By MARSHA LEDERMAN
28.01.2010 / Globe and Mail
Ask Stefan Kaegi of Rimini Protokoll, the hot Berlin-based theatre company, who has influenced his work and he launches into a description of his high-school physics teacher. Rimini Protokoll partner Helgard Haug chimes in with her inspirations: resigning politicians and priests delivering eulogies. They do not list directors, playwrights or even actors (heaven forbid). Rimini Protokoll is the master of something it calls Reality Trend (Theater der Zeit), and it is bringing that envelope-pushing sensibility to Vancouver tomorrow for the world premiere of its new production, Best Before.
The three members of Rimini Protokoll (the third, Daniel Wetzel, is not involved in Best Before) met while studying theatre in Giessen, Germany, but they had no desire to work with traditional theatre models. Their alternative approach, Reality Trend, blurs the line between fiction and reality, often using real people rather than actors and involving the audience in profound ways.
"By developing ... work with real people or with people that are not trained actors, all of a sudden the stage became really attractive, because it was a confrontation to something that was done there before," says Haug, in the boardroom at The Cultch, where Best Before is being rehearsed and its many technical aspects being tested. "In the end, we really gained from the established rules of theatre by breaking them."
Indeed. In 100 Percent Berlin, Rimini Protokoll put 100 Berliners onstage, representing the exact demographical makeup of the city. Only one person was cast by the directors. That person then recommended the next player based on demographic criteria, and so on. Another production, Call Cutta in a Box, involved an audience member in Berlin picking up a mobile phone at the theatre, receiving a call from a call centre in Calcutta and embarking on a walking tour of Berlin based on instructions issued from the call centre, thousands of kilometres away.
When Rimini Protokoll was commissioned to create a work for Vancouver's PuSh International Performing Arts Festival and Cultural Olympiad, the members spent about two weeks touring the city, looking for ideas.
While they kept returning to the troubled Downtown Eastside, they ultimately found their project in the suburbs, in the slick offices of video-game-producing giant Electronic Arts.
The result is Best Before, which replicates the online gaming world and plugs it into a theatre setting. It is play as well as a play, where the audience members, not the people onstage, are the players.
Two hundred audience members are each given a joystick with which to operate an avatar (called "actors" - the term used by the gaming industry for a player's onscreen presence). For two hours, the audience makes decisions for the avatars and their simulated city, BestLand. The results are communicated to a giant screen onstage, where 200 dots grow up and acquire names, hobbies, jobs and opinions.
They are guided by four onstage "experts": electronic artist Brady Marks, who designed the software for the game; video-game tester Duff Armour; former politician Bob Williams; and traffic flagger Ellen Schultz.
Taking on a sort of host role, the four let the audience in on parts of their own life stories. At the same time, the audience is creating life stories for their avatars. Boy or girl? Do you want to get married? Divorced? Do you want to commit suicide?
The idea is to elevate the role of the audience to create an exciting, involved and yet theatrical experience. "What is your role of spectator normally? You're sitting silently there and you're trying to identify with somebody who has big emotions for you and you try to sort of find moments in your life [when] you had similar ones," Kaegi says. "And here you are yourself deciding through roles and take a fate in the end. You become something, you regret something, you might have a catharsis moment."
It becomes clear that the real protagonists of the play are the avatars - essentially, the audience.
The members of Rimini Protokoll are satisfied that they have created a theatrical experience that will lead, if nothing else, to some excellent discussion in the lobby afterward. "When you come out of a movie, you might tell the story about somebody who killed somebody else," Kaegi says. "And here you walk out and you're like: I was a woman; I got lots of money when I was 20 and lost it all in the stock market and committed suicide after infecting people with a disease.
"It's definitely a play which will create 200 biographies."