Summer 2008 INSTED asked 4 members to start a letter exchange about their preparation for their performances at the Amsterdam Fringe Festival and BITEF; Philip Thorne were to exchange letters with Sanja Mitrovic and Øystein U. Brager with David Overend. You can read the letters here on Imploding Fictions blog, or find them on www.insted.eu. The letters were also printed in little booklets for the performances in Amsterdam.
This is the letter exchange between Philip Thorne from Imploding Fictions and Sanja Mitrovic:
So. Here we go. Let’s start. Start what exactly?
I’m changing trains at London Bridge when I get a call asking me whether I’d be prepared to participate in an email exchange project, somehow linked to the fact we’re both currently preparing shows, me for Amsterdam, you for Belgrade: “Yep.” A week later I get an email from the INSTED guys saying thanks for agreeing and as we understand it you’ll make a start. So, here we go again, start what exactly?
In Germany I used to work as a professional magician. I went round the tables in a hotel-restaurant and entertained the guests. Making a start was always the most difficult. People are sitting round a table, happily chatting away, often networking and here you come along with your faked deck of cards as an alien and (understandably) not quite trustworthy presence, and have to assert yourself http://cialisfo….om/. How do you approach this table? I tried the ‘charming’ technique, politely introducing myself as the evening’s entertainer (and got very familiar with the ‘who’s this freak’ look), and I tried the swashbuckling, flash of fire and bouquet of flowers whisked from thin air version (which once regrettably resulted in spilt wine glasses and broken crockery – I was not asked to return). In subsequent shows I acknowledged the difficulty of making a start with the quip: “well, the first number is always the trickiest, so I’ve decided to skip the first and go straight on to the second…”
In fact I’ve already sort of stumbled upon talking about our new show. The piece I’m preparing with my collaborator Oystein, draws on magic (often bad magic), and it’s all down to a strange beginning:
A year ago, just after graduating, we were asked to make a short 15 minute scratch piece for a little London theatre. We were very interested in Tommy Cooper. He started out as a magician in Britain (in the 70s I believe) and was pretty bad. During one particular show he made such a hash of it, that he actually fled from stage. The audience loved it. They howled with mirth and thought it was staged. Cooper had found his vocation. From that day on he staged his ineptitude and became a virtuoso of misjudged showmanship. Soon he was a household name, with a regular television show in which he stumbled clumsily through magical routines and celebrated failure. Then one day, during a gala show at the Royal Albert Hall in front of thousands of people, in the middle of one of his tricks, he clutched his chest, fell and died. The audience loved it. They howled with mirth and thought it was staged. The curtain was lowered, and it cut Cooper exactly in half, so his feet were still sticking out. The audience gave him a standing ovation.
We talked a lot about comedy and death and laughter and magic and facades and showmanship and failure and confetti. We talked about seeing and not seeing, what would happen if you messed up the chronology of build up and punch-line. We talked about the cycle of a joke from initial laughter to running gag to becoming a deadly bore to finding its way back into some kind of warped humour. (It is the latter we wanted to create.)
We only had a week or so to prepare for this scratch performance, but no budget and more importantly no actors. So we decided to get up there and perform some of these ideas ourselves (we are not really performers but directors). Harking back to my days as a magical entertainer we devised a series of tricks to be riffed and performed out of context, rendered through a slow, drunken haze, bordering on apathy. It turned out to be a success and we both felt that at some suitable point in the future it might be interesting to develop these 15 minutes into something more substantial.
So when the Fringe Festival asked us whether we had anything in the pipeline we could show in Amsterdam the answer was an instant: “Yep. We have this thing about clowns and failure and”…
and so Oystein and I are sitting in a rehearsal room saying Let’s start. Start what exactly? A rehearsal process. For a piece called ‘Now you see it, now you don’t’. I don’t yet know much more about it. Only that I will be performing in it. It’s still all beginnings and no riverbed in sight. I love beginnings. And I find them deeply terrifying.
Well Sanja, in a very meandering, round-about kind-of way that was my start. I trust that your wine glass still stands upright and none of your crockery is broken.
I look forward to your response!
All the very best,
Thank you for the initial e-mail. It is a good question indeed: Here we are,
at the beginning. but what is it exactly that we are supposed to begin? I’m
not sure, but I’d rather not think about it either. I prefer to see this
correspondence as a continuing conversation, without one particular
destination but with many potential detours along the way.
