Seeking a New Theatricality (Lucia Repašská at the D’Epog Theatre)
Almost every generation brings a “new theatre”, but few want to reform theatre as radically as Lucia Repašská and her actors at the D’Epog Theatre of Brno.
The young Slovak director aspires to a third reform of the theatre. While the first one liberated the director and the second the actor, Repašská wants to liberate the spectator through experiments with space, with the actors’ performances or by a fabricated superimposing of meanings and actions. While still a student, she became a director at the D’Epog Theatre (2009). The name of the theatre is a play on the word “epoque” and seeks to demonstrate an awareness of its transience, a resolve to be a theatre of its time. Gradually, a tight group of devoted actors has emerged around Repašská, who’s been able to spend up to ten month rehearsing one project.
Today, they call themselves very appropriately a group on the “border between drama, physical theatre, performance and multimedia”, which emphasizes the “lab character” of their work, because Repašská creates the plays as part of her research for her doctoral studies. In her practical work in the theatre she puts to the test her original concept of theatre, starting with her own method of psycho-physical acting training. There she brings together the legacy of the second theatre reform (she worked with Eugenio Barba on Odin Teatret) and postmodern philosophy. Through the “decomposition” of the individual elements of theatre based on so-called post-dramatic theatre, she aspires to free the audience from their dependence on the author’s and director’s concept, as she sees the viewer as the main creator of a theatrical piece.
“Space dramaturgy” has an important role in the director’s work. By experimenting with the placement of the audience she examines the influence of the spatial layout on the relation between them and the actor/performer. She puts the audience into different reception situations and models their perceptions; sometimes she puts viewers into position, at other times she gives them the freedom to choose where to sit.
I will try to characterize the existing work of the group, using video recordings and reviews for the first two plays, which I haven’t seen in person.
Experimentation with space already defined the appearance of the first play Heteronym Nin (2010), which was part of a diptych Žena subjekt / Žena objekt (Woman Subject / Woman Object) involving two monodramas by the former D’Epog dramatic advisor and playwright Petr Mašek. Viewers are introduced to the gallery in the Kunštátská Trojka cafe in Brno, one of the centres of the Brno independent scene. They are seated on chairs set along a white wall where paintings usually hang. The actress Julie Goetzová then enters in front of the audience. In retrospect, she represents rather than “embodies” the writer Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) – the muse and friend of many famous men (e.g. Antonin Artaud or Henry Miller), who became famous mainly for publishing her intimate diaries and other erotic writings.
Dressed in a black curtain over a (seemingly) naked body, the actress totters on skates that click uncomfortably against the floor. She holds a book with photos of Anaïs Nin to her chest. She shows off to the audience with a self-indulgent playfulness: “I look at my own picture in your eyes and what do I see? A girl from a diary…” Meanwhile she shines a lamp on a long cable into the eyes of individual members of the audience. The use of common items and contemporary technologies is characteristic of the director. Natural “objects” serve as a counterpart: a block of ice hanging above the stage with water dripping from it, or a dead fish that the actress beheads with her skates and then appears to eat.
In a quick sequence of cuts, the heart of a woman whose real life merged with art and who was dependent on the attention of others is characterized using excerpts of inner monologue and dialogues with her lovers. It is these subjects that determined the spatial solution. Repašská made Anaïs into an exhibit that shows off to the greatest possible number of eyes – audience, readers, lovers. When Anaïs takes her husband Hugo to the Grand Guignol in Paris, the actress stands behind the audience and watches the empty stage as if one of them, making the stage become an exhibit itself, maybe of a void that remains after the disappearance of the self-centered performance.
Theatrical metaphor is typical for the director. She uses it to express the personality of the character and various situations she has observed. Anaïs’ lovers are represented by her hand fondling her body or the crumpled curtain she’s wrapped in. The blue ink that stains her hands and mouth portrays her obsession with writing in a wishful “bleed-onto-blank-sheets-of-paper” mode. The director’s concept is thought through to such details as the actress’s constant moving from left to right and back in front of the audience, to be seen as a metaphor for the movement of writing.
