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Expedition to the Room Next Door

© Szentes Zágon
© Szentes Zágon

To me it was the water tower in the castle gardens. A concrete water tower with graffiti on its walls, located along the zigzag paths of a neglected park with lush vegetation. That’s where we went smoking after the acting sessions of our theatre group. Sometimes we drank booze, I have no idea what kind, and of course there were the discussions and the love affairs. I had this supercilious fear that today’s youngsters don’t have these sacral spaces anymore, spaces where the world order is suspended. They were born into something very different that we only try to learn (the internet, let’s name it). This impression may have stemmed from my inferiority complex, perhaps because I will never navigate this digital realm or what as effortlessly as they can. This is their realm, their jungle, where they know the names of plants and trees, where they know which living (?) creature is poisonous and which has curing power.

Jordan Tannahill is a Canadian daredevil from the Y-generation. He writes, directs, films and is deeply involved with North American post-dramatic theatre life. I was fortunate that in this season the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj-Napoca [KÁMSz] adapted Tannahill’s Concord Floral text, a play created in 2014 or 2016, depending on which source you turn to. I was fortunate because of multiple reasons. First, a good author appeared on my radar, i.e. I got to hear about him. Second, finally I could see a performance with fresh, up-to-date drama text, and third, I realized that I have prejudice towards digital inhabitants, for they as well have their sacral spaces, proprietary safe spaces, water towers and Concord Florals.

Well it is more complex than that. The text is about teenagers and in fact it was adapted by the KÁMSz because together with four other theatres from other countries, the Cluj-Napoca theatre was participating in a project organized by the Union of the Theatres of Europe (UTE). All five institutions adapted the same text to stage (the other four were the Volkstheater of Vienna, the Comédie of Reims, the Schauspiel of Cologne and the National Theatre of Thessaloniki), performed by teenagers. There is a fake aspect to this top-down flow of control, when a millennial author writes a play, five others direct it and I write about it, with all of us pretending to know that we don’t know what it means to start one’s adult life, but in fact there is nothing new under the sun, just think of the water tower. But it is futile to whine about it because Tannahill’s text feels authentic even though he himself is not a “digital native”. And based on what I saw at the closing party, the boys and girls definitely liked the text, they could identify with it and adjust it to their own lives and geographical-historical realities.

I watched the Cluj-Napoca performance of the play without any advance knowledge of the project and my first impression was that it was wonderfully refreshing. This freshness did not stem from the false idealization of adolescence, but from authenticity on the one hand and professionalism on the other hand. Do I mean to say that Y-generation actors were the key? No. Instead, it is great that Ferenc Sinkó and his creative associates were able to introduce digital natives into the theatrical profession. It is great that Tannahill was able to write an authentic text, it is great that Noémi László translated it brilliantly and that Krisztina Sípos adapted it to a stage text that sounded credible from the actors. I believe the text itself is refreshing, and so is the fact that a thoroughly postmodern performance finally works with a well-written stage script. (What I mean is that documentarist or jointly produced performances often seem to go into the opposite extreme when it comes to the significance (or insignificance) of the text, allowing the linguistic layer of what is actually said onstage to be the weak point of the performance. But the Concord Floral staged in Cluj-Napoca was not only great because of the original drama, but also because the text was adapted to Cluj-Napoca by local teenagers on a local stage, making it sound natural. The text is great, no doubt about it.)

The Concord Floral is an abandoned, run-down glass house where local youth gathers. In the program booklet, a stylized screen shot illustrates what it is for each character. “For some time, the Concord Floral provided the beauty of roses to the city, but after the florist couple who gardened the flowers deceased, it rendered the beauty of freedom to the new generations.” To some, it is a “concrete bench, a willow”, a walnut tree or the old pool opposite the U Stadium. In reality, it does not matter if the environment is urban or rural. Still, it seems that the members of this generation would seek a hideaway in a village in a group (“we explored it with my pals”) or alone in a city (“this is where I come if I want to be alone, to clean my head or if I just want to be outside”) in an attempt to find their true self. Maybe the difference is not between analogue and digital after all.

