Franchised/Recycled Performance as a Theatre of Ecology
There could be different manifestations of a “theatre of ecology”: from new versions of a so-called poor theatre with the use of reduced and/or recycled materials, including set design, props and costumes, to the concept of an eco-dramaturgy with stories that are not centred only on human destinies. Although I will refer to these features as well, the focus of this article is different. As the practice of long-distance travelling, by plane in particular, is seen as one of the biggest environmental threats, a debate on the ecological sustainability of theatre touring is open. One of the proposals is the practice of what I call “franchised” or “recycled performances.” These are the shows that don’t go on tour in their original version, which means with their primary cast and original material equipment. They are recycled on each new spot by the local crew, not necessarily performers, and with local stage material such as sets, costumes and props. This concept of recycling is based on an all-encompassing stage text which includes all artistic, technical and production features of the show. In this article, I discuss two performances of this kind, A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, a part of the Sustainable Theatre? project, and Conference of the Absent.
Keywords: Franchised performance, recycling, theatre of ecology, stage text, sustainable
The call for papers for the international theatre conference Recycling in the Performing Arts: From Creativity to Commerce opens with the thesis that “the metaphor of recycling, however, may be applied to the performing arts in multiple contexts.” On the one hand, recycling may be seen, from a theoretical perspective, as an essential aesthetic quality of theatre, as each theatre piece recycles itself from one of its presentations/performances to another. Specialists of contemporary theatre and performance studies argue that there are never two identical performances of a theatrical work, or more theoretically articulated, that a theatrical work does not exist at all, only a theatre event. On the other hand, and seen from a historical perspective, there is an inherent recycling of narratives, motives, themes and genres in the development of Western drama and theatre. In particular, it has been noted that “Classical Greek tragedies recycled the myths of their culture. The Romans later recycled both Greek tragedies and comedies. Works of the Italian Renaissance and French classicism followed this trajectory. Even William Shakespeare was a master of recycling different materials: histories of England, the medieval legends, Greek myths, etc.”
In the further elaboration of the conference topic, three main paradigms of recycling in contemporary performing arts were developed. The first paradigm is the artistic one, and it refers, first of all, to the heritage of post-modern directing from the 1970s and 1980s and its use of collage, montage, intertextual connections, intercultural references and pop-culture quotations, but also to the contemporary playwriting practices of rewriting of classical stories.
The second paradigm refers to the concept of cultural industry in the performing arts. It means, on the one hand, a reuse of adaptations of well-known books, transcripts of popular films, biographies of famous persons in order to achieve commercial effect and, on the other hand, the market-based demands of international festivals; for example, so-called big names, globalized topics and theatre aesthetics. The third aspect of recycling in theatre has the most generic connotation. It can be identified with theatrical experiments that are environmentally conscious and for whom one of the goals is the reduction of the carbon footprint.
In this article, I address the third paradigm, which was defined in the call for papers as a “theatre of ecology.” There could be different manifestations of theatre of ecology: from new versions of a poor theatre with the use of reduced and/or recycled materials—such as set design, props, costumes and others—to the concept of an eco-dramaturgy with stories that are not centred only on human destinies. Although I will refer to both reduced technical equipment of performance and to eco-dramaturgy, the focus of this article is different.
As the practice of intensive long-distance traveling, by plane in particular, is seen as one of the biggest generators of harmful emissions and thus as an environmental threat, a debate on ecological sustainability of theatre touring is open. Although nobody argues against touring, the question of how to make it ecologically sustainable has been raised. One of the proposals is the concept of what I call “franchised” or “recycled” performances. These are the shows that don’t go on tour in their original version, which means with their primary cast and original material equipment. They are recycled on each new spot—those to which the shows travel to—by the local crew, not necessarily actors/performers, and with local stage material such as sets, costumes, and props. In this article, I discuss two performances of this kind, A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, as a part of the Sustainable Theatre? Project, and Conference of the Absent.
