Theatre on the Street: An Independent Theater Hungary Case Study
Outdoor theatre is a very important tool if you want to reach people who don’t attend theatres, when indoor activities are not allowed because of COVID restrictions, or if you want to use natural scenery and/or avoid expensive venues for your shows. Our interethnic theatre has more than decade long experience on this field, which might help other theatre innovations, too.
In 2012, Independent Theater Hungary started a community arts initiative called Dreams of Junk. It was an initiative for the unique phenomenon of lomtalanítás or lomizás, which is a district- or city-wide cleanup of used objects that residents put on the street, meanwhile others took them away. Different groups in society who don’t normally interact faced each other, and the tidy streets became full of objects. These occasions fueled the stereotypes against the poor people collecting objects and the street, but we thought these occasions could also serve as acts of inclusion. Dreams of Junk were a series of joyful community events where, with the guidance of artist trainers, children of different backgrounds can create pieces of art out of garbage and street performances together. The participants of the events get closer to art and to each other. They experience building value out of garbage, and they have the opportunity to shape their environment.
We trained young people on how to facilitate flash mobs or small interactive games with people passing on the streets. For example, they started to play with an invisible ball and, when throwing it to strangers on the street, they always connected to the game, and threw back the imaginary ball. These interactive street games were short, enjoyable, and easy for anyone to get involved in. They pulled the attention of the people on the street and because they were movement-based, no common language was needed amongst participants. With very simple outdoor actions, we got people involved in community art who don’t have any access to culture and brought together social groups who hardly have positive encounters with each other.
Complex Game with a Story and Message
One can involve people on the street with an attractive interactive game, but to do something more complex and longer, the audience should be kept for a longer time. This is always a challenge, as passers might not stay too long. In one of our theatrical activities, we invited people from the street to play a game, where they can win a can of beer. (Maybe it is not the most elegant way, but it definitely works!) In the game, they received different characters and stood in one line. After they received some statements (e.g., “I was abroad many times in my childhood; my parents had at least five hundred books”), if the statement related to their character was true in their opinion, they took one step ahead; otherwise, they stayed in the same position. Of course, the disadvantaged characters didn’t step too much ahead, so when we put the can of beer in front of them (as a symbol of success) and told them they could run and grab it, the ones further behind didn’t stand a chance against their more privileged characters, who only had to walk one step to reach the can of success. After they got involved in the play, we were able to realize other short, theatrical scenes besides the game and had a follow-up discussion about disadvantages.
We also asked for the commitment of those passing by in another initiative. We informed people that our friends just got married, and we wanted to do a small surprise for them, as their family is far away. We asked if they could join us for the surprise for just two minutes. We involved around five to eight people and when the couple arrived, the surprise was that it was a gay or lesbian couple. Some of the people involved became pissed off, while others still participated in the game. Although it was very brief, we confronted the people about their stereotypes and/or the ones of others and the challenges of a same sex couple.
In all these short scenes, we had to get the attention of people and involve them in a scenario which seemed real by creating a situation they had to interact with, make a decision on how to respond to, and reflect on the experience. Sometimes we also create aggressive situations on the streets and observe if people try to stop it or not. The interaction with the audience can be much more real and experimental than in a venue, which is dedicated to theatre and where they people initially expect to see theatre and face challenging human situations. Beside the basic interactions with the audience, the venues of the performances can also play a very important role.
Performances at Symbolic Spaces
When doing any outdoor performance, the location of the venues can have a symbolic message, too. For example, one of our latest performances, Frogtales, was connected to Norbert Oláh’s installation of a wall, which was built and later on destroyed. The wall was built—and the performance was put on—in front of the building where the Roma Parliament (a Roma cultural center) functioned for many years. Since its closing, the house has remained empty. There are many points in our cities which are linked to relevant stories that haven’t been focused on enough in our common remembrance.
When performing at a square or in front of a building where something important happened, we can revive the memories directly or with a metaphorical story. In Frogtales we worked with metaphors, but in another street theatre activity, we were more direct. In a street theatre activity focused on the Roma heroes who participated in the Hungarian Revolution in 1956—which was the antecedent of our present initiative—we revived some acts of the revolution that happened in the same streets. In other performances, like our walking performances, we used the city’s parks to create the feeling of the countryside. So, when choosing a venue, the focus can be on its real nature and history, it can be handled on a metaphoric level, or it can be used for a very different story and location than its reality.
Complex Walking Performances
The above-mentioned simpler methods wanted to catch the attention of the pedestrians and interact with them for some joyful—or sometimes shocking—experiences. For the more complex walking theatre performances, we needed audience members who stayed with us for one to three hours. Such time-consuming shows can’t only rely on pedestrians—although many times at our outdoor walking performances we had audience members, who only joined the show accidentally and then followed it until the end.
