Premiere in Rome | 11/02/2021
Absence is precious on both sides

“Conference of the Absent”, Premiere in Rome
“Conference of the Absent”, Premiere in Rome | © Goethe-Institut Italien | Foto: Giulia Carlei and Gaia Del Bosco

In their fully telepresence-based production, the Rimini Protokoll theater company transcend the body while preserving its centrality. Giulia Carlei and Gaia Del Bosco attended the premiere last night at the Pelanda del Mattatoio in Rome.

By Giulia Carlei and Gaia Del Bosco

The Pelanda del Mattatoio theater in Rome hosted the “Conference of the Absent” last night for the first time. The performance took the audience by surprise and held their attention rapt throughout. An absolute silence of embarrassment fell – quickly followed by a nervous wave of laughter – as soon as the politely authoritative voice directing proceedings announced that someone would have to come onstage to stand in for the absent conference speakers. Bewilderment was clear in the faces of the volunteers who stepped up and were standing onstage for the first time.

Yet after a shy and sometimes awkward start they gradually relaxed, coming to trust the stories they were telling and thus by implication also the characters they played. This shift happens at a precise moment: the person onstage concentrates, starts to look out at the audience – sometimes with visible emotion – and the substitute seems to merge in some sense with the conference speaker they stand in for.

Nonetheless, participants later described it as a disorienting experience. “It was very alienating”, enthused Accademia di Belle Arti student Martina: “The light was in my face, I couldn't see anything, but I still felt seen. I was alone but aware of being watched – I was alienated but at the same time deeply in contact with myself: the highest form of self-consciousness”.

This is just what Rimini Protokoll intended when they set out to develop a fully telepresence-based production. Telepresence is often thought of as “the sense of being there”, made possible by a sort of virtual extension of the body. The project worked out by the three-person German theater group goes much further, transcending the body while preserving its centrality. The absent “conference speaker” attains the “sense of presence” through another body, often encountering things they never would have experienced otherwise.

But the body “on loan” is of course by no means mere body: lending body and voice, the substitute creates a bond with the other and attains a deepened self-awareness. In this way, absence becomes something precious for both.