When I first became interested in the project Sustainable Theatre? by Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, whose authors are English theatre director Katie Mitchell and French choreographer Jérôme Bel, I was not in the position to analyse it. At that time, in the spring of 2021, it still didn’t exist, since Mitchell’s piece premiered only in September; in the meantime, she and Bel decided to create two separate projects. But the initial, already well thought out ideas which Mitchell had at that time, and which she publicly shared through an online interview on the website of Vidy-Lausanne, were enough for one to make a sketch of the future work. This part of my article is thus based on Mitchell’s conceptual starting points and the analysis of the result she has achieved.
The main premise of the project’s sustainability is that it excludes any type of travel. The authors neither travel during the period of the initial preparations, nor do they move to and attend the rehearsals. Adopting the approach that Jérôme Bel has utilized since 2007, whenever he worked in places to which he would have to travel by plane, the two of them planned to remain in their cities but to hold online rehearsals with performers in Lausanne. The reasons for this approach are not the difficulties caused by the quarantine, self-isolation and other anti-pandemic measures, but the above-mentioned pollution caused by air traffic. Therefore, what linked Katie Mitchell and Jérôme Bel primarily was their ecological consciousness, the fact that both of them refuse to travel by planes for the same reason.
This restriction relates not only to the preparation of the pieces but also to the performance itself: the play will not be performed outside of the theatre where it is produced. The restriction, however, is not applied consistently across the board: Swiss performers, technical and production staff will not travel, nor will the stage design and other physical elements be transported, but the performance itself will still be performed outside of Lausanne. Partners from other towns who want to present this performance will work with local performers and a local director, who will be free to introduce some local innovations, all based on a detailed script provided by Théâtre Vidy.
An important, if not the crucial aesthetic parameter, is that this script is not only a classic spoken text (let’s call it a play), but it also includes stage directions, such as choreography, for example, and technical requirements. The main technical requirement belongs to the concept of ecological sustainability as well, since it implies a reduced use of electricity. In other words, performances played out of Théâtre Vidy will never represent new staging of the same dramatic text, but rather a re-enactment of the same, detailed stage text. That is why I refer to this type of work on a performance as a “franchise” and, in the context of this conference, it could also be called a recycled piece. Although both franchise and recycled products may be viewed unfavorably elsewhere, neither of these two terms has a negative connotation in the context in which I use them.
One of the reasons for the lack of negative connotation lies in the fact that this project does not represent an actual franchise, since, as already mentioned, local artists are not only allowed but also encouraged to include local innovations related to the topic of the performance. In addition to artists, other parties such as scientists in various disciplines related to ecological studies as well as environmental activists can also contribute to the local character, as is the case with the original concept. Faced with objections that insisting on local character could jeopardize international theatre cooperation and lead to limitations within narrow social and cultural boundaries, Mitchell vehemently rejected them. She claimed that, on the contrary, the project was avant-garde in terms of shaping new forms of establishing international cooperation.
And what was planned to be the concrete topic? In the spring, judging from the interview on the website of Théâtre Vidy, the topic was supposed to correspond to the described form of production: it was planned to focus on ecology and to tackle the issues of global climate changes, air pollution and other concerns. The third important aspect, the theatrical form, was also supposed to be in line with the approach: to be suitable for the concept of an ecologically self-aware theatre. However, this third aspect, theatrical form, was a challenge from the very beginning. As stated by Mitchell, the most appropriate theatrical mode would be a text on how climate changes influence humans. But this mode is anthropocentric, which is inconsistent with our support for the renewal of ecological balance. Thus, the director opted for eco-dramaturgy, stories that are not focused on human destinies.
So, which particular story or what kind of story did Katie Mitchell finally choose? The verbal component of an all-encompassing stage text for her project was a monologue entitled A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, written by Miranda Rose Hall. Although it features a monologue of a human being performed onstage by a human being, this text is somewhat successful in transcending anthropocentrism and thus reaches the level of eco-dramaturgy.
