The Possibilities of the Theatre
Reflections on Avatar Tales
by Chai Zhongjian
Teaser: Avatar Tales, hosted at the 798 Arts District by the Goethe-Institut Beijing, directed by Cao Kefe and Gesine Danckwart, is a contemporary theatre experiment. With the complex social circumstances of our times as a backdrop, Avatar Tales – by creating the circumstances for virtual interaction across time, events, and space – prompts us to reflect upon the possibilities of theatre.
Important characteristics distinguish the theatre from other forms of art. First is its comprehensiveness; almost no subject is capable of eluding the capaciousness of the theatre. Second is the blurriness of the boundaries separating theatre from reality. Both the theatre arts and everyday existence directly confront the issue of “reality.” From the most surface level to the profound, they ask the questions: What is the reality of life? What is the reality of theatre? Especially today, as the traditional indoor theatre is moving into the public space, a space continuous with that in which everyday life occurs, how do we define the essential nature of the theatre? Avatar Tales raises these very questions about the nature of contemporary theatre.
Mythology as Metaphor
“Avatar”, as this author discovered, is a Sanskrit word. An “avatar,” in the Hindu tradition, represents the incarnation of a deity on Earth. In “Avatar Tales”, the director invokes “ Avatar” in describing the entanglements between the gods and mortals. The narrative of Avatar Tales told at 798 can be generalized as a kind of multifaceted improvisation, encompassing components as various as mythology, history, events, transformation, and rebirth. The internationally renowned 798 Arts District, since its construction as a campus of factories in the 1950s to its gradual housing of artists and galleries beginning in the early 2000s, has been home to a diversity of stories and characters, and in the eyes of the visitors who have made this pilgrimage to 798, these tales seem truly like folklore. And so Avatar Tales appears to be reminding us: beyond the curating or arranging of any agenda, there exists a realm that is deeper and more expansive, one that we chance encounter through the mechanism of metaphor. Its resonance and comprehension requires something that approaches fate. Concealed within the director’s creation of these multifaceted and improvisational encounters resides this deeper level of ingenuity.
In Avatar Tales, the role of Avatar (performed by musician Sun Dasi (孙大肆)) is that of an “actor” of sorts – she is one who takes action, one who passes things on. In her hands are a map and a letter, which she carries as she walks down a more-or-less planned path. As she makes her way through several different stops, improvisational interactions occur. Via video and audio streaming, these live messages are transmitted to other spaces, spaces that comprise a structure, creating an “alternate live scene.” People present at the “live scene” are invited to participate through the video stream by reading the message or engaging in conversation. This is the director’s expansion of the “theatre space.” The “live aspect” of the theatre is determined by both the immediacy of the audience’s experience, and the arena within which they are having the experience. Much like human existence, the arena of human experience is dynamic and expanding – from one’s region to the whole planet, from the planet to outer space; or from matter to energy, objects to information. Thus, Avatar Tales is mainly an experience in dynamic existence. The scene that Avatar invokes metaphorically is this one: an image and sound being seen and heard by every single member of humanity. Because we have attained the capability to digitally transmit images and sound through electrons and photons, reaching every corner of the world, what is happening at a single live scene can also be unfolding, virtually, in any other space, with interaction occurring among these various spaces. In Avatar Tales, all of this is presented against the backdrop of globalization, the Internet, against block chain technology, and the theatre itself. Avatar Tales, then, as a performance that involves multiple spaces, many levels of narration, with random and spontaneous involvement that steps across space and time, serves as a metaphor for a “global theatre.” This, perhaps, is the ultimate possibility of theatre.
With the rising platforms of big data and block chain technology, let us imagine a day when the world itself has become a theatre. Would this emergence of the “digital platform theatre” then prove the so-called reality of theatre? Using the concept of deities descending upon the 798 Arts District, Avatar Tales plays out an improvisational, interactive performance. But the 798 Arts District is a real place, with real historical narrative, involving real human lives. So where does its true “reality” lie? Is reality merely what one sees before oneself?
