Dasarts Final: Timbuktu report

I often think of Richard Schecner’s statement that the theater in the 21st century will be only one type of performance such as, for example, the string quartet was in the 20th century in the wide field of music. A relatively obsolete, quite insignificant minority medium among different types of performances. But at the same time, I also see the theater as a polygon in which all types of power are distributed, redistributed and questioned incessantly. That is why when I initiate a project, I usually have a firm concept, and I primarily view the theater and its production mechanisms as a space for its realization.
In the past several years I was most intrigued by the potential of the (interactive) political theater, which I use for breaking through to reality. Opposite representation, I wish to emphasize action in the real. I am interested in the theater as a micro-social laboratory in which we don’t necessarily function within the limits of the politically correct. I am interested in real impact. I don’t think theater is automatically political when it deals with, for example, terrorism (in T-formance), the political concept of the Empire or press titles (in „The Theater You Deserve“) or America (in the play „Timbuktu“), but only when it raises the question of distribution and circulation of power in the wider social-political context. The key determinant of the theater is that it happens here and now, and that it implies some sort of interaction, whether empathic or literal.
A theatrical performance attracts me in just that manner; as interactive, risky and highly problematic practice, as a research of what the theater is and what it could be. I wanted and still want to communicate not only with theatrical connoisseurs or those who professionally, as a job, go to the theater, but also with theatrical illiterates. Hence, I am not interested in the hermetic avant-garde nobody understands. The important difference is that before becoming DasArts participant I was interested in giving the theater exactly what I think it deserves, while today I am rather interested to give the theater that which by convention doesn’t belong to it. The idea of a play in which the stage is emptied for dogs seems pretty radical compared to my earlier work, certainly more radical than my pieces from the 1990s, which primarily dealt with the body and its limits. Back then it was a relatively conventional theatrical representation. Certainly, dogs were put on stages before (just remember Wim T. Schippers), but it remains a strategy for questioning what is possible in the theater today.
The beginning of the Timbuktu project is very personal. I wanted to dedicate the play to my 13-year old Labrador Max with whom, according to the logic of all things on this Earth, I will have to part in the foreseeable future. Auster’s novel about a dog looking for a new master seemed as an ideal template, mostly its extraordinary emotional and political charge. Just like Auster never wanted to write a novel about dogs, I never wanted to do a play about animals. The play primarily deals with contemporary sensitive issues; about abandonment, about the rights and needs of those living close and near us, but who are not dear to us, about social exclusion and the role of responsibility. In so doing, it was a special challenge to approach the young with this issue, creating an engaged theater capable of pointing outright to certain problems of the society they live in, especially when the media and the public seem to rather practice a collective denial and silence.
My final project at DasArts – Timbuktu – was realized in the period from January to October 2008 with 11 performances played. It premiered on the World Animal Protection Day, October 4, and the October 17th performance marked the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. A total of 1.529 people saw Timbuktu (45% of the audience was aged from 10 to 25). The context of the performances is definitely not irrelevant; Timbuktu was played in the new theater hall of the Zagreb Puppet Theater in Travno, as the first premier made exclusively for the space. Up until then the completely unused hall, mostly in charge for hosting outside productions of a smaller scale, came successfully into life and noted a record in visits with this project. Since Timbuktu was in part seen by the local population from New Zagreb, usually unaccustomed to attending cultural events or continually visiting the theater, this project has the significance of community art.
In the organizational sense, several months of engagement in successful mobilization and coordination of a number of institutions, associations, partner organizations and volunteers was necessary. Even though it was a demanding implementation task, it was my extreme pleasure to cooperate every day with 45 persons of different age, professions and lifestyles, most of whom have no professional experience with the theater. Working at an almost volunteer base, with shared enthusiasm, an enviable level of cohesion and solidarity was created between the participants, which contributed to the success of the entire project.
