it drove through, which were simultaneously displayed on a screen, a hyper-real vision of the world in which the faces and hands of the model-train builders sometimes eerily appeared. Instead of watching a moving vehicle on stage, in Cargo Sofia the audience take their place in it. The main characters are the two Bulgarian truck drivers, Nedyalko Nedyalkov and Vento Borisov, who have been playing their real-life parts as truck drivers in the converted lorry for a year. Seated inside the truck, the audience hear Nedyalkov and Borisov in the front cab talk about their lives, their families, their journeys and experiences. As the audience face one side of the truck, the stories the drivers tell are illustrated by a film of the journey from Sofia to Dublin, which is projected on a screen covering the entire left wall. Frequently, the screen lifts - revealing the full-length glass windows that have replaced the original side of the truck - to show, in our case, Dublin Docklands and the people who work there."The city looks like a film," says Kaegi, "but in reality it's only a few metres away."THE SHOW IS somewhat different from place to place, depending on where Cargo Sofia is presented."We've brought it to about 14 cities," says Jörg Karrenbauer, who has spent a year making the piece work in urban areas such as Basel, Vienna, Berlin, Warsaw, Avignon, Belgrade, Sofia and Riga. Karrenbauer came to Dublin earlier this year to size it up for performance, marking out areas on which to focus. He also consults Google Earth for further information. "Because it can show such minute detail, we can locate things such as truck containers, industrial areas, places where trucks can park." Differences from city to city can snag the original scenario. In Ireland, for example, we uncooperatively drive on the other side of the street. It means viewers will see less of the traffic than continental audiences see, but more of the buildings. "You never see the street or other trucks passing," says Karrenbauer. "And did the drivers have any trouble on the other side of the road? I asked them." Karrenbauer replies "but they just shrugged and said 'what's the problem?'."In Dublin, the drivers are joined by local "specialists" who talk about their lives and livelihoods in the docklands - and by a vocalist who will appear sporadically in the cityscape to sing in Bulgarian. "The singer is the only artificial part of the piece," says Karrenbauer. The rest, whether filmed or live, is "real".Cargo Sofia, like Rimini Protokoll's other work, exalts examples of the everyday by making them larger than life in the focus of theatrical performance. In discovering the truck drivers' haunts and watering places, the container areas, petrol stations and rest stops, the special routes and insider tips passed on from driver to driver, the audience come up against the scaffolding of their comfortable quality of life to an intimate degree that no book, magazine report or even film documentary can offer. The show puts so-called reality to shame as voyeuristic extravagance. "The piece is a biography that crosses Europe from Sofia to Dublin," says Kaegi. "It puts people at the heart of art."Being there: We Are Here This year, the We Are Here collaboration between Project Arts Centre and Dublin Docklands Development Authority has expanded. "Docklands is interesting terrain in Dublin - it's constantly changing," says Project artistic director Willie White. The festival highlights "the changing physical and cultural landscape of Dublin," from Cargo Sofia, which "looks at another side of all the goods we're consuming" to Audiodetour, which sends participants around the city on an MP3-led tour.Can You See Me Now, by Blast Theory, involves a virtual manhunt in the International Financial Services Centre. Gob Squad's Room Service takes over part of Wynn's Hotel for an interactive videolink between actors in various states of desperation in hotel rooms and the audience in the conference room. Events should attract "people who aren't theatre- goers but are interested in different cultural experiences," says White. Details:


Cargo Sofia-X