The question is whether the viewers are able to notice these subtle touches during the speed of the cuts. For someone who doesn’t know the author’s biography in advance, it would be impossible to distinguish for example the changes between roles of the actress, who keeps switching between Anais, her three fateful lovers and a wife of one of them. Reviews suggested that the play was hard to follow, although none of the critics questioned the performance of the extraordinarily strong and versatile Julie Goetzová, which was anchored in the perfect focus she maintained despite physical limitations (moving on the skates while not dropping the props hidden in her robe made of a curtain). The actress maintained a seemingly natural and almost constant eye contact with even the most distant viewers and separated the individual situations and mental states of the character with exceptional clarity.
The structure of the following Di_sein (2011) was even more complicated. The choice of a non-theatrical location that would allow an atypical audience placement was associated with an experiment with layering actors’ actions, mise en scène, and meanings carried by scenography and dramatic text.
The project took place in a factory scheduled for demolition and through the windows the audience could watch the sun set over the center of Brno during the play. According to the director, the location chosen resonated with the theme of “vanishing theatre” – the main focus of Di_sein. In the middle of the spacious, once white-painted hall was set a “pyramid” made from portable stages and the audience could choose at the beginning if they wanted to sit there to watch the play involving a dozen actors or if they preferred to stay below and watch the performance while walking around.
In a chaotic stream of monologues, dialogues and “choral” scenes taking place around the “pyramid” there were clear references to eighteenth century theatre. Some elements of the costumes were also ironic references to that period, such as curls on wigs formed by plastic cups or cans. The director chose to make some of the props from waste materials on purpose (she often uses polythene or PET bottles) to emphasize the “material and spiritual poverty of artists”. The costumes usually consisted of T-shirts and tracksuit pants as if the actors were arriving from a rehearsal. The “training” aesthetic, layering of simultaneous actions taking place in various space layouts, seemingly dislocated movements and a feeling of an organically pulsating whole evoked recent projects by the American choreographer William Forsyth such as Yes, we can’t (2008) and Sider (2011).
The colorful postmodern whirl of actors and symbols situated within the large white space was in contrast with the text: a farce by Petr Mašek Titus dvakrát korunovaný (Twice Crowned Titus). The author considers the situation in the Czech National Revival Theater intertwining the fates of poor Czech actors and “celebrities” – the tired Casanova and Mozart, who had just premiered his opera La clemenza di Tito in the Estates Theatre. Mašek juggles with historical figures and facts; he doubles the structure of the drama with the motif of theatre within theatre: Czech actors introduce a play from ancient Greece under the leadership of Mozart with a title from Brecht: Threepenny Opera, loosely based on the libretto of the Mozart opera mentioned. In addition, the theatre is discussed through various theatre manifestos and quotations from contemporary reviews.
However, most of the play consists of the staging of Maška’s farce. The choice to connect this formally traditional drama with the processes of physical, musical and site-specific theatre is somewhat surprising. Repašská sought to layer all the aspects of the play: she added the text and other layers unrelated to the actors’ movements, which consist of fixed improvisation following unspoken motives. The actors should play the role of “dealers” who offer inputs to the viewers, so they can create their own experience.
It must be said that although the mise en scènes were often built simultaneously, one of them usually took prominence, because it moved the plot forward and it was – unlike the other actions, particularly those involving movement – spoken. Meanwhile the actors, some of them amateurs, performed complicated spatial arrangements and they managed to include a range of genres from drama monologues and dialogues to abstract motion scores, singing or musical accompaniment.
Judging by the video recording, I think that the created form was beyond the limits of what the audience could perceive. Without a knowledge of the text (and often even with it), it is barely possible to understand the situations, the overload of characters with complicated names, which the actors switched between as often and as easily as wigs. The understanding was probably also hampered by an echo. I suspect that the audience’s principal impression was of the unusual space, the close contact with the actors and the specific artistry of the atypical spectacle. The staging didn’t allow Mašek’s humor to come through, but then the script was not really suitable for this kind of project; the sophisticated physical, artistic and visual language of the play would probably be better off without it.
