Ubu Reconstructed was a multidisciplinary performance project based on Alfred Jarry’s 1896 seminal avant-garde play Ubu Roi. The text was a stimulus for devising of a new performance narrative based on experiences of actors as authors. The production was a collaboration between Theatre Kolektive, Liverpool Hope University College, the Bluecoat Arts Centre (all based in Liverpool, UK), and the Sibiu International Theatre Festival in Sibiu, Romania. The aim of the project was to explore theatrical language that can communicate across cultural and linguistic boundaries.
My involvement in this project was inspired by my research on Robert Lepage’s theatricality and cinema ‘writing’. I wanted to practically explore the ways Lepage uses performers and audiences from different cultural contexts as ‘writers’ of the performance narrative. The key research questions arising from my work on Lepage’s theatricality that I wanted to test on this project were concerning theatrical language. Is there a theatrical language that is an adequate communication device in the context of cultural difference, or is this a purely theatrical convention with its own established set of meanings that need to be sanctioned by the audience? Does hands-on access to developing technologies provide a new vocabulary for theatre expression that allows the forging of shared experiences by referencing mass media’s global information? In such a case, which participants in the project can claim ownership of the material produced? One of the key problems was how to use different audience’s cultural contexts to ‘discover’ (as Lepage calls it) a performance narrative. In order to address these questions I had to set up a production mechanism similar to the one used by Lepage. Thus, the starting point for the performance was the existing festival venue and the initial idea. Constatnitn Chiriac, artistic director of Sibiu Festival and influential cultural producer in South Central Europe, invited us to festival before the performance existed, based on the initial idea that the performance will engage within conflicting personal and political realities. Being commissioned form the festival gave us a goal to work towards. This paper will attempt to examine this process, through a combination of critical analysis and open forum debate. The paper will look into the extent to which Ubu Reconstructed was successful in creating a theatrical language and production frame that could create its own performance narrative and transcend cultural conditions, turning limitations into resources for new creativity.
The structure of this paper developed in a style reminiscent of Robert Lepage’s own methods of working. The inspiration for this piece emerged from my experience of working in collaboration with a diverse group of co-creators on Ubu Reconstructed. Mirroring the development of this multi-disciplinary performance, the paper evolved around a range of different creators and their perspectives and experiences. This range of perspectives and opinions, so crucial to the unique totality of the performance, is conveyed here in the actor-creators’ own voices.
Part One outlines the practical and theoretical background to the genesis of the performance. The sequence of developmental stages is described along with the performers’ use of inspiration and resources to create a unique and vibrant theatrical style. Part Two presents the experiences and observation of three participants in the creative process, including myself. Part Three reflects on the outcome of the experimental process of creation. Questions for further research are raised.
Part One: Production and Theoretical Context
Lepage’s creative method comes out of Anne Halprin’s RSVP Scores, which were reworked by Jacques Lessard, founder of Théâtre Repère, into a system of personal points of reference, the Repère Cycles. The Cycles are a way of devising that understands the narrative as being cyclical, transformative and open to interpretation throughout the performance run. Thus, inspiration from improvisation could be found in the environment surrounding the performance, using multiple references as a theatrical resource and a starting point for the next narrative cycle.
Lepage explains his approach to theatre as a journey of discovery, a trip into the unknown:
I will give you an example: Christopher Columbus’ log - book which brought two things into the light. First, that he was conscious of the need to document things day by day, a risky adventure where the real destination is unknown. Second that he was conscious that the adventure was bigger than himself: he found a new continent and he had no idea of what this was.
Theatre is an adventure greater than we are, in front of which we are mainly without answers. I know the name of the continent we are going to discover even when we have done only one or two voyages, but we do not know anything else. [i]
This image is relevant to Lepage’s work process as a whole because it illustrates how the final destination is unknown. A character leaves the port and departs to the unknown; he is in transition towards a destination where he will stay. The departure port has no presence except in the memory or history brought in by the character. In this narrative of exile or migration, the port of departure is remembered and used as a prism to interpret the circumstances pertinent to the port of arrival. Cultural remembrance and projection of self are necessary to sustain the order and interpret the character’s environment. The memory is manufactured based on what is essential in order for the new territory to become identifiable with the character’s experience. Therefore, personal history continues to be written through the present set of circumstances.
Development of Production Cycles
We were invited to Romania by Constantine Chiriac, artistic director of the Sibiu Festival. From the beginning, the performance was prepared for an international festival audience, and therefore had to respond to a plurality of readings rather than to local interests or trends. This approach coincides with Lepage’s production frame: he often devises with a set production frame – festival themes or financial bids.
The programme for the Liverpool production states:
West is the best, F**k the rest:
Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi 106 years later? What does Ubu represent in the 21st century? Is there any morality left in the world to ponder on? What’s left to believe in? Basic instincts packaged in sugary marketable logos? Here, the seven deadly sins are projected into Jarry’s grotesque world and ironically transported to the contemporary world of ‘shopping and f***ing’, where small time politicians, warmongers, happy go lucky consumers, globalism, pseudo-Europeanism and Western kitsch, feed into the desperate hedonism of the drunken Saturday night.
