Q&A: Ivana Müller talks about her participatory works

Ivana Müller talks about her participatory works as part of the Crossing the Line Festival


About kids or children’s theater?
I didn’t know anything about kids that are seven years old. I didn’t know what they read, what they watch, what’s cool, what’s not cool. It was very interesting to study that.

What did you learn?
We did research in Utrecht mostly. I wanted to do this in different kinds of schools, so we did research in a bit more of a posh school in the center of the city and also in some suburban schools. The reactions were very different. For instance, for a long time we were asking ourselves whether the presence of adults was good or not. Should we do it only for kids, or can adults also participate? One of the questions [we asked the kids] was, “Would you prefer to do this piece on your own, or would you like your parents to be around?” At the posh schools, all the kids said, “Yeah, great, Mommy and Daddy—that’s fine, that’s super.” [Laughs] Their relationship to anything that’s artsy or cultural comes from their parents. And the kids from suburban schools were like, “No way are my parents going to come.” Because the entrance to this comes from school, so they are emancipated from a different kind of background, culture, etc. This was very interesting. Also, let’s say I was really surprised that kids today still listen to Michael Jackson. This is my generation. I thought they would listen to Lady Gaga and nothing else, but no. Also you can immediately see the kind of weird kids that listen to Bob Dylan. [Laughs] You see all these issues that you dealt with when you were a child, but also if you translate it to a larger scale of society, you come to some very surprising and inspiring conclusions.

What is the structure of the piece?
They have headphones and through them they get different questions, suggestions, things to think about and also to do—together or on their own. Also this question of rules: Do I behave like I’ve been told, or do I do something on my own? Or do I want to do it differently than the others around me or do I want to blend in? Curiously, the kids are really aware of that. Some are on a more rational or irrational level, but when you speak to them afterward, they are articulate. In the piece, they also have the possibility to vote about certain dramaturgical developments. 

Like what?
There is a monster outside of their space. They can see the monster, but it’s not with them. A monster being some kind of metaphor for the foreigner, of the other, of the unknown, of not the same as me. They can decide whether or not they want the monster to come inside of the same space. Things like that. Also what was important is that even when they perform they are aware that others are performing as well, so they’re watching and performing at the same time. This kind of dualism is very interesting both in theater and in society. They’re able to have a different kind of concentration on the moment.

Is there a certain age that this is most appropriate for?
It’s from the age of seven, because they have to be able to read. There are some written instructions. But it can go from seven to 100 years old. It’s just important that two thirds of the audience are kids.

For We Are Still Watching, you said that there are no professionals. But what happens when there actually are professionals in the audience? How does that shift the reading?
Most of the time, there are professionals, but nobody is employed to do something special. And the communities that read—it’s amazing how this changes the whole piece. In the script, there are roles that have been written, so if there is a sentence—and this isn’t from the piece—that goes, “I love power,” and a theater director says it, it sounds very different from a when complete strangersays it. The interpretation and how this sentence performs is extremely different. So what is interesting in this piece is all these different attempts, first of all, to interpret. I was just performing in Italy and almost the whole community one evening were professionals—theater directors, actors, some critics. They all really tried to do it the best, and in some ways it was maybe less interesting than when people are really reading badly. They start to perform other things: They start to perform insecurity, the desire not to be good, but to be clear. What’s great is that this piece is always performed badly. It always creates interesting questions, and in that sense this piece is always a success. This is also in the script, but it’s a success because we only perform for ourselves. There is nobody else to judge it. I mean we all judge it of course, and when you come out of a show you like it or not—it’s not about this—but in the moment when things are happening, it’s interesting. You can watch everybody, those who read and those who watch.

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