Next Page on Stage: 21st Century Dramaturgies

Maria Ristani*

Abstract

This is a short thinking response to the 5th International Forest Festival organized by the National Theatre of Northern Greece (NTNG) in Thessaloniki (Greece), in late spring 2023. It attempts to echo back on and wire together important questions set by this three-week theatre feast on forms, tropes and modes of contemporary and future theatre stage.

Keywords: NTNG International Forest Festival, 21st century theatre, new stages  

The future stage is now. There can be no post-pandemic return to the old “normal,” which was already broken; the time for courage, vision, and action is now.

from the futureStage Manifesto by metaLAB at Harvard

Festivals – as the word (with origins in the Latin festum) denotes – mark feast breaks in and away from social time. They offer opportunities to gather, and in gathering, to celebrate. Since their ritual beginnings in ancient Greece (and before), they’ve signaled periodical pauses in “normal” routine flow, suspending time alongside rules. Erika Fischer-Lichte writes on what she reads as the “double dialectic” fleshing festivals: though recurrent, she observes, “they forge their own temporality,” and, though regulated and framed in rigid set-up, “the quintessence of a festive action [still] consists in the transgression of certain rules” (235). Patterned in temporal repetition but framed in event singularity, festivals flesh and celebrate fissures in the flow of the ordinary, allowing pauses for shared observation, reflection, and celebration.  

Such was the theatre feast offered by the 5th International Forest Festival in Thessaloniki, organized by the National Theatre of Northern Greece and spanning a period of three weeks, from late spring to early summer 2023 (26 May – 15 June). Marking its fifth year of life, the festival offered a carefully-orchestrated pause to gather, in shared enthusiasm and curiosity, and celebrate theatre event-ness. Fleshing that unique festival temporality – within and despite day-to-day routine – it allowed delving into the present tense of theatre making, and, following the transgressive potential inherent in feasts, it made us return to the pressing question of what is / can be / will be theatre. Such question fleshed, as it were, the festival’s refrain. The very title chosen for the event (“Next Page on Stage”) echoed this same query as an invite to imagine and explore “next-ness” – the pregnant moment of page-turning for the future stage. How will/do emerging theatre pages and stages look like? How will/do they connect and where will/do they materialize?   

5th International Forest Festival, official trailer, 2023

Promising glimpses into a “next page on stage,” the festival hosted a good range of twenty-first-century performances alongside a series of onsite and online discussions, workshops and parallel activities (such as the online screening of Lukáš Brutovský’s Iokasté, the performance One Three Some, An Attempt for Devising A Democratic Assembly by Danae Theodoridou, or the collaborative artistic project Orlando Trip). Sotterraneo’s L’Angelo della Storia (Italy), Kim Noble’s Lullaby for Scavengers (Great Britain), Be Arielle F by Simon Senn (Switzerland), We are Still Watching by Ivana Müller (France) and Borderline Visible (between Lausanne and Izmir) by Ant Hampton (Great Britain/Germany), all fleshed the main program on stage in what looked as an enticingly polyphonic dialogue between different (European) performance strands.

All performances offered their singular take on what might form a “next page on stage,” connected, nonetheless, through their shared laboratory approach, forming what theatre critic Jill Dolan would describe as cases when “[t]heatre might become more of a workplace than a showplace” (10). Their laboratory stages, we read in the information note regarding the festival’s character and scope, were “small and flexible in form, but contain[ing] big ideas.” These were all “contemporary, restless, refreshing and interactive” productions, designing, developing, testing and showing an emerging  21st century theatre landscape in the making.   

Faithful to its promise, the festival showcased notable excerpts from the present page on stage and piercing glimpses into its future folds and turns. To begin with, as well-expected in the years of the post-dramatic rule, this “next page” that the festival featured looked little like a typically-scripted drama page. The pieces staged featured no conventional dramaturgy and were clearly removed from the working logics of traditional play-texts; they were based, instead, on collaboratively devised scripts of historical anecdotes (as in the case of L’Angelo della Storia), on inspiring literary-source texts (as with Orlando Trip), or on personal testimonies and private memoirs (as with Lullaby for Scavengers, Be Arielle F and Borderline Visible).

Similarly, the stage forms hosting such pages looked little like what may have been expected; in place of traditional performance models, the festival showcased more compact, agile and flexible, “smart-theatre” forms, such as those of performance acts and lectures (Be Arielle F), collective and collaborative text readings (We are Still Watching), or private digital listening experiences (Borderline Visible). New stages were thus discovered emerging in and through text pages, headphone listening bubbles, or lecture-talk forms. Even the actual theatre stage, as such, looked transformed; in Ivana Müller’s We are Still Watching, we experience the stage as a participatory playground of distributed logics, while in Be Arielle F we see the proscenium NTNG stage transforming into a digital streaming laboratory or growing entangled with other contemporary life stages such as that of a messenger video call.

