Interview with Stefan Kaegi in: Guidebook for hopefully seeking the audience

Von Goran Tomka

01.03.2016 / Download PDF

Interview with Stefan Kaegi by Goran Tomka in the online publication:

Audience Expolrations, Guidebook for hopefully seeking the audience pg. 21/22:


What is theatre?

Stefan Kaegi is a co-founder of Rimini Protokoll. He produces
documentary theatre plays, radio shows and works in
the urban environment in a diverse variety of collaborative
partnerships. In 2010 Stefan was awarded the European
Prize for Cultural Diversity. In 2011, Rimini Protokoll won
the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale for performing arts. In
2015 Stefan and Rimini Protokoll received the Swiss Grand
Prix of Theatre.

Stefan Kaegi is one third of Berlin-based group Rimini Protokoll.
Through their immersive, participatory, interactive performances,
they slowly redefine the boundaries of Western theatrical practice.
‘We intuitively had interest in what is now called immersive theatre’,
says Stefan. ‘The actor, as someone who has learned something and
wants to show it, was never our main interest. We have always been
interested in how other people could be on the stage’. Their stages
have been filled by hundreds of people all over the world (quite
literally so). But their stages have also moved as their performances
include walking, dancing, riding in a truck... It is part of the quest for
a more democratic theatre. A theatre that would become a two-way
channel rather than a stage-audience shout-out.
The whole movement is nothing less than a revival of theatre for

‘I am glad that the theatre has found a way back into a wider
definition of what it can be, and it has all started from the
moment when the theatre began to question its format in the
broader sense, not just what can happen within those 90 minutes
on the stage – but what is the function of this all. This is
something that maybe needs to go on for 24 hours...

The usual, celebratory narrative of participatory theatre often goes
in two directions. One: participation is good because audiences get
their voices heard in the creative process and that will attract them
to theatre. Two: it is good because it builds strong communities.
However, none of these would be what Stefan and Rimini Protokoll
are after.

Actually, one of the underpinning drivers for audience development,
namely the declining numbers of audiences, seems to be
distant thunder for Stefan. As he says, there are more and more
people willing to experience theatre in a new way. The diminishing
number of tickets sold is a different story:

‘That is typically a problem of the Stadttheater (local public
theatres). They have this house and certain people are coming
back always again to the same house and then they make
research into them and find out, oh, they actually like what
we do. That is why they are coming back. But then you are
in a closed circuit; you are just reproducing the expectations
that you project into audiences. I don’t think it’s something
that you should do.’

Instead, ‘you should bring up the content because it is exciting’,
claims Stefan in a classical curatorial style. Does that imply a kind
of disinterest for audiences? Not really.

‘What we do often is that gradually rehearsals are being
replaced by try-outs, because in the project like Remote X the
audience is such an important part of what actually is the thing
going on, that we can hardly rehearse without an audience.’

In the practice of Rimini Protokoll, there is a clear distinction
between caring for audiences and conforming to their expectations,
no matter who they are. Audiences are a part of the creative process,
but not as a target group whose liking should be the defining
guideline of the artistic work:

‘The question is only how understandable it is. Theatre is a big
communication process and we are not interested in the misunderstanding
which would happen even before audiences
interact with the material [the performance]. Afterwards, you
can do with the material whatever you want.’

Taking care of the ways audiences understand the event they
should become a part of does not mean any kind of ‘dumbing down’.
It is rather caring for the one you talk to. As for the communities,
they are at best temporary formations, a consequence, rather than
a goal. Responding to my provocation that he doesn’t care much
about the potential of theatre to make cohesive, stable communities,
Stefan responds:

‘I am not about stability... the idea of destabilisation related to
the artist is closer to me. I think people have enough of their
mechanisms to go into their stability networks. These communities
might be created temporarily, but I don’t see why
they should turn into perpetuated rituals. I think we need to
talk about conflicts. It might create temporary harmonies as
well, but also create places of interaction. I don’t believe in it
becoming institutionalized and expectable.’

Just as others have pointed out, there is a clear distinction of what
it means to work with audiences as an artist or as community managers
or a marketing director of a large venue. But this goes much
further. The question is what is the role of theatre and performance
arts in society:

‘I have seen in the UK grants that actually force artists to be
teachers; this has problematic sides. You only get money if
you go to schools and you seem to be in a position to replace
teachers. In Germany, during the refugee crisis, there were
politicians installing special funds for artists to make projects
with refugees. You suddenly get this vision of artists being a
kind of an army that is sent to deal with the burning forest...
On one side it might be overestimating the power or the social
skills of artists. Of course good projects might come out, but
it would be weird if the function of arts would be reserved for
this particular purpose.’

Here with Stefan, we see once again a theatre-maker who does not
subscribe to the idea of theatre being a building block of big proud
scenes, nations, markets or any other giant self-perpetuating structure.
It is much more about being democratic in a way to be able to
question these structures and build spaces for communicating and
envisioning different and opposing worlds as well.