Oystein already told me a little about your project during the INSTEAD & IT
festival week in Amsterdam. I can easily imagine you two making magic – and,
as you say, bad magic too. A failure is sometimes, undoubtedly, much more
interesting to see.
My recent experience with the so-called “magicians” (although they never
really presented them as such) was a show that I saw in the Red Light
district by a group of old musicians, living and working in Amsterdam,
playing in a small orchestra and entertaining the audience while they were
having a dinner. All of them are well into their 60s (and, for that matter,
all of them British – is there something in this fact I wonder?). They sing
the songs from 1940’s and 1950’s, the songs of their youth, and tell some
jokes in between. The whole thing was quite moving, but for me the most
intense moments were those in which you could see them lose concentration
and make a mistake. Still they never once let their hold of the audience
slip, and everyone present (myself included) was having a simple,
uncomplicated, genuine, good old FUN. The actor that I worked with in one
previous project, Stan, made five ladies from the audience make some pretty
strange animal noises. In the meantime, a guy on the stage tried to perform
magic tricks, unsuccessfully, of course. In the end, what you had was the
stage filled with failure and an audience that was “doing everything
perfectly”. I thought, what a wonderful reversal!
And yes, the beginnings are difficult, but inspiring, too, as they are open
ended. You never know where you might find yourself at the end. The logic of
these words – “beginning” and “end” – implies some sort of linear
relationship between them. Everything that begins has to meet its end. But I
think the journey between the two is impossible to predict, so “end” always
remains an abstract possibility, and for most part you don’t know which
particular end is yours to meet.
Last summer, while staying in Belgrade, visiting family and hanging out with
my pals, I found myself thinking how I would like to make a performance
about the certain historical phenomenon – the idea of “bad guys” of history,
an entire nation perceived as criminal or devious because of the things
which were perpetrated in their name. This is what happened to both Serbian
and German people in their recent histories. Put in the frame of the
children games, the personal artefacts, family documents and the
autobiographical accounts of the performers, the piece would not try to
re-create these histories but to suggest imaginary parallels between two
historical backgrounds, their similarities and differences. My aim was to
hopefully outline a narrative in which a “child-like game” would end up in a
sort of “no-escape game”.
After trying to figure out who I could work with on this, I realised I
already had a partner for such a game – a real German, a colleague of mine
who I performed with in “Who is? Woyzeck!”, an older performance I was part
of in 2003. And, again, the beginnings. The best is when they just happen.
Jochen was intrigued by what I proposed from the word go. We easily agreed
we will play these games ourselves, and our two bad characters were created!
All of a sudden, we found ourselves consumed by a specific kind of
“historical” brainstorming, learning about each other and where each of us
comes from, getting excited about the issues such as nationalism, national
identity, feeling of guilt, feeling of pride, etc. And even though I thought
I knew, more or less, where I would like to go with the piece, I still had
to catch up on so many things from the German side, from Jochen’s side.
This, in return, inevitably steered the narrative to certain things that I
wasn’t able to predict. It was a good beginning – endlessly talking,
discussing, getting all fired up or totally exhausted of explanations,
It turned out the performance will premiere at BITEF Festival in Belgrade in
September, which for me is more than merely symbolic.
Anyhow, it’s getting late, and I will have to leave you now. Creating magic
while producing failures, and being bad while trying to be good – if we are
still happy, it works.
I am curious about your response.
With best wishes,
P.S. I was wondering, could you tell me, as an ex-magician, how would you
set up a no-escape situation in the theatre?
Thanks for your email!
In terms of ‘Now you see it’ it’ll take a while until we see a clearing in the murky tangle of fragmented ideas and multiple beginnings. But as you say, it’s an exciting place to be. I like what you say about the sequential logic of so called beginnings and ends. It reminds me of Godard’s quote ‘every film must have a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order.’ Just after reading your email I watched David Lynch’s Inland Empire, which I’d been meaning to see for some time. Have you seen it? It’s a dizzying labyrinth of beginnings, ends and meandering sub plots all looping in and out of each other with no regard for sequential chronology or temporality. The way it crashes different layers of fiction into each other is a bit like Pirandello on acid.