Simon Senn’s Be Arielle F. Photo: Courtesy of the NTNG

On such “stages,” typical hierarchies and role allocations or divisions made little sense. What almost all festive pieces indexed was a new kind of de-hierarchized, horizontal performance-from-below that no longer fed from the age-old performer-audience binary, blurring the two, instead, in cross-fed encounters. A case in point was certainly Ivana Müller’s We are Still Watching, which invited audiences to gather round for what looked like a “reading rehearsal.”

Ivana Müller’s We are Still Watching. Photo: Courtesy of the NTNG

Gathering round, as asked, spectators formed a circle referring back to and celebrating itself. The piece nourished on the notable absence of typical center-stage performers, their role initially usurped by a text-score inviting spectators to (collectively) read from, and soon growing and multiplying, as it spread across audience members who took turns in voicing/acting out the piece. Though “we are still watching,” we are also now writing, playing and (to some extent) directing/shaping the flow of the piece. Such re-allocation of established roles inevitably affects stage temporalities; with audience members becoming themselves agents of action, the event also becomes further steeped in the present moment. As British playwright and performer Tim Crouch visualizes for 21st century theatre, “[i]t grows more alert to the moment rather than alert to a process that has been carefully considered and developed and rehearsed” (qtd. in LePage 18). Yielding in and capturing the precarious (but delicious) unpredictability of “the moment” was default mode for almost all festival performances. 

Speaking of “the moment,” present-ness was, overall, what 5th International Forest Festival performances celebrated. In notable urgency, all performances interrogated, staged, (re)presented the moment, capturing twenty-first-century world tensions, dilemmas, questions and themes. The all-relevant debate on the Anthropocene crisis and its destructive human reign banged loud in Kim Noble’s Lullaby for Scavengers as he set in dark, grotesque humor to tell us of what is insistently cleansed, cleaned up and cleaned away in a human-centered world. Our increasingly mediated lives, prosthetic bodies and worlds, in their dialectic of excitement and dread, and with all their bio-ethical dilemmas still pending unresolved, bled into Simon Senn’s staging of Be Arielle F. The idea of History as structured and fleshed in interweaving layers of micro- and macro-stories, in interlocking strands of memory and amnesia, in public and private narratives, as well as in echoes, doublings and repetitions formed a common theme ground for both Ant Hampton’s Borderline Visible and Sotterraneo’s L’Angelo della Storia. All performances drew from what matters now, harboring pauses to reflect on (and celebrate) the world as is in the present moment.

Kim Noble’s Lullaby for Scavengers. Photo: Courtesy of the NTNG
Afterword

In the aftermath of this theatre- and world now-ness feast, offered by the 5th International Forest Festival, what was explored as “next page on stage” looks all the more minimally sketched. Seen in retrospect, what the festival, ultimately, seems to have indexed and celebrated across its events, is theatre letting go; relinquishing authorial or directorial control (L’Angelo della Storia), letting go of central performers’ presence (We are Still Watching), loosening its ties to traditional ideas of liveness (Be Arielle F), abandoning bulky stage forms (Borderline Visible). Theatre growing and going lighter, embracing the new “live”, the agile, the playful, the unpredictable. Thankful for this feast on letting go, hosted by the Fifth International Forest Festival, we, as audiences, don’t let go but remain fascinated to see how the page will indeed turn to make sense of and host our page-turning world.  


Bibliography

Dolan, Jill. “Gender Impersonation Onstage: Destroying or Maintaining the Mirror of Gender Roles?” Gender in Performance: The Presentation of Difference in the Performing Arts, edited by Laurence Senelick. The UP of New England, pp. 3-13.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. “Policies of Spatial Appropriation.” Performance and the Politics of Space, edited by Erika Fischer-Lichte, Michael Breslin and Saskya Iris Jain. Routledge 2012, pp 219-39.

LePage, Louse. “Tim Crouch and Dan Rebellato in Conversation.” Journal of Theatre and Performing Arts, “Representing the Human,” vol.6, no.2, Summer 2012, pp. 13-27. 


*Dr. Maria Ristani teaches British and Anglophone drama and performance theory at the School of English at Aristotle University, Greece. She has an active research and teaching interest in twentieth- and twenty-first-century theatre and performance strands, with particular emphasis on the ways modern Anglophone theatre draws on and interacts with sound art and acoustics in fields such as audio-based theatre, podcast drama and sound walk performances.

Copyright © 2023 Maria Ristani
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

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