By Mike Doherty
14.06.2016 / National Post
For reluctant theatre-goers who go into withdrawal when they’re asked to stow away their pocket-sized screens, The Situation Rooms offers a drastic solution. Staged at Toronto’s Luminato Festival through June 26, the production makes viewers double as actors; they walk through an enclosed set while holding their own iPad mini.
On one level, it’s a multi-tasker’s paradise – but it also suggests that hell isn’t so much other people, as it is being other people.
Devised by Berlin-based theatre collective Rimini Protokoll, The Situation Rooms is about the arms trade, and the impossibility of escaping its global currents of money and cycles of violence. Inspired by the White House Situation Room, where President Obama watched the remotely-ordered killing of Osama Bin Laden, co-creators Stefan Kaegi, Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel devised their script by interviewing 20 people who have been directly involved with, or affected by, weapons of war.
To reflect their interviewees’ experiences, they constructed 15 rooms – a triage facility, a Congolese classroom from which child soldiers were forcibly “recruited,” a Mexican mausoleum housing the bodies of a drug cartel’s victims, a boardroom where arms deals are conducted — and flew the interviewees to Berlin to recite their stories in the set as they moved around it, filming their actions and recording their words with iPads.
The Situation Rooms is subtitled “a multiplayer video piece,” and viewers recreate 10 of the interviewees’ seven-minute stories in succession, engaging in staged interactions: a South Sudanese journalist shakes a Congolese child soldier’s hand; a Corsican security systems developer at an arms fair slips a bullet-proof vest on the shoulders of a potential customer.
In one story, you may be a gunshot victim lying on an operating table; in the next, you could be a Doctors Without Borders surgeon examining the patient. The freedom inherent in not having to sit in a chair in a darkened room is balanced by the expectation that you’ll do exactly what your iPad tells you to. If the piece seems like a live-action video game, it’s one where you make no decisions of your own.
“That’s an important piece of this experience, to be overwhelmed with instructions, and not exactly knowing where this is going to lead,” says Kaegi, formerly a journalist in Switzerland. Many of the people he and his fellow authors/directors interviewed, he notes, felt similarly powerless. One of The Situation Rooms’ stories is told by an Israeli soldier who patrolled the Gaza Strip: Viewers are told to copy his actions, lying on the ground and aiming an imaginary rifle at people. “He does not know who they are,” says Kaegi, “and he hears a voice (in an earphone) that tells him, ‘Shoot the person on the left.’”
There’s also an element of dark physical comedy, as “the audience” dons a white courtroom wig over headphones to follow the story of a Pakistani lawyer who’s representing drone victims, and then tries to hang up a bullet-proof vest while avoiding getting tangled up in the headphones’ cord. We’re made to laugh at ourselves, and the absurdity of our situation. For Kaegi, it’s important to get beyond the “voyeurism” of traditional theatrical productions and films, as “it seems there is no option of passivity in this world.”
Since they started working together in 2000, Rimini Protokoll have devoted themselves to wrenching audiences out of their theatrical comfort zones. Previous performances include asking people to interact directly with call centre operators in India (Call Cutta) and moving as part of a swarm of 50 people around a city (Remote X). Kaegi sneers at so-called 3D cinema with its “long history of making you sit in a movie theatre with ridiculous goggles.” As contrast, The Situation Rooms finds an immersive third dimension by opening up the fourth wall between spectator and performer, and then putting everyone inside.
In practice, taking part in The Situation Rooms is not always easy: with attention divided between the stories, the props and the other people around us, it is easy to lose the narrative thread. Thankfully, exit doors lead to volunteers who can re-align viewers who have lost their way. But the experience is nonetheless weirdly immersive, and it’s disconcerting to emerge when it’s over and then have to deal with the unmediated reality of speaking directly to someone, without being issued instructions.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Situation Rooms, however, is the fact that some of Rimini Protokoll’s interviewees actually wanted to tell their stories. An activist’s participation makes sense, but why would a defense systems manager wish to tell people about making and selling weapons?
“I really don’t understand why he took part,” Kaegi admits. “He could only lose by his boss discovering (he did so); he probably knew that everybody on the set would see him as the bad guy, but I think he wanted to do it for the experience, or to understand something about what he’s doing there.”
And what of the drug cartel operative from Mexico who describes, with chilling equanimity, what he did to bump people off?
Kaegi says he was put in contact with the pseudonymous “Alberto X” by an actress from Chihuahua. “I started Skyping with this guy, and everything he told me sounded very scary. On the other hand, he seemed nice, so we brought him to Berlin.
“He felt everything he had done was totally OK. He hasn’t spent enough time in jail. Then again, there was a policeman in the same cast. I thought, ‘Shouldn’t he arrest him? Shouldn’t also the Indian fighter pilot and the Pakistani (lawyer) start to fight at the catering desk?’ But somehow, they all took it as a project where they could step out of their reality.”
The viewers-turned-actors can step out of theirs too, although beyond the compelling aspect of wandering through these painstakingly constructed sets is the unsettling feeling that we’re walking through our own versions of these rooms every day of our lives. We’re essentially powerless to decide where our banks invest our money, or who’s watching us and to what end. And even though the iPad videos for The Situation Rooms were filmed three years ago, its sprawling story continues indefinitely, out in the world.
“I was in contact with the French guy who sells bullet-proof vests the other day,” says Kaegi. “He says business is great!”