Life and Theatre
As “Avatar” rouses the reality of our times, it asks: What is the purpose of theatre? And how does it unfold? German-Chinese playwright and director Cao Kefei and Gesine Danckwart first recognized how the disconnect between the traditional theatre form and our social reality, and the separation between actors and the audience, has created a deficiency in our ability to experience the larger world. Because society itself is an arena for interaction, everyday occurrences provide immense possibility for the theatre. But the reality of everyday living differs from the reality of the theatre. Life happens one day at a time; how do we go about mining it for dramatic potential?
While natural life simply exists, theatre must be innately motivated by a “dramaturgical consciousness” (or the work’s consciousness). The “dramaturgical consciousness” – through the characters (the roles), space (the scene), and implements (the props) and their requirements for expression (of arrangement, direction, organization, performance) – reveals the possibility for an existence with agency and art, one that approaches an ideal. This “dramaturgical consciousness” must answer the question of how natural life can be transformed into life within the art of the theatre. When people say that so-and-so’s life is like a drama, or that society is a relentless stage, these comparisons all reflect an awareness that includes “dramaturgical consciousness.” In visual art, objects from everyday life, though the artist’s modifications – giving it some type of conceptual meaning or recontextualization – can be transformed into a piece of art, such as Duchamp’s Fountain, or Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box. What this signifies is that all objects possess a kind of natural objectivity in their existence, but once subjectivity is engaged, the objects take on a particular expressive meaning. In a similar way, once an actor has taken on a “character consciousness,” any everyday action in our lives then becomes the action of the character. This “dramaturgical consciousness” is the basis for distinguishing between life and theatre.
The possibilities of theatre, however, are challenged by the “specific dramaturgical consciousness” of the circumstances. Levels of “dramaturgical consciousness” vary from person to person, progressing from unconsciousness to sub-consciousness, awareness, understanding, and complete consciousness. Differences will thus arise as audience members with varying levels of “dramaturgical consciousness” view and participate in Avatar Tales. Their understanding of the work, of course, will also differ. A fundamental understanding first requires returning to an undifferentiated conception of “life” and “theatre”, and to the relationship between “existence” and “relating to existence.” Second, language must not be viewed as an established, fixed convention, but understood in its manifestation in everyday usage. Third, one must gain a synthesized understanding and ability to use language after its informaticization into “existence/language.” This encompasses the changes in language influenced by one’s life experiences, exposure to language, and expression of thoughts, and returning this new language to everyday life. The critical idea, however, is to realize that when past life experience leads to the expression of a new composite language, this change originates from an internal drive, an “expressive consciousness.” Similarly, when theatre returns from its conventional forms to the reality of life itself, so to speak, it is a new understanding of life that motivates this return. When one relinquishes the conventional form for so-called “everyday realism”, this change is often regarded as a sort of “return” or “re-enchantment” with a bucolic, simple life. But what this interpretation fails to see is that within these paths – of the “primitive life”, “experiential life,” “philosophical life,” “experimental life” – the most important change is the foundational, internal change within the person whose life it is, this person who has evolved from unconsciousness to consciousness, to living a life of awareness that engages with an understanding of the larger culture. The “dramaturgical consciousness” thus points to a kind of self-realization in life, a cultural understanding of life. In other words, with sufficient self-awareness, anyone can be an artist, and anyplace in society can serve as a stage. At 798, “Avatar,” then, acts as a spirit that summons “dramaturgical consciousness,” lulling all the related “actors” into the narrative, bringing them into performance, into speech.
The Possibilities of Theatre
There are two motivating forces behind evolutions in theatre: one concerns the elements that comprise the theatre, such as new discoveries in structure or expressive form; the second involves changes within the creator that lead to a new understanding of theatre. From a creative perspective, the former is focused on the exterior; it views life and the world with theatre as its main subject. The latter is focused on the interior; an internal sublimation occurs within the creator toward “life/theatre,” and through the influence of this self-enlightenment upon everything else, one pursues the question of the possibility of theatre through the lens of life and the world.
