Rimini Protokoll gets the audience back in the game

Best Before

Von Alex Lazaridis Ferguson

19.02.2010 / Plank Magazine

Duff Armour walks into the side of a table. He shifts to his right. Does it again. Shifts. Does it again. Again. He’s acting out being a computer game avatar. This is what a game tester does. A computer game is created, then the tester puts an avatar through the game environment making sure he can’t walk through tables and walls when he’s not supposed to.
Armour tells us he spent a long time testing games at Electronic Arts in Burnaby. He’s not a professional actor. He really is a game tester, and he’s playing himself in Best Before by the Berlin-based theatre company Rimini Protokoll. It’s a show about life choices, and about taking stock of those choices before your ‘due date’ comes up. Rimini’s directing team doesn’t use trained actors. Armour is what they call an “expert in daily life.”  On his way to work at EA each day, Armour probably passed Ellen Schultz on the road. Schultz is another expert of daily life. She’s a flagger, someone who wears a safety vest and hardhat and calms traffic at roadside construction sites. She gave up being a journalist to do this work. While telling her story, she gracefully performs — you might say ‘dances’ — the gestures of directing traffic. As in other performances at this year’s PuSh Festival, dance is not necessarily something done by trained professionals. It’s something anyone can look interesting doing when placed in the right aesthetic frame. By putting experts of daily life on stage, the relationship between spectator and performer is somewhat leveled. You don’t see experts performing for non-experts, just everyday people performing for other everyday people. It’s an attempt to democratize theatre — but I’ll say more on that later.  
Another expert we meet is Bob Williams who, among other things, was once a city councilor and BC’s Minister of Finance. He’s the most ‘who’s who’ of the four. But fame and notoriety aren’t prerequisites for being in this show. The ex-politician, the flagger, the programmer, and the tester are somewhat arbitrary representatives of our metropolis. And it’s not just the people on stage that represent the city. As we’re told about a quarter of the way through, Best Before isn’t supposed to be about the performers. It’s supposed to be about all of us. To this end, audience participation is elicited in an effort to make the show not only about us, but also ‘by’ us. This is made possible through the not so everyday skill of Brady Marks, the fourth member of the cast. She’s a computer programmer at Electronic Arts, and she knows how to make the games that Armour used to test. For Best Before Marks has designed a game that everyone in the audience can play. The huge projection screen at the back of the stage becomes our own x-box playing field. Each of us gets a controller and an onscreen avatar to guide through a survey of life choices. Our avatars are circular, ovoid, or teardrop shaped, bi-coloured and able to range around the screen doing things like finding a mate, taking on a mortgage, running for public office, and buying a gun. Particular issues like pro- or anti-choice on abortion create murmuring tension in the house. Whether or not to fund the military results in some vocal exchanges, between spectators, and between spectators and performers. 
To create this show Rimini Protokoll builds on the late 20th century movement of participatory theatre which got going in the 60s with “happenings,” Grotowski’s work, and performance art. This 50 year ‘tradition’ includes work in which the spectator shares the performance space with the artists, and sometimes becomes a very active co-author of the event. In Best Before that co-authorship is constrained within a question-and-answer structure (“You now have a mate — do you choose to have children?”), which makes it a bit like playing a group version of a choose-your-own-adventure book. Persistent vocal chatter in the house often disrupts that constraint. It’s in these spontaneous vocal outbursts that the audience co-authors the boisterous atmosphere of the room. Performance theorist Bruce McConachie argues that people come to the theatre in search of a worthy play-partner. Rimini gives the audience a partner that’s all play. 
Play is an activity that seems to be missing from so much “bourgeois” theatre. In the late 19th century, with the rise of naturalism (Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov), and the controlling force that came to be known as the director, unruly audiences were banished from European theatres. Theatre became a place of intense concentration, a concentration best achieved in the solitude of one’s focus on the stage. Ever since, the skill of sitting in the dark and trying to ignore other patrons has been mandatory in our so-called “legitimate” playhouses. When this historical shift happened a lot of patrons (especially men) complained and then left the theatre for good. The canonical works of the modern era, the ones we’ve mythologized and anthologized, played for smaller, more elite audiences. But this kind of spectator experience is a very recent anomaly in the history of theatre — West or East. For example well into the 20th century Japanese kabuki was a site of eating, drinking, and smoking. Spontaneous or ritualised verbal exchanges between the patrons and the performers were part of the experience. In fact, seasoned patrons knew how to place a verbal shout-out in such a way that it contributed to the rhythm and dramatic tension of the play. The introduction of late 19th century European theatre ideals changed all that. Before the modern era, power dynamics between spectator and performer in world theatre were very fluid. In a sense, companies like Rimini are finding new ways to recover the participatory theatre experience that used to be the norm. 