In the next play, there was a stronger relation between the text and the staging. Zahrada Crim (Crim Garden, 2011) was based on a script by Mašek that interwove internal monologues of a married couple from Heinrich Böll’s And Never Said a Word (1953) and excerpts from the lament of Jan Zahradníček’s Znamení moci (The Sign of Power, 1951). By connecting the precarious situation of post-war Germany and Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the fifties, an interesting collage was created that stressed the theme of faith and its loss in a world of consumerism, poverty and lack of freedom.
In the spirit of Repašská’s “space dramaturgy” the themes were reinforced by the space chosen for the play: the decaying church of St. Joseph in Brno. Jan Zahradníček supposedly observed its little tower from his cell in Cejl prison after his arrest in 1951. In his poems he also referenced Brno, e.g. “this gloomy skyline of the city of two peaks / a peak with casemates and a peak with a cathedral”. And it was to the casemates of Špilberg that the play was later transported, as part of an experiment to see how its semantic structure would change by moving it into another space. Afterwards it was also performed in the auditorium of the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland and in an abandoned Art Nouveau Café at the Brno Main Railway Station.
In fact, the change of location carried certain changes of meaning with it. (For comparison I’m using video recordings of the “church” version and a reprise in Art Nouveau that I attended). The dialogue of Böll’s married couple meeting for intimate moments in a cheap hotel – as they shared their small flat with children – was performed by the young actors, Milan Holenda and Markéta Kalužíková. On one occasion they were leaning on pillows propped up against the door to a confessional, another time against a window giving glimpses of a railway station. In the first case the religious aspect was emphasized and in the second case the themes of traveling, waiting and loneliness resonated more strongly.
The play thus represented a distinctive form of site-specific theatre. While traditionally this genre is associated with the chosen location and is directly inspired by it, Repašská chooses places for her projects which, even if they are related to the topics of the play, do not have such a defining link as to make the play non-transferable. The change of location determined the experience of the audience in other ways too. The viewers of the church reprise were standing for the whole time, often so close to the characters that they were literally peering at “their bed”. In the barren Art Nouveau Café, on the other hand, they were sitting on hard wooden chairs set up temporarily and it was as it they were watching the actors, even though still from up close, through binoculars. In both the venues Repašská allowed the audience to feel the cold and discomfort to amplify the theme of poverty. Their perception was enhanced even more by viewing the actors’ bare feet sticking out from underneath their winter coats.
In the following project Ninivea (2012) the intimate atmosphere was replaced by the monumentality of the socialist Municipal swimming pool at Lužánky. It was set there for the themes of “redemption, intimacy and taboos”. The director consciously didn’t fulfill the expectations of the audience and she placed almost all the action by the six actors on a large grandstand elevated high above the pool, together with approximately 20 spectators. The physically demanding actions by the actors balancing on the plastic seats took place all around the audience. Lots of the micro situations were happening at the same time, so the viewer again had to choose what to watch while decoding the meaning of the rich, characteristically post-modern and diverse costumes: the upper body of a girl with puppet-like movements was partially wrapped in transparent plastic and her long swinging “crinoline” was made of artificial flamboyant flowers, the make-up of one young man resembled the playful Pierrot and his frivolity was topped off by boa around his neck and a satin robe. The use of the props, sometimes as if emerging from the bodies of the actors (a girl dries her hair with a hairdryer plugged into her mouth), resembled the work with objects in Kantor’s Dead Class.
The audience avoided the invitingly long stares of the actors accompanied with refrain-like exclamations and gestures. The phrases contained allusions to biblical mythology, especially the story of Jonah – the prophet returning from the debauched city of Niniveh to preach God’s punishment. Counting in how many days “Niniveh’s going to fall” was one of the leitmotifs of the play. The motif of the Pied Piper legend also recurred as the actors screamed regularly while running away from fictional rats. All together it created a strong feeling of disgust at manipulation and violence. We saw a “pig-slaughtering”, where, instead of a pig, a naked actor was hanging upside down. We saw a suggested torture near a sink adapted to look like a rural altar with artificial flowers and a crucifix lined with forks and a nailed Jesus Christ who was wrapped in bandages and bled from intimate areas just like one of the actresses.