The dogs on stage were certainly attractive bait, but the play aroused a strong interest of the public and media mostly due to its pronounced social activism and an innovative inscenation of the story. Timbuktu was announced as an unusual love story between a homeless man and his dog, which might not have a classic happy end, but still offers a possibility of a completely new happy ending. One of the slogans used in the campaign was „the only play that gives you your money back if you adopt an actor”. Along with the announcement reports and critical reception, most media continued to track the aftereffects of the play with interest. More than 50 larger features were published in different Croatian press and electronic media, primarily with national range (HTV 1 and 2, Croatian Radio, daily and weekly press). Also, France Presse, an international news agency, reported about the project, and the news was transmitted by foreign media and leading world news portals. Timbuktu was represented as a unique theatrical event and an extraordinary play, which raises awareness about homeless humans and abandoned animals in an affirmative and touching way. Thirteen reviews were written and they are all extremely positively intoned.
The project was for the most part enabled by means from the city budget, but due to its peculiar topic, „Timbuktu“ was financially aided by three city offices: Office for Education, Culture and Sports, Office for Agriculture and Forestry and Office for Work, Healthcare, Social Care and War Veterans. However, the amount of the allocated funds was sufficient for only a fourth of the total budget, considering this was an organizationally complex project with many participants. This was the reason that many excellent collaborators entered the project out of enthusiasm, prepared for pro bono work. During the preparatory phase (the period from February to July 2008), the project was applied to approximately fifteen competitions by large Croatian companies. In doing so, each application required additional effort in individualizing it and adjusting it to particular competition propositions. Due to its innovative character, the project fit in easily into different categories; education of youth, culture and extra-institutional theatrical activity, promotion of social awareness and local community care. Even though we met all the conditions and values the corporations declared they were asking for, we were rejected at each competition, mostly without additional explanation.
Also, we took care to choose the companies into whose future sponsorship plans we might fit, but the result was mostly negative, at least as far as actual financial support is concerned. Even the companies that might have directly benefited from participating in the marketing of this project, like the producers of dog food or large distributive chains for pets, never showed a greater interest. One of the answers we unofficially received was that their brand has no intention of participating in this pity fest, or supporting mutts. As we found out later, the reason we had so many problems finding sponsors was that corporate capital primarily doesn’t want to „identify“ itself with the homeless. This excruciatingly difficult production experience is confirmation enough that Croatia is firmly living in a neo-liberal regime, whose symbolically most pronounced exponent is America.
Even though Timbuktu was not conceived as a humanitarian project, it pleads for humanity and is filled with love. I wanted the play to be linked with the possibility of adopting a dog, that is, for fiction to perform certain effects in reality. The play actually ends when people adopt the dogs from the Dumovec dog shelter that show up on stage, after the performance cycle. The chosen dogs are already accustomed to people and are worth giving another chance in life. Dogs are extremely cultivated beings, on the cusp between nature and man. They are too dependent on us to be able to do without us, as Auster masterfully portrays in his novel. A new home was found for three protagonists of the play for now. Truthfully, I had hoped all 12 dogs would be adopted, although I believe that it also pay to work on the popularization of the idea that it is not only cool to buy a dog, but to adopt it as well.
In the announcement campaign that proceeded, Timbuktu was introduced as a completely unusual love story about a homeless person and his dog. What motivated a large number of people included in the work on the play was their faith in the possibility of a happy ending, of adopting at least some canine part of our numerous cast. For me personally, the greatest value of this project is exactly this phenomenon of a completely tangible influence of theater in life, the most literal discontinuation of illusion which causes us to call the theater theater, and life life. There have been attempts to activate the concept of a passive viewer for years, but even when a viewer is stimulated to act, the activity doesn’t go outside of the framework of a particular project, its one or two hours of duration. Timbuktu expanded the concept of the viewer’s responsibility outside of the theater, calling upon the everyday civil responsibility of every individual in the audience.
