Feeling at Home Between Two Worlds
About the Digital Night Festival in Cluj-Napoca: The final event of the Digital Natives cooperation project between five European theatres, through the eyes of Bea Kovács.
Imagine you are just ready with all preparations for the party that you have been planning for weeks: you have purchased all party items (glasses, plates, confetti), drinks are in the fridge, a host of mini bites are on a tray, latest hits playlist compiled and your party dress is waiting to be put on. Everything is ready, only guests are missing. But even when they arrive, they will not be there physically: This is a digital party where we will not be connected physically, only virtually.
Encompassing five theatres from Vienna, Reims, Cologne, Thessaloniki and naturally Cluj-Napoca, the large-scale Digital Natives project organized by the Union of the Theatres of Europe (UTE) ended with a digital closing ceremony on 1 June. The event summed up and crowned this diverse initiative, bringing together theatre teams from these five cities in the virtual realm. The teams spent the last twelve months working on finding the theatrical means of discussing the broad phenomenon of digitalization and its impact on younger generations. Both individually and in a joint effort, the Volsktheater Wien, the Comédie de Reims, the Schauspiel Köln, the National Theatre of Northern Greece and the Hungarian State Theatre of Cluj-Napoca resolved to adapt Concord Floral, a drama written by a contemporary Canadian author, using teenagers with no prior stage experience as actors. The adapted versions could digress from the original text and were meant to initiate discussions about the changes triggered by global digitalization in society and in the life of individuals.
The Digital Night Festival took place in the studio room of the Hungarian State Theatre of Cluj-Napoca [KÁMsz] on Children’s Day, 1 June. In the 2018/2019 theatrical season, the same room hosted the stage performances of Concord Floral, directed by Ferenc Sinkó. The organizers converted the empty, black space of the studio room into a magic, lively place by putting up a disco globe in it: the tiny glittering lights moving round and round kept the place in motion throughout the evening.
Arriving at a digital party is an exciting experience: Partly because I never attended a digital party before, except for the regular video sessions with my friends and the usual live video streaming, and partly because no party can be fully digital. When I entered the studio, all members of the young team were already there along with the key organizers and the catering staff that provided for a smooth eating and drinking experience. It seems the analogue part of the party must be in place first to give us sufficient energy to join, virtually, the main online party. “You are the first viewer” welcomed me theatre program director Zoltán Csép who is regularly addressed by the Concord Floral cast of 9-11th grade youngsters as “daddy”. I find myself in a cozy and homely atmosphere. In a Peter Brook-ish sense, my presence guarantees that the evening can also be enjoyed and interpreted as a theatrical performance.
I had the pleasure of seeing Concord Floral’s debut performance on 18 May and even though I am officially one generation older than the young actors and Tannahill’s characters in the play, I felt being at home and totally understood in the performance. As a teenager, I was not easy to deal with and I guess I caused more headache than necessary to my parents and teachers at the time. The night attracted me and so did restricted areas. I looked down somewhat on the theoretical education I received because I longed for far more practical experiences. During the transition-heavy grammar school years, my lasting and temporary friendships were the colourful aspect of my life: like roses of diverse colours on a black shirt, our shared adventures enabled me to emerge intact from the boring and meagre life at grammar school. Led by Ferenc Sinkó, the young team (Eszter Albert, Andor Balon-Ruff, Kristóf Dimény, Ráhel Csenge Geréb, Deborah Jenei, Ákos Kerekes, Dániel Nițu-Mányoki, Orsolya Rázmán, Bernadette Rus, Áron Sárosi, Márk Szabó, Eszter Szőllősi, Boglárka Török, Ágnes Turós) could recall for me the anxiety that I felt owing to my changing life and body 10-12 years ago. But the performance also brought me relief that the various embarrassments of one’s formative years all disappear over time, but only to be replaced by new, perhaps far more complex ones.