The themes stated in the programme, were in fact identified before the production was devised for Liverpool and Romania. They were part of the exploratory starting phase but did not constitute, nor could fully represent the ‘final’ phase of performance narrative-production. Thematic material changed, in the event, from one rehearsal to another as new links and ideas were found and the production transformed. The English version of the play was altered for the Romanian production based on what was found in the open rehearsals in front of the English audience. In the process the work of the cast was informed by material from Macbeth and Hamlet, by the poetry of the Romanian poet Eminescu, and by the writings of Aldous Huxley, particularly Brave New World and The Doors of Perception. Interestingly, on the last night of the run in Liverpool, themes taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and in particular Hamlet’s disillusion, exile, isolation and madness were introduced, and in Romania the cast worked on the inclusion of texts from what might be termed Romania’s collective consciousness of political exiles, revolution and social upheaval. The group was aware of the reknowned interpretation of Ubu Roi by Silviu Purcarete, the famed Romanian avant-garde director, which he directed in 1989 at the National Theatre of Craiova. However it did not have any particular effect on us since no one was familiar with the performance narrative of this production. Purcarete’s ‘mise-en-scene’ juxtaposed Ubu to Macbeth creating a new performance text. The intertextuality of Purcarate’s Ubu related to the contemporary political and social events in Romania following the Bucharest uprising of 1989 and Ceacescu’s overthrow and execution. Understanding this political context and working from the stimulus received from the environment we were able to give another level of interpretation and understanding to the material.
The process of making performance went through a series of different phases but it was defined after the first open rehearsal in May 2002 at the Netherley Valley Theatre in Liverpool, after discussion with the audience. The flyer printed one week before the Blue Coat Arts Centre productions describes the narrative in these terms:
Our play is a fairytale. The ‘hero’ has a day job at a ‘McDonalds’ type of assembly line work. He is an artist. Our ‘princess’ his wife wants him to do better, have more and be more, but there is nowhere to go…expensive clubs and resorts are out of reach. So, ‘hero’ escapes into the dream and gets the fix – instant solution from the “Drug Queen” that transpose him into the puppet play Ubu King. Our ‘hero’ has to stop Ubu who is on the way to kill the King OZ and take over his land, find a country to invade, bomb a few nations, and take on the world….Will our hero stop Ubu from taking over the world, or will he be seduced by power and join Ubu ?
The final presentation in Romania departed from the ironic use of a ‘mission’ to save the kingdom and the relative safety of an urban fairy tale into a very real tangible experience of political exile and oppression. The actors were exposed to a new cultural environment and affected by its circumstances. These circumstances affected all characters; in particular our ‘hero’ was transformed into a political refugee and immigrant prince who struggles to support and return to his ‘country ‘in order to fight the dictator. Ubu Reconstructed became a political play in Romania, as the performance narrative responded to the audience’s collective consciousness. It was not only as a reference to representations of communism and the oppressive cold war era, but as a reference to contemporary oppression from globalisation, new imperialism (in the form of “humanitarian” and “anti-terrorist” wars) and American domination.
Points of Departure
The influence of Robert Lepage’s theatricality was particularly important as a guide into seeing narrative not as a fixed structure but as a set of flexible appearances that are cyclical and transformative. The devising process of Ubu Reconstructed began from themes inspired by the text and not from the narrative of the play. The actor as creator of the narrative was placed at the centre of the creative process surrounded with theatrical elements: space, objects, improvisational starting points, lines or words from the play, awareness that the play is there to communicate to the audience. Lepage points out that such work, when pushed to its limit, looks like it is written, while it is actually improvised in front of an audience. Drawing on the work of Alan Knapp, one of the seminal practitioners of this method, Lepage states:
The main thing that I brought back with me (from Knapp) as an actor or as a stage director is that you have to know how to tell a story, how to write, how to structure. It is important to work with the intelligence of the actors. Very often actors are brought to play the emotions of the story or to play the characters, but they are actually very interesting writers…. If you believe what Planchon or what Alan Knapp say, directing is writing and stage design is writing, then you also have to consider acting as part of writing [ii] .
Jarry’s text became the stimulus for a range of collective memories, as well as the recollection of counter - memories and hidden realties. The changing performance narrative could be referred to as a narrative of the port. The narrative of the port is a narrative in constant movement, which has a point of departure and arrival where themes, forms and structures are defined by motion as transgression, journey and discovery.
The text of Ubu Reconstructed was divided into themes on which the group members improvised, creating their own text, bringing their own immediate experience into the life of the work, and blurring the boundaries between the characters and themselves. In this work, theatrical resources are the key elements of the creative process. The transformation of the narrative was a direct result of this process of free improvisation based on the characters’ playfulness with objects - physical resources - and personal anecdotes and stories as emotional resources.