However, Timbuktu does not end by making the problem of animal protection visible, it primarily intends to protect all kinds of „otherness“, of all those who are in a way dependent. And while stray dogs will always receive their share of media attention, homelessness is a topic odious to us all, the one the media and the public will be happy to ignore. I can’t back the thesis that „these people’s existence is their own fault“, because we live in a system that allows for that to happen to anyone. Even though Auster’s narrative offers a dramaturgical excuse, the presence of homeless people within the performance space faced me with numerous ethical dilemmas. Am I subjecting them to shameless manipulation? Does their silence in the auditorium reiterate the usual gestures of the society toward them? I certainly did not wish to emphasize the banal parallel between homeless animals and people without a permanent address, although identification processes of that sort cannot be completely avoided. It was easy to fall into a trap such as „Let’s have homeless walk behind the iron fence“ or, for example, radicalize the performance by having them imitating dog barks while entering the auditorium. I tried to offer a model of their political visibility, however fragile or short-lived it may be. That is why they stand in the auditorium silently, and a well-known actor stands as their PR or ringleader. Every other solution had numerous insurmountable and undesirable implications.
Significant difficulties arose when searching for the adequate labeling in the play’s announcements, as well as the manner of their presentation in promotional materials. Finally, a decision was made to call all the participants with a smaller part in the play “guests” and to avoid a potential undesirable hierarchy by listing names in an alphabetical order. The engagement of the homeless people turned out to be an extremely sensitive task. During the long-lasting preparation a situation of trust was slowly established, through a mutual upholding of the terms of cooperation set up in the beginning (the exact time of arrival and a regular payment of their fees). Since they were offered a dignified way of participating and a framework of context they easily identified with (during the preparations the play was performed twice just for them at their own request), they demonstrated a high level of initiative and autonomy, so much so that they even started to oversee the organizational demands of the play. Timbuktu definitely achieved success because the homeless worked with enthusiasm and were full of positive energy. Testimony to this is the fact that they all expressed their satisfaction with the cooperation, as well as a wish for it to continue. Aside from that, the internal communication and the goings-on in the backstage are a play in and of itself, the main protagonists of which are the homeless men. During the 11 performances they were filmed by students of the Drama Academy, and the intention is to create a documentary from the material gathered.
The future of a project such as Timbuktu is very questionable when it comes to guest performances, and it is doubtful whether anyone will „adopt“ this play in Zagreb after the initial block of performances; can we keep extending visibility to this issue or will it all be reduced to a few forgettable performances in which not even all the dogs were successfully adopted? Who needs such a project? Timbuktu is primarily a „model-play“ which, along with the main actor and the trained dog, can look for its other key participants in another community. In every larger city there are 12, 120 or 1200 homeless dogs, and even more homeless humans… The future of the „Timbuktu“ project depends on the interest of the potential partners, not only of theater producers, but also the city authorities as well as non-governmental organizations that can engage their volunteer networks.
The strategies I used to their outermost limits in the „Timbuktu“ project were previously tested, although with different starting premises, in interactive projects such as „The Theater You Deserve“ or „T-formance“. The purpose of the mentioned works was to emphasize the potential activity in the real as opposed to (the conventional theatrical) representation. The basis of my directing procedure was the production of events through a careful organization of unexpected breeches of reality. This is not about the unquestionable need for introducing direct interaction (T-formance) or new media (like the mobile phone in „The Theater You Deserve“) into the performing arts, but about the way their use might influence the change of perception of the contemporary viewer. These issues are not only esthetic; they are also ethical and political. I am interested in performances conceived or organized around the theatrical production outgrowing the theatrical medium, expanding into other media (like the internet), starting before coming and continuing after leaving the space of the theater (for example, by adopting the dogs from the play „Timbuktu“). I also believe that plays like „T-formance“, „The Theater You Deserve“ and „Timbuktu“ question and raise awareness about the (structure and function of the) theater in our environment.
To expect of theater to truly change something in the society is illusive, but what I find important is that the theater functions in relation to the local community, that it creates for the needs of particular interest groups. Even though I wouldn’t dare declare myself to be an activist, it doesn’t mean that in the plays, or events, that I create I don’t wish to contribute to things I believe in. Art must be established as a type of resistance in the system we work in, and attempt to change some of its parameters. Even though the fact that via the play Timbuktu only three dogs were adopted should be discouraging and defeating, only a small distance is sufficient that even the possibility that something like this is finally possible in the theater is reason enough to believe in its power. Because, less we forget, the theater, just like artistic performances in general, is one of those silly things such as religion or terrorism, which only make sense if deeply believed in.

Borut Šeparović

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