IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?
by J. M. Vieira Mendes (Teatro Praga)
Who are they?
Why did these people come here to look at us? And who are they?
The audience is, first of all, a recognizable concept, which stands for people whom we think we can get to know, or whom we think we don't want to know. It is an audience we can describe and that we can also be part of. It is an idea of an audience, an idea that serves the need for a certainty, but is easily contented with the aspiration of that certainty.
But there is also the audience that actually comes to watch the performance. This audience does not fit in a description based on knowledge. These "others" that come to watch "us" demand a different description. We cannot expect to get to know them, or even dream of that possibility. What we do find in this audience is an acknowledgement of ourselves, of our own ideas.
It is the confusion and coexistence between these two identities (the idea of the audience and the audience of the idea) that has mostly intrigued Teatro Praga, and that is what I will be talking about in this short conference. I will thus approach the issue of the audience from the perspective of a theatre collective, from the perspective of the performer and the performance. How can an artist talk and think about her audience?
For that purpose, I will start with a brief description of two of our performances. They were both devised around the problem of the audience's identity. And in that sense, and in the spirit of this colloquium, they are performances, whose creative process was shared with the audience.
Two performances and one question
Conservatory (2008) was commissioned by an international Portuguese Theatre and Dance Festival called Alkantara. The invitation came at a time when Teatro Praga was emerging in Portugal's theatre scene as the theatre company of the new generation, whose work was characterized with scary words such as “fresh”, “new”, “innovative” and “radical”. Following the expectations of the descriptions, we decided to cheat our audience, to cheat those who had seen in us a promise of future and a glimpse of hope for the hopelessness of Portuguese theatre.
In our heads, Conservatory was aiming to disappoint our audience, that is, the audience that came to see us with the expectation of watching what they thought a Teatro Praga show would be like. We wanted to displease them.
We decided to play the following game: If we are placed in the "subversive artists" category, we will subvert the subversion and announce ourselves in this festival as the most conservative theatre company of our generation. We will make a monstrous show, where we will classicize ourselves. We will build a conservatory, where the brand Teatro Praga is preserved and shown in a closed and protected room (a greenhouse) without the danger of contamination. In Conservatory, Teatro Praga was plants for others to see.
A few years later, in 2010, we found ourselves thinking of a show to please the audience. The show was commissioned by Centro Cultural de Belém, a major Portuguese cultural venue, a space that was originally built to house the Portuguese presidency of the European Union. They asked us to make a show based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for their big 1000 seat auditorium. Being a company connoted with a theatre of counter-power, innovation and anti-institutionalism, Teatro Praga could not help being interested in the circumstance that lead to the invitation and the comfortable budget. Were we no longer the off, radical artists, but a collective that could play Shakespeare in a 1000 seat auditorium? Or were we the counter power that the power wants to have on its side?
We set our hands to these questions and imagined ourselves as "the theatre company of the regime". To comply with this concept we decided to work on Henry Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen, which is a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Purcell composed this semi-opera for Charles II, at a time, the end of the 17th century, when shows in England, after the puritan period, were strongly influenced by Louis XIV’s French court theatrical experiences and the Italian stage machinery. The so called Restoration Theatre was all about making spectacular, exuberant and excessive performances that provided entertainment for the court. It was, in short, an art of power, meant to please the monarch and his friends, its contemporary audience.
In the show, Teatro Praga set out to revive those times and deal with a possible updating of Restoration Theatre. Our Midsummer Night's Dream reflected on what would be today’s art of power: Who is the power? Who is the king in the democratic dissemination of responsibilities? Whom do we have to please? This resulted in a show that tried its best to be friendly and fantastic and, above all, pleasing. We wanted to make the audience happy.
When I talk about these shows in public situations, the audience ends up asking me: Well, did you succeed in your goal? Did you (dis)please the audience?
And I always sense that there is something wrong about this question. Not just because the answers that I mumble in such occasions are quite boring, but also because I cannot go any further in my thought neither with the question nor with the possible answers.
Idea of an audience
In the heat of a discussion, a cultural politician once told André Teodósio, a Teatro Praga member, that she programmed activities for the people, not for herself. When André confronted her with what she had just said, she immediately reformulated her assertion, considering herself as part of "the people" and thus avoiding the scent of elitism in her words.
