SHIFT KEY: In-between spotlight and shadow

At the International Theatre Festival MESS, on Sunday and Monday, its visitors had the opportunity to see a presentation of two theatre work-in-progress projects which were initiated as part of the SHIFT KEY initiative.

SHIFT KEY is a two-year programme whereby five European festivals are participating. MESS, as a carrier for the project, and Short Theatre from Rome, ATC festival from Bilbao, BE festival from Birmingham and ITS festival from Amsterdam. The goal of this cooperation is to increase mobility of European artists, as well as to provide them with an opportunity to show their work as part of an international context.

Participating in the Sarajevo edition of the programme were Belgian artist with a Sarajevo address, Thomas Steyaert with his project Playlist #Shuffle and Mokhallad Rasem with the theatre collective Thoneelhuis from Belgium and project Revolution of the Body.

Although conceptually and aesthetically completely different, both of these projects are characterised by important social engagement and placing in center of theatre life people and stories from the margin.

Playlist #Shuffle is a continuation of Thomas’ work which he began with the Moving Island collective, and the goal of which is to bring theatre to the community, and by means of theatre, to give a chance to those who usually haven’t got their own stories to tell. This time, Thomas worked with members of association “Joy of Life” where each of them has different disabilities, from Down syndrome to autism. By creating a collage of scenes, using music, song, dance, movement, but also verbal passages spanning from telling jokes to speaking directly to the audience which is being addressed with their position in society and hopes of changing it, Steyaert makes a democratic space where the scene is equally accessible to everybody. He brings people from the margin of society and places them into a central space of the stage, thus providing them with a voice. And what is most important, he gives this voice to everyone, by allowing everybody to show what they’d like, without needing to fit into predetermined or expected forms, or to achieve aesthetic perfection and sovereign ruling of the theatre language. His goal is not to fit people into pre-existing forms, while striving to meet the aesthetic needs of the audience, but to expand in consciousness of the audience the comprehension of the stage and stage expression and to remove the elitist aspect where the stage is reserved only for those advanced, educated, extremely skilled performers – the stage is before all a space for expression. The right for expression should belong to everyone. And what seems most important in Thomas’ work is that there is no counteraction – in it all participants are equal in conversation, which directly reflects on the audience’s attitude, and it seems as the greatest change that happens – change in the consciousness of  those who are watching.

Although aesthetically completely different, the project Revolution of the Body, performed in  the Youth Theatre Sarajevo, also brings stories from the margin. Rasem’s Iraqi background also determines his thematic focus. His collective brought a story to the audience in two etudes lasting 25 minutes each about the Arab Spring., being explored through the form of guerilla dancing. A single dominant director’s solution spanns both etudes – a video projection on screens and the bodies of the performers, who are animating it by movement, providing it with texture, re-shaping it and stimulating it, depending on the meaning which they wish to convey. In the first part of the performance, there is a slideshow of photographs of ruined spaces and prisoners who are waiting for death – images of violence and pictures of destruction. Three performers: Mostafa Benkerroum, Mokhallad Rasem and Ehsan Hemat, dressed in white costumes, in order to completely fit into the projection, slowly emerge from the photographs, almost as if it was mimicry. They become parts of the photographs with their bodies, so at one moment the viewers get the impression that they are only textures of the wall, while at other times they take on the direct part of participants, in order to, ultimately, by moving the screen, directly influence the re-shaping of the content. Near the end of the etude, this formal procedure receives its total meaning in narration whereby victims are apologizing for being victims and for bearing down on people with their tragedy. This is why their immersion into the video projection can be interpreted in two ways – as an attempt of mimicry, a retreat from the eyes of wrongdoers and onlookers, but also as their definition of identity – we are these images and these spaces and events permanently shape us.

While the first etude referred to the space of destruction itself, the second deals with the immigrant experience. In this etude Rasem begins with the term waiting. In a line of documentary videos, close-up, different people answer the question: “What for you is waiting?” And while the answers primarily go from everyday-banal to philosophical-poetic, soon, the focus is placed on those who are in regard to the immigrant experience – the tragedy of those who have their life brought to a halt in the process of waiting to have their stay in a new country legalized. In this part of the performance, the performers are holding white canvases in their arms, with faces reflecting on their surface of those questioned. With their movement, they separate and reconnect the picture, re-shaping it and fragmenting it, and so breaking up the facees of people who are speaking – by breaking up their lives and their identities.

It’s impossible to make a critical review of something which is unfinished work, a moment frozen in the process. However, one could say that through this project, MESS opened the possibility to artists to show a small piece of their work, and to have it recognized as important, in professional theatre communities, and also the theatre audience in various European cities. That is why we hope that this project is successfully continued, and that we will see some of these finished works soon at some of the upcoming editions of MESS.

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