‘…faces behind the numbers’: Rimini Protokoll and Daniel Koczy discuss 100% City

100% City is a transnational theatre project by Helgard Haug, Daniel Wetzel and Stefan Kaegi, better known as the Berlin-based theatre company Rimini Protokoll. The premise is that 100 participants, local to whatever city hosts the production, each represent a single percentage of that city’s population. What emerges is a staging of metropolitan demographics in a form of ‘reality theatre’, which Meg Mumford usefully describes as

a mode of theatre performance that has been prevalent since the early 1990s […] characterized by: an interest in extending public understanding of contemporary individuals and society; a focus on representing and/or putting living people on stage; and an aesthetics of “authenticity effects”, artistic strategies designed to generate (and then, in some cases, destabilize) an impression of close contact with social reality and “real” people’.1

In 100% City, ‘experts of the everyday’ (non-professional performers who may have no prior experience of or interest in theatre-making) participate in the staging of demography, embodying statistics and narrating the attitudes and beliefs of a population’s composite parts. Since 100% Berlin in 2008, the 100% City project has ‘performed’ 23 cities, including Amsterdam, Gwangju, Tokyo, Cork, San Diego, Melbourne and London.

100% Berlin

The company select their participants by starting what they call a ‘chain reaction’, in which they select the first participant, who then invites an acquaintance to join the chain, who then invites a further participant at another remove from Rimini Protokoll, and so on until the 100 participants are selected. When the chain breaks and/or ceases to be representative of the city’s demographic, then Rimini step in by approaching missing demographics themselves. Search criteria are defined by the company in relation to statistics gathered from national censuses that focus on age, gender, neighbourhood, place of birth or origin, and household size or marital state. During the performance, the amassed group line up next to one another, create columns, or split into a number of smaller groups so that key identity markers, accomplishments and beliefs can be choreographed into visually striking and clear tableau in response to questions and statements. In cities around the world, participants have been asked to express their views on diverse topics including gay marriage, the financial crash, warfare, food preferences and abortion. ‘I believe we should be at war in Afghanistan – me or not me’ was a choice offered to participants in 100% San Diego, while ‘Do you like Vegemite’ (spread made from yeast extract notoriously divisive amongst Australians) was a question posed to participants in 100% Melbourne that’s indicative of more playful and less globally-pertinent enquiry.

100% Gwangju

100% City is in many respects a ‘community event’ defined by its ability to make a positive contribution to the community in which it takes place. First of all, the project encourages people without an interest in theatre to participate within a theatrical production. More importantly, it enables individuals to gather together and work with others with whom they might not normally engage. Both the process and the performance create a space within which the social, ethnic, economic, and geographic boundaries which ordinarily serve to segregate the community are dissolved. Although differences between individuals and groups continue to be evidenced through various on-stage activities, the project ideally embraces the city as a whole and demonstrates how these differences co-exist within a single community. However, 100% City is also a ‘theatre event’. Firstly, the project may create an intoxicating and celebratory mood. Secondly, the participants may become interesting and intriguing characters with whom the audience begin to create their own stories and relationships.

100% City is both about and of the demos: it seeks to represent representation; it encourages engagement with otherness; and it reflects, in both its products and working processes, the hopes and difficulties of recognising political pluralism. In this interview, Daniel Koczy discusses some of these core concerns with the three members of Rimini Protokoll, who created group responses to each of his questions and comments. What emerges is a dialogue about the pragmatics behind the 100% City project, some of the ethical and political complexities associated with staging demographics, the aesthetic tensions that underlie this form of reality theatre, and its ambitions and achievements.

Daniel Koczy and Adam Alston

 

Daniel Koczy: Could you begin by explaining what you feel 100% City has achieved thus far? I’m interested in both what you feel the participants get from their involvement within the work, and how you feel audiences have responded to the piece in performance.

