The theater mutation project
A theater project developed in virtual space, and brought to life on the streets and stages of the world, arrives in China.
Dirk Cieslak is giggling like a schoolboy as he dodges out of the door. "We've got some media passes to a movie premiere. And we're going to pose as journalists and interview movie stars!"
In more serious moments, Cieslak is the director of the Mutation Project, a theater production that is making a worldwide circuit dissecting the global phenomenon of "city life".
"Mutation is a mix of fictional things and real situations," says Niels Bormann, who has acted in all the Mutation Project productions. He explains that it is about the actors coming together on the stage, sharing the experiences from the city in which they are performing. The outcome in all the cities to date: a theater production that showcases a brief, yet intimate, portrayal of city life.
The Mutation Project, developed in a virtual workspace at www.mutation-workspace.de hit actual space in July 2003. "The premise behind the show is globalization," says Cieslak. He explains that the Lubricat Theater Company in Berlin started brainstorming for their next project and through discussions of "nationality being overthrown by new systems of economy" and "a new way (ITA) of producing things", that the theater group would try something unheard of: it would produce theater exactly the same way. In essence, they examine globalization while participating in it.
By May 2004, this unique performance will have been performed in four continents, in five cities.
"We knew that the best way to get in touch with people would be through the Internet," explained Cieslak. Their "virtual platform" online became the main source for generating a common pool of material on which to sculpt vignettes and skits for the actual space performance, a year down the road. The Lubricat Company finalized five cities where they felt globalization was best represented. And Shanghai made the cut, along with Richmond, Virginia, USA, Buenos Aries, Argentina, Lagos, Nigeria, and Berlin, Germany.
The actors arrive five weeks before the performance date, and immerse themselves with a group of local actors, to get a sense of the city. "Shanghai has posed a few challenges for us," says Cieslak. Bormann explains that the major challenge was that this kind of theater show is virtually non-existent in China.
When they first arrived a year ago to start looking for local actors, they found there were hardly any interested or willing to take part. "You go to Buenos Aries and you're met with 400 theaters, but you come to Shanghai and there are very few people with experience or background in our kind of work, and not a lot of confidence," says Cieslak.
Xhingyu Chen from Bizart confirms this: "There is barely any community theater is Shanghai, and not a lot of encouragement for theater productions." This was one of the main reasons why Bizart jumped at the opportunity to work with Lubricat on this project. "We're hoping a lot of people come out to see the performance," says Chen, "We want people to see how a theater production comes together."
Another challenge that the Lubricat Theater Company faces with the arrival in each of the five cities on their circuit is the language barrier. Martin Clausen, one of the German actors in the Bizart performance, thinks that most sense and meaning can be easily translated, and in fact, that has a lot to do with the project. "I've heard people say in Germany that English used in International projects is often poor, and I find this kind of attitude quite arrogant and narrow minded," he says. "It may just be 'global' English, and this is an important reality."
"In fact our major misunderstanding haven't been about acting, but more about how (ITA) to work," says Bormann.
Gao Ming Bo, a Peking Opera performer, is one of the three local actors taking part in the production also found that the major challenges we about working together, not about the actual acting. "When we first started rehearsals, I have to admit I was a bit lost and kept thinking 'what are we doing here?'" Although he found the rehearsals to be fairly chaotic at first, Gao says he learned a lot from working with the German theater company. "Silence. That seems to be extremely important," says Gao, "about learning to listen to other people".
"We went together to places in Shanghai which we regarded as basic elements of the city," says Clausen. For Clausen and Bormann, that oddly enough meant shrubs in a deserted park.
"We ended up sneaking into a park that was closed off, and a guard approached," recalls Bormann of one Shanghai experience. "Martin and I ended up jumping into some bushes to hide while the others were caught. We ended up laughing hysterically like school children and eventually had the guard laughing as well."
"We're looking for the future," Cieslak says in a more serious tone, "and for Shanghai, we found that it is constantly rebuilding, that it is difficult to find reminders, remnants of the past." It is the future he explains.
When the play culminates in a final product, it will consist of small dialogues about life in the city. Gao explains that one discussion they've been working on is on cigarette design. "We'll take a pack of cigarettes, talk about how German designs would look, Chinese designs, and just discuss it," says Gao. He says they just find a topic, talk about themselves, or their feelings towards the city, and then create some action surrounding it.
"They're pretty serious about really getting a feel for each other and the city itself," says Xhingyu Chen of Bizart about Cieslak and his group of local and German actors. "Since their performance will mostly be a response to living/visiting in Shanghai, it's interesting to see this being played out on a daily basis. I think both expats and locals will be able to relate and respond to this kind of interaction."
The team collected for the Shanghai performance consists of Nicole Wei (local DJ at Mazzo), Gao Ming Bo (Peking Opera), and M2 (Kurt Mei, band member, Circus on the Roof). "The project feels really international," says Gao, and that's what attracted him to it initially when he started contributing articles online. "It's a different way of working."
"They have rather absurd elements in the performance, from what I've seen, and I think the Chinese actors are having a good time expressing themselves in such an off kilter way," says Bizart's Chen. "They get to scream and dance and sing and just be plain silly, at the time they are contributing to such an unusual exercise in cultural exchange and dialogue." She says that all the actors have been working extremely hard in rehearsals and that the preparations have been intense.
For all involved, the Mutation Project has been perhaps a selfish learning experience as opposed to one with a mandate of dissecting wild city mutation (by 2020, 63% of the world's populations will live in cities connected by a flowing network into a global economy). "You get another perspective, in a geographic sense," says Clausen. "I've worked on the Shanghai and Berlin Project, but even now if I pick up a newspaper and read about Africa, it's different." He says he's able to "see" instead of "recognizing" similarities now.
Davide Quadrio, founder of Bizart, doesn't necessarily think that this production is ahead of its time, "but eventually it helps to create a synergy between visual art and theater and creates communication between different cultures closer to where the problem is: working together to create a show."
"I'm not on a mission," asserts Cieslak about the production. "I am simply creating a product, for consumption, people will see it and get their own ideas about." He only hopes that people relate some of the experiences showcased in the production to their own lives.