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A video game-like performance takes young people to a post-apocalyptic world (an interview)

by Gintarė Vasiliauskaitė “Kauno diena “journalist

“As a child, I always dreamt of entering that other universe created on the theatre stage. That’s why today I’m giving my young audience the opportunity to enter a fantastic reality,” says Norwegian theatre director Hilde Brinchmann. The National Kaunas Drama Theatre (NKDT) will host the premiere of a unique performance directed by her. The international project “Tower of Babel. Planet Earth/Game Over/Reset” will resemble an interactive video game rather than our usual theatre.

A different kind of interactivity

When we hear the phrase “interactive theatre”, we usually think of a play where actors invite several audience members on stage to perform together. But the project for young people, directed by Brinchmann, is quite different. There is no traditional stage or audience chairs. Young people from 13 years old will literally enter another reality and experience a different planet Earth. In the revived NKDT Parketinė Hall, the creative team has built a huge cube covered with a black cloth. It is divided into several different spaces where the action of the performance will take place. According to the director, the performance will take the audience to a post-apocalyptic world that has suffered an ecological catastrophe. Only a few small tribes of people have survived, scattered all over the planet, with their language and customs.

The audience will be divided into four groups – tribes – in different scenarios of ecological disasters. One group will see an Earth devastated by a nuclear catastrophe, while others will be confronted with massive ocean pollution, a severe drought or a mass disaster caused by an oil spill. The young people will assign themselves to a tribe by choosing special pins with symbols at the show’s beginning. Upon entering the performance space, the audience will be greeted by other members of the tribe – the actors, with whom the audience will embark on a theatrical journey full of adventure. The young audience will not only follow the action but also become participants and creators themselves. In the course of the performance, the different tribes will eventually meet. What then will happen? Will they all be able to cooperate and work together? Is it even possible to stop fighting and work together to build a better future for the planet?

As the performance is highly interactive, only 32 young people will be able to participate per session. The audience will be divided into eight tribes to form four tribes. According to the director, this is the optimum number of participants to ensure that all of them get the most out of the performance. The play is set in a post-apocalyptic world, so the creative team recommends it for young people aged 13 and older. “The main age group we work with is 13-16-year-olds. Of course, older audiences can also come to the play. However, we want to avoid the situation where one teenager is in a group of several adults. Anyway, this is a space for teenagers, so they should feel safe and among their peers,” the director notes.

Actress Anna Boznanszky (Káva Kulturális Műhely, Vengrija) and director H. Brinchmann  

Inspired by biblical myth

The performance, which will premiere in Kaunas on 19 August, is part of the international interactive theatre network “Participate in Your Life” (PIYL). The project is a joint project of theatres from four European countries: Norway, Hungary, Iceland and Lithuania. The network was founded in 2018, so the performance has been in the making for four years. “When I was invited to take part in the project, I thought it would be very challenging. After all, all four theatres speak different languages and have completely different working methods! So I found it very challenging to create a joint performance. The situation was reminiscent of the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel: people who spoke the same language back in the day thought of building a tower all the way up to the sky. But an angry God punished them and mixed up the languages. When they couldn’t communicate, not only did they fail, but they became angry and warlike,” said Brinchmann. “I thought: why don’t we try to put the myth of the Tower of Babel in a different light, and create a play about issues that are relevant today?”

One of the PIYL Network’s guiding principles is to bring theatre closer to audiences and to encourage them to take an active part in solving societal problems. Therefore, the creative team has chosen the play’s main theme to be the current growing ecological threats and the fragmentation of society. All four scenarios of the play show what the worst could happen if we continue to ignore climate change. “The play asks the question: can humanity unite for a common purpose and tackle global challenges together? Or are we simply doomed to fight and disagree all the time? I think this question is vital in the current global war mood,” says the director. – We wanted to reflect on issues that young people care about and are relevant to them. Young people today are very concerned about global warming because they are the ones who will have to deal with its consequences in the future. So the play became a kind of incentive to act and to start important discussions. It’s also a space for young people to talk about their anxiety about the planet and their future.”

For Mrs Brinchmann, it is essential that young people feel safe during the performance she is directing. The audience is often forced to get involved in the action in interactive performances. For example, an actor chooses one person from the audience and asks him to come up on stage. This behaviour discourages some of the audience from engaging in theatre. For this reason, the director uses quite different methods. In Brinchmann’s productions, the audience is surrounded by a 360-degree new reality, but the actors are in control of the action. The audience can empathise with the role offered to them but at the same time feel completely safe and not forced to do what they don’t want to. She believes that this approach is the best way to encourage young people to fall in love with theatre.