Rimini Protokoll: The piece has brought together people from very different corners of very different cities. Many of them would probably never have met or spoken to each other before, as they belong to different age-groups, have different jobs and migration backgrounds, belong to different social classes, etc. This goes for the cast as much as for a big part of the audience, who again came from very different corners. Often about one-third, or even half, of the audience are people that have never been to that theatre before. This is also audible during the performances. 100% City is a show that has loud audiences. It almost feels like a sports game. They cheer for certain peers, they boo at opinions they disagree with, and they clap when they get touched because somebody outs him/herself as being HIV-positive.

The process of the casting for the shows is this snowball game of generating statistical data about the city and its population. Apart from the five statistical criteria we use to generate the census grid that everyone on stage has to fit within (age, gender, neighbourhood, place of birth or origin, and household size or marital state), one of the hidden filters that we apply on top is that theatre enthusiasts or actors should not be part of the cast more than a proper mirror of the census would allow, which tends to be not more than one or two percent. That means that the audience, to some extent, is also composed of the friends and family members of those people who are not connected with theatre. From that corner very often comes this enthusiastic reaction that theatre makes much more sense and can be more touching than they had expected.

Perhaps a very strong source of this sense of being touched is the experience of a coexistence of differences. The cast is composed of people who, outside a frame like this show, would disagree on certain points and may not even want to share the same space. Yet you observe them playing the game on stage in a mode of respect, despite of this.

100% Cork

DK: Could you explain your decision to gather participants through word of mouth? Does this process help to ensure an accurate representation of the city in question? In a Guardian review of 100% London, it is noted that this process failed when none of the existing participants knew anyone of Pakistani origin;2 also, a review of 100% Cork in the Irish Theatre Magazine suggests that no-one from the city’s Polish community was willing to participate.3 Are these problems addressed on stage? To what extent does the project highlight what might be seen as fractures and ghettoisations within a given community?

RP: We had a similar problem reaching out to the Turkish community in Amsterdam. Ghettoisation may well be relevant, but in the end we have always overcome those problems. And yes, sometimes it’s only possible to mention an obvious lack and thus to mention the limits of the game we played. The rules must break at some point. Or do you know somebody from Bangladesh who is a lone-parent between 60 and 70 years old and lives in the opposite corner of the city you live in? Probably only some dozens of citizens match those criteria. So we have to help. We go through engaged communities in certain neighbourhoods or – depending on the age group – we contact homes for the old, or schools. On stage we address the struggle to find people because it tells us something about the city, too.

We also run a backlist of positions / characters in addition to casting the 100 participants. When the chain breaks and a person cannot connect us to another that would fit into a certain category, then we go back to this list and fill in with people that would otherwise not participate. Here it is important to convince the more conservative people, hardliners, to balance a demographic that is always easy to find: culturally interested, liberal people.

DK: How long does the rehearsal process take? Is there a concern that the participants are, perhaps inevitably, drawn only from sections of the community able to devote a significant amount of time to the work?

RP: You don’t easily get 100 people together for many rehearsals. Especially as most of them have jobs and other commitments. But we can do with about 5 rehearsals of 4-5 hours. Rehearsals don’t include any kind of text-learning or actors training. People just have to be who they are, focus on what’s being said and follow some instructions that are prompted. As we insist on them getting paid by the theatre a small fee, we can also expect them to commit and be there.

DK: In the press surrounding the project and in previous interviews, Rimini Protokoll frequently appear to emphasise notions of authenticity within the 100% City project. For example, ‘reality theatre’ has been defined as ‘the risk you take when you say “I” on stage and actually mean yourself’, and the work is frequently positioned as ‘telling the truth’ of each city in a way which statistics could not.4 To what extent do you feel that the participants are expressing their actual opinions rather than performing what they conceive as being a publicly acceptable version of themselves? For example, there is an interesting moment in 100% Melbourne where the question ‘Who thinks there are racists on stage?’ is followed by ‘Who feels that they must “act politically correct”?’ Does this imply that the project participant’s public exposure, and their need to take personal responsibility for what they express on stage, encourages acts of self-censorship? What would this mean for the project as a whole?