I really enjoyed reading about your project. It sounds fascinating. I recently read a play called ‘Die Fahrt im Einbaum oder das Spiel zum Film vom Krieg’ by Peter Handke which discusses how history requires the schemata of good guys and bad guys. It’s set in the context of the Yugoslav war and attacks “truth” as assumed by various accounts (including film, newspapers, histories, and the play itself) and comments on the kind of (his)story being created by the international community. It’s an interesting play. Partly insightful and partly guilty of the same tenacious rhetoric the writer accuses interpreters and journalists of.
I’m half German. A couple of years back some politician exclaimed that he was ‘proud to be German’, which triggered a bit of a furore. It started what was called the ‘Patriotismus Debatte’, and for a couple of weeks the question was raised in politics and the media, whether it was ok to be proud to be German.
I sort of wish we could have a similar public discussion here in England. It would be a different case here, since we do not have the burden of a tarnished national conscience. Attitude towards nationality is less complicated. Patriotism is not an evil word. We’re a nation of winners, we are the good guys! But I find this good guy mentality pretty sickening. There is still a sort of faith in militarism here which Germany has lost. There is also an insatiable appetite for stories from the war. Stories of veterans regularly appear in papers and on television there are endless adventure films featuring really evil Germans and really decent Brits. It’s as though we’re nostalgically harking back to the days when there was an unquestioned menace, a truly ‘bad guy’ which allows us to take the role of the hero.
At times the English national conscience can be quite bloated and full of itself. People find it ok for example for Tony Blair to say: ‘England is the best country in the world. We know it, and secretly, everybody else knows it too’ (quote from his last election campaign). Transfer that quote to Germany and it’d sound pretty sinister! I think by working its way through a trauma Germany has found a much more humble, self-reflective national identity. I wish there’d be more reflection and less self-grandeur in England.
Anyway, I look forward to hearing how your project develops…
…You asked me how a magician would create a ‘No escape situation’ in a theatre… Well… For himself? Or for the audience? There have of course been several acts based on creating an impossible escape situation for the performer (from which he’s miraculously supposed to free himself). This is actually a genre in magic, it’s called ‘Escapology.’ Houdini was the master of it. Although, I’ve heard about a magician (Chinese I think) who set up a real one way act for himself.
He explained he was going to perform a bullet catching trick. A member of the audience would examine a gun, sign a bullet, load it, aim at his head and fire. He would then ‘catch’ the signed bullet between his teeth. Only the gun was real. And there was no trick. The magician had effectively staged his own exit. In the limelight, in front of a rapt audience, countdown accompanied by a drum-roll, crash of cymbals, shot, and the performer was dead.
Houdini famously died on stage too of course, during an escape routine, but not intentionally. This is my second email to you and already I’ve mentioned three magicians who’ve died on stage… (what is it about magicians and death?)
I assume you are asking a magician to set up a no escape situation for the audience though… Hmmm… Excluding any trick which includes borrowing wads of money I do not yet have an answer…
I’ll ponder on it and hopefully give you an answer in a subsequent email sometime… For now I’m going to have to leave you and get back to tending to a stack of cardboard boxes, I’m currently moving house…
Look forward to hearing back from you and greetings from sunny London!
It‘s nice to hear back from you. The rehearsals need their own timing. You can’t force yourself to write about it until it happens – that’s the magic of the theatre. Live presence and the exchange of energies that comes out of that situation.
I didn’t see “Inland Revenue”. The last Lynch I saw was “Lost Highway”, and I have to admit I didn’t particularly like it. “Twin Peaks” was my favorite serial, though, as a teenager. One of the songs from it (Julee Cruise, I think) – “into the dark, into the dark…” – a rhythmical pronunciation of a tantalising tension, like counting steps before going into the sea, at night. Or finding yourself at the beginning of the rehearsal period.
Asking the audience to shoot at you – and for you to die during the trick – that is indeed the ultimate “no escape” situation. You disappear, but at the same time you are still physically present. Does being “born” on stage make you want to “die” on stage as well? The idea of magical circle of life and death (to paraphrase it, every performer goes through this – repeatedly “dying” and getting re–“born” again through their performance) doesn’t count here. In this particular case one never comes back. Here, the reality breaks the illusion and that is why these stories about death on stage are so fascinating.
