Reimagining life

A reflection on Welcome To Our Guesthouse #4

For a while we were locked out of artistic houses and into our homes, yet the doors have carefully opened again. The theme for this year’s Welcome To Our Guesthouse (Productiehuis Theater Rotterdam’s artist-in-residence program) entails a question: How to gather together? Being welcomed to this edition comes at a time of global uncertainty, of a pandemic, of growing inequality, of collapsing environments. For now, I will try to take my mind off these immense problems and focus on experiencing Welcome To Our Guesthouse. I enter the temporary home of the artists while wearing my facemask and keeping my distance, sharing to some extent the experience of the past months with the rest of the small audience. Fittingly, to enter Welcome To Our Guesthouse I must pass through a wooden crate; the entrance has been packed as if Theater Rotterdam is preparing to leave, signifying the uncertain nature of art and public spaces in this time. Upon entering I receive David Weber-Krebs’ book and then the doors opened again, in which he asks his network to imagine the future of theatre from the spectator’s view. What will happen when we are allowed back in the theatres? I listen to Ivana Müller’s consideration of this question, read out loud by someone who is not her.

All makers speak of iterations to come, of developments to be made, yet this middle point is, undoubtedly, art.

All photos: Salih Kilic

Belief and transformation
Walking through a labyrinth of stairs and hidden doors I suddenly find myself in an auditorium, bearing witness to Enkidu Khaled’s The Interview (God99): a staging of Hassan Blasim’s upcoming novel God 99, which details a journey through 99 interviews with people whose lives were altered drastically by war, persecution and poverty. On stage, questioning is turned into an art form in and of itself. In the telling of these stories the grey area between truth and fiction and between self and projection is examined. I watch the performers take on different characters that might not fit them exactly, including the writer of the novel. The poetic nature of the presentation as well as Enkidu’s unapologetic attitude create a compelling moment of focus. However, the intricate layering of elements in the performance causes it to have too many paths to completely follow along.

In another room I witness Mathieu Charles struggling with loneliness and with otherness. His AKOMFRAHDIO shows a single person soaring through outer space, attempting to make contact through radio waves. The antique radios broadcasting dystopian film scores of the past combined with the spoken word performance of Mathieu gives concepts like memory and expectation almost physical qualities. His attempt to decolonise the theatre, underlined by the isolation of the audience into little islands, does not seem clear enough to come across as such, but his powerful command control over the spectators’ curiosity and the invisible question marks floating in the room get us very close to it though.

I wonder about health being a privilege,
and the comfort of following the beaten path without question as well.

The artists got entangled in their projects from within their homes or the studio, following strict guidelines either way. During the summer we saw artists produce digitally, quickly resorting to live streaming works for free. The artists in Welcome To Our Guesthouse, however, were not asked to produce quickly and to cater to an audience. They were asked to stop, stand still and consider their practices. Enkidu and Mathieu deliberately opted to work within the confines of the theatre. Where Enkidu chose to employ the suspension of disbelief as an artistic battlefield, Mathieu chose to rediscover the theatre space to explore his needs as a maker.

But there is another proposal. Gazing at the artists and their works, we are allowed to categorise these pieces as theatre, yet at the same time leave the categories behind altogether. This proposal was echoed in the book and then the doors opened again. What would happen in or after the theatre post-lockdown? This exercise in imagination shows the purest form of artistic expression; reimagining life, and almost alchemically infusing a thing or moment with the power of transformation – of itself and of its beholder. The true moment of appreciation of the book happens after the program, sitting with the question and with the answer I might give about the future of theatre.

The subject of and condition for theatre
During the weeks preceding the presentations, Merel Smitt’s how to start a movement had already lasted for eighteen days, bringing 100 Rotterdammers together invisibly through written assignments in the mail (the movements of the participants can be found here). A wish for this project was to address daily life in small ways and to have participants follow their instincts, quietly disrupting public spaces – carefully questioning norms and ethics while doing so. I wonder what the final meeting moment would have been like, perhaps it felt like the nostalgia of pen pals meeting for the first time after a long time of faceless writing.

The lack of being together showed that the other is at once the subject of,
and the condition for theatre at the same time.

Samara Hersch’s Call me anytime you want presents me with a projection of the daily video call between Samara herself and her cousin Zac. During the pandemic they were separated and using the only means for communication left to them they show a glimpse of their lives. Their absence, knowing that they were both calling in the Australian evening while we watched from the early afternoon of the Netherlands, charged the room even further. I was distraught for a moment, contemplating missed conversations before being lifted up at precisely the right moment by Zac leading us through a dance class. It was inspiring to experience such precision and control from the other end of the globe.

Collective MOHA built an open “care office” on a public square in Rotterdam-Zuid and interviewed passers-by on the subject of (health)care. Doing so, they received stories that cannot be put into numbers. Now, in the liminal space of the foyer, a place designed for passing through, we sit still instead and listen to people’s needs during the presentation called Who cares? We analyse the system of power, luck and health together. The absence of the people that were interviewed felt appropriate to the theme, and the nonchalant entertainment of the healthcare game show reflected some of my personal views on the system. However, I felt a little too comfortable and too distant from the stories to connect to them, causing me to lose critical interest.


The quality of design, story and performance in these works is so exceptionally high
that I wonder whether they are truly unfinished.

One thing keeps staring me in the face. Similarly to how the body left the theatre during the summer, the bodies of these performances’ subjects were not here either. The participants of Smitt’s movement were fully aware of the group they were in, yet only met at the very end. Samara was supposed to be in Rotterdam for the process, yet was distanced from the piece: she was forced to stay in Australia and could not perform together with her cousin, opting instead for a conference call with him and the audience. The people that MOHA spoke to were not in the room with us during their presentation, nor were they allowed to participate in the healthcare bingo. The lack of being together showed that the other is at once the subject of, and the condition for theatre at the same time.

The thing in process
It is crucial to consider the importance of context. It is simultaneously the soil that the works are rooted in and the subject of their questioning forms. We are now in a time where our personal archives share at least one collective memory: because of a virus we are at once dangerous and fragile. We are once again in a political state, perceiving power structures that operate visibly some of the time and invisibly most of the time. I wonder about health being a privilege, and the comfort of following the beaten path without question as well.

Not only do I share moments with makers from all sorts of places and with different stories, I am witnessing works that were built with wildly different tools, works that defy singular labels and that were limited yet free because of a pandemic. The quality of design, story and performance in these works is so exceptionally high that I wonder whether they are truly unfinished. All makers speak of iterations to come, of developments to be made, yet this middle point is, undoubtedly, art. The realisation that art is not a product, but a thing-in-process, a moment-of-being, hits me once more. And it hits hard. I find that artists who do not easily fit into the system, end up revealing the system itself. Welcome To Our Guesthouse is an important program for this reason, inviting precisely these artists to become temporary inhabitants. It is a place that curates doubt and unanswered questions, trusting those creating and those experiencing to feel the political nature of artistic expression. Perhaps this is my answer to the question of the book: if we care about the future of theatre, we need to guard and nurture togetherness and non-efficiency, as well as the powerful crafts of wonderment and being in process.

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