However, the initial honesty of her statement sounds much more interesting and useful to me, since it verbalizes with transparency the idea of an audience. Whether we consider ourselves part of that idea or not is, for the time being, not an important issue. What matters is that we somehow know or want to know this audience, which she called "people", for whom we do things.
In the two shows I have previously described, this idea of an audience was used as a trigger to think of a performance. The audience, in both cases, is obviously a fiction, an entity that serves the purpose of a theatre company (or a theatre venue, a festival, a cultural institution, a colloquium, etc.). The audience is something we make up, just like the cultural politician makes up these "people" for whom she programs.
Even when we say we don't know who this audience is, i.e. even when this idea of an audience is based on ignorance, we are still operating with the idea of knowledge, because it is the possibility of getting to know the audience that stands behind the ignorance. In such cases, we devise the show to overcome the ignorance, or to see what comes out of it. We perform to deal with the so called “irreducible distance” between us an them. Because we know that the audience is made out of emancipated "people" who think (how do we know that?!). The audience has arms and legs and they laugh and they look. And they accept us as "people", who also think and have the arms and the legs and who laugh and perform. We are part of the same world and that is why we can say that we have one thing in common: we have all been an audience member some day.
Teatro Praga's performances try to deal with this unanimity, this consensus and banality based on knowledge or ignorance. We play with it. Expectations, future, words, ethics, books, these elements are all part of knowledge, like pleasing or displeasing an audience is. The idea of an audience is part of our own description. The fictional audience we imagined ourselves for Conservatory was helping us in creating our own fictional identity. To make a show is to describe ourselves, and the "people" is, in that sense, too, an idea of an "I", it is us.
But we cannot take this knowledge too seriously. Not only because one is constantly confronted with the impermanence of the statements (what is new will soon be old and the artistic utterance, the performance, is as transitory as the political utterance), but also because the idea itself is constantly admitting its own impotence. It aims for the absolute and it falls at the hands of evidence.
Audience of the idea
The reason why I find it difficult to answer the question about Teatro Praga’s ability to reach the goal of pleasing or displeasing the audience is because the idea of an audience does not come to watch the show. We cannot answer the question, because we cannot ask them (the people) the question. And this is what makes everything more amusing.
During the performance, the idea of an audience may still be present in the room, but it is completely disseminated in the specific context of the moment. It is now confronted with the bodies of the people who have come to watch it. The people who have sat down in front of the stage are a different audience. And different not in degree, but in kind.
This circumstantial audience is not an audience we can please or displease. It is not an audience we ignore or an audience we know. Not even an audience we will get to know. All we can expect from this audience is, to use a Wittgensteinian word, the acknowledgement ("Anerkennung") of our presence - and vice-versa.
They are the others. We are not part of it, like we can be part of the "people" I was previously talking about. Actually, the only way we may expect to be part of this audience is by seeing ourselves mirrored in their eyes. And the fact that we do see ourselves assures us of their (and our) existence. Because this audience exists. It is there tonight. It is no idea of an audience, it is the audience of the idea.
Teatro Praga works with both audiences, because they are both part of our world. But the only thing we expect from the audience is to hear them answer one single question: Is there anybody out there?
And if there's a Yes from the crowd, that means that I am here (which is a relief.) And that we have reached our goal. We have proved our existence, our idea was acknowledged.
While recently watching Visconti's Senso, I ran into a dialogue between the Countess Livia Serpieri and the Austrian Lieutenant, on their first night of flirtation, that illustrates what I am trying to describe. Let us, for the sake of the argument, imagine the audience as an Italian countess and Teatro Praga as an Austrian Lieutenant.
Teatro Praga has just found a broken piece of mirror on the pavement. We take it in our hands and we look at ourselves. And the audience asks, feeling itself ignored or intrigued: "Why do you look at yourself in that way? Do you enjoy watching yourself that much?"
Teatro Praga: Yes I do. I never walk in front of a mirror without looking at myself.
Audience: And why do you like it so much?
Teatro Praga: To be sure that it's… me
Audience: It's the only time you are sure to be yourself?
Teatro Praga: No. Also, when I see someone looking at me the way you are doing right now.