In walking theatre performances, the scenes are played in different outdoor places and among the different scenes the audience needs to walk. We find it crucial that not only the actors but also the audience members be active and moving. In the classical voyeur theatre, the audience is sitting in a passive, comfortable position—and under the protection of darkness. Because of this, the audience only witnesses the scenes happening on the stage. The audience doesn’t need to act or feel conscious that they are witnessing some morally problematic situations on the stage. Theatre is the genre of active citizens, and while the dramatic characters have to make decisions, take responsibility, and have influence on their lives and the lives of other people, the audience members are totally passive. They also don’t need to decide which angle they watch a scene from. Their position and experience is totally ruled by the director.
When we went outdoors with more complex theatre performances, we didn’t want to copy the traditional theatre situation just without the roof. We wanted to move the audience with the story.
While in traditional voyeur theatre, the audience members are not conscious of their position—that they are passive witnesses of immoral actions happening in the story—in our performances they were confronted with this fact.
Move the Audience with the Story
When different scenes are in different spots and the audience has to walk from one place to another, it’s important to think about the question of guidance. Who will guide them to the next scene and why? For us, sometimes it was a character from the earlier scene who invited people to join them. Other times, they only followed a particular character’s highlighted journey. Later on during the scenes, it’s also important to calculate the position of the audience. It is never totally predictable so the actors should also use the space in a flexible way. As the actors and the audience need to move together from scene to scene, we also pay attention to the pact at which people walk—some walk slower while others are quick. To help with this, sometimes the actors would wait for the others or create some interscene activities that can be followed by the quicker audience members so they didn’t get bored while waiting for the others.
But these activities and interactions can’t be crucial to the story as not everyone sees them. The traditional voyeur theatre with fixed audience positions ensures equal chances for the audience members, as they all see the same. From our point of view, it is not a problem if not every audience member has the same experience. We like the fact that each audience member has a different experience of the same moments in such performances. Equal chances are also illusions in real life, and we want to do a theatre which reflects real life. If what all the audience members will see is dictated by the production team, it ruins their free will of perception. We think it’s fine if an audience member gets closer to the characters and the other audience members only listen to the conversations, while having a look at the panorama.
Walking between two scenes can also be different for every audience member. Some people may like staying quiet and thinking about the previous scene while others may start to interact with the guiding character. Meanwhile, some audience members may start chatting with each other about their everyday life issues. This way the walking theatre performances have many breaks—just like a television series. At Independent Theater Hungary, we liked this relaxed dynamic of the plays. However, this also made the actors’ work more challenging because after each walk, they had to get the attention of the audience again and again, and they couldn’t easily build on the dynamic of the previous scene as there was a walking break in between them.
The Audience Has a Role, Too
Because sometimes the audience is guided by or interacts with one of the characters, it raises some questions: What is the relationship among the characters and the audience members, which leads to interaction? If this is not a voyeur theatre, does the audience also have some role in the story? The answer is yes. In most of our walking theatre performances, we put the audience members in some kind of role in the story. They are usually voyeurs, who should face their position. They are visitors coming to see a village festivity in the performance Village Day, community members in Peer Gynt’s Children, and visitors to see a community work camp in Arbeit Macht Frei.
While in traditional voyeur theatre, the audience members are not conscious of their position—that they are passive witnesses of immoral actions happening in the story—in our performances they were confronted with this fact. We always focus on some social problems, and we believe we—as citizens—all have responsibility related to these issues. We have a responsibility to the communities we live in, the village festivities we visit and might support with our donations or entrance fees, and the services and institutions run by our taxes.
In some scenes, the characters are aware of the presence of the audience. They might interact with them directly or just communicate with each other in a way which is comme il faut for the voyeur audience. However, we also keep some scenes “behind closed doors.” These scenes are necessary for showing the genuine relationship among the characters and even the feelings or secrets they wouldn’t be open about in front of the visitors/community. In these scenes, the actors don’t communicate to the audience—they behave as if they weren’t there. However, it is important to make it clear in the dramaturgy which scenes are hidden from, or in interaction with, the audience members. When there is only frontal speech to the audience or some rhetorical questions, there can be fixed text.
Such an example is when in the Village Day, the mayor speaks several times to the visitors of the village. In other situations—for example during the walks when a guiding character initiates a discussion with some audience members—there is also space for improvisation, as depending on the reactions of the audience members, further text and acting can be different. But there are also quite predictable situations when interacting with the audience members. For example, if a character asks for help coming down from a tree, there is always one audience member who will help. Creating situations where the audience members can help the characters or be active in a situation can be empowering for the visitors. If they could contribute to the story of a drama, they might also shape our common future in the reality.
Let’s Eat and Drink Together!