Roland Barthes used the term theatricality to explain what constitutes the vocabulary of theatre. [iii] Theatricality can be understood as the combination of elements which a theatre production consists of: performers, sound, light, colour, texture (materials), space, objects, technology, and media. For Barthes, theatricality is relevant to the ‘language’ of theatre, which consists of all the elements used on stage as theatre signs. Barthes states that theatricality is “theatre - minus - text, it is a density of signs and sensations built up on stage starting from the written argument; it is that ecumenical perception of a sensuous artifice -gesture, tone, distance, substance, light - which submerges the text beneath the profusion of its external language.” [iv]
Roger Planchon used the expression ‘écriture scénique’ to describe the mise - en - scene that has its own artistic integrity separately from a dramatic text. Planchon believed that ‘écriture scénique’ is on an equal footing with the author’s written words. [v] The idea of ‘écriture scénique’ revolves around discussions held in the early sixties concerning the adaptation and modernization of a classical text to be used in contemporary theatre. Planchon stated that he had learned from Brecht the concept of ‘total responsibility’ of scenic writing over the stage performance.
The space becomes the location where this narrative is ‘written’. Thus, spatial textuality can facilitate multiple texts that derive from a variety of media: written, visual images, cinematic, sound, music, movement, etc. Each of these texts creates the spatial textuality in a production.
In the programme for The Far Side of the Moon Lepage explains his method of working under the title ‘ecriture scenique’:
Je me considère comme un auteur scénique, au sense où la mise en scène alternent avec les idées de répliques, les unes conduisent les autres. (...) Ce qui me fascine dans l’acte de création, c’est que l’on remplit un space avec plein d’objets qui n’ont aucun rapport les uns avec les autres, et parce qu’ils sont là, ‘tous empilés dans la même boîte’, il existe une logisque secrète, une façon de les organiser. Chaque morceau du casse - tête finit par trouver sa place. [vi]
I consider myself a stage author, understanding the mise - en - scene as a type of writing. For example, in this work, the ideas of the mise - en - scene alternate with the ideas in the actors’ lines, one leads to the other. (...) What I find fascinating about the act of creation, is that you fill a space with objects that have no relation to each other, and because they are there, ‘all piled up in the same box’, there is a secret logic, a way of organising them. Each piece of the puzzle ends up finding its place.
The spatial textuality that formed the theatrical vocabulary of Ubu Reconstructed was founded on the performer, space, technology, the combination of visual images and music. The technology used consisted of an overhead projector that was used to project different effects on a white cyclorama, slide projectors, power point presentations, and video projections. Only objects used as resources by the performers inhabited the empty space in front of the cyclorama. The emphasis was given to costumes and various transformations were achieved by applying different masks. Overall principle that guided the group in deciding what to use was not based on any great ideas or artistic missions but on practicalities and necessities of travelling theatre, roughness and simplicity of popular theatre tradition. Nothing was preconceived not because this was better way, it was simply impossible to know in advance, before ideas are being revealed to us through playfulness.
From the outset, touring was an overall frame for a production and not the text; therefore, the scenography had to be simple – empty space utilising objects, visual images, projections, music that was composed for the performance and the performer’s physical expression. One rule was used as guidance: whatever the performer can take in a suitcase can be used. The performers had to rely on found elements in the theatre space where they would perform. In fact, one of the events in the performance narrative was based around a group of performers coming into the space in their own clothes and transforming into their characters by taking all that is necessary from their suitcases. This was abandoned during the process of dramaturgical synthesis, although the suitcases stayed as a place from which various props were taken in defining fragmented locations.
The theatrical space consisted of fixed and found elements and resources. At the Netherley Valley Theatre there was a set of ropes hanging from the ceiling that were incorporated into the performance, particularly for the character of King Wenceslas, who was represented by a coat hanging from a rope, but because there were no ropes in the Blue Coat Arts Centre, this was not used any more, King Wenceslas was replaced by a music stand and the objects, instead of hanging from ropes, were placed inside suitcases. However, at the Blue Coat we found a new element, a huge concert piano which was incorporated into the performance since the main character was a musician. The most significant transformation of the space happened in Romania where the performance took place in a puppet theatre with a considerably smaller space, and we adapted the performance by using the whole of the theatre including the entrance, auditorium and stage space. In fact, we started from the street where throughout the city we created various events, culminating with the performance in the designated theatre space.
The point of friction between fixed elements of staging and the necessity to adapt to flexible given conditions was observable in the student actors; some of them resisted the change, trying to hold on to what had once been found and rehearsed. The ability to let go and adjust to new conditions, to think of the performance as a rehearsal was ultimately the point of this exercise. Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge in this process of transformation was on the actor/creators who had to spontaneously transform their environment into a ground for playfulness taking stimuli for improvisation from all obstacles, accidents and spontaneous developments.