First of all, the content of the text is a direct criticism of anthropocentrism, of the major role that our species, Homo sapiens, has in the actual, sixth mass extinction in the history of the Earth, as Rose Hall has termed this process. The central topic of the play is precisely the history of mass extinction on Earth; that is to say, those processes in which entire species of animals and/or plants disappeared. The crucial difference is that all previous mass extinctions in the history of the Earth were caused by geological forces. Only the sixth one, which has lasted for a significantly shorter period of time, having started 200 years ago, was caused by one of the animal species, Homo sapiens. It was stressed in the text that during this short period of time, which is a single second in the history of Earth, some 300,000 species have become extinct.
A particularly touching moment is depicted in the scene in which the performer lists the names of all the species that have disappeared completely from the time when she, a thirty-year-old woman, was born, and spectators see examples of all the named species on a screen behind her. To make a long story short, the play by Rose Hall is a very powerful, socially engaged, emotional and poetic combination of the history of Earth with a focus on the mass extinction of species, on the one hand, and personal reminiscences from various speakers of their relationships to nature, on the other. These personal memories and attitudes are basically those of the author/performer but, in some scenes, include the spectators as well, as they are occasionally invited to take part in the show.
Although humans as a species are largely responsible for the actual mass extinction on Earth, Rose Hall draws a politically very important distinction. She stresses that not all races, genders and classes have the same responsibility; much greater is the responsibility of those who belong to privileged groups, such as wealthy, Caucasian and male. This is how the perspectives of eco-feminism, post-colonialism and similar discourses were introduced in the play and thus the anthropocentric position deconstructed. These discourses explain why the performer is a young woman of African origin, and, apart from the choir that appears at the end of the play and the technicians/sound artists who remain onstage throughout the play, she is the only person in the performance. One can argue whether or not the perspective of a non-male and non-white performer is appropriately viewed as non-anthropocentric; this dilemma, however, is the topic of a different theoretical debate.
The fact that the performer is a Black woman shifts our focus from the verbal to the stage text, to the all-encompassing script with all the necessary instructions regarding the artistic and production demands of the project, the script which will be the basis for any future recycling of Mitchell’s staging in other theatres. One of the instructions is that the piece should be performed by a “female-identifying performer of colour and/or of an ethnic minority that is relevant to your demographic” (A Play for the Living; documentation of Bitef festival). As is the case with other elements of the project, in this particular instance Mitchell also gives the local director the freedom to change these requirements. The only obligatory condition is for the performer to come from, within the particular social and cultural context, an “underrepresented community” (A Play for the Living; documentation of Bitef festival).
The script or the stage text of Mitchell’s staging of A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction also stresses other elements crucial to her concept. Mitchell remained consistent to the technical requirements she introduced in an interview held in the spring; first of all, to those that imply a reduced use of electricity. Here is the precise instruction: “The average wattage for the show must not exceed 150 watts. To generate the electricity, you can use bicycles, as we did in Vidy, or design your own system if you want/have the means to do so” (A Play for the Living; documentation of Bitef festival).
In Vidy’s production of the script, this technical requirement becomes, at the same time, one of its main artistic features. Two bicycles, specially designed to produce electricity, are not hidden from the stage; quite the opposite, they are almost the only set design in the performance; apart from these, there are only a few concert stands for the performer and musicians/sound artists. Having in mind that the function of the bicycles is not an aesthetic but a technical one, to produce electricity for the show, one can easily conclude that somebody has to ride them live, onstage. That is exactly what turned out to be the case, and this riding is almost the only physical action in the performance. It is one of its rare elements that goes beyond the mise-en-scène of a lecture performance or even a simple stage reading of a play.
Cycling as a means of producing stage light could be seen as a self-referential feature in the context of Mitchell’s oeuvre. In many of her performances, the sound and other stage effects are produced onstage, and these technical processes are visible to the audience. The same aesthetic feature can be attributed to the music and sound in this performance as they are also produced live, onstage, by four artists. But besides artistic self-citation, the physical action of cycling can gain another, metaphorical quality. Spectators encounter other humans who literally spend their physical energy for an hour and a half with an aim to produce electricity for a common artistic and social experience. They thus provide both an ethical and conceptual justification to the performance which tries to establish ecological sustainability in performing arts.