During the performance I did not feel for a minute that the actors were non-professionals, let alone children. Quite the opposite: the acting was pure and honest. I keep dwelling on authenticity because I feel this was at stakes here. I think it is always authenticity that is at stake in the case of teenagers. It is their stake, and this was the stake of the performance, too. The performance put no-frill, fresh acting to the fore. Direction, movements and the set were all subordinated to that. Through a tragic story, we could get an insight into a world that used to be ours, too. And we are reminded that treason, excommunication, bullying, sex and drugs were present in that world as well, and that any differences compared to today are only added in our minds in hindsight, because in fact we have the same fear that others would regard us as kids.

The homogeneous crowd of people dancing with their earbuds on first transforms into faces that began to tell a story, then the faces are associated with the characters as the story begins to take shape. The theme of an unjustly killed, returning soul organically fits into the era of immediate contact. The ghost communicating via digital devices stems from the same bad conscience as any other similar character in literature. Here the phone is not a theatre prop that is somehow forced into the play to indicate that it is a contemporary story. Here the phone is the extended member of bodies and the actors use it as any other parts of their body. It is no use to be abhorred by this, let us not be hypocrites. We must be glad that we are shown this in the play by those who are actually capable of showing it. In an especially strong scene, we hear an edited monologue while phone screens are projected to a giant stage screen, and we are asked the question: “Do you know where your child is?” Obviously, the virtual space is meant here.

The story is painful and the pain in this story, too, like elsewhere, is caused by the lack of empathy and openness. How exotic the world of a different generation can be, although they are living in the same space as we do, and how similar their stories are? The performance ends with a dilemma, a common human dilemma between desperation because of cruelty and the relentless search for beauty. It ends with this sentence: “I think people would rather choose to be merciful”.

I for one am happy that the production is not art for art’s sake from a societal viewpoint either, as it does have emancipating power. The play’s approach to LMBTQ identity, alienation and the latent forms of exploitation is liberating, albeit these topics are only addressed briefly. It is liberating for teenagers (and for all other generations for that matter) that they do not need to navigate around taboos. Stock phrase or not, our immediate future is in the hands of “adolescents”.

Digital natives are those for whom the virtual world is a natural environment that they were born into. Ever since anthropology emerged, it has been ruled by the key ethical standard that it should strive to understand the observed community instead of intervening with it either actively or through prejudice.  In this sense, the Concord Floral as staged in Cluj-Napoca offers an anthropological viewpoint to the audience. Still there was a turn in anthropology later when authenticity (also meaning scientific credibility here) became important. At that point, it was difficult to talk about any community without considering it our own, since it is impossible to assess the structure and dynamics of a cultural and sociological system from a purely outside perspective. The performance was anthropological in this sense as well, because the black mask effect could not come to the fore. The actors knew what they were talking about because they are talking about themselves.

Five cities could participate in the UTE’s project: Vienna, Cologne, Reims, Thessaloniki and Cluj-Napoca. The project was closed with a season-ending digital party, with an online broadcast session from each city taking the floor one after the other. Each presented briefly their performances and then the event continued with a common party. My impression was that there were no big cultural or concept-related differences in the approach and tone of the five productions. Some technical solutions were similar, too, even in the short trailers. Each radiated the joy we feel when we can present ourselves in an authentic manner.

Then came the party, at least in theory. The live online broadcast session was sustained but the screens were empty. In Cluj-Napoca, people walked around stiffly, biting on the complimentary food. It was also a little strange that only non-alcoholic drinks and mineral water were offered. The powers that be must sustain the outside image even when they allow discussions of how the same image is broken. You cannot digitalize the party space – that’s what I was thinking. But then I left the world of digital natives. Anthropology, like any other science has the paradox that the object of observation is inevitably changed by observation itself. There are good reasons for the rule that the last intact tribes must not be approached. The current stand anthropology is that untouched aborigine communities must be left as they are. The sole ethical approach is if we stay away from infecting them either biologically or culturally. Digital nomads, however, are not the last but the first tribe of their kind. For them, no element of human civilization that they are interested in is out of reach. Yet as with all closed communities, it is impossible to study them objectively, again because the observed phenomenon is changed by observation itself. I quickly left the online party and the live broadcast sessionsturns, hoping that it is a digital ritual that is only brought to completion when no outside observers are present.


Published on 17 June 2019