Why put citizens on the stage?

“All the world’s a stage” according to Shakespeare. Andy Warhol gave it a modern twist with his famous quote: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Several theatres have drawn on this philosophy and are putting ordinary people on the stage to create new synergy between the theatre and its surrounding society.

Aarhus Teater Citizen Stage

Reality is in

At Teater Republique you can watch a group of young people who are not trained actors, as they talk about their own life experiences as young people, their personal dreams, fears and doubts. At Aarhus Teater, ten people from East Jutland meet up to find out whose life had the most in common with Kafka’s fictional character Josef K. At Aalborg Teater, five people from North Jutland share their own personal experiences with death. At Teatru-spalatorie in Moldova, three gay men and three relatives recount the consequences of coming out in a country where being open about your sexuality is life threatening. At Ro Theater in Rotterdam, ten mothers from different ethnic backgrounds reveal intimate details about menstruation, giving birth, to parting from their mothers – while they cook a meal on the stage.

At all of these theatres, reality is the in thing. In fact, reality has been in for the last 20 years but what is new is that it is not just the actors who create the stories, excite the minds and touch the hearts of the audience. Now it is ordinary people on the stage, in the role of … well, themselves. They are “everyday experts”, people with first-hand experience in relation to the performance’s subject. But what will we actually do with everyday experts on the stage? Is this strictly an audience development and the Artistic Directors’ reaction to a tough competitive situation? Is it the old tune about and cheap salute to theatre institutions being rooted in a democratic society and meeting citizens on an equal footing, being socially responsible and demonstrating diversity on several levels? Or is it an aesthetic breakthrough and the opportunity to rethink what theatre can be? We think so.

Audience development and aesthetic development

There are many questions and even more answers. One thing is certain – nothing is black or white and the growth in citizen productions requires a nuanced debate. At the heart of the debate is to what degree the pressing needs of the theatre in attracting new audience groups to ensure it has a future can go hand in hand with the visions for developing new aesthetic forms. Involving ordinary people in the theatre has inflamed a burning and highly topical cultural and political question in a new way: If we play the audience development card, have we thrown away aesthetic integrity in a mad hunt for a broad appeal that will attract more people?

Using everyday experts on stage is not something new in Danish theatres but should be seen as being part of a longer development. However, the number of citizen productions has increased significantly in 2014 and both Aarhus Teater and Aalborg Teater have citizen stages, which are dedicated to performances using everyday experts. The future will bring more people onto the stage in Denmark and Warhol can rejoice in his heaven that his prophecy is spreading across Europe. Like every new genre before it, the establishment of citizen stages is being met with equal amounts of excitement and healthy scepticism. Many people are worried that amateurism will infiltrate the Beautiful Art.

However, it would be a fatal error to equate the use of everyday experts with amateur theatre when we talk about which philosophy of art the establishment of citizen stages expresses. On these stages, citizens will not master the art of inhabiting a fictitious role in a storytelling drama – they will not bring a Hamlet or a Jeppe to life in front of an audience. The everyday expert’s expertise – the person’s strength and vulnerability is that they have their own life invested in the performance’s theme. It is exactly this situation that will move us in the audience. As when, in an interpretation of Kafka’s “The Trial” at Aarhus Teater, ten people from East Jutland will soon stand on the stage and with vulnerable defiance, share their own deeply personal experiences with the system for better or worse. The aim of the performance is to get the audience to think about the way the welfare state is organised through a meeting between the theatre’s sensory world and the struggles of reality.

It is no secret that citizen stages are conceived as part of an audience development strategy; the growth in citizen stages is the result of the European collaboration project Theatron, an international audience development project supported by the EU and of which Aarhus Teater is a co-founder. However, it would be a little like going into “automatic pilot mode” if one was to conclude that the theatres are trying to gain favour with audiences and their grantors. Audience development and aesthetic innovation are not opposites, on the contrary they are often mutually connected. Admittedly, there may be a reason that the theatres” audience is a relatively homogeneous group of people with more or less the same skin colour and education and income levels that in no way whatsoever reflect society’s diversity. A responsible Artistic Director is therefore forced to think about audience development if the theatre’s considerable levels of financial subsidy are to be justified. From that perspective, citizen stages have become another aspect of audience development. The modern citizen stages originated in Dresden in Germany six years ago and since then, more and more theatres in Denmark and Europe have embraced the concept. More than 1,200 people from Dresden have participated in performances at Staatsschauspiel since the citizen stage was established. It is proof of a theatre success story, which has created a new contract with the city it is rooted in.

This asks the next pressing question concerning the use of citizen’s personal stories on the stage. Is this simply the theatre’s answer to reality television in the fierce battle for audiences? Through the medium of television we can see “uncensored” breakups, heavily indebted people trapped by unsustainable consumerism, homes that are transformed from wrecks to palaces – the list is endless. The question is whether citizen productions are reality theatre, which is neither interesting nor legitimate. Those theatre professionals who get involved in this form of theatre today, often do so because they genuinely want to revitalise the theatre. Because they ask openly which figures and which voices should we be able to see and hear up on the stage? Of course replacing actors with citizens on the stage who play themselves is a radical measure. It shakes the very foundations of our understanding of what theatre is or can be. But it has always been audacious people who drive the art forward and into new experiments, people with equal measures of delusions of grandeur and sensitivity to the world’s development, who have attempted to reshape the foundation of art. Once upon a time the stage was only for actors but someone took a citizen, called that person an everyday expert and put him or her on the stage. A new genre was created and we christened the bastard “reality theatre”. Still not out of the delivery room, those of us who create theatre with everyday experts, are attempting to gesticulate with critics and shout out that this is not an attempt to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because citizen stages must be seen as being part of a bigger repertoire. Over time in Germany, citizen stages have become a natural part of the repertoire of many of the larger state-funded theatres, exactly the same way as classical plays, family performances, new drama and experimental theatre are part of their repertoire.

