Find a place on the grass and sit down, relax. Look around you. Notice the trees. They would not be here if not for man. This would all be dust and sand if not for man.
My name is Rachel. I am not real but I will try to be your friend. Close your eyes and imagine what I look like. Do I remind you of someone you know?
With Sennheiser headphones snugly over my ears, blocking out the real sounds of the world so that I may hear pre-recorded sounds and voices, the sound walk began. Sound walks are a form of alternate reality, where in some cases a participant or player obeys an automated voice to guide them around a space. I have wanted to engage in a sound walk for quite a while now and so when Riminii Protokoll, a German theatre group, was going to organize a few rehearsals and shows around Abu Dhabi, there was nothing but pure excitement running through my veins. “Remote Abu Dhabi,” as the performance is called, would be a chance to turn the city into a playground and discover a side to Abu Dhabi I had not known before.
Or so I thought. I joined a rehearsal with about 12 others on a beautiful windy evening. I enjoyed the walk, but my expectations were let down a little. I expected to be part of some sort of discovery of a little road that takes you out to the water, or leave traces in an abandoned building or something. For the most part, I knew the places and the neighbourhoods we were in. I was expecting to discover the city’s secrets, but the places we went to were public and ones that you would be likely to pass on a regular basis. That however, is likely the point: to stop passing these public spaces and start acknowledging and recognizing what they truly mean in the context of the city and its people.
Guiding the sound walk was Rachel, a technologically constructed female voice who later when at the bus station, metamorphosed into Peter. The voice provoked the question as to whether we were most likely to trust a woman’s voice or a man’s. Rachel’s metamorphosis into Peter marked the midpoint of the performance, and although I and many others felt a sense of trust for Rachel as she kept reaffirming her friendship, I enjoyed Peter’s company more. Peter was affirmative and daring. The second half of the walk was when we as a group truly started to engage with each other and the public around us. This was part of the performance’s let down for me; the first half involved really noticing and thinking about the spaces we were in like a park, bus stop or a car park. I do not feel like at the end of the walk, I had created a meaningful relationship with the strangers around me, but rather that we happened to share the same experience. However, Riminii Protokoll do set the experience of trying to connect with the group well, giving us the chance to do something together like a wave at a football stadium but with no one really around, before dancing in the middle of a crowded mall with everyone staring. At its core, Riminii Protokoll’s “Remote X” performances are about the conflict between the public and the private. A group of strangers share the secret of the experience together, becoming ‘spect actors’ and really seeing all the world as a stage. As Ngũgĩ fantastically discusses, the power of performance is when “it incorporates the architectural space of material or immaterial walls into itself and becomes a magic sphere by its own motion” (Thiong’o 13).
When discussing immediate theatre, Peter Brooks states that “the theatre is the arena where a living confrontation can take place” (Brook 112). “Remote Abu Dhabi” was an opportunity to confront the built city and the invisible social norms that exist in this constructed environment. The significant moments for me were in realizing that really the trees on the road and all these parks would not be around if not for man and everything would just be sand, and people are uncomfortable in front of other people. Why should dancing in public be seen as an odd spectacle, when really people should be joining in? The idea that there are restrictions we impose upon our own selves is one of the things I have been concerned with, especially since taking a movement-based class called “Fundamentals of Acting”. Even the idea that theatre only exists around the framework that there is a separation between the audience and the performer, is nonsense. The sound walk, which takes on an apocalyptic undertone, can be seen as relating to Greek tragedy. One of the things that Boal notes of “Aristotle’s coercive system of tragedy” is that it requires “the creation of a conflict between the character’s ethos and the ethos of the city in which he lives” (Boal 40). Aside from the confrontation with morality, there is the confrontation of the political. Ngũgĩ eloquently asserts that “the war between arts and state is really a struggle between the power of performance in the arts and the performance of power by the state – really the enactments of power” (Thiong’o 12). Riminii Protokoll’s work questions the physical structures around us as well as the immaterial and invisible ones. Think about how much control and power you really have in your life. To what extent are we disillusioned to believe that we, as citizens and a people, matter?
We are constantly affected by the world around us in some direct or indirect way. How lovely and daunting it would be to see the city as an empty stage with infinite potential. “A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching,” and that to Boal is all one needs to be engaged in an act of theatre. Ngũgĩ however believes that a performance site is never truly empty for it is defined by its internal and external relations. Internally the space is self-defined by its props, audience, lights and shadows, but what about the historical significance of the space? What about where it fits in relation to the town, city and world? What about its memories? To Ngũgĩ, a space can be “bare, yes, open, yes, but never empty” (Thiong’o 13). As much as I have come to love Brook, I wholehearted agree with N’gugi though at the same time I believe an empty stage is not empty, for this emptiness is something in it of itself.
Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985. Print.
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Thiong’o, Ngugi Wa. “Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space.” TDR 1988-) 41.3 (1997): 11.Web.