Similarly to Di_sein, it was impossible to understand the very precisely rehearsed final outcome, because of the many simultaneous, often very subtle messages. The director was once again layering the fixed improvisations of the actors with other aspects. But this time, the text originated during the rehearsals, in the spirit of the Czech tradition of devised theatre. Observing the dynamic, parallel mise en scènes combined with the suffocating humidity and dark murmuring of water evoked an almost trance-like state. The strong theatricality of the scenes presented enhanced the realness of the uncommon environment, which significantly influenced the viewer’s experience.
Perhaps also because of the feedback of the audience about the lack of comprehensibility the director opted for exaggeration for her next project 121 (2013) as an “orgy of comprehensiveness”.
The swimming pool was replaced by the industrial emptiness of the art nouveau railroad depot, called ironically “Little America”. The decisive aspect of the space was cold, the same as in Zahrada Crim (Crim Garden). The stage design by Matěj Sýkora set against the background of white walls felt ascetic: It resembled a light installation where it was up to the viewers to discover little objects with their senses: a small plastic roof in the national colors in the bottom left-hand corner – some kind of a base for the actors, a little mirror on the wall, and most importantly a LED panel for subtitles, where English phrases such as “Absurd”, “Blood is not blood” or “You have to earn your death” blink sarcastically commenting on the actions of the actors. In the foreground a small baroque cloud and a stuffed bird were attached to a column – a complete Chekhovian seagull. The stage set established the subject of the play subtly so that it was only perceived at a second glance: theatre, its history and its contemporary situation. A certain “disorder” in the art subconsciously evoked a little disappointment. Its modesty and disproportion was reminiscent of the earliest Czech avant-garde plays from the beginning of the last century and that period was also evoked by the worn “gymnastic” costumes of some actors.
While the viewers arrived, the actors were warming up. The audience took their places on a small platform exchanging helpless looks and wondering when it was going to start – the border between the theatre and real life, improvisation and fixation was intentionally blurred. During the play the actors even revolted against the director, who was giving them instructions from the start. When she angrily left the building, the viewer wondered if the quarrel was real.
Of all the projects to date, 121 is closest to a performance, and it also humorously put the format into context. In one scene, the actors seemed to discuss how it is possible to shock the audience nowadays and what they are willing to do for the cheap tickets. They mocked the contemporary clichés in performance art: nudity, sex, taboo violations. Zdeněk Polák mockingly exposed his backside quoting Ninivea and others agreed that for the audience’s sake they might be willing to inject themselves with sterile needle in a finger at most. Later they actually show a drop of blood on a raised middle finger. With a grin, they made a step towards performance, even though they all swear they are not performers but actors. Despite the emphasis on the performance it’s still mainly a play, with a firm concept that is carried out during the individual performances with only minor changes.
As in Ninivea the script for 121 was based on improvisation. And according to the director, eighty percent of motion and speech scores are taken from previous projects that are “decomposed” in this way. Repašská expected that by using the principles of decomposition as montage, simultaneity of actions and plural composition would lead to greater viewer activity. She often used the repetition of themes in the play, layering them and using cuts to break the situations into multiple perspectives. Some of the scenes had a form of physical and voice (sometimes sung) compositions. The repetitive rhythm was accelerating almost to ecstasy, then sometimes the intensity of the experience started to fade away and the director kept the audience lingering in that moment when the rhythm of the performance slowly merged with the rhythm of the everyday.
