From the Booklet of the play
GREGOR BUTALA: CONVERGENCE OF THE INTELLECT AND THE SUBCONSCIOUS Is the so-called sensorial theatre any different from the classical theatre, as both of them deal with live staging and performing of various issues, striving to communicate something to the spectator, to trigger or instigate a certain response in him – and after all, in both types of theatre, the usual ingredients are common: the performers, scenography, costumes, music and so on? If this theatre is in fact so essentially different – can it therefore still be called “theatre” at least in the usual meaning of the word? These are the two most basic questions, which may arise at the mention of this staging/performing practice, which remains relatively marginal in the general consciousness even after two decades of systematic research and development. The answer to both questions is, of course, yes. However, it is also true that there are several differences between these two approaches, in basic attitude as well as in basic procedures and tools. “Theatre of the senses” as it was conceived by the Columbian director Enrique Vargas in the eighties and the nineties and finally formalized by establishing Teatro de los Sentidos in 1993, can be understood as some kind of synthesis of his previous research of various theatre and cultural practices, ranging from the experimental and progressive theatre of the sixties (Vargas also worked in La MaMa Theater in New York for a period of time) through related engagement with physical expression and collective urban celebrations, in which the boundaries between the “actors” and the “audience” is blurred, to researching the ratio between acting, myths and ritual – the proto-theatrical forms, such as the ancient Greek mysteries or the rituals of the traditional Andean communities.
Vargas’ setting up of sensorial theatre language, which includes the stimulation of all the senses in order to communicate, is in a certain way a part of the rich tradition of attempting to attract the audience with multi-layered approaches into a performing experience, from ideas of complete artwork, through avant-garde projects (for instance Marinetti’s “tactile theatre”) to “anthropological theatre” of Grotowski or Barba; however, in the specific tools used by the sensorial poetics it is possible to recognize the deviation from the established (nowadays also dominant) ocularcentric paradigm, which perceives theatre as something “to be observed” (and “listened to”). Its tools of sensual communication equally incorporate smell, taste and tactile stimuli, enabling the recipient’s direct and complete physical immersion into the situation and exceeding the usual mere “mental” reflection of what is performed on the stage. Or spoken through Nietzschean dialectics: the dominant Apollonian nature of (“the western”) theatre is complemented (if not even “replaced”) by Dionysian (sensual, instinctive) dimension of the event, as much as we physically “experience” it and not only observe it or reflect about it. Nevertheless, the comprehensive address of the senses is not the only determining element of the sensorial performing; perhaps even more important cornerstones of Vargas’ sensorial theatre dictionary are the use of archetypal motives and symbols and the direct “interaction” between the performers and the audience, which is, as a rule, of individual character. It is only the methodologically precise and thoughtful cooperation of these ingredients that enables the suitable completion of the “point” of the sensorial show within the individual visitor, where its true “stage” and its true “substance” are to be found; the essential feature of such an event is the reconfiguration of the “performing situation”, which converts a stable ratio between the audience and the performance and thus also the type of the presented material and the structural place of the performers. That is precisely why various “additional” sensual stimuli, which are relatively regularly present in the contemporary theatre (such as the smell of preparing food on the stage or different kinds of physical contact between the performers and the audience), do not presuppose “sensoriality” in the terms of starting points and methods of Vargas’ work. Very similarly, the framework of standard theatre dispositive includes different participatory projects, whose successful implementation anticipates some type of cooperation of (at least a part of) the audience; through these the collaborating spectators become to an extent “objects” of the performance and their communication with the event takes place in a different register as in a sensorial “performance”.