I know only a few very basic tricks, children–like. One is with a box of matches where you put a marble in, and one time you open the box you can see the marble, the next time you open it you can’t. Another trick is “how to make your index finger broken”. It’s all about putting your hands and fingers into a certain position and making small movements so that you get the visual impression of “cutting away” your finger. Not enough to get me the real magician diploma, I suppose.
I don’t believe in tricks and magic I see on TV (I can’t avoid the suspicion of manipulation, so deeply ingrained in the nature of that particular media). It’s totally unlike the “true” magic that happens – without thinking, without explanation – and makes us happy, that catches you off guard. In any case, I’m very curious to hear more about the “magician–like tasks’’ that you will give to each other in the rehearsals.
I didn’t know you were German. I enjoyed reading your opinion about the situation in England. Sometimes I miss that sort of directness – it’s not about taking the sides, it’s about taking the responsibilities. Escapism is also a way of not facing up to things, of running away, not being ready to self–reflect. I don’t wish to insult magicians (escapists) by implying they’re not self–reflective. It’s just interesting to look at the meaning of words on more levels.
I didn’t read Handke, the book you recommend, but I read an article about it. It’s in Serbian and the title is “The Austrian writer Pieter Handke, European Public Opinion and the war in Yugoslavia”. Of course, the role of the media was/is/will always be a major issue.
I think you got the point there in the letter. I’m indeed not nostalgic about certain periods, about some mythical “golden years”, and I’m not trying to re–create history. I’m more interested in the idea of times when the distinctions between bad and good seemed obvious, allowing us to play (to be) heroes. I read somewhere that the new film version of Robin Hood will not have him as the hero – Russell Crowe will be the hero, but in the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham. I found this amusing. It’s nice when these categories get subverted in cartoons or films, and we can still laugh about it all. But it’s a different story when “being truly good” and “being truly bad” becomes the reality.
Times and again it seems to me like I became fully aware of my nationality only after I started living abroad. With the recent arrest of Radovan Karadzic, I was again put in the position to “be an ambassador of my country”. Funny position that, not the one you chose for yourself of your own free will, and yet everybody expects an opinion. Funnier still that all of them are being extradited here, to Holland, to Den Haag. To round it all off, I recently became Dutch and to do so I had to give up my Serbian nationality. So much about history which is still present.
I wish you the best of luck with your moving and – take care that some of your precious boxes don’t disappear as if by magic. The magic of keeping the precious things/people/emotions is true magic as well, isn’t it?
All the best,
It’s been a while…
I am now in Oslo. I arrived here two weeks ago for the final rehearsal period of Now you see it; now you don’t. We have a rehearsal room in the city. But I am not in the rehearsal room. I’m in a frigging hospital…
I performed an unintentional feat of slapstick attempting to carry a heavy amplifier down the stairs to our rehearsal basement. I slipped up on the top of the stairway (it had just been raining) and landed down the bottom. The upshot of it is that I have a fractured leg and we have had to suspend rehearsals and cancel the show in Amsterdam!
Damn, damn, damn.
The whole incident must have seemed pretty surreal to the ambulance people since I was in full Now you see it clown make up when they fetched me. I was in too much pain at the time to give a toss, but in retrospect I think it must’ve looked fairly weird.
Anyhow, nothing is broken as at first expected and I’ll be fine. It’ll just take its time…
I do hope that your preparations are more successful and your production is on a steady course! How are you and Jochen getting on with rehearsals?
Before our rehearsals got prematurely interrupted we’d been working on a dramaturgy of sudden reversals. The show was to be constructed as a playful overturning of expectations and assumed conditions. This builds on our work with Hamletmachine which was also constructed around a constant reversal of forms, one form being exchanged by another like in a relay race. In that show we were interested in the whole process of ‘revolution’, of evolution from form to form, idea to idea. This time the thematic starting point was the frayed edge between magic and failure. I have long had a passion for magic and its disintegration. You are totally right when in your last letter you mention the escapist nature of the magician. Our show was to balance dangerously on this fictive and illusory artifice which is always close to giving away the reality it is concealing. We were interested to play with the subversion of magic and the magic of subversion. We were also tempted by the most basic of magical principals: appearance and disappearance; the cycle of which is, as we discussed in an earlier email, present in any live performance.