Part Two: Reconstructing the process
Upon returning to Liverpool, once the production run was completed, the initial group of authors - Emma Smith (production manager and performer) Aleksandar Dundjerovic (directing and devising) and Jürgen Wendelen (devising and performing) – reflected in the form of a panel discussion on the key questions arising from the devising process. We particularly focused on the collective collaboration, use of references, construction and reception of meaning, development of technology, space and action in different locations, and the audience’s influence in creating dramaturgical connections. The idea behind the platform discussion was to be as open as possible regarding our work, to be critical and evaluative in order to understand what worked and what did not work in the process. In order to facilitate our recollection of the process, we invited the dramaturge who observed the final stages of the process, Duska Heaney, to moderate the discussion.
DH: How was the group assembled?
ES: It is still unknown to me exactly how the group was formed. Jürgen Wendelen and I had both worked with the director before. Jürgen provided a good link between professional and amateur, able to run rehearsals and co-ordinate his artistic ideas with the director. Aside from me, the rest of the group were all students, excited by the prospect of working with two professionals on a piece of contemporary theatre. When looking at the line-up of those people involved in Ubu Reconstructed, it is interesting to see the mix of nationalities and experience. The group consisted of a Serbian director (also a lecturer to some of the cast members), a Belgian professional performer, an Irish performer, a Spanish-Irish performer and four English performers (three students and myself); all ‘Westerners’, comprising various origins, experiences and cultural understandings - not to mention a mass of different ethics, humours, beliefs and performance styles, all bouncing off each other in a haphazard fashion. I would like to come back to this point later on when we look at authorship and delivery.
AD: We didn’t have any clear idea of what we were going to do and how we were going to do it!
ES: Before the group was finalised I had already spent a lot of time, developing promotional copy for a performance that was not even at rehearsal stage meaning that we were already in the process of selling the piece to three institutions without the product!
JW: I agreed to be involved in the discovery of a new performance. Ubu Roi would be our starting point. A group of performers would come together to start exploring. Each would bring their own approach to the starting point.
DH: What gave you the initial starting point for Ubu Reconstructed in terms of the stimuli and references?
AD: The original starting point for the project came from discussions that I had with Liverpool playwright Bob Farquahar. We wanted to do something together and found that we both liked this play - the idea was to create a contemporary Ubu, as a new play which would be set in present day Liverpool, reflecting on club culture, consumerism and the general madness of Friday and Saturday night, where everything revolves around short-term escapism and self-glorification. The question would be ‘who is Ubu nowadays?’ and the focus shifted towards collectivism rather than the individual, towards the ‘Ubu tribe’ on their path to be the best they can be, by taking/consuming as much as they can, regardless of the consequences. I was inspired by my previous experience with Kabaret Europa, a production done at the Unity Theatre as part of the Making Art scheme, where the starting point had been Goran Stefanovski’s text Hotel Europa, which we montaged and collaged with Howard Barker, Jean Genet, David Edgar and a number of scenes devised by the group members. I wanted to follow that flexibility rather than be bound by a textual or structural frame. My personal point of entry into the text was through political references, and equating Ubu with Slobodan Milosovic. More immediate provocation, was the war that George Bush was attempting to wage upon the rest of the globe, in order to grab as much wealth as he could. The mindlessness was evocative of Ubu, in the way that he attempts to achieve it. Ubu Roi is a flexible play in the form of Grande Guignol, a macabre version of Macbeth that maintains an amazing childishness and ease, charm and simplicity, whilst talking about domination and power. The powerful bomb the ‘Daisy Cutter’, used to level Tora Bora in Afganistan, was such a lovable name for an extremely horrific weapon of mass destruction that it was almost as if an Ubu type character had invented it. However, it was important that others who had been invited into this project had their own point of entry. Therefore, it was important to emphasise from the start the plurality of readings of Alfred Jarry’s play
ES: My role was combined, I was responsible for all production activities and visual design, but I was also devising and a performer. I created an image having been given several reference points: Atelana, Ludi Romani, grotesque, excess, Bacchus, Grande Guignol and Alfred Jarry’s pata-physics. From these points I developed a graphic collage incorporating either direct images of these pointers or images that I connected to them, thus already forming a preconception of what the performance piece might detail. This was strengthened further when the director and I undertook the writing of the marketing text, suggesting that the performance would look at Ubu Roi, diversity, human excess, consumerism and globalism. Hitherto, I had not yet met the group but had my own perception of what we might be confronting through the performance. I don’t think that these concepts ever left me; they were my stimuli for a performance narrative and I think that when these were not undertaken or approached in the way that I had perceived them, I was disappointed. Being involved in the very early, conceptual stages makes it difficult to resign yourself later on.
DH: In light of your references, can I ask, how did you determine and develop the rehearsal strategy?
JW: We looked for themes/issues within Ubu Roi. We found: War, Jealousy, Greed, Ambition, Lust, Betrayal, Conscience, Cowardice, and Money. We improvised scenes around these themes, and then we tried to connect them. Or rather: we looked for connections that suggested themselves. We went back and forth between our found improvisations and the original text to see whether we had hit upon any parallels.