Aarhus Teater Citizen Stage

Habermas on the citizen stage

When they are strongest, productions using everyday experts can help us to rethink the relationship between the theatre and the public. Citizen stages have something of the German philosopher Habermas’ ideal of the ‘bourgeois public sphere’. His well-known thesis is that a well-functioning democracy requires public debate, where citizens come together as a public and debate the structure of society and by voicing their opinions they become active partners and opponents of the rules laid down by the authorities. Habermas maintains the public sphere emerged in Vienna, London and Paris at the end of the 18th century, where society’s contemporary elite met in coffee houses and as a group discussed the issues of the day. According to Habermas, it followed that the emergence of the public arts institutions up through the 18th and 19th century contributed to the promotion of a critical debate. Even though dramatic changes to the political, cultural and media landscape have taken place since Habermas wrote about the importance of public debate in a democracy, his ideas still provide much food for thought when dealing with the challenges of today.

As an art form theatre has a peculiar characteristic – people meet and assemble to enjoy an intimate theatrical evening and become a single group sharing the same experience. In other words, the theatre allows the opportunity of a face-to-face exchange. It is precisely this face-to-face meeting that makes productions using everyday experts so intense. All else being equal in the stage-audience relationship, it makes a difference that it is citizens up there on the stage who are sharing their real experiences. The meeting between the citizen on the stage and the public represented by the audience is placed in an artistic framework, which organises what is experienced under a logic that immediately looks like “reality” and at the same time perceives reality through art’s twisted gaze.

While reality and the theatre partner dance, the evening that is shared in the theatre becomes in an idiosyncratic way an event, where we as the audience are made to reflect over our own position both as citizens and people. And we are in an (almost) exemplary way back with Habermas’ visions for the relationship between art and the public. This does not mean that the objective of citizen productions is to create consensus-seeking solidarity in an attempt to legitimise theatre’s potential for being useful to the community. No, as the audience we can either identify with the actions and choices that the citizen on the stage has taken or we can disagree with them. Regardless of the aesthetic struggle with one another’s point of view and their life choices, the individual in the audience can broaden their understanding to include other people, and we can reflect on society’s connectedness and responsibility.

A different aesthetic

If we step back a little from the current buzzwords about theatre being rooted in reality and look at the aesthetic produced by the use of everyday experts, so it is precisely when we talk about art, the special aesthetic experience, which will shake up the way we look at the world. Art experience works in other ways than for example, a letter to the editor. When we invite citizens onto the stage, of course it creates another aesthetic. They move differently with a body that bears the marks of an individual life and they deliver text differently than actors. As the audience, we are perhaps moved by the mistakes or the courage and vulnerability of the person who stands on the stage. It creates a special feeling of authenticity. The artistic team works with these parameters in the production and they are put in to move, excite, offend and shock the audience and thus lead them to the above-mentioned reflection.

At Aarhus Teater, the Theatron project has recently received the results from an audience survey, which has allowed us to measure the effect of our citizen stage efforts. In line with the Dresden playhouse, the results show that many people in the audience for our first citizens performance, were new to the theatre or were people who seldom visited Aarhus Teater. This was a direct consequence of the citizens we had found during the outreach work, who had brought their network into the theatre, people who you could clearly tell (and to put it a little harshly) moved in environments that teams of actors did not. Alongside the theatre’s normal marketing strategies, we can also use citizen productions to add the old-fashioned word-of-mouth method, which in this case proved to have a surprisingly large effect. The obvious question is, how can the theatre ensure loyalty among these new audience groups? This is the challenge for the future and something that we at Aarhus Teater are focusing on.

Investing in the theatre’s future

It can sound great, but citizen stages are an investment in the theatre’s future – both in relation to developing new aesthetic forms and new audience groups. Now, it is not the case that you can simply take the Dresden model and transfer it directly to another city; each city is different and requires specific cultural efforts. A citizen stage requires a huge amount of outreach work, when you have to find the right people and stories for a performance. It requires artists who have the ability to move around the city’s different environments or among the general public – with a certain degree of humility to ensure that there is a real exchange between theatre and city. For every new production and performance theme, a citizen stage will through outreach work meet new groups in society and make space for new voices on the stage. Voices that call out to new audiences, voices that use life’s living archive of wisdom based on real experience. Tightly orchestrated around these citizen’s voices is the potential to revitalise theatre’s expression and leave an echo of the aesthetic’s primitive objective; that the aesthetic experience leads the audience to new insights into our shared world. Only in the dialectic between audience development and aesthetic innovation can citizen stages become pulsating art that creates a life-giving stream between the theatre and the surrounding society.

Aarhus TeaterBy Anne Zacho Søgaard and Tine Byrdal Jørgensen, Artistic Manager and Coordinator respectively at the citizen stage Borgerscenen, part of Aarhus Teater. Photos (Anna Marin) from Aarhus Teaters “The Process” (Citizens Stage).

First published as a feature article in Politiken (danish national newspaper), 7.2. 2015

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