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Graz Annual Playwrights’ Festival 2022: Day Five

Reimagining performance spaces

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Reimagining performance spaces

The travelling stage conceptualised by Lisa Hoellebauer and Lisa Schantl.

The travelling stage conceptualised by Lisa Hoellebauer and Lisa Schantl.

At the theatre festival in Graz, a cargo cycle moved around the town like a mobile library of plays besides the three performance venues, enabling a fluid use of space.

The one thing that emerged from the pandemic was that it reminded us that the size and scope of a performance space was defined by the mind. The debate on whether zoom performances count as theatre or not may not have been put to rest, but it did see the use of spaces being reimagined. From living rooms with unexpected cameos by dogs and other family members to virtual backgrounds, we adapted, both as makers and as audiences. Theatre has a history of inventing new spaces. At times, content dictated the choice of space and at times the stage had a say in the shape of the storytelling.

In theatre festivals, enabling a fluid use of space allows for players of all sizes to present their stories to the audience. Here, at the International Playwright Festival in Graz, storytelling has spilt out in various forms besides the three venues in the main theatre house. For instance, a cargo cycle has been moving around like a kind of a mobile library of contemporary plays through the five days. It stops at various points where the playwright reads out one of the texts. Exploring the art of storytelling through signs and posters, the Fridays for Future initiative has taken up the task of pasting signs and posters in public spaces. The idea is to create a visual appeal and encourage the viewer to carry the stories with him. The Writers in Climate Crisis group refurbished a tricycle with a 5 x 2 feet platform to create a travelling stage.

Svenja Viola Bungarten’s Garland at Haus Eons.
Svenja Viola Bungarten’s Garland at Haus Eons.

The main theatre building in Graz has three main performance venues—two blackbox spaces and one proscenium stage. I was given a backstage tour of the proscenium stage, known as Haus Eins, on day one, but was yet to see a performance in here. The opportunity presents itself with a play that has been having a hugely successful run for many months— Garland by German playwright Svenja Viola Bungarten.

A story within a story, or rather a movie within a story, the plot crisscrosses across multiple plot lines. The play draws references to Wizard of Oz through the character of the orphan Dorothy and other references like The Yellow Brick Road and Kansas. Then there is the character of Judy Garland who starts off as a gas station attendant but later reveals herself as the yesteryear actress in search of her biological child. A radio jockey who punches in with interviews and news alerts that tie the various plot points together. A movie shoot forms the frame of the story as eccentric director Salvatore Brandt goes about trying to shoot his film despite the many interruptions that come his way. The revolving stage with its multiple levels is used to switch between scenes which helps keep track of the mad caper plot.

Cast of Garland takes many a bows.
Cast of Garland takes many a bows.

I am not usually a fan of the proscenium stage as the experience often feels too distant. But as the sets swing and shift, and, at times rise up from the bowels of the building, they create a larger-than-life experience which seem to bring even the farthest seated theatregoer into its fold.

I have barely a few moments to absorb the 100 fast-paced minutes of Garland before I find myself seated in the blackbox theatre on the third floor for Once Upon Tomorrow, my raison d’etre in Graz. Once Upon Tomorrow is a collection of 11 short plays, one of which is mine, on climate change borne out of an activity by the Arts and Climate Initiative. A vintage white refrigerator on a pile of black sand is the lone occupant of the stage. The actors are all final year students of the acting programme of Kunst University, the University of Music and Performing Arts, Graz.

A vintage refrigerator occupies centre stage in Once Upon Tomorrow.
A vintage refrigerator occupies centre stage in Once Upon Tomorrow.

The plays have all been woven together to flow seamlessly from one to the other with minimal interjections. The style shifts between narration to role playing to use of movement as per the demand of each individual plays. It is an interesting experience to listen to the dialogue from my play in German, which I don’t comprehend at all, and simultaneously watch my words on display on the subtitle screen. Thankfully, my play is second in the lineup and I can stop cringing at my words, many of which I would change, and enjoy the rest of the plays. While I had read the text of all the 50 plays when they were put together as a collection, seeing them being performed is impactful. After a point, I forget that the words were written to be narrated. They turn into a plea by the bright-eyed actors of tomorrow and their meaning gets compounded manifold.

The performance ends in the hope for a better tomorrow.
The performance ends in the hope for a better tomorrow.

An impromptu celebration later, it is close to midnight as I walk back. Summer has lengthened the magic hour and I slow down the stroll to an amble with some well-timed pauses. What good is time spent at the theatre if it does not seep into life.