Skype interview-chat with theatre director and member of Rimini Protokoll, Helgard Haug, co-director of Call Cutta in a Box performance (2008–2012).
CHRISTINA PAPAGIANNOULI. How would you describe Call Cutta in a Box performance?
HELGARD HAUG. Well, you contact a theater, make an appointment and buy a ticket. So far it is a performance following conventional rules. But instead of sitting in the dark audience space and watch other people you have to find your way to an office. It’s then when it starts turning into something else. The phone will be ringing when you are opening the door and a person on the other end of the line will know your name and ask you when he/she can prepare a cup of tea for you. If you agree the kettle in the office will be switched on and an hour of a conversation between a person in a call center in India and you will start. The whole experience is depending on the interaction between the two people on either end of the line. For Call Cutta in a Box, two people are sharing a very exclusive hour! Although they do not know each other, they enter [quite] an intimate situation, where it is about a conversation that is following certain rules, but still very open for improvisation!
How did you come up with the idea of using the internet in your work? What was your inspiration, your starting point?
We belong to the generation that grew up without internet, but we were working internationally from the very beginning. So, as soon as we realized that there is something like a net that links people easily, we were trying to be part of this. For Call Cutta in a Box, it was a fascinating thought to use a net that was established and build to make India become the back office of the western world, to have people with low wages working at nightshifts to inform and sell things to other people. We wanted to use this established technology and do something else with it. Something where it was not about selling (useless) things but about a connection itself. On the other hand we realized that there were many similarities to conventional theater: the callers had to slip in roles, had to pretend being someone else, get an English or American name (according to the market they were serving Shuktara became for example Sandy), pretend to be in the direct neighborhood by knowing the results of the recent football or soccer-game and chat on the weather and when they made a deal, the other callers were giving applause . . .
In relation to your other work, what was the difference in terms of directing methodologies in Call Cutta in a Box? Directing an online performance means automatically a different directing methodology?
We had developed a first version called Call Cutta, which was a guided walk. All the three of us were in India for this project, looking for the protagonists (mainly young people with communication skills) not so much with any personal experiences in a call center. Those chosen people were then trained and installed in a local call center and then they were guiding people in Kolkata (first) and then in Berlin through streets and lanes to secret places and finally to a shop window, where for a moment they could see one another through a technology – not Skype yet, similar but very slow. This was 2005.
For the indoor version that we named Call Cutta in a Box, one of us was situated in India – with the help of an assistant – and the two other Riminis were in Berlin. Rehearsing meant creating the game and playing it again and again. A mixture of improving the technology and the possibilities of how people in India can reach out and manipulate the things in the office in Berlin or the other cities. While sitting in the call center in Kolkata talking to their single audience member, they could for example: switch in the light, send a picture, open files in the computer, send sound . . .
We are trying to find new methods for each art-project. The internet, first of all, made it possible to realize such a project. See somebody on a computer screen who is actually on the other side of the planet was mind bursting, but as soon as we understood that this is possible we started using it. Then of course it becomes a tool that you are using like a pencil or a rehearsal stage that you are working in.
So, would you suggest that Internet is a tool or a space (cyberspace)?
Both I guess. It is a space used as a tool! Or a tool used in a space . . .
In your opinion, online performance director is closer to a theatre director or a film director?
For me – online directing is only making sense if you know each other personally – so it was essential that one of us was in India physically. Everything else is not really inspiring. The people we brought together for the play, the call center agent and the audience members, they were merely online connected through internet, but for developing a project and making people committing to the ideas, I think it needs to be a very old fashioned personal and direct connection. Maybe because we hardly knew India as a country and it was the center of the project, so it was also all about understanding the culture, experiences and why it is important that a priest needs to come to bless the call center before you can start working!
What are the key advantages and disadvantages of using the internet as a basic platform of a theatrical performance?
Counting the miles you are travelling to India – wasting all the energy and time – it might be better to just stay where you are and use other technologies to communicate – that’s right – but I highly belief in direct communication – sensing somebody, sharing a time that is exclusive, concentrating, focusing. I think the internet is a place where it is hard to focus and I need the focus when I am working with people. I am just wondering which other websites you are looking at while we are chatting, did you check your mails, the news, sent any answers? Maybe I did too – so to stay in the Indian tunes it gives people many arms and hands – perfect for some kind of work and connection but not for all. But on the other hand it managed to shrink the world and this was what we wanted to underline and proof with the Call Cutta projects.
Please feel free to make any comments you wish.
Maybe there is one more example I can give – when we had an online performer: the project’s title is Herrmann’s Battle – a Kleist text we used to question different forms of war. We asked the web-author Peter Glaser to join our cast on stage – he is a brilliant thinker and journalist, physically ill: sitting in a wheel chair – and said no to this invitation because he did not liked the idea of people watching him on stage. So he was sitting in his living room and we worked with him as an online performer. He said that he is like a whale swimming through the internet looking for some plankton for nutrition! I really liked it that we had a mixture of “real”-performers and an online performer. He was constantly sending links and material – at the end we prerecorded his part and just pretended that he was online, because it would have meant that we need a performer onstage that would all the time filter what we was sending to find if it is the right moment for this kind of material. So I guess for online performance it always needs a kind of interpreter.
Interviewed by Christina Papagiannouli on 30 October 2012