AD: This was the collective devising process.
JW: Alongside this process ran the individual devising process. From the start I gathered around me as many influences (text, film, personal experience) as I could. I brought them to rehearsal. I sought my own narrative line. After rehearsing/coming together in this way for a couple of weeks, we performed our first version in front of an audience. This version was mostly improvised and like a rehearsal. Afterwards, we were able to sit down and see a pattern developing - a pattern of intertextual links. We discovered a play within a play: Hamlet trapped, somehow, in Ubu-land. We performed a more structured version for our 3-night run at the Bluecoat, still improvising within the tighter structure we had agreed upon. New discoveries continued to be made and included in our work-in-progress. New influences kept suggesting themselves. The final performance in Romania was another step in this discovery, for some reason not as satisfying as some of the earlier performances.
AD: I wanted to try out Peter Brook’s notion that performances are rehearsals and that they use the energy of rehearsal for the creative process and also to try out how Lepage’s idea of open rehearsals with audiences from different cultures really works. It was important to work with the skills and abilities that the performers have so that they are the creators of the performance text rather than interpreters. I selected a group of students, who had already worked together on an independent project performed at the Scarbourough Student Performance Festival, and a group of professional performers. The rehearsal process started approximately three months before the project, which was scheduled to open at the Bluecoat Arts Centre, Liverpool at the end of May 2002, before going to the International Theatre Festival in Sibiu in June. The idea was to use the rehearsals as writing workshops and the performances as rehearsals, using the audience as an important stimulus in discovering the narrative. Therefore, we included an open rehearsal, a presentation of all the material that we had at the beginning of May, at the Netherley Valley Theatre in front of an invited audience, with a talk afterwards, where we received feedback.
JW: The process was deliberately open. That is why we were very keen to have as much feedback from the audience as possible. It was going to be an input for further development. My own creative process consisted of interacting with all the elements that make up a devised performance that was essentially fluid and flexible. As a professional actor comfortable with this way of working, but among a group of relatively inexperienced students, I tried to lead by example. Everyone needs to discover their own angle/approach to a given theme or text or material. By showing I was comfortable with this approach in which very little was given or prescribed, I helped the group along. Everyone was invited to collaborate on the ‘text’ of the finished piece.
DH: What was the central meaning behind either Ubu Roi and/or Ubu Reconstructed?
AD: Ubu Reconstructed was a process of creating a flexible and transformative performance narrative that refers to all that is hidden and relevant in Ubu, to the present moment. It was more an emotion than an intellectual idea. It was reconstructing power, as a need to be better, wanted, loved, more accomplished. Perhaps the question was what do you do to become better than you are, to move outside defined social structures, to have it and have it now? However I’m not sure if this was the final outcome, precisely because the way of working was not to have an ideological concept that would remain intact until the end of the production.
ES: I found myself increasingly divided. I was trying to eradicate my initial thoughts and dispose of my external knowledge of Ubu Reconstructed, whilst simultaneously contributing to the piece. Not only was this a creative pressure but a constraint in terms of bonding with the group as a performer. I was also their production manager. I had to gel with them on two levels, as an equal and as a manager. This difficulty was perpetuated as my presence at rehearsals was compromised by my own work necessities and the external work required for the production. I was also asked to ensure that the promotional material remained undisclosed to the group so as not to interfere with, or influence their work towards the final piece, a decision that in hindsight was very wise as I had already been influenced.
AD: The work method, if it can be called a method, incorporated elements of privacy and secrecy, which Mike Leigh successfully employs, by which each actor and performer knows and develops only the section relevant to him or her, not knowing the overall concept, in order not to pre-empt the process of discovery, keeping it flexible and spontaneous. This was combined with a collective, creative approach of group presentations, where meaning was discussed after the fact. In practical terms we were engaged with themes, which we found relevant to the text, which were interestingly biblical, relevant to the seven deadly sins. So the performers were divided into cells, responsible for different themes and then once or twice a week we would get together and share them and collectively engage. Sometimes improvisations would last for hours, having a life of their own and developing in all sorts of directions, often in a totally opposite direction from the play or starting themes. The idea was to be free and play for as long as possible and to look for a structure in our first confrontation with the audience at the Netherley Valley. This was actually the first time that we had put the material together. We were surprised to find out that we had almost an hour of material. Some of the key questions that we worked on for the Bluecoat production came out of the open rehearsal at the Netherley Valley. It is interesting that precisely because of the lack of meaning throughout the process, I had to part with Bob Farquhar, who wanted to put the improvised material within a dramatic context and defining ‘whose story is this?’. It was also observable that throughout the process the students encountered difficulties with this kind of work, where meaning is not defined from the start. We actually lost a very talented member of the group who was unable to cope with all the uncertainty.
JW: There was a clash of ideas for quite a while between the narrative of Ubu and the narratives found by the other characters, particularly my own. We had to find a link between these three worlds: for me it was a devised character whose story we are following, Bogarlas from the Ubu play and Hamlet all intersecting each other.
