Q&A: Ivana Müller talks about her participatory works

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

What were your concerns about writing the script?
It was really wild. I wanted to write it together—with Andrea, David and Jonas—because we had to have different voices. In thinking about the whole concept, it’s real, it’s mathematics, it’s real choreography. It was complex to make a concept that would be so easy to do that nobody would have questions about how to do it. It’s not very interesting when people say, “How should I read it?” Of course sometimes it happens and what’s great is that people start talking to each other and say, “Well, I think you should read these lines like this…” At the end, everybody chants together. It’s 60 people chanting, and if it works well, it’s even a canon. If it doesn’t, it’s kind of a cacophony, which is great as well. But they have to make decisions; for instance, whether or not to use a metronome. It’s interesting—when we performed it in Berlin, people were really not for a metronome. Maybe, culturally they’re a little bit critical of a big group of people doing something to a metronome or a count, you know? With their history. It’s really interesting how people react individually and as a community. We performed in Brussels, and suddenly people went off the script into some kind of personal conversation and eventually they came back to the script. It was like an inserted private moment where people really talked about issues. But they decided to go back to the script—because there is the end in the script, you know? [Laughs]

Do you ever become nervous that they might not make it to the end?
No! But for me, in the beginning it’s awful. I work very precisely when I work with professional performers. Now I have to give this script to people that I know will massacre it with how they read it. [Laughs] This was a very difficult and brave decision. But I am always so happy when things are happening, and even if they go completely wrong, it’s still fine, because what is more interesting are the moments of negotiation and how people find a way out—they always do. That’s so exciting. People take responsibility in the craziest ways. They really constitute a community in five minutes. They have a common goal. They know they have to read this—I mean they don’t have to, they could leave the space—but it doesn’t happen very often because everybody is kind of in the same situation. I guess people don’t feel annoyed or nervous about anything.

That is tricky to pull off with participatory works.
Yeah. Normally, I hate participatory pieces. That’s even a sentence in the piece. Often in participatory theater, you have some kind of hierarchy. For instance, the worst thing that can happen ever is that you go to the theater, you sit in the audience, and suddenly somebody asks you to do something that has nothing to do with anything that you wanted to do there. So you’re basically performing somebody else’s agenda. And this is always terrible. I never do it. I’m always like, no way. The difference here is that everybody is absolutely in the same situation. Do you see what I mean? It’s not that you will be the idiot that’s being exposed. Everybody is an idiot and not an idiot at the same time. We made the text and also the context in which the four of us would feel good, and I can tell you I’m very critical of participatory theater. Also, the way the text is written makes people sound really intelligent, and there are people who become really funny all of a sudden by reading this text, so in general I think [the viewers] enjoy it quite a lot. It’s funny: I change the text according to the context in which we perform. There are certain things that come up, which are culturally based and have to do with language. We performed it already in America—in Portland [Oregon]—last September, and there was a sentence: “In the next script, I would like to be rich” and somebody says, “In the next script, I would like to be Hamlet” and somebody says, “In the next script, I would like to be black.” They said, “You cannot say this. You should say African-American.”

Oh wow.
I realized, my God, it’s really like this politically correct language in the States…this was a whole discussion. I said maybe we would say, “In the next script, I would like to be straight,” and they said, “That’s even worse, we have a really huge gay and lesbian contingent here, and that’s not possible.” Sometimes it’s funny how things come up like that. In Italy, we were performing in a space that used to be a church. Now it’s used for concerts and performances. There was an 80-year-old lady and in the text, there’s a mention of nudity. But nobody’s naked! It’s just talking about it, and she walked out. She said, “We don’t talk about such things in church.” [Laughs] I think it’s really interesting. Every time it’s different, and that’s nice.

Are these the only two participatory pieces you’ve ever made?
Yes. These two are my participatory-theater contributions. I was talking to someone today about my new piece, and I said, “The only thing I know is they’re not going to be participatory pieces.” I don’t know how it is in the States, but in Europe, it’s really fashionable now. Sometimes it’s really great. But sometimes it’s also a little bit…yeah.

Why is it so popular?
Because there is a huge reflection happening here. How do we continue living with each other? It has to do with the idea of collectivism, collectives, community. I think it is very much provoked by the whole sociopolitical situation here. In Europe, we are really going through a crisis, not only financial but a societal crisis. Things are kind of falling apart. It’s quite complex, and it’s not like people are killing each other yet; it’s falling apart on a more philosophical level except that there is also an economic crisis and there is a lot of—this whole cleavage between rich and poor. For Europe, it’s quite something because it’s a part of the world where these things have been tamed for quite a long time.

What are you working on next?
I’m working more with the idea of marginal. Not marginal in the sense of immigrants or the unemployed—not in a social kind of way. For me, it’s an interesting position as a way to be emancipated in some way. Think about some visual examples; if you see an image, and there is something happening on the margin, you kind of see it but you’re not exactly looking at it, you’re looking at what’s happening in the center. You are conditioned to look more at what’s happening in the center and in the same way, I think that happens also in the place of theater in society. We all work on the margins in some way. Even if you make mainstream theater, it’s still quite marginal in terms of society and how many people see it. On the other hand, when you’re on the margin people leave you alone to work on your own ideas. A movement that comes from the margins can interestingly influence the center as well. Also, there is a famous quote of Jean-Luc Godard, who said, “It’s the margin that keeps the page together.” So at the moment I’m researching around that issue and working toward a new piece that eventually is going to come out in 2015. 
Ivana Müller is at New York Live Arts Sept 30–Oct 5.

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