Certain anchor points were represented by four main characters. With the exception of the disgusting “Manager” (his character doesn’t have a name), they all represented bitter clown types. The Mute (Julie Goetzová) tries to rehearse a dialog from Romeo and Juliet with the Moron (the fragile Radim Brychta) and hums inarticulate messages into the microphone. The Moron – attached to the Mute by a microphone cable while carrying a mat on his back – circles around her with great enthusiasm accompanied by the sound of the early nineties techno-hit No Limit (from the dance group 2 Unlimited). The Moron also passionately quotes An Artist’s Life Manifesto by Marina Abramović, which could already have been heard in Di_sein, in semi-understandable English. Quotes from Brecht’s Speech to Danish Working-class Actors or paraphrases of Artaud are also taken from Di_sein. The unmistakably ironic Janet Prokešová sits in the audience in the beginning apparently representing a conservative spectator (“You came to perform a play, right?”) as well as the humourless smugness of critics: she demands a performance of Shakespeare (also a quotation from Di_sein). Eventually, her identity changes when the Moron stuffs her belly with rags and she becomes the Pregnant One. She’s probably supposed to represent a “mother of new theatre” (the subtitle “No Dramaturgy, No Responsibility” keeps appearing on the panel).
The “Manager” (Zdeněk Polák) is wearing a suit with a tie that’s still wrapped in plastic – maybe he became rich so quickly that he forgot to unwrap it. With a slimy smile he shows off in front of a camera. First he records himself and after a while the camera’s recording the audience from a tripod and the picture is projected at same time. The “Manager” makes only distant and superficial efforts to communicate with the viewers (consumers), in the spirit of a real “one to one” marketing strategy after which the play was named.
After the departure of the director the new “master” starts arranging some kind of realistic drama. The Moron revolts – perhaps he embodies an actor full of ideals who tries to free himself from the invisible hand of the free market. The “Manager” makes him a brainwashed slave through torture, mockingly animating him as a puppet. Afterwards he rehearses a part from Jesus Christ Superstar with the others, where he aptly sings the role of Judas.
The dependence of contemporary art on funding is also satirized at the end of the play, when the Pregnant One gives birth to bills obtained from sold tickets and then to a robotic animal (known already from Di_sein) that mechanically stands up and moves. The actors leave a space for it in awe, they move into the audience and with them watch the performer of the new era – the machine. The animal’s motor hums, it stumbles and stands up again and again… The intensified time of the theatre is slowly easing – nothing else is happening. So the audience becomes uncertain again. Is it the end? The normal passage of time slowly assures them. The play ends as quietly as it began.
121 also demands a high level of attention from the audience. At first sight it seems like too much hermetic clutter. The clarity of the last D’Epog project – ∞ vulgo Ležatá osmička (Horizontal Eight, 2014) is much more obvious. This time the director – to the benefit of the piece – again gave up on using a script and she made a play based on improvisations by Prokešová, Brychta and Polák and in this way a physical theatre containing mainly clear, rhythmically arranged scenes, was created. As in 121, the audience is kept in “binoculars”, but this time they’re placed inside the monumental, industrial hall of the former Vaňkovka factory, where the Richard Adam Gallery of contemporary art resides. Among the panels with grotesque paintings by the figurative painter Christian Macketanz, there’s a small platform for the audience and in front of it – at an appropriate distance – a stage that looks like an art installation in this context. Here, the theatre and visual arts blend and again the theme of art perception is brought up as in Heteronym Nin.
Sýkora’s scenography gives almost a functionalist impression with its geometry and calm orderliness. On the rear side of a turquoise square with oblique cut-outs stands a red wall with an entrance, constructed from cubes of furniture including many items common to Czech homes: a microwave, a vase, a valance with a photo of a man with mustache behind it. A cot, a cabinet with drawers or an armchair are scattered in front of the wall. The “assembled” household is completed with typical lamps and small fluorescent lights.
The wall comes to life with three actors who emerge from behind it and in it, Prokešová’s head on a shelf becomes still for a moment as a bust – as if the human would become only a decoration of the system that he originally created for his own needs. The athletic figure of Polák in workout clothes is combined with huge stuffed breasts that he uses to feed his baby – Brychta dressed in pajamas. It’s a bizarre depiction of maternal intimacy by two muscular men. Afterwards Polák, as the grotesque mother-man, teaches his son to walk: he leads him with protruding crutches instead of his hands. Here we realize the child’s dependency on any strange parent. The crutches next to the toddler are also an impressive metaphor for youth and old age. The role of Prokešová in a white “cosmic” bob cut wig is uncertain within this family micro world. She heats a box of milk for Brychta in the microwave, she laughs and makes funny faces. The mother (and father) is probably Polák so perhaps she’s a sister.