DH: You give the impression that there was nothing fixed in the performance. Technically, isn’t this problematic for the performers given that they would have to perform in different locations and with different audiences?
ES: Looking back at the performance narrative, it is difficult to separate exactly what came about as a direct reading of Jarry’s text and how much of it resulted from the improvised rehearsals and the stimuli that we used. We tried to find a performance language and narrative that would reach audiences in Liverpool and Sibiu, a difficult task at the best of times, but with an unresolved group with no definite answer it was incredibly hard. We looked at ideas of globalisation, an idea common among performance artists at present (JJ Xai and Cai Yuan, Guillermo Gomez-Peña). We asked whether we should be celebrating diversity or demonstrating how this diversity can be seen as similarities depicted in alternative displays of presentation. I am not sure that we found the solution. In Britain we are viewed as ‘Western’, in Romania they wish to become more ‘Westernised’. We looked at what ‘Western’ means. The main focus became a combination of a Monarchical and megalomaniacal society, a mixed breed of Britain and America; Ubu Roi and MacDonalds. Because we could not find our definitive answer we looked at more and more references - in texts, newspapers, documentaries and through improvisation. These references became an overbearing mix of opinion, performance styles and ideas, later resulting in some weighted scenes and a disjointed performance. We needed a central manifesto, an opinion or a provocative question to underpin the piece. We decided to have a ‘Work in Progress’ performance and find out what an audience would do to the piece to make it accessible/readable. We needed an outside interpretation of what we had done to create a skeleton plan for the performance.
AD: In Ubu Reconstructed as with Kabaret Europa, the actual space/theatrical space becomes a unifying factor. The audience is there to help the performers find the narrative, but it is the space that allows ‘writing’. The space consists of visual projections; we were using works of arts – paintings - that had thematic and aesthetic relevance to the performed event. Before rehearsals commenced, I had to send the technical description to the Festival, so the basic scenography was already defined. However, it had to be open to accept what the performers were going to put in it. From the very first rehearsal, we knew that the space would be empty, with a big cyclorama in the background, using only the essential objects that had multiple meanings and transformed throughout the narrative so that the space was fixed, but various physical resources could be invited. We knew we were going on tour and that the production had to be portable, so that every performer could take all of their essentials in their suitcases. Costumes were essential signifiers, combined with light and projections they were the key aspects of our future vocabulary. Another important element that provided a structural base was the music, composed by Neil Campbell, which framed various events and found connections between them, enhancing thematic unity. Neil knew the starting points/themes that we were devising around and saw the development of the performance, but composed the original score independently from our process. We could use his music as an important resource, a stimulus that we could adapt to. So I could say that themes from the text, space and music were the fixed elements that supported the flexibility of discovery and the fluidity of multiple narratives, inevitable in the devising process.
ES: There was not one main idea. The actors’ response to themes was mixed, since they were not all doing the same story – they all add something of their own, but then again so did the audience. The audience did not understand how some of the scenes connected and wanted better sign-posting. Some people were engaged by the ever changing roles and some people were deterred by them. It was evident that we had a hyper-real and a surreal world, but they needed to be more clearly represented. It was understood that we had looked at serfdom and power, West and East, conflict without resolution, grandiose behaviour and its ability to marginalize, but we had not offered solutions or an opinion to suggest that anything was right or wrong.
AD: Hamlet was actually the character that created a bridge between the different worlds in our play, between the two narratives that came along through the process. I am not sure what stimulated Jürgen to do that.
JW: We started from themes and then we improvised and in those improvisations you look for characters that you can relate to you, characters that you can bring something to. If you discover such a character you ask yourself: why did you find that character? At this point, you are not consciously involved with doing the UBU play, although at the back of your mind you are still connected to it. You cross feed between improvisation and the original text. You try to fit in the character you found within the play, but it is not possible to find this link immediately. The character I found came out of an early improvisation I did with another performer within one hour. We improvised around the theme of Conscience and suddenly found ourselves creating a psycho-analysis session. There were red chairs placed in the shape of a vagina, and sitting at the ‘entrance’ of this arrangement I felt like I was going back into a womb in order to go on a journey. The idea for improvising around Conscience came not from the first Ubu play, but Ubu Cuckolded in which Ubu comes in and has a talk with his conscience. We played a little and it happened. I met a girl before our rehearsal by accident and I liked her, so I brought this immediate experience into rehearsal and I wanted my conscience, played by another performer, to allow me to have sex with her, because I was in a relationship at the time so I wanted my conscience to free me from that. When you are working on the performance you are bringing the experience of the person you are at that moment in time, not someone from ten year ago. It has to be fresh. It has to be who you are at that particular time. You bring your own material from outside, your own person at that point in history, that’s what you bring into the performance. Everybody knows how to play a king: you put a crown on your head. But if you want to make it alive you look at the parallels with your own life, what does it mean at the moment to you, you have to identify with the theme and the character; otherwise it is caricature and it does not make any sense. You should bring your material from the past, yes, sure, but it is how you interpret these recollections at that moment. Emotional memory is fine and all that, but my business as an actor is not to pretend that I am feeling something but to show the story at that moment that would otherwise be frozen in its own time, and I am bringing it alive. That is why performances are different and are rediscovered over and over again, because they are different in that point of time. The actor only needs to establish a connection between himself and the character. Everyone is Hamlet and can play Hamlet, everyone may be Hamlet to some degree. You just need to find that link.
