The Spectator’s Piece
When do bodies on stage begin to take on significance? And who does the work involved in imparting meaning to these bodies: the actors or the audience? This was the question that the Croatian-Dutch artist Ivana Müller asked herself in the piece ‘While we were holding it together’.
The setup of this production was a risky business. For the entire duration of the show, five actors stand motionless on stage, frozen in artificial poses. They occasionally swap places during a blackout but this occurs without anything changing in the tableau itself. It is a quintessential ‘tableau vivant’, but one that tells not a single story but countless stories simultaneously.
Small details in the picture do change continuously. Although the actors do not move, they vocalise their personal interpretation of the scene. Or else they react to the strongly opposing opinions of the others by acting vehemently with their eyes. And sometimes they drop their roles – or is that part of their role? – to unburden themselves emotionally or, more often, to complain about cramps. Standing stock still for over an hour is indeed no picnic. Gradually their real, suffering bodies cause more and more cracks to appear in the static image: they tremble and wobble in their attempts to maintain their uncomfortable stances. And countless stories, both real and fictitious, begin to run through each other in this one tableau. The soundtrack full of discernible sounds enhances this effect. Almost as an aside, there is also a swapping of personas. This doesn’t happen only when positions are exchanged but also because the actors at times mime their texts while the voices of other actors sound out through the loudspeakers.
For the audience it is hard – but very pleasurable – work to try to follow all the storylines and to decipher them. In so doing, the audience in fact completes the performance. Müller stages this main role of the audience explicitly. At the start of the show you find yourself standing in front of a red curtain. You expect the play to unfold behind this curtain but it in fact conceals the audience seats. You were therefore unwittingly standing in the place of the actors. Later on, when the actors being to ask themselves who is sitting in front of them, the spotlight shines no longer on them but on the audience. The final scene shows an empty stage. You only hear the voices of the actors. They are asking themselves what remains of their presence here. What remains is, of course, the construction in the mind of the spectator.
published in De Morgen