One of the latest projects by the renowned German collective of directors Rimini Protokoll, Conference of the Absent, is also a great example of franchised performance. As was the case with the Sustainable Theatre? in this instance, as the authors stress it, the concept is not related to air traffic restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic but results from the eco-consciousness which made this means of transport undesirable. There are no performers to travel but neither is there a set design to be transported. In the all-encompassing script of the mise-en-scène, the desired look of the set design is described in the details, but it is stressed that it should be found on the spot, in the venue in which the show is performed; that it should be recycled from some old shows. In other words, there are no humans or materials that go on tour, just this detailed script sent by a single movement of a finger.
An all-inclusive script/stage text is the very heart of Conference of the Absent, as in the case of A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, and in all other franchised performances. In the project of Rimini Protokoll the script consists of two main texts, a verbal text that somebody has to utter onstage and a stage text with all instructions regarding set design, actions of performers, light and sound design, time frames and other stage elements. It is clear from the second text, the stage instructions that should be pre-recorded on the spot in a local language by a local performer, that the first, verbal text in Conference of the Absent is also divided into two. There are texts that should be read and those that should be listened to through headphones and then loudly repeated.
All the verbal texts in this performance, and here we come to its basic idea, are papers that were supposed to be presented at an academic conference. A problem occurred when it turned out that, as a result of their eco-consciousness, none of the participants actually attended the conference. This absurd fact is, of course, a fictional one. It is a precondition for the basic idea of the performance: the absent experts will be represented by the spectators. They are animated by the host of the show—that is, the pre-recorded voice—which invites them onto the stage and gives them instructions on how to present the papers.
Not all the characters are real scientists; some of them are so-called experts of the everyday. This is a term coined long time ago by Rimini Protokoll for the amateurs who are “agents,” both characters and performers, in their documentary performances. In Conference of the Absent, they are common people who have had different experiences with the topic of the conference, and who are “represented” in the show by spectators. And the topics of the conference are appropriate, even deeply interwoven with this particular performative disposition, which is a replacement of actors by spectators. These are the notions of presence and, related to it, representation.
A ninety-year-old Israeli citizen tells his life story: He survived World War II only because, in a moment of the greatest threat to his life, he took on the identity of a German boy and continued “representing” him. As he reveals, “During the day I was Jup./ Sally at night./ During the day, I was determined and convinced./ Desperate at night and I prayed/ not to speak in dream” (Conference of the Absent; documentation of Bitef festival).
A doctor from Charité University Clinic in Berlin shares his experience and knowledge about phantom pain, a pain that comes from a body part that is no longer there. In other words, the pain represents the part of the body that is not present anymore.
A female refugee from East Africa testifies that she doesn’t feel like she has been really present while waiting on a Greek shore to get papers and enter Europe. She is just a name on a list, and her previous, normal life is now represented only by photos and pieces of old clothes. In her words:
I am absent/ because I am only surviving instead of living./ You can be absent even in the place where you are present./ If you are not in the right place./ And if you just wait./ Application in December./ Answer in October/ Documents?/ Maybe next year./ I’ve been waiting for years./ To prove my existence.Conference of the Absent; documentation of Bitef festival
There are more stories in the script, either experts’ presentations or personal testimonies that deal with the notions of presence and representation. But it is very significant that none of them, at least not directly, refers to theatre and performing arts in general. Only in the story of the African refugee is there a short part dedicated to her theatre souvenirs and her strong belief in the transformative power of performance, to paraphrase the title in English of a seminal study on theatre aesthetics by Erika Fischer-Lichte (Transformative Power) As it is well known, presence and representation are among the crucial concepts in discussions of theatre and performing arts in general. That is why this particular absence, one of their theatrical connotations, in a theatre piece that is dedicated precisely to the notions of presence and representation, is striking and significant.
Stage presence is seen as one of the basic qualities of any performance, regardless of the genre, cultural tradition and historical period from which it comes; this is the quality that makes humans on stage live in theatrical terms. One can here refer to Eugenio Barba’s notion of pre-expressivity (Barba and Savareze) as a quality of the stage presence that goes beyond all historically, culturally and personally fashioned performing techniques. On the other hand, the notion of representation which refers to the idea of being instead, representing some reality from the outside world, drives us back to the very essence of the Western theatre culture, to the Aristotelian notion of mimesis. These two notions can also be seen as the main differentia specifica that distinguishes traditional mimetic theatre from performance art, happenings and similar forms of contemporary performing arts.