Walking performances are not just a theatrical experience with a nice walk but many times also a gastronomic experience. In the Village Day, the audience tasted delicious local goat cheese (they later learned it’s actually not local but bought in a supermarket), drank lemonade with mint (which, in the performance’s storyline, they were told would be produced in the future factory of the village, which would never be built up), or were offered real homemade candies by a local poor woman. People like eating and receiving gifts, so gastronomic parts of the performances are popular.
But many times, when we accept something tasty and nice, we support immoral mechanisms. We are not just passive witnesses but also enjoyers of the immoral systems. The audience needs to confront the fact that their privileged situation has its price. Both at the end of Peer Gynt’s Children and Village Day, the audience members were invited for dinner. In Peer Gynt’s Children, they knew that the soup offered to them was confiscated from an evicted old woman in an earlier scene. In Village Day, the visitors ate the food during the festivities knowing it was made in corrupt and immoral conditions. In Arbeit Macht Frei, they had to eat while the characters who are public workers (people in Hungary who are unemployed and have to work for the municipalities and receive less than the minimal salary for their work) are standing next to their tables and are not allowed to join them and sit down—even if they are invited. The audience was left to consider if they should eat the soup offered by a sinner. Can they eat while an oppressed person has to stand next to them and is prohibited from eating?
On the other hand, audiences can accept something from the poor people. After the poor lady gave all her candies to the audience members, she starts to shout, asking why people didn’t pay for them. Should they give money to poor people even though they are attending a performance? Another character in Village Day asked the audience members to take a selfie with him in front of a nice background. After someone took the selfie with him, he declared the person is supposed to pay for the picture. Is it stupid to get tricked and pay the character, or are they evil if they don’t pay a poor person—even if they could? Although this is a funny, fictitious scene, such questions also refer to reality.
As outdoor walking theatre is performed in public spaces, reality can interfere. The external conditions can’t be excluded like in a building. Sometimes these interruptions can be annoying (like when an airplane or drone made circles above where our performance was), but sometimes it can be magic. There were times when a faraway church bell sounded at a perfect point, or when an external homeless person tried to sell his stuff as if he was a character from our play, or when for the final countdown between the two usurists, three motorcyclists arrived at the scene, made two circles, and left—as if they were also included. As the circumstances and interactions with the audience members are always different with this type of theatre, there are never two performances that are the same.
With very simple outdoor actions, we got people involved in community art who don’t have any access to culture and brought together social groups who hardly have positive encounters with each other.
Natural Solutions are Cheap, Nice, and Real
It’s also important to keep audience size in mind. We try to keep our audiences at a maximum of thirty to forty people. This way they can stay in a group, see the scenes near the actors, and fit in smaller places. Pedestrians may also join sometimes, but they won’t create a big crowd. When we organize such performances at Independent Theatre Hungary, we don’t name the exact meeting place before the performance and only let people who have registered or bought a ticket for the performance know about it. This allows those producing the show to count how many people will join because just like having too big of a crowd, having very few people is not good either. If you don’t ask people to register or pay for tickets in advance, the number of audience members can’t be estimated. Initially, we thought that maybe there would be conflicts between the people who paid for their tickets and the pedestrians who joined for free, but it never happened.
Prepare for Everything!
As there can be disturbing (or even supporting) external conditions as mentioned above, it’s important to take them into consideration in advance, and prepare for them as an organizer or actor. Actors should be flexible, using their volume according to the changing external sound conditions (wind, loud noises, etc.) and being ready to improvise. They should be comfortable without dressing rooms, a buffet, or toilet—especially if the performance is at a park or on a hill where bushes are the only facilities for all these needs. It’s also important to account for weather conditions—not just for those working on the show but also for the audience members. As they are meant to walk, it’s helpful to prepare audiences and encourage them to bring items like a raincoat, sunscreen, water, and bug spray.
Although a walking theatre performance is a sportier occasion than a traditional theatre performance, the comfort of the audience still must be taken into consideration. Standing and walking for one to two hours might be tiring, and towards the end audience members lose their focus. For this reason, it’s a good idea to have scenes where they can sit down for a while. We usually have plastic pillows for the audience members so they can sit down in the grass or on the sidewalk. It’s important that such pillows are easy to clean. If it’s very hot, it’s also good if audience members can receive a glass of water or lemonade at some point.
It’s a Challenge, but It's Worth Trying
We have been doing outdoor walking performances for eight years. One of our favorite spots is Gellért Hill. It's a green hill with parks close to the downtown of Budapest. When doing a walking theatre performance, it’s important to be brave, flexible, and open to surprises and adventure—not insisting on comfort and traditional solutions. After eight years, there are still no relevant walking theatre initiatives in Budapest—maybe because of its challenges. But facing these challenges and trying such an adventure is worth it!