the complicit witness

what are the rules here?

Von Alex Ferguson

05.04.2010 / RealTime

In all the performances I’ve described so far the artists have carefully shaped their illusions. Even Jerome Bel. Especially Bel. Despite the fact that some of his performers are untrained—non-experts, you might call them—the overall construction of The Show Must Go On is as brilliantly crafted and manipulative as the most revered canonical works of Western dramatic literature. Bel spent two years making his show. We spend less than two hours trying to figure out the extent of our agency— are the performers inviting us to take part bodily, or just mentally? How much freedom do we have to affect the outcome of the event? What are the rules here?
Enter Rimini Protokoll for a dose of genuine interactivity [see RT91, p18]. The Berlin Company’s new work Best Before was commissioned by PuSh and created in Vancouver. It features what Rimini calls “experts of daily life”—non-actors from various walks of life. These “experts”—a flagger, an ex-finance minister, a computer game tester and a game programmer—are connected by the fact that two of them worked at Electronic Arts, one of the world’s largest producers of video games, and three of them drove past the flagger on their way to work each day. So the idea of a daily journey (travel to work) is connected to the idea of something under construction (the site around which the flagger is directing traffic), and both of these are connected to the metaphor of life as a video game you win or lose.
Together with Rimini’s artistic directors, the experts have created a game the whole audience can play at once. Each spectator is given an Xbox-type controller to create and manipulate an avatar on the huge screen that stretches across the back of the stage. Around 200 spectators take part, through their avatars, in practical decision-making such as finding a mate, buying a house, choosing a candidate, supporting military spending and voting on abortion rights. As the title suggests, Best Before is a show about life choices and about taking stock of those choices before your ‘due date’ comes up.
When contentious issues are introduced, interaction jumps from the screen to the seats where spectators get into playful or heated arguments. Unlike Bel in The Show Must Go On, Rimini seems to relish these outbreaks. And they’ve given the audience coherent parameters—they provide a playing field, rules and a worthy opponent. The company also risks having these parameters redefined by the spectators. In this sense the spectator-performer relationship is truly levelled.
As in The Show Must Go On, this levelling is made clearer by the fact that the performers are untrained actors. The truth-and-consequence on-screen game is counterpointed by the stories of the experts who talk about life choices that led them to their current circumstances. Each story has its own peculiarity: a woman gives up journalism to direct traffic; a man goes from finance minister to night club owner; another man claws his way through the hierarchy at Electronic Arts only to be ‘rationalised’ out of a job. The experts’ lack of expertise in theatre works against the self-assured authorial coherence of a typical theatre performance. As performance theorist 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.”
These moments make 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” (Florian Malzacher,”Dramaturgies of care and insecurity”, M Dreysse, F Malzacher ed, Experts of the everday, the theatre of Rimini Protokoll. Berlin: Alexander Verlag Berlin, 2008).


Best Before