Gob SquadShared Experience
„Gob Squad Reader. An Impossible Attempt to Make Sense of It All”, Johanna Freiburg (ed.), Gob Squad, Berlin-London 2010
The freedom to choose what we gave our audiences from the start made us quickly realise that the behaviour of the audience (or of the general public) not only influenced our work, but could also change it. Exactly how an audience developed a relationship to our work was unforeseeable and changed from performance to performance. The way that guests in House explored the rooms, the way that the sales-people and customers in An Effortless Transaction carried on with their business of buying and selling sofas whilst we performed around them; all these things became an important part of our work. The fact that the work was only completed by the presence of the audience led to the desire to experiment further with the manner in which performers and audience members (as well as performers and passers-by) encounter each other. Playing with the boundaries between performer and public, stage and auditorium, spaces for action and reflection has become an integral element of our work.
It is important for us to construct stage set-ups which are not about a comprehension exercise but are spaces in which the performers, instead of executing set cues, are ready to improvise, to continuously decide about how the evening will develop and how the audience members themselves can slip into active roles. We challenge our audiences to think and act independently because they have to react to our projects and often have to interact with them. This takes courage but often leads to fantastic rewards. Some of the audience can try it out and experience something new while the rest of the audience observe these experiences and decision-making processes and react to them in turn. We try to seduce our audience into taking on a role that is different to the passive, seated audience and gives passers-by the opportunity to play another role than the one they play in the real lives. Taking part in an adventure with others is one of the particularly appealing aspects of participation. We want our work to be an experience rather than something that is just watched from a theatre seat.
We pursue an interest in the enhancement of the theatrical experience with our audience. By elevating the audience member to the role of team captain, ball and co-player, the individual is placed at the centre of the event. It is about the desire to play for us, about forms of interaction that are based on trust and the attempt to use the theatre as communicative space.
Seduction and Respect
When Gob Squad talks about audience participation, it is not, as it was in the 60s and 70s, about the confrontational shaking-up of a supposed passive mass. Interaction is a respectful attempt at seduction for us.
— We are working with an audience that is open to us. Sometimes we call them found performers, like found objects.
Deciding who to talk to in the first place is important. Often you are able to tell who is curious and might be up for talking or doing something, by the way they look at you. (…) You can often ascertain if someone might be interested in joining you by physically placing yourself in their proximity (you don’t have to point the camera at them). Their body language and eye contact will soon tell you if they are not interested in participating. We are interested in a sensual, humorous form of collaborative game, one that always understands the audience member as an individual who is able to decide whether and how far he/she wants to get involved.
— There is always an element of choice in how far people want to go with things. There are always key points where they can say yes or no and these become part of the drama.
— What we often like to show in our work is how easy it can be to step into the other world. In Super Night Shot, for example, we have our cameras pointed at our faces and we turn to someone on the street and we say: ’Right now I’m in the movie. Do you want to be in the movie with me?’ And if they want to, you just turn the camera on them and say: ’Now you are in it!’
In our work, participation is never compulsory but can be understood as an opportunity. It is about the communication with the most transparency and openness as possible. The performers are also just ’people’, who can encounter others directly and spontaneously. However, as performers we are prepared for this encounter whereas our ’found performers’ are not. This is an advantage for us that must never be exploited or abused. Therefore, it is always our concern that our participants are presented in the best possible light and are never turned into an object of ridicule or treated as fools. We take the people we meet seriously. They bring much more with them than the ’material’ for our own work and art. The fact that the outcome is not purely voyeuristic is important to our approach. We are not interested in a situation where the art world looks into an aquarium of exotic fish. It is important to us that the people we film and the people we involve can engage with the art work and enjoy the art work on exactly the same level as a knowing critic, so we attempt to make something that does not comment on what is being shown, that does not judge it or objectify it.
— We are interested in you, and we will try to get something out of you. Sometimes it can be a little embarrassing, but we are embarrassing.
Taking and Losing Control
— There is also something like the craft of improvisation. The day before yesterday, we had the one hundredth show of Super Night Shot. When I see Berit playing the casting agent and see how she handles people, I can see that she’s been doing it for a long time.
Constructing a ’performative conversation’ with someone has taken a lot of practice within the group. We attempt to approach people in a way that is not hostile, and in which we the performers have clear ideas of beginnings, middles and ends of conversations, a ‘suitcase’ of ideas, or a ’palette’ of directions, but are also able to remain open to whatever a person might have to say. The first question you ask a person is important in opening up a conversation. ’Excuse me, do you have some time to talk to me?’ is generally a non-starter and raises the question, ’How much time?’. From experience, most people you approach in the street might think that you are conducting market research or are gathering signatures for a petition or donations and automatically react negatively. Therefore, it is important for us that passers-by perceive us differently from the start. Often people are curious because they want to know what your are doing with a camera and a stupid costume, so in Super Night Shot we try to take advantage of this by using the opportunity to make short but poetic explanations of what we are up to as a means of inviting people to join in.
— When you are improvising on the streets with people and that will later be shown without editing, it becomes about leaving things out. The first question the passer-by asks is often, ’What are you doing?’ and naturally I should say ’I’m making a performance by Gob Squad for such-and-such a theatre.’ But nobody wants to see that so it is always about finding other words.
— Cut out the flowery speech.
’Do you believe in love at first sight?’ or ’I am playing a hero in a film… how can I be your hero?’ Opening questions like these can arouse someone’s curiosity even further whilst also inviting them to contribute their story to the event. With the roles in Super Night Shot and other Gob Squad shows, the performer has a task that they want to fulfil. This means that the conversation can have a direction and is not just a conversation for conversation’s sake. The performer is always trying to get to the bottom of something and in doing so opens up spaces in which people can share their stories and opinion on things. The performers try to prepare different phrases to drop into the conversations and be ready for the encounters in this way.
