A piece of theater is an emotional journey. Whether it is joy or relief over the outcome of a story, or anger over the amount of time and money you spent for something that was below par – it’s a journey nonetheless.
But there are few words I can use to describe a performance that impacted me so deeply. And I had a chance to experience one such show before the end of the year.
French artist Etienne Saglio performed Ghost Project at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The beautifully designed museum is surrounded by water, and Saglio was able to design a show making full use of the building’s architecture.
A man stands by the water, silhouetted against the dim evening lights but occasionally coming into view. Around him is some sort of piece of fabric or plastic, a ghost, that flies near and around him. This ghostly creature emanates a white light, and its master seems to be communicating with it through a series of whistles and a small light in the palm of his hand. Sometimes the creature will fly away from the master, and other times obscure his view as it seems to caress his face. Loving and playful, the relationship between these two characters recalls the image of a falcon and its trainer. Across the water, far from these two beings, sits a musician. He is so far he seems minuscule in size. The musician sings a beautiful, haunting melody, while observing them.
As an audience member, I kept trying to figure out how Saglio’s deception was being played out. How is this “ghost” operated? Perhaps it is a puppet controlled by the man (perfomed by Saglio himself). But then the ghost flies, and it flies far far away from its partner. It must be remote controlled then, and must have a propeller mechanism similar to that of a drone. But then the ghost glides over me, and comes close to other members of the audience. A propeller would tear the material, and it flies without a sound. Magic, then, is the only answer for me. I hear other audience members discuss, and confidently decide. But the truth is, we don’t know; and rather than succumb to the possibility of magic, we seek to find an answer that we can explain because surely as humans, we know it all.
The man follows his ghost but now it seems to want to venture out over the water, wanting to play in the open as it casts its reflection on the water below. The man jumps from the top of a wooden pedestal to the concrete proscenium, landing next to an elderly gentleman who is startled by the sudden appearance of the host. The man turns to the gentleman, and pats him on the shoulder to make sure he is unharmed. From where I am standing, I can see this mysterious man smile. It was such a simple moment that rather than betraying his character reinforced for me how fundamental to my own practice of theater it is for there to not be a separation between actors and audience. That an audience should be immersed in the show, feel a part of it rather than simply a witness to it. Most importantly, it reminded me of how important it is to take care of your audience.
The musician continues to sing. I can hear a beat that seems to match my heart’s own rhythm. Our host has disappeared, and everyone marvels at the creature who flies above the water. It is a simple, yet poignant image to see a light that has a life of its own playing in the openness of the space. Seemingly out of nowhere, the man appears on the water rowing a boat. He follows the ghost before vanishing out of sight. The next time we seem him, he is by the musician. The ghost flies towards them before disappearing into the fabric of the man’s attire. And from this great distance, they receive their applause.
Saglio’s performance was everything I wanted my capstone to feel like. The orb of light, the boat – these were images I was looking at when I was devising my own performance. Was this a kind of recreation of the afterlife? Who is this ghost? And what was this world that audience was transported to?
Sometimes, it isn’t about answering these questions. It’s about what you feel at the end of it. This was a performance with three characters, simple in nature, and the duration was only about 20 minutes. Yet it felt like I had been there for much longer, and that I was transported to a different realm.
Wonderfully haunting, Saglio’s Ghost Project made me realize that my attraction to theater isn’t because of the promise of escape. Rather, I’m searching for moments where we can find magic in the everyday.
Theater isn’t about the presence of a stage. It isn’t about who the characters are or how many seats are filled. Maybe theater is about the tension that exists between the real and the imagined. Maybe theater is in fact about the aftermath of a performance; that for a moment, when an audience leaves a show having bore witness to an event, they can believe in the possibility of something more. They can ask questions without expecting a definite answer. They can dream, and they can create.
They can believe in magic.