Nevertheless, the performance staged by the KÁMSz pointed out a huge generation difference that I consider absolutely decisive: It is about being a digital native or not. While I was 13 when I set up my first email account in an internet café and explored the joy of online chatting right around that time, these young people (who can talk about the pleasures and hazards of the world that surrounds them with respectable openness and self-criticism) were born when the internet was already a family member in many homes. Just like my contemporaries, I texted love messages on a large handheld mobile phone (my grandpa still has a phone like that: a wonderful relic from a (nearly) past era; “Today’s young people” use cutting edge technology to get closer to each other, and to nearly everything else in the digital realm. While watching the performance staged by Sinkó I could not help wondering what kind of a person I would have become if I had received a tablet instead of a handheld cell phone as a teenager. To what extent would I have been absorbed by the internet, to what extent could I have remain connected to the physical world that continues to amaze me despite all my love for the internet? What dangers would I have been exposed to if after the lights were switched off in the evening, instead of texting messages like “Good night, kisses, see you tomorrow” I would have entered a chat room also used by pedophiles?
Now that I approach my late twenties, I can see what I could not see when I was a teenager: Just because a young person seems to be an adult in terms of bodily appearance, his or her inner world is childlike in many ways. The stubbornness of adolescents that we all have been characterized by at some point may drift an individual into borderline situations where escape may be a dangerously close game. The internet simultaneously brings closer and expands the circumstances where the security of decision-making for a teenager is no longer there. Parents, however, can hardly access the relationship between a teenager and his smartphone, and often it takes only a second for a love affair to turn into bullying.
As a press worker I can see so many viable young people who become victims. Sitting at the Digital Night Festival, I am thinking we are lucky that finally a dialogue started about digitalization in Cluj-Napoca as well.
A photo appears on the screen set up on the disco studio stage, showing the Cluj-Napoca team. We are not in live connection yet. On the left side of the room (also the place of one of the most memorable mass scenes of the performance), there are a few beany bags with the team seated on or next to them. All of them wear a red top and it is not only Concord Floral that connects them: Apparently friendships and love affairs have been formed between the young participants. The fourteen grammar school students are enthusiastic and a little anxious: They can’t wait to see the actual festival to begin, to meet the four other teams, see the fruit of the work of others and presenting what they were working on at Cluj-Napoca. They are taking selfies. In the first row of the auditorium sit Zoltán and Emőke Veres, associates of the KÁMSz. They supervise the connection and obviously the team as well. Herself a youngster, too, Emőke’s patient presence can keep these high-energy teenagers under control, who are ready to spar back at any comment, and who perhaps only anticipate the actual party more than meeting the other teams online.
The first team to join online is that of Vienna’s Volkstheater, and albeit the audience at Cluj-Napoca is rather small (is there any kind of live broadcast that could make up for physical presence?), the atmosphere is tangibly becoming electrified. In an instance, we find ourselves in the main hall of Vienna’s wonderful theatre, and the building created by the architects Fellner and Helmer suddenly seems quite anachronistic: Now a team of young people are video chatting from its stage. No costumes, no set, no theatrical properties, only the openness of Austrian teenagers who rejoice when the online connection is finally up. After a brief welcome speech, we watch the video that sums up the workshop held before their rehearsals. Three young participants from each of the five teams travelled from the other European countries to Vienna in order to get the core dialogue of the Digital Natives project started through improvisation sessions, situation exercises, theatrical and non-theatrical sessions. The upbeat footage provides an insight into the workshops, also interviewing young team members who speak about their interest in theatre and acting on stage, about what it means to be an adolescent today and what research and preparation steps were taken before the rehearsals. One of the participants said that they are connected by a shared passion, and this sentence remains valid for the entire evening.
During the international team’s stay in Vienna, the Austrian capital also hosted the Digitalization & Democracy conference, featuring interdisciplinary speakers who addressed the (legal) consequences of relocating into the virtual world.
After the summary video, the teams from Cologne, Reims, Cluj-Napoca, Vienna and Thessaloniki introduced themselves one by one. Each group was dressed in “uniform” red or white tops, indicating that they consider themselves theatrical companies. While there were several common characteristics of the short videos, the most apparent shared attribute was the easiness that radiated from these teenagers. I am sure each community experienced smaller or bigger difficulties behind the scenes, yet the videos suggested they found joy in each other’s company and in working together. The second link between them was their affection for theatre; Although prior stage experience was not a requirement upon casting, it was obvious that the majority of young participants had a genuine in theatre and acting. The third link connecting the five different videos was the Tannahill drama itself: Apparently the young Canadian author’s text touched teenagers from the most diverse nationalities – a tangible proof of the universal nature of theatre performances.
