Graz theatre festival: Theatre across borders

As Himali Kothari gets to know plays and playwrights from around the world, she is struck by the lack of cross-pollination in the field of theatre.

Published : Jun 09, 2022 15:48 IST

A scene from the play Eleos.

A scene from the play Eleos. | Photo Credit: Himali Kothari

The Schauspielhaus team informs me that the festival will kick off with ‘The Author is Present’, an orientation of sorts. It is an opportunity for the writers to get acquainted, share a bit about themselves, and about theatre back home. We do it in a speed dating kind of format, Karla adds.

I walk through the old town towards the venue and realise I don’t need the map. How quickly the mind adapts to new surroundings. I know the handmade ice-cream shop is going to be at the corner from where I must turn right. Halfway into that street, the aroma of Joe’s falafels bubbling away in the fryers is going to assail my olfactory system. From the main theatre, I must turn right and walk another half a kilometre to get to the Volkskundemuseum, the venue of the event. Volkskundemuseum, literally translated as Folk Life Museum, houses a permanent exhibition of objects that tell the story of Styria’s (a State in south-east Austria) spiritual folk culture. A great place to acquaint oneself with life as it was in the pre-industrial era, it is on my to-see list. For now, though, it is time for the meet-and-greet in the Heimitsaal, the museum hall.

As I make my way towards the hall, Marlene from the team redirects me to the garden. It is a sunny day so the orientation has been moved outside. June is a rainy month here in Austria. Of course, the definition of rain here is water off a duck’s back for a Mumbaikar. The garden is laid out with picnic-style tables and chairs. Glass bottles of chilled fruit sodas in hues of pink, yellow, and orange are clumped on each table. At one end, a long table is piled with platters of cake, a coffee machine, and cups and saucers. A few writers are milling around with coffee and cake.

The orientation session in the garden at the Heimitsaal.

The orientation session in the garden at the Heimitsaal. | Photo Credit: Himali Kothari

At 3 p.m., the sound of a gong reverberates through the garden to announce the beginning of the programme. Our attention is drawn to the strips of paper placed face-down on each table. Questions are printed on the other side of the paper which we must use to start a discussion at our respective tables. The gong would sound after every 15 minutes, which is when we must switch tables and repeat with a new set of fellow writers.

The question at the first table: Would you leave a performance mid-way if you were not enjoying it?

Pietro, a student from Vienna, offers a vociferous yes.

“How long does it take you to decide to leave?” asks Anna, whose play on survival in a dystopian world will be performed later that evening.

“It could be the first five minutes, or, at times I will persist for two hours in hope. I feel physically attacked, disturbed if I don’t enjoy it so I must leave,” he wriggles to show his discomfort.

Another writer at the table is Pierre. He talks about the audiences in theatres in post-pandemic Italy. “It has not survived. The theatres are empty except for the first few rows. They don’t leave.”

“Because they are in the first rows?” I ask.

“No. They are true supporters, passionate about its revival.”

Over the next hour, the random questions lead to conversations that reveal much about life and theatre across borders. Camilo from Santiago, Chile, tells us about the protests in 2019 and how it has led to a new Constitution being written. The slogans and writings on the wall made their way into her play on climate change. It will be performed here alongside mine. At one table, the talk is about public funding in theatre and at another it is about the existential question of multiple realities.

In 2021, I had embarked on a research project, Project 87 (@project87_theatre) under the mentorship of author Ramu Ramanathan. The goal of the project was to celebrate playwriting and create awareness about all the writing that has emerged across the different parts of the country. It had opened my eyes to how little I knew of theatre in Bengaluru and Chennai, let alone the smaller cities and towns. This one hour in the garden at Volkskundemuseum further emphasises the lack of cross-pollination in the field.

Plays with subtitles can be a strange experience at first.

Plays with subtitles can be a strange experience at first. | Photo Credit: Himali Kothari

Head buzzing with these questions, I make my way to House Zwei, one of the performance venues in the national theatre.The play Eleos, written by German writer Caren Jess, is written in 36 short scenes, each one distinct in its form and style. The play comments on the emotions of fear and pity, and how performances can use them in a cathartic manner to morally cleanse the theatregoer. It is my first time seeing a play with subtitles on an overhanging screen and it takes a bit to get used to, focussing on the action on stage and reading the words on the screen. The set is divided into two horizontal sections by large wooden partitions. The performance moves between the two sections and when it is on the lee side of the partition, it is relayed live on the wooden screen through the cameraman who follows the actors around. At times, the actors come to the front section through the doors in the screens or the gap in-between. The interplay between the two sections is seamless and each of the 36 scenes uses it distinctly. The play ends to a resounding applause which continues for a few minutes and has the actors returning five times for the customary bow.

The German play Eleos.

The German play Eleos. | Photo Credit: Himali Kothari

“They keep returning till the applause stops,” Camila who has joined me for the show informs me. “In Chile, it is a maximum of three times.” “In India, it is a maximum of once,” I tell her.

It is well past 10 p.m. when I walk back to the hotel, but the long summer days are here which means it is more like twilight. A faint moon is visible in the darkening blue and the stars are not quite out yet. The body is exhausted by the traipsing around on the cobblestoned street, a new sensation for my unused-to-walking-around-Mumbai feet. But the mind is exploding, and that powers me through to my waiting bed.


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