If the Zeitgeist Festival is truly an indicator of the current global evolution of theater, than I’m happy to say this industry is as strange, wonderful, bizarre, rough, frustrating, intimate and exciting as one could hope.
The festival was developed by Zeitgeist DC, a coalition of local cultural groups including the Goethe-Institut, the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Embassy of Switzerland, in an effort to spread awareness of the trend of participatory theatre in Europe. The DC area has seen an uptick in this style of audience interactive performance pieces, including Rorschach Theater’s recent Six Impossible Things benefit performance and the aptly-titled adventure Trapped In A Room With A Zombie which recently began a planned long-term residence in College Park. In fact whole companies in DC are interactivity-focused, including dog & pony dc and banished? Productions.
I attended several festival events on Saturday. Given the participatory nature of many of the events, I found it in the spirit of the event to critique from a participant’s perspective as much as possible. Which is to say, if there was a game I did my best to play. Over the course of the day I helped defuse a nuclear bomb, sat eye-to-eye with an elderly actor in a tiny booth while she described murdering her lover, cracked several codes, sipped far too much coffee, watched a documentary about Pussy Riot, and made side bets on who would win at sex. And, oh yes, I also witnessed a near fight between irate Austrian artists and Goethe Institute staff members.
It was a very strange day.
One of the biggest trends in participatory theater is the room escape genre. In these video-game inspired productions, groups of audience members…. you know what, let’s just call them “players”…. groups of players are introduced into a puzzle filled environment and given a set period of time to get themselves out of danger. In the delightful case of 15’000 Gray, developed by Germany’s machina eX, a group of players act as invisible guardian angels averting the near tragedy of a scientist’s search for a humanity-saving cure to radiation poisoning going terribly, explosively wrong.
Cast members David Bryan Jackson, Briel Banks and Jennifer De Castroverde proceed through several semi-narrative scenes that point the way to solutions for the rooms various science-based puzzles. Players are encouraged to work as a team to solve the various puzzles which ranged from cracking a coded keypad, mixing together a chemical solution, and a climactic riff on the classic red-wire/blue-wire bomb defusing trope. The actors repeated lines act as a sort “warmer, colder” style guidance. Given 35 minutes to get through the room (clocked by the timer on the bomb strapped to Jackson’s chest) my team blasted through most of the puzzles in about 20 minutes, which apparently was impressively fast, according to the machina eX team.
15’000 was a good introduction to this kind of game-based work. Much of the team was less experienced than I in this kind of thing, and I did my best to get folks used to the notion of diving into the environment. If there’s a problem with 15’000 Gray it is that perhaps the puzzles are a bit on the easy side, given the constant hints from the actors. I found myself wishing for a bit more time to explore the space and figure out solutions on my own and with the team.
Coffee & Prejudice:
By far the loveliest 20-minutes or so I spent at the Zeitgeist, Coffee & Prejudice tests the limits of what can be considered “participatory.” Developed and presented by Swiss company mercimax, Coffee & Prejudice is as intimate as theater can get, inviting audience members to connect one-on-one with an actor. Audience members are seated in one of five curtained private booths set up in the 2nd floor event space at the Goethe. Within my booth were two chairs, a table, a set of headphones, and mixers for the coffee I’d been invited to pour myself as I waited my turn. I was instructed to sit down, put on the headphones, enjoy my beverage, and wait.
Shortly, I was joined by Katrina Clark who silently took the opposite chair. Clark made no effort to speak or interact with me in any way beyond the inherent intimacy of sharing a table. She looked directly into my eyes, I looked into hers. Then through the headphones came Clark’s voice. Following Clark’s performance/visit/shared experience, I was joined by a succession of two other actors, each with their own intimate story to tell. Each story is presented as fact. Sometimes these facts are horrible. And thus we have the participation element of Coffee & Prejudice. Audience members must sit and be told very human, sometimes terrible stories of having sinned and been sinned against and then choose in their own minds first whether or not to believe these stories as truth or fiction, and second how we will judge our new intimate associate accordingly.
Each booth hosts three storytellers out of a six, creating a unique experience different even from other audience members. The distancing effect of the headphones, coupled with the fierce and immediate intimacy of the actor-audience relationship, makes emotional passivity impossible. I judged. Despite all attempts at intellectual remove, I listened, I heard and I judged. How dare you expose my irrational humanity, mercimax.