With the rhythm of a “computer” theme song from Magion, a kids’ show from the eighties and nineties, on which a generation of creators and audiences grew up, we observe a family stereotype: turning off a lamp, breathing, an alarm on a mobile phone, turning the lamp back on and the drill begins. Mother-man blows a whistle and the boy exercises, he performs pull-ups on the crutch placed over the entrance and he puts his head in an aquarium while standing on his hands. The parent supervises him even when he goes shopping: he keeps peeking at the scene from the cut eyes on the photo. It doesn’t take long until the son starts to rebel: as he grows up in the apparently ideal family expressed by the jubilant Yellow Submarine, he suffers as if in an electric chair – he approaches the audience, his face in the dark, and he’s shaking in agony while reaching with his hands forward. Brychta, who has developed into an exceptionally physically able and flexible actor under Repašská’s leadership, manages to convey even the most expressive parts convincingly.
The director uses the entire height of the stage. Prokešová inhabits the higher parts: she sleeps or moves on the furniture wall. The actors perform the demanding physical parts with effortless virtuosity. The rhythm and sequence of the individual situations is determined by a – for D’Epog unusually strong – soundtrack. The major part of the play has a musical background, ranging from the disturbing electronic music to ironic musical quotations (Radim’s skipping rope is accompanied by the legendary fanfare from Rocky) or live polyphonic singing of Christmas carols and folk songs that complete the weird perverse family atmosphere with its seriousness.
Within the actors’ motions there’s an evident theme of the mutual bonding and infinite cycle of relations between the parent and the child, because “the parent gives birth to the child and the child gives birth to the parent”, and also the switch between the roles of the parent and child which occurs during the performance. The male casting of these roles and their partial physical link highlight the strength of this relationship. The idea of parenthood as a fanatical way of living is also presented with a wry sense of humor.
In this last project we see more relaxed directing that seems as if it has given up on the obsessive, accurate fulfillment of the concept and surrendered to spontaneous theatricality.
In the fairly conservative Brno, D’Epog plays a pioneering role. After Julia Goetzová left for Prague, the ensemble narrowed to three actors who represent unique and also universal actor/performers with exceptional interplay and authenticity of expression.
D'EPOG Theatre: Heteronym Nin, stage design and directed by Lucia Repašská, script and dramaturgy Petr Maška, D'EPOG Theatre, premiere May 8, 2010 at Kunštátská Trojka, Brno
D'EPOG Theatre: Di_sein, stage design and directed by Lucia Repašská, script and dramaturgy Petr Maška, D'EPOG Theatre, premiere May 5, 2011 at Vlněná Factory, Brno
D'EPOG Theatre: Crim Garden, stage design and directed by Lucia Repašská, script and dramaturgy Petr Maška, D'EPOG Theatre, premiere December 12, 2011 at St. Joseph Church, Brno
D'EPOG Theatre: Ninivea, set design and directed by Lucia Repašská, dramaturgy Petr Maška, D'EPOG Theatre, premiere April 20, 2012 at Municipal swimming pool Lužánky, Brno
D'EPOG Theatre: 121, directed by Lucia Repašská, stage design Matěj Sýkora, dance and musical cooperation Andrea Březinová and Martin Dobíšek, D'EPOG Theatre, premiere March 20, 2013 at Malá Amerika Area, Brno
D'EPOG Theatre: ∞, directed by Lucia Repašská, dramaturgy Matyáš Dlab, stage design Matěj Sýkora, D'EPOG Theatre, premiere April 27, 2014 at Richard Adam Gallery, Brno
published at Svět a divadlo, issue 3, volume 2014
translated by Ladislav Šenkyřík