RP: This is the most fascinating part of the project. In the first rehearsal people do only know a couple of other people (peers who they are directly connected to), so answering questions in a more radical way is very easy – stating that you do not go to certain areas of the city because you are afraid, for example, is fine because you don’t know people there and consequently prejudices can flourish. By looking around you will find out who agrees and who disagrees – and who actually is living in this neighbourhood. Maybe you get to know people in an area by getting a cup of tea in the break, or joking around in the second rehearsal and realising that they are not that bad after all. This is the first moment when people reflect on their answers more closely, perhaps prompting a desire to change their answer at the third rehearsal. At this moment we try to make the participants understand that it is much more interesting to stay with the first, more radical, answer because this comes closer to the truth than the ‘nice’ answer people would otherwise like to give. But of course it also goes in the opposite direction: that people think that the audience expects them to state certain beliefs because they represent certain stereotypes. We always try to encourage people to not go with the majority and express diversity over and above this ‘we all love each other’ feeling. However, there are always at least one-quarter of the 100 who do not take it too seriously, or who do not understand, or don’t really care…

Nonetheless, this is a performance dealing with ‘the faces behind the numbers’. Most statistics nowadays are generated by online polls, online questionnaires delivered to a defined group that mirrors the population, and by phone calls. Now, to make clicks in front of your computer, or to say yes or no over the phone, is something different to standing on stage with your statement. But in all cases it is just an approach to what one might consider to be an ‘objective’ truth.

Booklet produced for 100% Londondownload PDF

DK: Throughout the work, there is a fascinating tension generated between statistical information and knowledge. I describe this as a tension because the project’s apparent aim – of generating a more holistic understanding of the people behind the numbers and of the city itself – is most frequently performed through techniques which reproduce statistical modes. For example, much of what we learn about each person is gathered through their responses to binary questions, with very little opportunity to interrogate what informs their opinions or whether or not the two possible answers effectively correspond to their beliefs. To what extent do you feel that the project succeeds in helping its audience and its participants generate an understanding of the individuals involved which goes deeper than the statistical? Does this tension effect the degree to which the work succeeds in ‘telling the truth’ of each city?

RP: ‘Truth’ is of course a very ambitious word, but this is not our ultimate goal. 100% City is a game: an experimental set-up that is more humorous than it might sound at first. Every night generates slightly different results, with billions of potential varieties of a selection of 100 Londoners representing London, for instance. 100 representatives of a city reflect and show individual opinions and beliefs, but also the city’s situation and ‘mood’. So it is not only about hard facts and numbers; it’s also about atmosphere. How pessimistic, or optimistic, is the society? Is there hope? Are people outgoing, or not? Also, the game is not limited to the 100 representatives, as the audience also offer answers. For example, there is a scene that we’ve included in all 100% City performance since 2009 when the cast asks questions to the audience and they can answer them with hands up. In such moments, the audience can respond spontaneously. A fun aspect of the show is that you can watch people fibbing. We sometimes generate a certain ‘yes’ or ‘no’ statistic in response to a question that prescribes a binary response, which we transform into a pie-chart and use as a springboard for political discussion. This sometimes prompts a playful, uncertain movement of a person from one binary position to another, before fixing a final decision, grinning!

100% Melbourne

DK: Within each project, certain participants are given the opportunity to perform monologues on topics which appear close to their heart. For example, within 100% Melbourne, one woman speaks of her experiences in East Timor while a Vietnam veteran describes his experiences of feeling rejected by the society for which he served. On the one hand, these participants appear grateful for the opportunity of publicly addressing their concerns. However, is there a danger that their voices – being heard only within the context of a long series of binary questions of which much of the performance is composed – end up forgotten? Is there a danger that this theatrical form is unable to address the complexity of the issues raised? What would this imply for the work’s authenticity?

RP: I am not too sure whether the short personal stories that highlight some aspects of a demographic and build a bridge to the next questions compete against the long list of questions and reactions that build the main body of the play. Nonetheless, we are always looking for a couple of personal moments. Content, political expression and experience are important, but it’s also important to outline specific characters. Often these outlines derive from stories of people that have experienced a certain crisis within their own society, or a moment of alienation. These short highlights are also a break with an established rhythm – a moment to slow down the performance and give examples of stories and fates behind individual answers. Talking to the audience often made us realise that people are tracking a number of performers. It is not the whole city and picture that people are most interested in, but the series of answers given by a couple of individuals. Audiences want to see the combination of answers, experience irritation and while doing so consider and compose, in their mind, a particular person’s story. With 100% City it is not us writing plays with authentic life stories, but the audience.

