“The Black Bull and Other Stories” – An Experimental Touring Street Theatre Performance
Street theatre is compared to a battle, in the book of Horacio Czertok1, Theatre of Exile. The abstract enemy is the automatisms of daily life, the narrowing of viewpoints, the look of the people in the street that is often confined downward and the lack of meeting and seeing each other besides practicalities. Another “enemy” is the tendency to consider theatre as an elite, social privilege and entertainment. According to Czertok, street theatre is “always a transgression – of life, daily routines and theatrical convention itself.”2 The space is unprotected, ruled by the daily rhythms and schedules, and the conditions are particularly unpredictable. Your audience is not yet an audience until you reach and keep their attention and sympathy, and manage to borrow time from their every-day tasks. Therefore, one of the most important attitudes of the actors is boldness and perseverance, that “should be accompanied by a reflective mind” (Czertok). This also means, to arrive as a theatre group with a sincere curiosity of the place and the people you are about to meet, to take the initiative of giving, sharing something that is a part of yourself, with the persuasion about the importance of this meeting.
A group of five performers with different professional backgrounds (acting, dance, music) has entered, or rather created this battlefield via an experimental, rural street theatre project, organised by Shoshin Theatre Association, based in Cluj-Napoca, in August 2017. The group toured for five days in different villages around Câmpia Transilvaniei/Mezőség in Romania. The project aimed to explore the possibilities of a rural, cultural network, to learn – by practice – street theatre techniques and to revive cultural life in the area. As a larger background of this project, there is a strategic partnership, called RIOTE (Rural Inclusive Outdoor Theatre Education), between international theatre companies, focusing on the same topic while exchanging knowledge and practice, cross-borders.
The performance was inspired by fairy tales – such as, the Bashkir folk tale, “Golden Hair,” reworked by Pavel Bazhov, and the Scottish folk tale, “The Black Bull of Norway” – completed using the ideas of the project leaders (Csongor Köllő and Enikő Györgyjakab) and the performers. Three gangster characters arrive on stilts from different times and spaces, from the realm of wondrous stories, with the mission to tell them (mostly without words). They are followed by a dancer and a singer/flutist, who appear alongside the stories as magical animals or as the enchanted lady waiting for her lover. Gradually, the funny and friendly gangsters become disturbed by the roughness of this “real” world, they are losing their memories in drunkenness and their ability to unfold the stories about true love, patience or trustworthiness. They become confused, aggressive and, eventually, they step out of their characters, leaving their costumes on the floor as their own corpses. Yet, the show ends joyfully as the audience is invited to dance with the actors and celebrate the gathering.
Because of this celebration and the animation of the tales in the public places – such as the street, the churchyard or the marketplace – a significant transformation of the spaces from their original function into a field of imagination occurs. Indeed, this is a crucial aspect of outdoor theatre that practically works differently in every location. During “The Black Bull and Other Stories” the audience needed to travel from scene to scene to other parts of the location with the guidance of the performers. In this sense, the show can be defined as a ‘promenade’ (Nina Ayres, Creating Outdoor Theatre), which makes the audience physically move to reach the next setting, instead of being statically seated. In each location, a scenic dialogue inspired by the space was found: incorporating the local facilities into the dramatical actions, while also using a basic, designed, mobile setting. When this scenic dialogue is established, the action and the place is called reciprocal (Ayres). This type of work requires a detailed discovery of each location by the whole theatre group, prior to the performance. They need to adjust the scenes to the places with great flexibility, but without losing any of the dramatical characteristics of the piece.
The reciprocity between the place and the action is established already by the entrance of the actors. Their first appearance was supposed to be a surprise, so there was the task to find a suitable spot to hide at the beginning of the show. For example, this could be a sloping road, which allows the actors to march up towards the waiting audience from some distance, followed by the sounds of the drum, the flute and the whistles. Once the actors were also followed by a tractor, which happened to be driving on the road, weaving itself into the setting. When marching up and approaching the people, the characters on stilts gave the illusion that they were slowly growing taller, as they gradually became visible.
An element of the setting, which was installed by the group, was a simple, wooden doorframe painted gold that became an imaginary gate, through which the audience could follow the lovers into the “field of happiness”. Dramaturgically, this also led into the next scene. Crossing the frame one by one, created an individual step for each member of the audience, a favourable moment to make eye-contact with the actors standing nearby. This action involved the audience as players of a shared experience and diminished the distance between them and the performers. For some moments, this simple wood together with its surroundings indeed, became magical. Due to the local scenery, the frame was facing the trees, the hills nearby, the houses or a passer-by in the street. Czertok describes in Theatre of Exile: “The street becomes a fantastic place, a place of fantasy. Information supplied by the imagination takes over from the information supplied by habit. Fact and fiction are no longer distinguishable; in the theatrical action fiction becomes fact, even if for a short time.”
The so-called promenade genre of street theatre can also be a kind of tour for the locals in their own terrain, by strangers – the actors. Once they get involved, the potential is already there to create an oscillation between the familiar and the unknown – as the tour is full of surprises which includes the transformation of the space. Ayres explains (Creating Outdoor Theatre) that during a promenade type of theatre performance, the audience is likely to be “more animated than a normal, static audience and may be more susceptible to participation.” Therefore, unplanned things can easily happen. For instance, when the gangster characters were dancing on stilts to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and fake bank notes were scattered from their briefcase, the children from the audience immediately surrounded them to collect the papers. A short break was needed to divert them back and continue the scene, while their action had already become a part of the play.
The idea of touring the performance included the initiation of a “barter,” a cultural exchange with the villagers. By inviting them to the performance, the group tried to encourage the local community to share something from their cultural heritage. At some point, creating this connection with the locals appeared to be more challenging than expected, however, eventually, the exchange happened in Bonțida, one of the villages. The meeting of the theatre group and the locals was a unique and cheerful gathering, despite the unpredictable weather conditions. Since playing outside in the rain was technically impossible, after a negotiation with the local priest, the show was allowed to move inside the church. Despite the seemingly critical elements to present in the setting, such as the stilts and the pop songs (e.g. Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm”), the audience turned out to be very welcoming, even dancing along with the actors in the final scene. But the highlight of the evening was still yet to come. An elderly lady, aunt Marika (as she was introduced), her head covered with a shawl, sat down in the middle of the actors and started singing traditional songs, occasionally followed by her waggish laughs. In the meantime, the rain had stopped, so by the end of the songs everybody went outside to play group games in the yard, led by aunt Marika. After running around, throwing a ball, pairing up and trying to catch each other, the fantastic evening ended by clinking glasses and eating home-made cakes.
Playing together, young and old, locals and guests, actors and the audience, was essential, since it was a clear moment of victory over the automatisms of daily habits and an offer to slip out of well-known social roles. As Czertok articulates: “The next thing to note is the change in social relationships. With theatre, the staged narrative, or facts, become the preponderant reality, and so the people who happen to be in the street at the time feel called upon to take part in it, to play a part.” Although, the “magic” does not last long, it can happen at the very place where one walks every day, and there is a chance that the experience will be active in the memories, and might be recalled sometimes by the specific place as the daily life goes on.
1. Horacio Czertok is an Argentinian actor, director, pedagogue and researcher, the co-founder of Teatro Nucleo. The theatre group moved from Buenos Aires to Ferrara in 1978, and engaged deeply with drama therapy and street theatre.
2. Translated by Robert Elliot (2016)
References: Ayres, Nina. Creating Outdoor Theatre: A Practical Guide. Crowood, 2008. Czertok, Horacio. Theatre of Exile. London, Routledge, 2016.