Premiere in Madrid | October 2021
Extraordinary image of society today

Premiere in Madrid, 08.10.2021
Premiere in Madrid, 08.10.2021 | .

“Conference of the Absent” offers an extraordinary image of present-day society. It directly addresses the roles we would like to assume in given situations, and also the many voices of those whose lives and feelings are unlike ours.

By José Antonio Alba

In August the Goethe-Institut asked me to cover the Rimini Protokoll group's staging of their play Conference of the Absent at the Naves del Español en Matadero theatre in Madrid. A hard offer to refuse for someone whose time is devoted to stage performance journalism. In the course of a few weeks' meetings and conversations, I learned and thought more about the particular style of this 'theatre group'. The job would be to talk about a play without really knowing what will happen in it, because what happens depends on the audience. But this made the job and the research even more interesting and enjoyable. It was like a kind of game where you try to arrange single pieces into an appealing whole while almost completely blindfolded. The sensitive and thoughtful piece of theatre that resulted from this method prompted the questions that led me to write what follows.

We are experiencing a huge global ecological crisis. The climate is changing and environmental conditions are becoming more extreme -- our planet is breaking and shattering, it is being torn apart. None of this is new, and there's an enormous amount to be done. But what can theatre do in the fight against this crisis? "Bestow dramatic form on reality", is the usual expectation. But if this thought is taken a step further, where should we start? How can we contribute from the stage to lighten the burden on the environment? The concept of "sustainable theatre" seems somewhat strange when first encountered. Nonetheless, this is precisely the starting point for the German Rimini Protokoll collective, whose new play Conference of the Absent is touring Europe and currently appearing at the Naves del Español en Matadero.


"Two years ago it occurred to us that we tour a lot with our plays. And this means moving actors and stage sets. This is a problem in terms of climate change, because we emit a lot of CO2", says Stefan Kaegi, a core member of Rimini Protokoll along with Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel. Starting from this thought, they wanted to explore ways to produce plays that would contribute to the reduction of polluting emissions while still providing a live theatre experience. How might this be done?

By handing the raw materials of the production to the audience, was the answer. The audience make the text their own, having been invited to step onto the stage and follow remotely transmitted instructions. This is how the stories are brought to life, attaining theatrical expression in a performance experience that allows the audience space to think as they develop it, transform it, determine its form. A process also seen in the plays 100% and Remote Madrid. "This is part of the ritual of coming together", the group believes: "perhaps it will be our future".


The point of the absence is not just that there is no cast on stage. It provides a chance to talk about all the kinds of absence afflicting us. Much of present-day life is defined this way, all the more so since the pandemic broke out. "We have experienced a specific kind of absence during these times, and this will reverberate in a different way", says Natalia Ménendez, director of the Teatro Español y Naves del Español en Matadero. The non-appearance of the actors emphasises the absence.
"We are in the hands of the audience" says Stefan Kaegi. "No-one has rehearsed, you find out who you are by repeating text from headphones or a prompt card. It's very interesting to observe this process. And for those who decide to get up on stage it's interesting to experience it." But don't worry, nobody forces the audience to take part. They can decide for themselves whether they prefer to be spectator-listeners or spectator-speakers.

One of the nine characters talks about the phantom pain of amputated body parts. Another is a Jew who survived the second world war. Among the others are lawyers, an astronaut and an intelligence services agent. All are confronted with the question: "how can someone be absent and present at the same time?" These parts in the play are taken on by audience members who opt to participate. In the words of Natalia Menéndez they express "our own echoes". This makes Conference of the Absent something personal and exclusive. Every staging becomes a singular and wholly ephemeral experience.


Yet the Rimini Protokoll team wanted to take their idea a step further. They wanted to explore "how this system of instructions" used in the performances might "be used in other areas of civil society", and how it might be applied outside a theatre context. "This concept, which we developed alongside performative telepresence, could also be used outside the theatre in universities, global organisations, NGOs or other educational institutions...", says Kaegi, speaking of the opportunity to connect the public together across absence by new and counter-intuitive means. "Perhaps", he continues, "we need to invent more systems that allow people to remain very local without becoming disconnected from discussion, issues, people, feelings on the other side of the world. Because we share this planet, and economically we are extremely connected".

This led to the creation of the "Academy of the Absent". This workshop, run jointly by Rimini Protokoll and Madrid's LaJoven theater company, recreated the development process of Conference of the Absent. Collaborative investigations and conversations with young people involved in theater addressed the planetary ecological crisis and the potential use of the Conference codes outside a theater context. People unable for one reason or another to express themselves directly receive a voice this way, allowing them to address an audience who might never otherwise hear them.

Conference of the Absent offers an extraordinary image of present-day society. It directly addresses the roles we would like to assume in given situations, and also the many voices of those whose lives and feelings are unlike ours. These latter are given the chance to pass into other bodies, into other voices again, from which they breathe new life and meaning into the talk. Now it is our turn. Rimini Protokoll proposes other modes of action. Shall we stand and work together, or would we rather simply go on watching?