My name is Vilborg Ólafsdóttir and I have been working with the theater group Kviss búmm bang for four years now and I am here to talk about a phenomenon that we created, or at least invented a name for; namely: Extended Life Performances. I’ll describe shortly what an Extended Life Performance is: It’s circumstances created by us, a script for you to follow within the circumstances written by us, no actors, no audience, in a sense that there is nobody watching, just you acting out what it says in the script, preferably for an extended period of time to get you really involved in it. All very plain and simple.
The first Extended Life Performance that we made was The Norm-Olympics. Eight people were able to attend each time, four women and four men. When they arrived they got a new name, a spouse of the opposite sex, a new outfit, a new home and a script to follow. They then went with their spouses to their new homes, and acted out what it said in the script. Which were basic everyday mundane things like making coffee, watching TV, taking a bath, calling their mothers and preparing for a dinner-party. Then at the dinner-party all the couples met and behaved appropriately, like normal people would, according to the script. Another example is a piece called Great Group of Eight which was based entirely on a real schedule of a G8 summit. Again only eight people were able to attend the show each time, everyone got a name and an identity as a president of one of the eight biggest industrial countries in the world and a script to follow.
A piece that we are working on now, called GALA – a celebration of Minorities has a slightly lower participatory level, each member of the audience will be made to chose a group when they arrive and they’ll be identified as “belonging to that group” during the performance.
We’re constantly developing and changing our approaches, but the goal is always to get people seriously involved through participation. The whole purpose of making Extended Life Performances is to engage audiences, in a different way than people normally get engaged in a theater. And by engaging them in these situations, we hope to get them more engaged in their own lives.
And that leads us right into the question: Why do we do what we do? Why engage people more? Well, our manifesto explains our objectives so I’ll just read it to you:
The normal, and thus the abnormal, is our main field of study. We believe that everything can and should be questioned. We do that by creating a world, a social structure that participants go into and experience.
We want to look behind the meaning we give things, ceremonies and words. Instead of looking at things from a safe distance we want to take people into circumstances that awake our interest and study them together from the inside.
We ask people to commit themselves for a longer period of time, in the hope of making our work a part of the participants everyday life for a while. It’s a real-life extension, and by doing this we hope they’ll start questioning the “norm” in their own reality and realize the extent of their influence on it.
Now, some of you are probably impressed by the timelessness and classiness of this manifesto and some of you are probably thinking why research the norm? I’ll tell you why, because it’s interesting. Also, because it can be a dangerous thing. It’s comfortably embracing and invisible to you when you belong to it or relate to it but when you don’t, things become difficult. Just to give you one example of what I’m talking about: Most of us don’t come out to our parents as straight, right? We just assume that they assume that we are until we announce otherwise. This very simple, tiny and apparently innocent fact; that we generally take for given that people are heterosexual, makes the lives of non-heterosexuals a great deal more difficult than it should be.
People also tend to identify very much with their social status; their level of income, their skin-color, their height, their IQ or their gender. And this play, this game that we make; Extended Life Performances, offers people a chance to step out of their man-made suits and into other people’s suits, or just a chance to view their status from a distance.
It’s not bulletproof. We’re working within theater, so our audience is people who go to the theater, and because it’s participatory, it’s mostly experienced theater attendees that come to see our pieces. Theater has a certain pre-fixed idea clinging to it. People tend to think about stages and costume designers and lighting and actors and monologues. None of that is an essential part of our work. And when people think about participatory theater they’re easily scared off because they think they’ll be put in the spotlight and have to perform something for other people. But we never have people perform anything other than they would normally perform at certain gatherings such as dinner parties, gala celebrations, G8-summits or lifestyle courses. It’s always just about exploring these types of situations that are already being “put on stage” in the real life, so to speak. And thus, maybe inspiring ideas about how we might do them better, or differently.
But even though the people attending our pieces are mostly experienced theater attendees, we have an ace up our sleeve when it comes to reaching other audiences; we work with people, real people in real life situations, people from all aspects of life, often people who would never attend an international theater festival otherwise. So the final NIGHT where THE PREMIERE or THE SHOW takes place is not necessarily the endgame or goal. It’s also a real life extension, to take part in making “a show”, so in that sense the process is also the piece.
We once made a piece called Hótel Keflavík, it was about our perception of time and the people who attended had to stay for 24 hours straight. We removed their phones, their lap-tops, books and magazines and any other form of entertainment, covered the clocks on the walls and let them experience time. Around 10 people could attend each time and it was rather expensive to make so we couldn’t do it that often. But even though only a handful of people could come and see the final outcome there was an equal amount of people, if not more, appearing in the show, sharing their experiences. We had teenage girls who talked about their nightlife, blind people asking the participants what they saw, people that at some point in their lives had to deal with severe mental illnesses, that obscured their perception of reality. And three old ladies that appeared in each participant’s hotel room shortly before midnight and asked them somewhat intrusive questions about their lives.
Another example of how the process is the piece is Downtown 24/7, which we made in collaboration with and for three women who had been in prostitution.
They told us their stories and we created a script directly from their words. Then we got three actresses to read it on tape and then we played it to the people who attended the show as they, individually, walked through the main shopping mall of Iceland. The only audience in that piece were the three women themselves. They were in the shopping mall, watching the people walking around, listening to their stories.
I want to wrap it up by talking about the most important things we’ve learned over the past few years. It’s what art does for people. The purpose of making art is to break ground, explore unknown territories, discover something new and by doing so transform us, and by us I mean the human race. People get seriously lost in man-made systems and need art to explore other ways. I’d say for example that discussion about art as commodity feels like we’re totally missing the point. Money is just one of these man-made systems we would make a piece about and I’m amazed, over and over again at how powerless we can feel against something we created.
We’re working on a new piece in Slovenia at the moment. It’s called GALA a Celebration of Minorities. We have been meeting all kinds of subcultures and strange societies and real minorities in the political sense of the word. And one group that we’re working with is people that were completely erased from public registration in Slovenia during the time Slovenia gained independence from former Yugoslavia. It has since been declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights and the Slovenian state has been told to rectify the situation, apologize and pay them money for the damage that was done. The deadline to do this was sometime in June this year and nothing happened. So the lady we talked to said, and I quote: formal ways don’t work anymore, we need art.