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Thinking About Space in Invited and A Doll’s House at Germany’s Our Stage Festival

Theatre is about a lot of things, one of them being space. From set design, to how and where the audience sits or does not sit, to how they enter the performance area, space and the impact of its arrangement massively affect how an audience responds to a piece—no matter how good the actual work is.

Invited and A Doll’s House were two shows at Our Stage – 4th European Bürgerbühne Festival at the Staatsschauspiel Dresden in Germany—a nine-day event held in May this year to celebrate and discuss citizen participation in theatre—that raised similar questions around the use of space.

Invited, a performance piece co-produced by Ultima Vez and KVS in Brussels, seems to have drawn inspiration from the work of dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. It’s an hour-long fluid, non-verbiage artwork, and spectators are warned there will be audience interaction. However, the piece tears up the rulebook on participatory theatre—which are typically shows with formal audience members who are often asked to interact with the actors (nearly always non-professionals)—what theatrical space is, and how that space can be used.

a group of people running in a circle

Invited. Photo Credit Danny Williams.

Invited’s creator, Seppe Baeyens, who worked with an international cast of non-professional performers for the piece, uses the wonderfully baroque Staatsschauspielhaus in the Old Town of Dresden for the staging. Its glorious and imposing auditorium must hold over a thousand seats and seems a better fit for more classical works in the canon like A Doll’s House and not this experimental, narrative-less visionary animal that calmly (rather than “roaringly,” as Invited has all the aggression of a Formosan Mountain Dog meditating) “invites” the audience to be the show they have paid to see.

We are wordlessly guided by ushers up onto the bare stage, but where are we? There’s no specific time or place in this work apart from the here and now; no historical framework. Nothing except the internal lives of the audience members, which they themselves bring. The psychic space—the experience people have relating to their bodies in space—is stripped bare and emptied of its theatricalness; there is no sense of the big productions that have gone before. The only props are a huge, blue, coiled rope nearly a meter thick (inspired by the artwork Rope, from the Flemish artist Ief Spincemaille), which everyone somehow knows to sit on; a three-piece band with musicians as still as wax works; and the creatives themselves, seen in the wings, their strained faces lit by the gleams of their laptops like they are Apple designers.

Space and the impact of its arrangement massively affect how an audience responds to a piece—no matter how good the actual work is.

This is theatre not only playing host to an audience, but where it is the audience. No one outside of our little group of attendees will bear witness to what is about to unfold—an oddity, as audience and performers are normally clearly differentiated and are never both actor and spectator at the same time. It’s weirdly hypnotic. As the lights suddenly darken—and darken, and darken—to pitch-black, there is the sense that we’re all about to be cast off into something we have little control over, where the behavioral etiquette is unknown. And if, like me, you don’t know Baeyens’ work and what to expect, you can’t prepare for what will happen next.

Someone in the group (who turns out to be one of eight or so performers who lead the audience) begins to sing. If it seems like the singing starts hesitantly, by its sudden and untimely end everyone has joined in with gusto. Perhaps relief is mixed in—we’re just singing, after all, and what can be simpler than that? Yet it’s an unexpected sheer delight to sing, onstage, in the dark, in a big theatre away from prying eyes. Soon, the performers wordlessly invite the audience, using hand gestures, to dance and move their bodies; the band plays jazzy compositions, which follow the tempo set by the performers. Without a story to follow, and having only the audience to watch when you are not taking part in the spontaneous movement, you might think your mind will wander. But it does not; there is nothing more fascinating than watching strangers meet and work together.

Baeyens’ empty seats in the massive auditorium are very still, unseeing, dead. All the liveness is onstage. The blurb about the show highlights the importance of inclusion, and I can’t help thinking that Baeyens’ overall point is that if everyone takes part, there isn’t any need for an audience. Following this thought through: Is a conventional theatre space, with its traditionally separated audience and actor spaces, relevant anymore? It’s an interesting and not altogether banal point, but I wonder how far the idea can go; at what moment does a show need independent witnesses to make it more relevant? Perhaps having no audience only works for a dance piece such as this and not for a classical drama, where independent spectators may be needed to acknowledge and appraise effort.

people waiting outside a home

Audience members waiting outside the site of A Doll's House.

While Baeyens’s Invited gets rid of the audience, Fix and Foxy’s A Doll’s House (ADH), under the direction of Tue Biering, creates layers of them to build an alternative theatre universe in which Ibsen’s masterpiece precariously exists. This is ADH like no other. It confounds and conflates the normally ordered boundaries between the private self and the public self, plays with the unseen psychic relations audience members have with a show (by this I mean their relationship to the playing space defined by set design and by how the actors position themselves), and puts the audience (and here there is a definite audience) in a questionably immoral position.

This is theatre not only playing host to an audience, but where it is the audience.

