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Graz Annual Playwrights’ Festival 2022: Day Three

Graz theatre festival: Words and their limits

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Graz theatre festival: Words and their limits

Performance comes to the street in Catcalls of Graz.

Performance comes to the street in Catcalls of Graz.

On the third day of the Graz theatre festival, Himali Kothari finds out how Instagram and Twitter are shaping the structure of performances.

When Schauspielhaus Graz had emailed me to invite me to their theatre festival, I had volunteered a writing workshop and, over a few more emails, we had planned a structure. Since their theme for the festival this year was ‘Realities’, I had recommended a workshop on writing non-fiction for the stage. They had agreed. So there I was, making my way to the main theatre where one of the rooms had been designated for my workshop. It was the first downcast morning since I came to Graz, but grey clouds did not have the power to be my killjoys. Workshops are my happy place.

Ten participants had registered to attend. They had all been asked to bring some news item that they would like to bring to stage. They had brought clippings that ranged from stories with a personal connect to environmental issues to one that emerged from a catalogue of ports! Two writers from Ukraine had brought news stories from back home. Over the next four hours, I prattled on about character and plot and structure. I assigned exercises and they kindly obliged. I questioned their plots and they generously elaborated. And at the end of the workshop, a shape for their stories emerged and the first scenes were written down. With a promise to complete the stories and reconvene over Zoom, we parted ways.

Writing workshop on bringing non-fiction to the stage in progress.
Writing workshop on bringing non-fiction to the stage in progress.

Four hours of non-stop gabbing has tapped out the mind and tummy. The mind will self-replenish, but the tummy needs help. The emerging vegetarian/vegan trend in Europe has led to the emergence of gourmet options for the veggie traveller that goes well beyond pizza and French fries. I follow Google Maps to Herr Karl, a vegan cafe. Choosing a vegan cafe meant I didn’t need to investigate every ingredient, something that my presently spotless mind was incapable of.

“I am really hungry,” I tell the smiling lady behind the counter. “What can I get immediately please?”

“How about some tomato soup?”

The Blytonesque interiors of Herr Karl.
The Blytonesque interiors of Herr Karl.

My gratitude has no words, only a nod. I sink into the nearest armchair paired with a little table. The kitschy frames on the wall, the teacups and cutlery hanging in the windows, the platters of cake on the counters, the plush chairs and the snow-white haired lady bussing tables transports me to Blyton’s world. And when she brings me a head-dunkable bowl of hot tomato soup and a giant slab of warm bread, my fairy tale is complete.

A head-dunkable bowl of soup at Herr Karl.
A head-dunkable bowl of soup at Herr Karl.

Bolstered by soup and pumpkin seed cake with cream cheese frosting, I move on to Tummelplatz, one of the main squares of Graz. It is the venue for a street performance, Catcalls of Graz. In 2018, Sophie Sandberg of New York started writing on the sidewalk the catcalls hollered out in the city. She would photograph these chalk writings on the pavement and post them on Instagram. The concept very quickly made its way to cities across the western world. The performance at Tummelplatz had emerged from the Insta account Catcalls of Graz.

At about 5 p.m., a little semi-circle forms around the six actors distributed on two pedestals. For the next 15 minutes, they transform the public square into a performance through a combination of reading and movements that weave in and out through the 20-odd crowd. No bells and whistles. No constructed sets. No props. No costumes. The text is German so I don’t follow the words but knowledge of the context and the agitated body language gets the intent across. And playwright Lisa Hoellebauer fills in the gaps post-performance. One group of actors represent the catcallers and the other those who have been catcalled, she explains. The performance used actual catcalls that have been heard in Graz and collected over the last year. Very graphic, she adds.

The last performance for the day is Zitronen Zitronen Zitronen, the German translation of British writer Sam Steiner’s award-winning play Lemons Lemons Lemons. Set in a dystopian time, the plot revolves around a couple whose relationship is put to the test when politics gets in the way. A new law is proposed and passed which limits citizens to use only 140 words every day. One, an ambitious lawyer, and the other a free-spirited musician, words have different meaning in their lives. Short snappy scenes tell the story of their relationship from their blossoming young love to misunderstandings to the ups and downs as they struggle to work around this fixed word count. George Orwell in his novel 1984 had brought forth the point of language and its importance in expressing human thought. Steiner seems to have extended this point further and his homage to Orwell in one repartee between the couple highlights the influence.

Sam Steiner’s award-winning play Lemons Lemons Lemons.
Sam Steiner’s award-winning play Lemons Lemons Lemons.

On the walk back to my hotel, I consider this point about limiting words. As an editor, my work is all about economy of words and eliminating the superfluous. But, it is also about adding the necessary. The decision is mine, and therein lies the power. What words would I have used today if I had to confine to a stipulated number? Would I have been misunderstood or better understood? Thankfully, the day is coming to an end and a two-word ‘Good Night’ to the concierge is all I need to utter.