Theatre essentially allows for the possibility of creating a “reality” within the constraints of the audience’s understanding. Through the use of a specific form that reconstructs space, scene, and language, theatre rouses and awakens the “dramaturgical consciousness” of its audience members. But why do we express ourselves? What do we hope to transmit when we express ourselves? And how effective is this transmission? In Avatar Tales, we see many forms of interactive expression. First, a figure who has lived through the historical vicissitudes of the 798 Arts District holds a live chat on memory and understanding. Second, at certain points within the specific route of the performance, the live scene is digitally transmitted to another location, creating “linked theatres.” Those audience members present at the live scene and those at other locations interact in real time, creating a wide-ranging variety of dramatic dialogue. Third, the openness of the theatre allows everyone to participate within the performance via a Wechat QR Code. Fourth, the piece is able to accommodate the intervention of any other materials – the playwright’s text, live interviews, artists’ paintings, historical images and recordings, performance recordings, and the occasional entry of the actors themselves. All of these aspects signify an opening up of the boundaries of the theatre.
The possibilities presented within Avatar Tales represent the possibilities of contemporary theatre, which inevitably involve the issues of the boundaries of human existence, those of ourselves, and our surroundings. Within contemporary society, the intervention of scientific technology (represented as “scientific mythology”) in our most basic human fates has only been increasing. But it provides no answers to the ultimate questions, those relating to the boundlessness of the universe, or the existence of human consciousness and spirituality. As humans, we remain in our world, full of constraints, ignorant to what exists beyond this world and the nature of existence. But this confrontation between the diversity of our cultural resources and the established forms can assist in each individual’s self-examination. Each individual’s values and way of life is essentially derived from the structure of their values, and it is around this that all of our art revolves, involving the choices determined by our values, the torments, the realization of our values; art is the display of this process. Here, the possibilities of theatre also include an exploration into the question of values.
Humanity today is situated within a large-scale interaction of our globalized world. Any deviation from an individual, or a group, exists within the context of the global backdrop. But our attitudes toward the true meaning of a globalized culture are growing increasingly wary. What is the meaning of a commitment to a globally compatible system of human values? Everything exists now within the uncertainty of possibility. Only by rousing each individual, awakening each individual’s interior consciousness can we hope to meet the most fundamental desire of all possibilities. One must participate in the development of globalization armed with understanding and a consciousness of the self. In the broad dialogue among various characters, in the pursuit of creation and accepting the emergence of possibilities, one must engage in the present, in the globalized, scientifically mythologized structure of the current world, or else stand in judgment of globalization. Under the current circumstances, as the possibilities of the theatre expand and open up, stepping across space, culture, and science, it has become the theatre artist’s large arena for experimentation.
It is with the very backdrop of globalization, however, that regional cultural characteristics are brought into sharper relief. If globalization is a system of flat, lateral interaction, then regional culture creates a deep groove of historical record, and together, contributing to a fuller picture of human civilization. The possibilities of contemporary art and theatre interact on these various planes and regional cultures, allowing one to delve even more deeply into individual, idiosyncratic characteristics. The relationship between global and regional culture are like that of macro-cosmology and microscopic quantum theory: they share a fundamental nature. But if we use the interaction between macro-cosmology and microscopic quantum theory as the backdrop for studying and experimenting with the possibilities of the theatre, and the relationship between theatre and life and existence, then our existing theatrical resources will be insufficient – we must forge ahead and open the doors to the unknown.
Author, Chai Zhongjian, art critic, curator.
About Avatar Tales: https://www.goethe.de/ins/cn/zh/kul/sup/ava.html
Über Avatar Tales: https://www.goethe.de/ins/cn/de/kul/sup/ava.html
About Avatar Tales: https://www.goethe.de/ins/cn/en/kul/sup/ava.html
Über Cao Kefei: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cao_Kefei
Über Gesine Danckwart: http://www.gesinedanckwart.de/
From a performance of Avatar Tales
Post-performance discussion, “Reality is Not As You See It”, by author Chai Zhongjian
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Beijing
Photography: Lu Shan (卢杉)