Snædis Lilja Ingadóttir, Sigurður Arent (Bird & Bat, Islandia)

Focus on young people

Brinchmann, who has received awards for her productions for children and young people, is convinced that when creating theatre for young people, one has to think differently than when working with an adult audience. “We have to take into account young people’s interests and worldviews and talk about topics that are relevant and interesting to them. Then, the theatre will become an experience that will be ingrained in young people’s memories,” she says. “I believe that a childhood experience of quality theatre can even change a person’s life completely. When you are young, you don’t yet have the experience and tools to understand what is happening to you. So it is theatre that can give you answers to your questions and help you understand your feelings and emotions better.”

Brinchmann currently stays in Kaunas and works exclusively with interactive theatre for children and young people. After studying in Stockholm, 12 years ago, she founded Tigerstadsteatret – “Tiger City” theatre in Oslo with like-minded people. The company specialises in working with young people and presenting performances in various venues around Oslo. “We wanted to bring theatre to children who, for some reason, cannot attend. So we travel around the country in a ‘Tigerbus’ – a special trailer that can be converted into a mobile stage. We perform in schoolyards and wherever we are welcomed and invited,” says the director.

She says she fell in love with theatre as a child. But watching a play, the future director did not like just sitting still in her chair. She was always tempted to climb up on stage and enter the magical world that was being created there. “I didn’t want to be on stage because I wanted to be an actress. It was just a dream to inhabit that theatrical universe, if only for a little while. I have always been fascinated by stories about other dimensions and worlds that can be accessed through a secret entrance. As a child, I used to read the book ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, a story about a magical land that could be entered through a wardrobe. Alice in Wonderland also sparked my imagination, as did the mysterious rabbit warren that leads to another dimension,” she reveals. – So today, when I direct plays, I create magical universes for young audiences to enter. When you walk through the door of the theatre, you never know what will happen. That’s what fascinates me most.”

National Kaunas Drama Theatre actors

Costumes – like in the cinema 

The project, directed by Brinchmann, is also interesting in that the actors’ costumes and makeup will be more cinematic than theatrical. The director is assisted by Norwegian set designer Signe Gerda Landfald, and Swedish costume designer and makeup artist Helena Andersson. These three professionals have worked together before in several interactive productions. “As the audience will be very close to the actors during the performance, we wanted much more detailed costumes than usual. In traditional performances, the audience and the actors are separated by about a dozen metres. So it becomes difficult to see the fine details of the costumes. But this time, it will be different. Therefore, the costumes and makeup will be more like the detailed outfits of characters in fantasy films or video games,” she revealed.

The director says she worked individually with international partners for a year and a half during the creative process. Together with the costume designer and the set designer, she visited all four countries and refined the roles of each pair of actors in the play. As the involvement of young people is vital in this project, workshops for young people were also organised. After listening to the young people’s suggestions, the final script was made.

The premiere of this unique project will take place in Kaunas. Later, the play will also be shown in Norway and Iceland and, with funding, in Hungary. The premiere will feature two casts: two each from Norway, Hungary, Lithuania and Iceland. There is also a cast made up entirely of NKDT actors. After the premieres in Kaunas, the interactive project will also visit the P. Dovydaitis Gymnasium in Čekiškė. “I am looking forward to hearing the young people’s feedback on the performance. I hope that they will like it and that we will be able to show this project on the stages of European theatres for many years to come”, – hopes the director.

The performance is part of the Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022 programme and is presented in the programme of the international contemporary performing arts festival ConTempo.

The international project is funded by the open call Supporting Access to Culture and Strengthening Cultural Education under the Culture Programme of the European economic area financial mechanism 2014-2021, Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022, and European Union Programme Erasmus+ungdom funds.

All screenings are free, but registration is required for participants (13-16 years old) www.dramosteatras.lt or www.babel.lt. Performances will be in English and Lithuanian.

On 19, 20 and 26 August, the performance will take place in the NKDT’s Parquet Hall (Kęstučio str. 62)

23 August – in Čekiškė, P. Dovydaitis gymnasium.

 

 

 

 

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