At the risk of breaking the first rule, let’s talk about Love Club. There’s a lot to say and not a lot of it good. A collaboration between Austrian performance group God’s Entertainment and Georgetown University that explores issues of sexuality, gender agency and control, Love Club also serves as an excuse to get eight people naked and writhing as quickly as possible. Kind of a riff on Fight Club meets Tekken meets softcore porn, the Love Club audience enters the 2nd floor Goethe-Institut Event space decked out nightclub style. The audience mills around on couches and pillows, wine and beer flowing freely with donation. Two MCs (Diana Partridge and Jason Schlafstein) serve as hosts, guides and, when needed, bouncers.
In Love Club, pairs of audience volunteers acting as “players” pick one of eight cast-member “lovers” to be as their avatar. Each player is given a video-game style controller with buttons that activate projected lights; each color light meant to direct their chosen actor to perform one of three actions on their scene partner/opponent: kiss, touch, undress. A fourth button, “intensify,” pressed in combination with the other buttons, directs the actors to take whatever intimate act they are performing to the next level. I leave what “next level” means to be up to the reader’s imagination, though within the bounds of legality. Before each match, audience members are encouraged to bet on which lover would “win” by, er, eh making their partner ask to stop? Or by going so long someone eventually just gets tired?
Wait. What? This is supposed to be sexy, right?
Admirably, the group of actors playing the lovers were a diverse and enthusiastic lot. They couldn’t be a more daring, gung-ho group. Four men and four women of various ages (though most were college-aged), body types and ethnicities. Each had a fun persona for the night. There was a Flower Child, a Punk, a Hooters Girl, a Wolf of Wall Street and so on. Pairings were not subject to any gender-based discrimination, and the night saw both hetero and homosexual matches. Matches continued until any participant (player or lover) “tapped out” to end the scene. All in good, sexy, fun.
The problem here is that God’s Entertainment doesn’t seem to realize that at some point all the flesh starts to get straight-up desensitizing. Who would have thought that two hours of almost-constant sex scenes might get a little boring? There’s no context here. And that means no heat.The actors don’t even speak. After all, there’s no button that lets them talk, and they’re just avatars for the players control, right? For the most part, the players were an amiable sort, open minded without pushing too far and working (with the MCs gentle encouragement) to create “moments” of intimacy and power and fun. But you know there had to be that guy, right? Because when you give people that kind of power over a performer’s body someone is going to abuse it, and tonight’s party foul was a fellow who couldn’t help but shout American Psycho lines and odd racial commentary at the actors. It took the whole scene into the realm of yuck. I’m sure he’s very proud of himself.
As the night wore it became clear that between the lack of incentive to end any particular match, coupled with the long gambling-payoff intermissions, the show was going long. Very long. As midnight approached, there was an increasing flurry of backstage activity around the outskirts of the show. Eventually a whole round of the tournament was skipped and we moved to the finals, a man-on-man “battle” between a California party-boy (their words) and “Joseph Smith” a nametag-wearing, special-underwearing missionary from a totally non-specific 100% not Latter-Day Saints related church. All credit to the two daring young actors, who, at the urging of players who were clearly their friends in real life, “grappled” far longer and more intensely than any previous match.
Then things got really ugly.
As Schlafstein said goodnight and announced the end of the show, microphones were suddenly cut. What happened next, beyond my personal point of view is confirmed and described by Wilfried Eckstein of Goethe-Institut. Boris Ceko of God’s Entertainment announced over a microphone that the ending the audience had seen was not the real ending but instead the show had “been cancelled by the Goethe-Institut and other f—king people.” As Goethe-Institut staff began ushering out the audience, a physical altercation then took place between members of God’s Entertainment and the Goethe-Institut staff. According to Eckstein, the two groups met later that night and apologies were exchanged.
The Goethe-Institut staff had made the decision to end the show at the pre-agreed upon time of midnight, and when Love Club ran long (potentially very long), the decision was made to cut the show short. According to Eckstein, Mr. Ceko objected to this. I reached out to God’s Entertainment but the group’s representative, Simon Steinhauser, declined to comment on the specifics of the incident, instead writing that they plan to be in attendance at Monday’s planned festival-ending symposium and “we would like to find some words there for what happened if we still have this possibility.”
Should be an interesting symposium.
The Zeitgeist DC festival ends Monday, May 12 with the free symposium “The Performer/Audience Relationship: Politics, Intimacy, and the Barriers Between Private and Public” from 11am to 6pm at Georgetown University, Davis Performing Arts Center, Gonda Theatre (37th & O Sts NW). For information call 202 289-1200.