Rimini Protokoll: The Adventure of Being a Spectator

The German company astounds again in Madrid with its new creation, Conference of the Absent.


09.10.2021 / elpais.com

The works of the German company Rimini Protokoll are oh-so-stimulating. Always distinct in both content and form, they all nevertheless share a common feature: they put a lot of new concerns in your head. Although reflections aren’t flying from the stage, they compel the audience to move through them by participating actively in the show. And often this ends up turning into a thrilling adventure. There’s a reason why the collective is the international benchmark when discussing “immersive theater.” And they never conclusively define what that means – it’s different every time.

They’ve showed many of their works in Spain. Most recent was the interactive installation Urban Nature this summer in Barcelona. Uncanny Valley at the 2018 Festival Temporada Alta seemed like a more conventional work, the audience motionless in the seating area, but instead of actors on stage there was a disturbing, humanlike robot. In 2019 they staged Situation Rooms in Madrid, a labyrinth where each spectator lent their body to different war-related characters (an arms company executive, a child soldier, a refugee, a reporter), following precise instructions via headphones. That same year they brought us Remote Madrid, a walk to rediscover the city.

Last night in Madrid the company presented its new creation, Conference of the Absent, born of the concern with climate change. In recent years the debate about how to stop it arrived in the theater world, personified by figures such as French choreographer Jérôme Bel, who has neither toured nor traveled for years so as not to emit polluting gases. The work both reflects this concern and offers a solution. The characters aren’t interpreted by actors but by spectators equipped with headphones. A voice explains the procedure and asks for volunteers for each of the stories that follow. Scientific conferences have started to use the format as an alternative to video conferencing in the wake of pandemic-induced virtual oversaturation.

The staging follows the structure of a scientific conference, only the presenters don’t explain findings. Instead they tell their personal stories which lead right to the subject of absence. These are real characters who’ve explicitly reconstructed their past for someone else to articulate it in their name on stage. Among them: a man whose amputated leg was hurting, a doctor who described the moment he suffered the stroke that left him immobilized and with a black hole in his brain, a Jew who disowned his parents in order not to be murdered by Nazis, and an American who founded a movement for the extinction of the human species. Some stories are more powerful than others, but the dramaturgy devised by the company makes even the weakest ones interesting.

At Thursday’s dress rehearsal the absent people’s stories, as told by the spectators who’d lent them their bodies, rang with a special force. Perhaps because not knowing the stories beforehand, they were discovering them at the same time as those listening in their seats, thereby reinforcing their effect – and paradoxically, their truth as well, despite the “authentic” character not being there. Again, there’s always something new to discover (and feel) at a Rimini Protokoll show.


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