In its basic form, the sensorial performance is set in the environment of a specially designed labyrinth, into which the visitors enter individually and then move linearly between scenes, situated in the various points within the maze. In contrast to the “classical” theatre model, the performance of this type does not aim so much at staging a certain “story”, it is predominantly directed to the inner experience of the visitor – more precisely to the emotional responses and processes, triggered by various sensual stimuli and archetypal motifs, through (generally non-verbal) interaction with performers in the different parts of the labyrinth, helping the visitor form a complete and completely individualized story. The visitor thus becomes the essential part of the whole performance, putting him in the role of the main character of his own, intimately awakened story. The tectonics of the sensorial performance is different from the “traditional” theatre performance also by not focusing on the dramatic text or on external events – meaning on more or less passive consumption of the events on the stage – the main role is taken over by the visitor’s internal landscape. The actor, usually the main axis of the theatre event, has to adopt a low profile with his capabilities in the context of establishing a wholesome sensorial poetics in order to effectively convey meaning of a certain scene. Among the most important means of expression, which operate more on subconscious than rational level, are the design of space, darkness and silence, as well as the implementation of sensorial tools like sounds, tastes and textures, these enable a deeper interaction, release of suppressed memories and other subconscious contents; the internal experience of the visitor is encouraged with archetypal images, situations and symbolic objects. The basic tendency of the sensorial theatre is to (potentially) transform the visitor by his individual internal experience; in this context it can be understood as an attempt to move from often non-binding “consumption” of cultural products, which enables “reconciliation” with the real life status quo through the participation in the “ideal contents” of the artistic event. Thus the possibility of preserving the self-satisfied position within real life situations is achieved.
The systematic research of sensorial language is connected to Senzorium Theatre from the very beginning, which was established in 1996, soon after the participation of Teatro de los Sentidos and their performace Oracles at the Exodos Festival in Ljubljana – this performance was an inspiration for the foundation of Senzorium. The main creative forces of Senzorium in the first years after its foundation were Barbara Pia Jenič and Gabriel Hernández, both of them members of Vargas’ aforementioned group; they soon started producing first performances following Vargas’ example of labyrinths, inspired by the archetypes of myths, legends and folklore. The top of this early period, during which the first generations of Slovenian sensorial artist have been educated in sensorial “performing”, were the performances A Walker of Sins (2002) and The City of Silence (2003); the latter (unintentionally) predicted a new chapter in the development and operation of this theatre through the sublime thematization of the phenomenon of death or transition. Jenič is the only leader of Senzorium since 2004, who gradually abandoned the structure of labyrinth in her artistic work and experimented in various ways with the use of sensorial tools in different performative contexts – all the way to incorporating sensorial approaches into other forms of theatre, searching for new dimensions of communication and conveying meaning in the framework of classical theatre.
Attempts of intertwining classical and sensorial theatre are not something completely new for Barbara Pia Jenič (in 2001 she staged The Battle Between Carnival and Fast), however she considerably expanded her research and the possibilities of combining the sensorial language with words (or rather upgrading different artistic practices with sensorial approaches) only in the last decade. These attempts seemed more or less successful, but it is indisputable that each and every one of them represented a new step on the untrained path; every project of Senzorium Theatre since 2004 can be characterized as an experiment, an attempt in discovering a new approach or performing dispositive. The aforementioned City of Silence already showed the ambition of transforming the motif inspiration of different rituals into sensorial “transmission” of more demanding and complex literary and theoretical works; this orientation was upgraded by the labyrinth To Be Or to Have (2004), conceived by Erich Fromm’s work, The Midnight Margareta (2005), conceived by the novel of Mikhail Bulgakov The Master and Margarita, which was a turning point in several other aspects: the sensorial language was upgraded with elements of acting and narration, but most of all it was the first replacement of the labyrinth with a more flexible and performing-friendly (and financially practical) form of “open” space, in which the visitors entered all at the same time (and not each one individually), as the moved in groups from scene to scene. This type of design with several smaller groups was also preserved in the following performances, such as Unveiling (2006). Jenič also constantly and consistently searched through her projects for the content “synthesis” with contemporary life and surroundings, like in The City of Sighs (2008), conceived on Slovenian cultural archetypes (from beef soup to Cankar’s mother or Laibach), or in Baptism (2010), based on the motifs on Prešeren’s The Baptism at the Savica (2010), in which she tackled the topic of relation between art and economy. Baptism was one of the first experiments of using sensorial tools on the stage (mostly sounds and smells), continued by Jenič in two more poetry-related projects: Cro-Magnon (2013) and Gothic Windows (2014), moving even closer to the classical theatre event with their discrete dosage of sensual “atmosphere”, even to the extent of not being able to label them as sensorial. If it seems like Senzorium is trying to converge the “intellect” and the “subconscious”, the staging of the emblematic dystopia Brave New Wold is certainly a grateful opportunity to resolve the apparent tension between the transformative potential of sensory memory and the emptiness of lobotomized rituality from a potential future. The old psychoanalytic joke is that it is only the subconscious that remains forever, where only “those, who are happy” are eternal.