By Tina Peric*

Erika Fischer-Lichte
Erika Fischer-Lichte

Erika Fischer-Lichte is one of the world’s leading theoreticians in theatre and performance studies. Her examination of fundamental theatrical concepts, such as presence and embodiment, and the introduction of new concepts, such as “autopoietic feedback loop” and “reenchantment of the world,” are valuable, not only for theatre experts, but also for all those interested in the deeper understanding of the complex mechanisms and processes constituting contemporary theatre and performance.

Her vision of performance as a crossing point of a large number of emerging phenomena provides a new pathway in considering its basic notions and, also, puts more emphasis on the strong transformative potential it can exercise on its participants.

I met Prof. Erika Fischer-Lichte in late September 2016, during the 50th jubilee edition of Bitef Festival in Belgrade, Serbia, where she delivered a keynote speech at the opening of the IATC-AICT congress, organised this year as one of the side programs of the Festival. I used this opportunity to discuss with her issues related to theatre reception, contemporary practice, and new tendencies in performance, among others.

Contemporary theatre offers to the spectators the occasion to let themselves go with their sensations and associations, and, as you say, reach a state similar to what Marcel Proust experienced with the madeleine. Still, our urge for understanding often prevails experiencing…

That is the kind of education we have. To experience contemporary art we need to learn how to trust our senses. There is no way to understand the great art work of today just by perceiving it; you have to be open to the whole sensation of it, and, then, afterwards, you try to understand it and make sense for yourself. The worst question one can have is: “What did they want to say?”

I do not care about what they want to say; I care about what they do and what I feel about what they do. I think that, otherwise, you reduce the art work to the message someone wants to give you, and you just have to receive it and understand it.

My idea of what I call “transformative aesthetics” is that, when you let go, only then, you will expose yourself to all these different experiences that a really exciting performance offers. Then, something can happen to you. Not that it will change your life, but it can help you to understand some things better, to change your attitude. It happens slowly, but it transforms you. We have to distinguish this kind of process from this crazy idea that art should make the world a better place; how could it do that? It can’t. It can change the ideas, attitudes, habits of a single, singular person, and, only if there are many of them, then, maybe, something can change. But it is an emergent phenomenon; it is not something you can plan!

Therefore, there is a way of being engaged, even socially and politically, through educating a different kind of perception, not only by promoting certain contents, ideas?

Yes, I deeply believe in phenomenology as one of the starting points. If you do not train perception and the senses, you will never ever get anywhere. When people read a text first—which is not common anymore, at least not in Germany—and expect to see on stage what they thought it was about, and then remain disappointed, I ask myself: what kind of expectations do they have? They got their Schiller and Shakespeare when they read it!

So, you believe that we do not owe any kind of fidelity to the author?

We certainly do not owe truthfulness to the text! Theatre should not interpret the text; it can use it as a material. I agree absolutely with Brecht, who says that theatre has a lot of different kinds of materials, and text is only one of them. One can change the text, if he is able to! Of course, you can’t do it if there is still a copyright on it. But, for example, when Elfriede Jelinek gives her text to the director, she says: I did my job, now you do yours!

Playwright and Nobel winner Elfriede Jelinek
Playwright and Nobel winner Elfriede Jelinek

Performative, bodily acts, which constitute the basis of a new aesthetic, may sometimes become meaningless and difficult to perceive. What kind of attitude you suggest to the spectator encountering this kind of experience?

I believe that on stage nothing is meaningless. It is you who attributes the meaning, and if you are unable, ok, then it is meaningless to you, but, maybe, it is not to someone else. Of course, when you watch the performance, you have some kind of interpretation, a very rudimentary one. When you do performance analysis, you can make sense out of it, but that is only after the end of the performance. The most important thing is that you allow yourself to be affected by what is going on. You have to strain the perception and all your senses: feel, listen, smell, sense, everything is important.

Maybe for this kind of experience a key word is “concentration”?

No, attention, or better, attentiveness. Attention is much more focused, but, sometimes, there are so many things happening, and attentiveness means that you are open to whatever comes to you.

It seems to me that, through the concept of attentiveness, we can draw strong analogies between what you call a “reenchantment of the world” and the oriental concept of Illumination. Could we, through attentiveness, experience some kind of illumination in theatre?

Be careful. I think that Zen Buddhism is striving for a long standing transformation of the subject in one direction, and this is not what theatre does. It can be a very different kind of transformation. Attentiveness, to be honest, is not something that will bring you to illumination.

Mostly, you get certain ideas in the middle of the performance, and, later, if you have to write about it, you follow that strand in your analysis. You can never ever consider everything that a performance offers; there would be too many details, a whole book. We have to be aware that whatever comes out is rather emergent—something that has its own way of creating sense. If you talk about it afterwards with someone, you realize that others often have a completely different perception of the same thing and of the same performance.

Has your comprehension of the phenomenon of presence evolved in the last decade since you proposed three concepts of presence: weak, strong and radical?

I believe that it has become even stronger. In the meantime, I have seen performances from many different countries. Quite different from what Eugenio Barba elaborates, that this state is acquired by certain techniques, I do not think so. I believe that any actor develops his or her own way of being present. Of course, you have to be able to radiate energy into the space. But the way you do that is always different. When I saw Martin Wuttke in Heiner Müller’s Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht/Heiner Müller), I felt that he had an incredible presence and he had no idea of these laws of pre-expressive scenic behaviour.