DH: How did you dramaturgically connect these different paths and characters?
JW: Out of initial improvisation a character, who did not seem to come out of the play’s narrative, was born, but the scenes we improvised were linked together and it emerged that this new character landed in a play (Ubu). I looked at the text and thought: what character in this play could I be? Which character could I be once I land in this play? Who does not buy into the Ubu tribe? It turned out to be Boggerlas, the son of the murdered king. So we had an outside character who ends up in that play and thinks he is a character in the play. After doing this, it became obvious that this character was a lot like Hamlet. He was trying to revenge his father and expose this evil world. All through the process of performing and evaluating, all discoveries happened organically. They suggested themselves.
DH: How did you prepare for Romania, what did you bring into your existing characters?
JW: Where am I going to? Romania. So you pick a book about Romania to know a little about it. The ‘doina’, for example, is a certain type of Romanian folk song. It’s a lamenting song, and it always start with “I don’t sing because I know how to sing”, and it always refers to sadness. So I pick this song and link it with my knowledge that Romania has a history of exiles, artists and statesmen. I also found a link with the Romanian king and his family who is still in exile. In Romania, a week before our performance I go to see a play at the theatre, I talk to people, notice national customs, references to popular culture, drinks, expressions, behavioural patterns. All of these will directly or indirectly influence the ‘new’ performance. The biggest resource from Romania was Eminescu, Romania’s national poet, full of Romantic ideals, suffering for unfulfilled and unrealised love. He was also a very nationalist writer. The poem that influenced me the most was his Third Letter which I memorised and incorporated in our performance. Also, the character of Byron was a big influence on me, as well as a young girl from Romania I met a year before the production in Belgium, who talked to me about the poetry of Eminsecu, and how difficult is to translate him.
AD: The key resource is the audience, their cultural consciousness and unconsciousness. We received very interesting feedback from the audience. We were aware that we had two narratives running alongside each other after the Netherley run, but not until the last evening at the Bluecoat, were we able to discover a link between the two stories, which actually pointed to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The audience in Liverpool picked up on the political references, locating the play into the political context of Romania. However, in Romania, the audience related the play to upheavals in human nature, the oppression of Capitalism and the consumer orientated Western Society, that is now replacing the totalitarian structure from their past and dominating their lives in a very significant way. It’s interesting to note, that with a flexible performance narrative every cultural context - the location - in which the performance happens, reflects itself on the meaning of the narrative, the audience writes in or reads their own meanings, which if included in the performance, adds another layer of references. Changing to multiple locations means creating multi-referential meaning, therefore the audience becomes imprinted on the performance and the performance carries on that imprint to another cultural nexus. I presume that was the kind of experience Peter Brook had in his journey in Africa and with his intercultural epic Mahabharata.
Part Three: Reconsidering Reconstruction
Reconstructing Ubu Roi was not only relevant to text but to reconstruction of a set of political, social, cultural references that performance narrative establishes with a contemporary audience. Furthermore, perpetual change of narrative is possible because of different audience cultural contexts and the ways in which they interpret the performance. As with Lepage’s mode of creating there are no ultimate ‘answers’ and conclusions set in stone, no final ultimate narratives. In our approach to the text, we followed Alain Knapp’s idea of substituting the actor as an interpreter of the text for the actor as a creator of the text, the one who creates words, actions, and goes through all the process of writing. [vii] Because performance narrative comes out of an actor it is alive, rough, and transformable based on the moment in which it occurs. Performer is employing all theatrical resources in multiple roles as actor, director, playwright and designer. Each member of the group as a deviser had multiple tasks not only serving as actor-creator, but diversifying responsibilities of the creative process. Personalising material and plurality of activities that actor-creator has allows for multiple reference and styles.
From Jarry’s original play we borrowed a set of loose themes on which performers then improvised, bringing their own action. As Knapp indicates, ‘l’action est narrative du personage qui produit cet acte’(the action is the narrative of the character who is doing that act)’. The group decided to play with the themes of war and money. The performers used their own experience and their relevant social and political consciousness to aid them to connect with these themes. Using a personal point of reference gave the performers the stimulus from which they could draw inspiration.
In the original text, Ubu takes over the country, kills all the nobleman, terrorises his own people and goes to war with other countries for his own personal gain. For the group of performers, war with Afghanistan under the disguise of war on terrorism, as well as the possibility of a new war with Iraq provided a strong point of reference and recognisable material that could be related to the text. Ubu as a character became more real for the group once he was related to George W. Bush.