To put it as simply as possible, in mimetic theatre actors refer to human and other realities outside of the stage, while in performance art, happenings and so on, performers do not represent; they simply are. Their behavior does not refer to the external realities but is predominantly self-referential.
But although presence and representation could be seen as two completely different paradigms in performing arts, main features of two different theatrical traditions, Erika Fischer-Lichte puts them in a broader perspective in which they are not radically dissociated. She discusses two orders of perception in performing arts which are always working simultaneously; that is, order of presence and order of representation (Fischer-Lichte, Theatre and Performance Studies 38–41). Although some theatre traditions, genres and forms do aim for the perceptual order of representation, Western drama theatre, for example, and others aim for the perceptual order of presence, performance art, for example, Fischer-Lichte argues that these two approaches can been mixed and interchanged in a concrete, personal experience of a performance. From a concrete element of a particular performance, makeup that melts off under the stage light, for example, one can spontaneously switch from the level of representation to that of presence. She starts, then, deconstructing a representation of the pallor of a dramatic character, but instead ends up perceiving the presence of white makeup on the actor’s face. On the other hand, from her inherited theatrical culture one can always see a sign of some external reality in the body of a performer, even if this body was conceptually conceived as self-referential. Given these theoretical considerations, it really is strange that the notions of absence, presence and representation were not addressed in their theatrical meaning in a theatrical work in which they are the main topics.
But this is only a first impression. The very idea that the missing scholars or so-called experts of the everyday should be represented by the spectators is a very subtle meta-commentary about the importance of these concepts in theatre. It is a kind of very witty, subtle and intelligent acknowledgement that bodily co-presence and exchange between performers and spectators (in Conference of Absent we have only two groups of spectators), what Fischer-Lichte calls the autopoietic feedback loop, is the main aesthetic presumption of any performance; indeed, this is its very essence.
 Call for papers for the conference Recycling in the Performing Arts: From Creativity to Commerce.
 I use the term “stage text” in the sense of a global staging score which involves all languages of the theatre: spoken language, space, sounds, actors’ tasks, rhythm and lighting. As Richard Schechner (Ričard Šekner) put it, “The stage text is the score, the total mise-en-scene, and everything that precedes a performance in order to enable the creation of the score. Significance in the creation of performance text lies in the system of relationships: conflicts, or to put it in a different way, relationships between words, gestures, actors, space, spectators, music, light—everything that happens on stage” (97).
A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction. By Miranda Rose Hall, Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, 2021, Bitef Festival, Belgrade.
Barba, Euđenio, and Nikola Savareze. Tajna umetnost glumca: rečnik pozorišne antropologije. FDU, 1996.
Conference of the Absent. Directed by Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, and Daniel Wetzel, Rimini Protokoll, 2021, Bitef Festival, Belgrade.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika. The Routledge Introduction to Theatre and Performance Studies. Routledge, 2014.
—. The Transformative Power of Performance. Routledge, 2008.
Mitchell, Katie. Public Zoom meeting, vidy.ch/sustainable-theatre.
Šekner, Ričard. Ka postmodernom pozorištu. FDU, 1992.
*Ivan Medenica (Belgrade, Serbia), works at the FDA as Professor, teaching The History of World Drama and Theatre. He is an active theatre critic and has received six times the national award for the best theatre criticism. He was the artistic director of Sterijino Pozorje in Novi Sad, the leading national theatre festival in Serbia (2003–07), to which he brought some important structural changes, especially in the domain of internationalization. From 2001 to 2012, Medenica was one of the main editors of the prestigious journal Teatron. He is a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics’ Executive Committee and the Director of its international conferences. He is also member of the editorial board of Critical Stages, the web journal of the Association, and as of October 2015, the artistic director of Bitef Festival (Belgrade).
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