Does this mean that democracy in theatre has been achieved? Only on the surface. If you happened to take in The Show Must Go On (also at PuSh) by French choreographer Jerome Bel, you would have been part of another interesting exercise in leveling the playing field. The show exemplifies Bel’s theory of a theatre for the people. To summarize the theory: after the execution of Louis XIV, at whose court French ballet developed, dance was no longer supposed to mirror the ruling elite. Rather it was the citizen that was supposed to find him or herself reflected on stage. To that end Bel peoples his contemporary dance pieces with performers who do nothing your average spectator couldn’t do (if given a few weeks to rehearse). That’s the theory. You might call it a populist pose. However, the structure of The Show Must Go On is masterfully constructed. It’s as brilliantly manipulative as any of our canonical works. Jane or Joe Spectator couldn’t have put it together — not without Bel’s background, and the years of thought he put into it. 
Nor does Bel encourage the kind of audience rowdiness that Rimini does (The Vancouver audiences of The Show Must Go On took to singing and dancing through much of the evening — to the surprise and consternation of Bel and his assistants). But neither can the atmosphere of Rimini’s Best Before be accomplished without the veteran skills of a group of artists who have been working at this kind of thing for about a decade and a half. Best Before may feature experts of daily life, but the artists pulling the strings of those experts are master puppeteers. They spend a long time researching and working with the stories of their chosen cast, reworking the material in such a way that the aesthetic goals of the company aren’t sacrificed. It’s every bit as rigorous as putting together a conventional play, if not more so. The lack of training on the part of the performers creates challenges that make achieving one of the typical goals of theatre —making rehearsed moments look spontaneous — that much more tricky. In an essay about Rimini Protokoll, Florian Malzacher writes, “A Rimini performance is never perfect, nor should it be. At the point where the performers become practiced enough to feel secure, begin to build their roles and to act, the piece loses more than just its charm. Insecurity and fragility are the defining moments of what is understood by many to be authenticity. Yet such moments where timing, tension, empathy and presence disappear are also agonising.” It’s this agonising that is part of the goal. When things go wrong on stage, you “feel uncomfortable as an audience member. You suffer too for a moment, feel embarrassed or touched by the efforts of performers who cannot protect themselves through acquired techniques.”  
Responses to the show were varied. My partner spoke of how intelligent a theatre company Rimini is. That intelligence manifests itself in successful co-operative play — many people in the house were obviously getting into the video game that was the bulk of the performance. On the other hand, a friend of mine asked, “What was the point? I felt like I was taking part in a survey.” While I had a grand time pushing my avatar around the screen and shouting at my fellow patrons, I too felt the survey went on too long, and that I was taking part in an exercise in audience demographics. There was a lack of depth to the queries. The exercise began to feel inconsequential. I had lost contact with one of the most compelling aspects of the early part of the show — the life stories of the experts. As the saying goes, the truth is stranger than fiction. The stories of the four cast members were no exception. The broad participatory nature of the show obscured the specificity of these stories in favour of a group narrative that was pretty generic, and fairly predictable given that the audience at such an event is likely to be mostly composed of middle class liberals. Maybe it’s just the nature of video gaming. Avatars are types, and their ability to reveal the complexities of human “fragility” are still limited. 
Malzacher again: “It is in the moments when reality breaks in that throw you back to the banal fundamental principle of theatre — sitting in a room together with other real people, facing the possibility of mistake, breakdown, failure…” In other words what makes the story matter is having something at stake. For me, this first incarnation of Best Before fell short on that count (the show is going on to a European tour after its Vancouver premiere; undoubtedly Rimini will rework it along the way). What was at stake for the performers? What was at stake for me? The rules of the game were clear, enabling me to fully take part. It’s just that there wasn’t enough opportunity to risk embarrassment. And not a big enough prize to make the risk worth taking.  
Still, Best Before is the kind of theatre event I love. I’m grateful to PuSh for commissioning this work, and for bringing one of the hottest and most influential European theatre companies to Vancouver. Across the board it’s been a festival of the most up to date international works as well as what you might call ‘recent classics’ (like The Show Must Go On, and Akhe’s White Cabin). Only in its 5th year, PuSh has become one of the best festivals of its kind in the world.


Best Before