The situations created through interactions with passers-by or members of the audience are more open and only partly foreseeable performance moments. In these moments, the performers completely lose their control in order to lay themselves in the hands of all those present. In this way, Gob Squad’s ’School of Interaction’ is always a question of shared responsibility.
— When the phone rings in Room Service, people are looking at each other asking: Who’s going to take the risk and answer. And of course you are observing each other in order to find out how to deal with this situation, you have to step out, make a step – you are out of your safe, passive, mass position.
The individual audience member decides what happens to his or her own body. He or she moves him/herself in the paradoxical terrain between surrender and self-determination, loss of control and the desire to have control. It’s about curiosity, courage, readiness to take a chance, and the charged relationship between infantile freedom (a total lack of responsibility) and responsibility for everything taking place.
And what happens if the situation gets out of your control?
— We have had pieces where we have lost control. It’s kind of interesting, but when the audience knows the rules of the game, they can play it more confidently. It makes a stronger piece of work in my opinion.
In order to retain some form of control over the situation and to incorporate a dramatic structure, the performers almost subconsciously avoid moments of emptiness and boredom in the same way they avoid the breaking of taboos and rules. They take care of tempo, rhythm, impetus and pauses in this way, depending on the course of the evening.
It is important that the performers have a broad scope of actions at their disposal in order not to be forced into using just one. At the same time, however, they must apply the required opens to be ready to react to external impulses that might come their way.
Empowerment: Heroes of the Everyday
We want to give something back to the people who place their trust in us, a feeling of ’empowerment’, of ’I can do that’.
— We don’t just want to take, we also want to give back. That is an attitude that has developed and grown within the group over the years.
The field of possibilities that Gob Squad create works towards the goal that the audience and passers-by can reclaim their fantasies, as active participants not just as consumers. These spaces offer the possibility to take on a role for a moment, a quite different role to that of the passive, seated audience and to take on a different role that the one that they play in real life. We want to give people on the street the opportunity to leave their own lives behind for a short moment and to become one part of a larger production. In their everyday surroundings, they can rise above it all, step outside, find a voice, a role, and experience a game of self-empowerment and self-advancement. Gob Squad offers the possibility of seamless stepping out of the everyday and into a spectacular happy ending. Through the normalcy of our ’everyday heroes’, the audience and performers share the same paradigm – they are on a par with each other. Every audience member is authorised to turn themselves into the hero of their lives, to understand themselves as a hero or heroine.
— We hope to inspire people, that’s why we like to deal with the audience as well or with the passers-by on the streets, to empower people to think: I could be an icon myself. And this has a lot to do with our ’do it yourself’ aesthetic.
— You can be Ricky Martin as well. Or you can be better than Ricky Martin.
I want to return to your relationship with the ’real’ people that you work with, are there sometimes disputes, where someone says, ’You’ve gone too far?’
— There are mostly nuances. Someone says, ’The way you asked questions today, the way you dealt with people, that was on the edge. Maybe you could do it like this…’ It is a process, even after the piece is made.
— There are different attitudes within the group about where the boundaries lie. In Kitchen there is a kiss at the end, a kiss with an audience member who is not prepared for it. Each one of us does it differently. Some confront the person unprepared, others secretly try to give a sign. Everyone has a different attitude to it. But generally we all want to approach these borders.
How would you define the audience-performer relationship in your work?
— I always imagine myself as an audience. I feel that one of the only ways for me to honestly consider a piece is: if I was this audience, how would it be? And is this the reaction I want?
The Power of the Public
We are often asked how much the participation of an audience member or passer-by changes the performance. Can the decision of an individual audience member influence the course of the piece at all?
In Room Service it is up to the audience to make a seemingly harmless decision. In one of the first scenes, a performer asks for advice about choosing an outfit for the evening. Whichever way the decision goes, however, decides the course of the evening. How does the audience want to see the performer and what should the performer do? The spontaneous reaction to the audience counts and in this moment, the game commences. In one performance Sean made the effort to fulfil the image of a rock star like Axl Rose. He wrote lyrics for the female audience member, who suggested the incarnation for him. He performed drug excesses, he played the lonely star, the familiar image merging with his real loneliness, the emptiness of a hotel room in which Sean was spending hours all alone, not hearing the laughter of the audience. Actions and reactions follow one another and in a sort of chain-reaction, identities and stories are made up, and it is no longer possible to tell who the originator is. The subliminal question of who is seducing who comes up consistently.
— When Simon invented the ’Who do you want to forget?’ game in Room Service, talking to an audience member on the phone, suddenly this issue of darkness appeared out of the audience, and that became a topic of the show. This is how the audience can lead the performance.
— Each performance is a totally new world.
— So far, we’ve performed Prater Saga 3 nine times and each time we’ve managed to find three people for the three roles we have to fill.
— We never thought this would be possible and therefore prepared for every eventuality. It is a pity that the public will probably never see these alternative scenes. My favourite scene is still if we would find the character ’Bigman’ but not his partner. In this case, there’s a second monologue about the loneliness of the lead character, it’s just so real.
In the ideal case, an encounter always has an open outcome which means that whether the passer-by or audience member decides to take part or not, the piece works equally well in either case. Only in this sense can participation be an invitation rather than compulsory.
In Super Night Shot two worlds collide: the planned art work with the randomness of the street. The finale, the moment of the kiss, brings the two things together – a hero and a random stranger from the street who may have been on their way to the gym. Super Night Shot actually changes someone’s path and journey – for the random stranger; the evening ends up in the theatre taking the applause of 300 people. Their decision as to whether to go with it or not actually really changes the outcome of the artwork. Super Night Shot can mean fighting the war on anonymity successfully or it can turn into a tragedy.