[Martin Wuttke in Heiner Müller’s Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht/Heiner Müller)
Martin Wuttke in Heiner Müller’s Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht/Heiner Müller)

It is a very different kind of presence from the one that Ryszard Cieślak’s reveals in Constant Prince? There are many different types of radical presence, right? What about Ursina Lardi, the actress starring in Milo Rau’s Compassion: The History of the Machine gun?

Grotowski’s actors had a completely different preparation from the one Martin Wuttke had. But, although all his actors had the same training, Cieślak was one of a kind. Some people have it, it is a gift. Young children, for example, can have it. As for the actor, the training can only help to let it shine through. Ursina Lardi was incredible, she really had it—just the way she stood there hesitating to say a word. . . .

Ursina Lardi in Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun.Photo: Daniel Seiffert
Ursina Lardi in Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun. Photo: Daniel Seiffert

We had something similar at the Bitef’s opening. Bob Wilson just stood there watching the audience for a few minutes…

Yes, he is a very good actor; he has the sense of it. Same as all very good speakers, politicians also. . . . It’s a question of talent, I believe, technical training is not enough.

In Compassion: The History of the machine gun there was a specific use of video: an actress on stage and a huge screen behind her with a real time video of her going on simultaneously. Do you believe that video can be used as a tool to reinforce live presence?

In this performance, it actually did. When she moved, the video sometimes stood still. Anyway, you had a choice to look at her or at the video. I do not understand why people talk so much about technology at the theatre. Western theatre has always used the technology that was available at that time. Greeks had deus ex machina coming out or, in seventeenth century, they used many special effects to create storms, war scenes, etc. Theatre is, of course, a live art, but it is not forbidden to use technology in an intelligent way, and the performance of Compassion is a very good example. This is quite different from forcing that aspect, which never yields good results.

The question is how we create illusion on stage. I will never forget one production of The Tempest where, at the beginning of the performance, you saw a boat on a screen with the waves coming over and the water coming down and it looked as if men would drown. . . . Then, a screen moved a little bit further away and you saw two people with buckets of water pouring it! It was fantastic! It seemed like a real scene at the ocean, but it was not. . . . As if they were saying: see what we can do, we always do something artificial. There are so many things that you can do to enrich the toolkit of the theatre.

Ursina Lardi in Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun.Photo: Daniel Seiffert
Ursina Lardi in Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun. Photo: Daniel Seiffert

In your major book, The Transformative Power of Performance, you define the most common strategies of the aesthetics of the performative. Has something changed since then?

What was not so common in German theatre, but is very common today, is that the borderline between reality and fiction is blurred. You can’t really make that distinction anymore. I can cite as an example Phillipp Ruch’s artistic collective, Center for Political Beauty.

In one of their projects, they said that they dug out some of the refugees who died and were buried unidentified in Italy. So, they brought them to Berlin and organized a funeral. An imam was there, he said a prayer for the dead, and he spoke in German to the present spectators—or whatever you call them, telling them that it is good that those men will now be remembered. How can you be sure that there were really dead people there?

The Berlin-based collective Center for Political Beauty dubbed by the German media as “the most interesting project of German artists since Group 47.”
The Berlin-based collective Center for Political Beauty dubbed by the German media as “the most interesting project of German artists since Group 47”

But was it organised as a performance?

It was organized as a funeral! This is what I mean: how can you be sure what it is? Probably, not even the imam knew for sure, but he believed that it was real, otherwise he would not have done it. I personally doubt that they really dug out those corpses and brought them to Berlin. This is a completely new kind of theatre that we did not have back when I finished the book. It is not a documentary theatre, but a kind of theatre where you can’t really know whether the event is real or fake.

This is just one very pronounced example. But there are also other new forms. Twelve years ago there was not that much of an immersive theatre around. At the Berlin Festival, I saw a Danish group, Signa. In their performance, Ruby Town, they invite you to come to the “stage,” where you have to present your passport; then, there are certain regulations to be followed and you are the actor! For example, you need to go to the policeman to allow you to do this or that.

There are, of course, also the real actors who set the rules and play certain roles, but the question is: is it ok for you to obey those rules? If they put you in jail, what would you do then? This is rather common nowadays, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Phillipp Ruch’s artistic collective Center for Political Beauty
Phillipp Ruch’s artistic collective Center for Political Beauty

Do you find that this kind of performances fit well with your theories?

Yes. My theories are based on an encounter of performers and spectators in whatever space and whichever way it happens, only, at that time, I did not have these examples. If they do not work anymore, I will change them. But, now, I am more into other subjects. I explore the interweaving of performance cultures. It always fascinated me to see what happens when different cultures meet in theatre. In 1988, I was among the first who organized a conference in intercultural theatre. I invited many artists and scholars from Africa, India, China. . . . Eugenio Barba was also there. Only after that conference I started dealing with the idea of performativity, of theatricality. Actually, that experience brought me to the semiotics of theatre. I had to understand the way it works theoretically. I thought that colonialism is not the right approach to deal with it.


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*Tina Perić (MA in Art theory, PhD in performance studies) is active researcher in performance theory and free-lance critic for the Serbian daily newspaper Politika.

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Understanding versus Experiencing: An interview with Erika Fischer-Lichte