In rehearsal we gave ourselves obstructions for the achievement of certain tricks and magical routines, playing in the ambiguous space between the unintended and the intended mistake. The whole show was to be placed in a state of comic physical doubt.
There is something ruefully funny about creating a show about failure and failing. Deliberately flirting with risk and reality, and then being made aware of fucking reality in another way. Creating a slippery landscape of tricks and fiction and then physically slipping up.
Please write to me about how your project is going. That’ll cheer me up! How long till you perform?
All the very best from Norway,
Continuation of the correspondence between Philip Thorne and Sanja Mitrovic
On the 26th of October, Philip who was in London at that moment, watched Sanjas performance in Amsterdam with Skype. After the performance, INSTED had prepared a talk with Sanja and Philip about their letters, the performance Philip just saw and their expectations of the performances in the time they wrote the letters. Unfortunately, modern technology doesn’t always work as we would like it to, Skype refused to continue the conversation, so this conversation couldn’t take place.
After watching in London, Philip decide to write Sanja another letter as a continuation of their correspondence during the summer and Sanja replied.
London – 28.10.08
Well, that was truly a weird experience on Saturday!
It was pretty strange to be sitting in my room in a London suburb watching your performance in Amsterdam. I saw you and Jochen warm up, then the people entering the theatre and chatting away, the hush as the lights go down… but it’s all so far removed, I had to keep reminding myself that this was actually happening live!
Anyway, I’m afraid the rather primitive webcam didn’t do justice to your performance. It was very dark and blurred and grainy and I couldn’t make out any of the text. I tried following the script whilst at the same time watching the performance but got hopelessly out of synch between the text and action… It was a rather bizarre viewing experience! Anyway here are my rather crude observations on the piece based on the blurry mediation of it I saw:
It seemed there was a very intricate balance between simplicity and complexity. The games, songs and routines had a really simple and innocent quality about them, yet tipped into a haunting eloquence about nationality and the roles of good and evil. The game-experiments and the precision with which they were pursued had an almost scientific quality to them, uncontaminated by sentiment or spectacle. At no point however did the performance seem cold because of the playfulness underlying every action. I thought it was interesting the way you took very personal and intimate artefacts (letters, photos, at one point a passport… I think?) and magnified them on the screen behind, turning them into something with a much wider significance, turning them from private to public. In a way the whole performance was based on this kind of extrapolation, exploring large themes through a very personal, specific and simple lens. Although I was watching the performance rendered through a crappy image with tinny sound, there were moments which managed to have quite a forceful gut impact on me. To name two: the Freude Schöner Götter Funken moment and the incessant football chants (I presume that’s what they were?) at the end of the show. The latter seemed to drive home how blatant nationalism becomes acceptable through these games and how easily we accept ‘labelling devices’ – be they teams, religions or nationalities.
I’m sure there is a lot I missed. But from what I saw I am deeply intrigued to see the full show properly sometime…
Next week I start rehearsals for ‘Norway. Today’ a play about two youngsters who meet via an internet chatroom and get tangled up between real and mediated experience. So in a way the skyping at the weekend was good preparation!
Good luck with the future of the show and hope to meet you again soon, in London, Amsterdam or wherever else in the world!
I just finished the workshop I gave for the third year of mime students here
in Amsterdam. It was really good and I am happy with the result. So sorry
that I didn’t reply before, but it is SO busy at the moment that I can
hardly check up my e-mail. Thank you for the beautiful letter you wrote, it
was really nice and sometimes really funny to read. I was just imagining you
trying to connect what you see and what you read, with all the delays in
skype watching. Weird, but I supposed it was fun as well.
I am amazed how much you saw actually and how much you understood from the
performance. Yes, we had this letter exchange but I didn’t know that you
will know so much. It was my pleasure to read it, especially the small
moments that I never thought you could see by watching the performance via
Anyhow, I can not write long, have to wake up really early. Tomorrow we have
some imrpro jam evening with the musicians (6 of us in total), I am looking
forward to it! Next Thursday we play Will You Ever Be Happy Again? at the
festival in Tilburg here, in Netherlands. Show must go on :)
Anyhow, let’s still keep in touch, this busy period will not be forever :)
How are your rehearsals for “Norway.Today”? Good luck with the start!
You can read more about Sanja and her work on http://sanjamitrovic.blogspot.com or find more information about Imploding Fictions on http://www.implodingfictions.com.