Von Stephen Bevis
10.02.2014 / The West Australian
To steal a line from Jon Landau, who discovered Springsteen and is now his manager, I have seen the future of theatre and its name is Situation Rooms.
The elaborate and dizzying construct of German interactive doco-theatre makers Rimini Protokoll, this walk- through immersive role-playing piece gives new meaning to the idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.
That mile or thereabouts is walked in the course of 70 minutes in a densely integrated set of rooms and corridors in a great big box built in a TV studio. The “someone else” is in fact 20 different people caught up in the entangled web that is the global weapons industry.
Our side-arms are a set of earphones and a mini tablet fixed to a stick. After a brief instructive welcome, 20 of us are each assigned a starting point at a series of doors around the box. Prompted by messages on our devices we almost simultaneously open our doors and let the games begin.
Inside are a series of “situation rooms” — an office, boardroom, kitchen, surgery, bomb shelter, classroom and more. These are highly detailed and realistic scene-setters for stories from corporate bankers, arm dealers, child soldiers, war-zone doctors, refugees, drug barons and other protagonists and unwilling players in the deadly multi-billion-dollar conjunction of conflict and commerce.
Situation Rooms is among several interactive theatre works in this Festival, including the roaming Northbridge street encounter You Once Said Yes and the family show The House Where Winter Lives.
It is directed by Helgard Haug, who has created the production with her Rimini Protokoll cohorts Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel. Their other creations include audio tours of Stasi archives, an organised “swarm” through city streets and a statistical recasting of the population of Tokyo on stage.
The storylines have been recorded by actors carrying the same devices as us. We will each take part in 10 of them as the actors navigate the same path through the set and we follow their prompts and walk in their tracks via our screens. They become our guides and we effectively wear their masks and emulate their actions.
We serve soup in an arms factory canteen, assess injuries in a Sierra Leone triage centre, raise a flag and duck from bombs at a Congolese school, spy on an illicit weapons deal, operate the joy stick of a military drone in Kashmir and cut a deal with a Balkan State.
It is a fascinating adventure and the first few minutes may be unnerving as you come to grips with the prompts and the echoed nature of the experience. The intense focus and concentration on the screen, to ensure you maintain the pace and follow the cues, can mean some distraction from fully absorbing the stories.
The rooms and situations are explored solo but there are frequent encounters with other audience members which reiterate the entanglements of this industry. We are prompted to shake someone's hand, take their coat or serve them a meal, all civil, pleasant gestures that contrast with the violent business at hand.
These little intersections in our various trails heighten our involvement and complicity. This proximity, seeing almost with the same eyes as the witnesses, breaks down the TV-news detachment of distance and truly immerses us as if we are living, breathing pawns on the chessboard.
The only reservation would be for a short off-set preview, a hands-on demo for five minutes to familiarise ourselves with the format and flow. A few people, me included, had to head for the exits, of which there are many, for a crew member to help us reset our bearings.
This show requires some openness and a sense of being on your toes. It is immensely physically and mentally stimulating, sobering and empathetic.
How do TV, film and the proscenium arch hope to compete with theatre like this?