Booklet produced for 100% Melbournedownload PDF

DK: Throughout the performance as a whole, it seems to me that a certain tone of celebration is maintained. If this is the case, what do you feel that the project celebrates? Is it the city? The individual? The ‘truth’ of the city and its people? The opportunity for self-expression?

RP: Yes, you are right! There is always a tone of celebration – maybe intoxication! It is a chemical reaction between the audience and the protagonists. Believe us, though – it is far less magic during the rehearsals! Live performance encourages participants to realise, ‘Oh, here I am on a big stage in the limelight… Not my normal working place… People came to watch me and I am actually representing not only myself, but I am speaking for whole group of people’. It is also the moment when the 100 participants realise they can rule this game and that they can actually play it without getting instructions from us, the theatre company. They change from a tiring rehearsal mode into a joyful performance-mode. Participants are proud that they manage to do so after only five rehearsals and that they can rely on each other on stage. Suddenly they care, help one another and most importantly they accept other people’s beliefs and opinions – good reasons to find yourself in a mode to celebrate!

 

Rimini Protokoll is the label of the works of Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel. They produce theatre pieces, radio shows and work in the urban environment in a diverse variety of collaborative partnerships. Using research, auditions and conceptual processes, they allow what they call ‘Experts’ to find their unique voice. Works include: Call Cutta in a Box (2008), a one-to-one telephone performance that takes place live from a call centre in India; Hauptversammlung (Annual General Meeting) (2009), a parasitic intervention on the occasion of the shareholders’ meeting at Daimler; the multi-player-on-stage-game Best Before (2010); Lagos Business Angels (2012); the multi-player video piece Situation Rooms (2013); 100% City; as well as Weltklimakonferenz (2014) – a simulation of the UN Conference on climate change. In 2007, Rimini Protokoll was awarded with the German Faust Theatre Award and in 2008 with the European prize for ‘New Realities in Theatre’. In 2011 they were awarded the Silver Lion of the 41st biennale of Venice, established to honour new theatrical realities.

Daniel Koczy is an associate lecturer in the Department of Arts at Northumbria University. Entitled A Thousand Failures and a Thousand Inventions: Deleuze and the Theatres of Samuel Beckett, his recently completed doctoral thesis explores experimental research methods at the boundaries of performance and philosophy. His research has appeared in Deleuze Studies, The Beckett Circle and Critical Contemporary Culture. He has a chapter forthcoming in the edited collection Deleuze and Beckett, published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2015.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Notes:

  1. Meg Mumford, ‘Rimini Protokoll’s Reality Theatre and Intercultural Encounter: Towards an Ethical Art of Partial Proximity’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 23.2 (2013), pp. 153-65. Note that Mumford is drawing on the following: Susanne Knaller and Harro Müller, ‘Authentisch/Authentizität’, in Historisches Wörterbuch der ästhetischen Grundbegriffe, ed. by Karlheinz Barck et. al. (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2005), pp. 40–65.
  2. Sarfaz Manzoor, ‘100% London Tells the Capital’s Story Through its Inhabitants’, The Guardian, 29 June 2012 <http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2012/jun/29/100-per-cent-london-theatre-hackney-empire> [accessed 10 Jan. 2015].
  3. Rachel Andrews, ‘100% Cork’, Irish Theatre Magazine, 28 June 2013 <http://www.irishtheatremagazine.ie/Reviews/Current/100–Cork> [accessed 09 Jan. 2015].
  4. Outline Online, ‘100% Norfolk / Interview with the Theatre Company’, Outline Online, n.d. <http://www.outlineonline.co.uk/arts/theatre/100-norfolk-interview-with-the-theatre-company> [accessed 10 Jan. 2015].
+

Leave a Reply