This ADH, in its citizen participatory setting (someone’s house), sets truth against fiction so that we don’t know which is which—and, even, which comes first. Three professional actors—Cassie Raine, Paul Sebastian Mauch, and Benjamin Samuels—arrive at a German townhouse in the Dresden suburbs. They haul crates of beer between them and there is a festive and merry air around the whole thing. The actors, like the audience, have not been to the house before, nor have they met the real-life couple, non-actors Ulrich and Sandra, who are inside and who will be coaxed into playing Torvald and Nora in front of us. The stage is a real domestic setting and within its walls is the history of Ulrich and Sandra’s relationship.

The audience gathers in the ornamental living room, and Ulrich takes up a posture in front of us, which comes across as defensively nervous. Neither Ulrich nor Sandra knows the story of ADH. The actors, taking on the roles of Dr. Rank, Krogstad and Mrs. Linde, coach, like gurus, the couple through their lines, telling them what to say and sometimes, as the performance goes along, explaining the meaning behind what is said. In theory, and writing about it here, the production sounds exciting, yet might the uniqueness of the conceit—turning a classical play on its head in this way (which Invited was free from)—steal the show and obfuscate the real meanings? At first the answer is yes, as it is pretty hard to forget you are in a stranger’s personal space. But as the action moves from room to room, the lack of good spots to view what’s happening means some of us have to eavesdrop. What could be closer to Ibsen’s desire for ADH to seem as real and as naturalistic as this?

If we in the audience haven’t already had the thought, the moral impropriety of what we are doing —gazing at Ulrich and Sandra’s relationship as if it were under a microscope—is brought home to us then. As with Invited, it is unclear how this provocation—where the audience members are blatant voyeurs peering into the real skeleton-inhabited cupboards of people’s lives—might heighten our understanding of conventional theatre, and indeed, of this classic. What’s really revealing, though, is how Fix and Foxy’s chaotic real-life theatrical space teases out truths about Ulrich and Sandra’s relationship via superficial means: when Ulrich/Torvald leaves the room, Sandra/Nora reveals to us that she is in contact with her ex-boyfriends on Facebook and she is not sure if her husband knows. She laughs it off, but there is real nervousness behind it, which interplays with Nora’s own need for secrets. Personal intimacies are laid bare like the flayed fish Ulrich/Torvald is supposed to be cooking as he prepares supper for Sandra/Nora. When the time comes, Ulrich/Torvald is reluctant to shout at Sandra/Nora. Time and again he falters. He does shout in the end, though, and the inevitable question arises: is this Torvald or Ulrich shouting, or both?

Is there a need for the huge productions of such classics in massive formal spaces where every “t” is crossed and every “i” dotted, where one comes away with virtually nothing?

Sandra/Nora may be directed to leave Ulrich/Torvald at the end of the show, but does Sandra/Nora’s door thud (as opposed to slam, which occurs in most conventional performances) because she can’t fathom leaving Ulrich, or because she has almost left Ulrich, or because it could happen, or because she can’t believe that the fictional Nora was put into this unfair position in the first place? Or was it because there was, unfortunately, a small bag trapped in the door when she closed it behind her? Sandra tells me later that she as Sandra did not want to leave, but felt compelled to follow Nora’s and ADH’s narrative. Yet there was no mistaking that Sandra was upset towards the end of the piece. For whatever reason, the tears behind her eyes seemed real.

Fix and Foxy appear to be shaking up the theatrical space to expose the cracks—including false or heightened emotions, which often morph into melodrama—conventional drama can bring. Most of us love Ibsen, but have we ever really seen a production of ADH where we fully believe in Torvald or Nora, fully feel the emotional car-wrecking journeys the characters go on? (I must stress: not feeling the emotional journeys would be no fault of any production, but more because so much cultural emphasis is put on the importance of the play or the stars in it.) Watching this production, I felt like I really understood ADH for first time because the performances were so understated, Ulrich and Sandra’s hesitancy and embarrassment was real, and the whole thing was unfettered by the cultural aspirations that can weigh down and drown so many conventional productions. It did make me ask: Is there a need for the huge productions of such classics in massive formal spaces where every “t” is crossed and every “i” dotted, where one comes away with virtually nothing?

This version of ADH questions the kind of space the audience needs to see Ibsen’s classic (and any other classical piece) and who the audience needs to see in the show (i.e. professional or non-professional actors) to fully understand its meanings. In terms of Invited, by getting rid of any spatial distance between the performers and spectators, the show challenges whether an audience is needed at all, as well as whether an audience is needed before something can even be called a show. Both productions—though seeming to exist at opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum in terms of style and substance—have more in common than just being participatory. They question not just how something is said or expressed, but also where it is expressed (in a formal space or a personal one?). And the “where” and the “how” leads to the “why” and the “for whom.” These are probably the biggest questions theatre in the twenty-first century not only needs to ask all of the time, but also answer.

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