Different audiences had a very strong impact on the development of the performance narrative. The performance narrative is open to change and the mise-en-scene is open to transformation influenced by the audience’s interpretation. Many different plays and cycles could have come out of the material we improvised, but it was important to make a selection. If we had continued to work on a new performance cycle, probably we would have departed from Ubu Reconstructed into a different performance narrative. The next step in the process would be to work on the found theatrical language as an adequate communication device that is able to include cultural differences and experiences in the performance narrative.
Going through the process of creating a production in the conditions of an ‘experiment’ and simultaneously analysing the method of working, it is important to ask, how would this process be different if used in fully professional circumstances? More so, which parts of the process would have to be altered to relate to a new set of conditions? The challenge would be to explore further this process of work in a more structured and professional context that would naturally offer greater resistance. Although the initial aim was to explore one particular style of making theatre, we arrived at our own theatrical style based on textual and cultural collage. I found it very liberating to use visuals, cinema, sound, movement, and languages and to play with different references and associate meanings as if in a dream-like structure. Placing the performer at the centre of the creative process and relating all the resources to his personal set of references is a way of working that gives freedom to various ways of narrating.
Since the role of the actor is to ‘write’ the performance narratives, the director becomes responsible for the editing of mise-en-scene that consists of a montage of multiple texts, the one created by performers as well as a literary text used as a departure point. However, the problem of actual ownership of the material is apparent, since the performers create the material but the collage belongs to the director as an author. Thus, it is not clear to what extent this is a collective creation based on multiple perceptions, or if it is a way of directors superimposing and editing materials that others bring in, according to some plan that the director (in this case myself) is following even if he is not aware of it. In my own assessment of this process I am not sure to what extent accidents – spontaneous activity – were really crucial for the performance, or if they are just used to enhance predetermined themes and concepts by finding a more interesting and effective way of presentation. Nevertheless, I am certain that throughout the rehearsal process there is a genuine discovery, a true voyage into unknown territories, which is in itself a fabulous moment to explore. In this creative journey, the travelling is at least as important and exciting as the eventual port of arrival.
Barthes, Roland. Critical Essays. Trans. Richard Howard. Evanston: North Western University Press, 1972.
Bradby, David and Ann Sparks, Mise-en-scene: French Theatre Now. London: Methuen, 1997.
Brook, Peter “De L’Espace Vide au Théâtre Sacré.” Peter Brook: autour del’espace vide. Video cassette. Paris: Anrat, 1992. Founder’s Library. Royal Holloway. University of London.
Charest, Remy. ‘Quelques Zones de Liberté’, L’instant meme. Quebec City, 1995.
Dundjerovic, Aleksandar The Cinema of Robert Lepage:The Poetics of Memory London/New York : Wallflower Press/Columbia UP 2003)
- - - . Theatricality of Robert Lepage. Unpublished Manuscript (to be published in 2004). Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Féral, Josette. ‘Alain Knapp, Mise en scène et Jeu de l’acteur Tome 1 : L’espace du Text. Montreal: Édition Jue/ Édition Lansman, 1997.
Lepage, Robert. Personal interview Quebec City, 8 December 1999.
The Far Side of the Moon, theatre program, (Traydent Theatre, Quebec City, Feb. 2000)
Ubu Reconstructed, theatre program, (Bluecoat Arts Centre, Liverpool. June 2002)
January 18, 2003
Dr. Aleksandar Dundjerovic
Department of Performing Arts Brunel University, West London
[i] Remy Charest,’ Quelques Zones de Liberté’, L’instant meme. Quebec City, 1995: 136. (my translation) Je te donne un exemple: le journal de bord de Christophe Colomb, qui met en lumière deux choses. Premièrement, qu’il est conscient du besoin de documneter, au jour le jour, une aventure risquée dont la véritable destination est inconnue. Deuxièmement, qu’il est conscient que l’aventure est plus grande que lui: il se trouve devant un continent nouveau et il n’a aucune idée de ce que c’est. Le théàtre est une aventure plus grande que nous, devant laquelle nous sommes avant tout sans réponse. Je sais comment s’appelle le continent que nous avons à découvrir, mais même quand on y a fait un ou deux voyages, on n’en sait pas beaucoup plus.(...)
[ii] Personal interview December 1999
[iii] Barthes, Roland. Critical Essays. Trans. Richard Howard. Evanston: North Western University Press, 1972: 26.
[iv] Barthes, 1972: 27.
[v] David Bradby and Ann Sparks, Mise-en-scene: French Theatre Now. London: Methuen, 1997: 41.
[vi] The Far Side of the Moon, theatre Program, Traydent Theatre, Quebec City, Feb. 2000: n.pag.
[vii] Féral, Josette ‘Alain Knapp’, Mise en scène et Jeu de l’acteur Tome 1 : L’espace du Text.. Montreal: Édition Jue/ Édition Lansman , 1997: 143.