Naturally, the differences I could detect related to the work methods and the nature of stage adaptations: There were contrasts in how each team used the space on stage, the set and the props. There were differences in their costumes and in their approach to the text and the interpretation choices regarding the storyline. E.g. the Cologne team adapted Tannahill’s text to a local environment, linking it to a local ghost house, incorporating own messages and additional text into the original drama. Unfortunately, owing to technical difficulties, the sound of the Reims team’s video was incomprehensible, but the video footage duly showcased their community and joyful work process that also gave room to music and dance. The Vienna team also put Concord Floral into a local framework. In the rehearsal period, they set up Instagram accounts for the actors that expanded the theatre stage by creating a universe across diverse media. Coming from a country that was worst hit by the economic crisis, the Greek team presented a video that had a more pessimistic tone and captured the downside of teenage life.
The Cluj-Napoca team was introduced by Kristóf Dimény in an impromptu speech. In easy-going, fluent English, he explained that the project was important for them as a community. He recalled that the fourteen of them worked well under the director and that the play was received well by the Cluj-Napoca audience. Since the local adaptation of Concord Floral was staged in a studio room and not in the main performance hall, the production turned out to be more intimate and personal, having a greater emotional impact on the audience, explained Kristóf. He said that their team wanted to show who they are, also adding that great friendships and loves were formed during the time that the team spent together. After that we watched an excerpt from the performance and applauded.
Understandably, after the grand introduction, the team’s attention and concentration level dropped. Some laid back on the bean bags, others went over to the foyer for food. Some others were taking selfies with their lips rounded, and others urge team members to stay put and behave respectfully towards the other communities. The atmosphere is informal, curiosity lasts and soon the music is turned on.
In the next, informal part of the Digital Night Festival, the teams asked questions from each other regarding their work process and the resulting performance. Answers from the Cluj-Napoca team revealed that they cut parts of the original text, that director Ferenc Sinkó went out of his way to help the young actors and that the audience have loved the performance. Outside twilight is approaching (although it is difficult to tell inside with the studio’s disco light), and the vivid team disassembles every now and then. At a certain point, I find myself alone in the studio room, contemplating whether it can be regarded as a theatrical situation if I am watching the other teams on the screen alone? I find no answer to my question.
The “mandatory” part of the evening is over. The cold plates, fruit juices, cookies and sodas receive the attention, and slowly friends of team members arrive. With a sort of laid-back elegance, they chose to attend the party only. The rest of the festival is all informal. The only set program point is that every 30 minutes one team comes online with a brief flash mob, one after the other. Music soon starts and the studio room of the Hungarian State Theatre of Cluj-Napoca changes its function, turning into a dance floor.
Who are today’s young people and who are young people at any given time? How does it feel to be a teenager in 2019 and what will it be like ten years from now? Will our human needs change with our technological development? We feel being close to our German, Austrian, Greek and French friends (after all, we are only a click away from them) and then we enjoy a truly unique experience: Thanks to the internet, we can create a community that could hardly have been created in real life without massive expenditure. We are forming a team digitally, in a one-off situation under non-repeatable circumstances, the same way as ad-hoc theatre audiences do evening by evening. But can virtual connectedness replace physical presence? I don’t think so, but as a genuine Y-generation person balancing between digital worlds, I am aware that all that is digital actually makes up a large part of our reality. I think the path to joy and fulfilment is in finding a balance: Partying digitally with others while also having fun through reaching a common wavelength with those physically present around us, enjoying each other’s presence.
Although I took a French leave from the Digital Night Festival very soon after the party started (after all, I attended in the capacity of a viewer), I think the team managed to enjoy a pleasant fusion of real and virtual partying on Saturday night.
Published on 19 June 2019