Rimini Protokoll workshop | 11/03/2021
Where the ethical meets the political: notes on “Conference of the Absent”

Workshop al Goethe-Institut Rom
Workshop al Goethe-Institut Rom | © Goethe-Institut Italien | Foto: Giulia Carlei and Gaia Del Bosco

Helgard Haug of Rimini Protokoll led the theater workshop on November 3 at the Goethe-Institut via Savoia in Rome. The event, which followed the premiere of the company’s play “Conference of the Absent”, brought the director and members of the public together to discuss some of the important questions raised by the production, and at the conclusion of the process to assemble their thoughts in the hands-on production of a piece of writing.

By Giulia Carlei and Gaia Del Bosco

The personal is political

Workshop participants asked highly pertinent questions, often concerning the experience of audience participation in Conference of the Absent and in particular its ethical standing. Comments included: “I wasn’t comfortable saying certain things, but I had no time to stop and think”; “A really emotionally engaging story, but it felt like appropriation”, and “Has anyone ever refused any of the material for personal ethical reasons?”. One of the most interesting questions of all came from Piero, a 24-year-old theater arts and sciences student at Rome’s La Sapienza university. “I was really impressed”, he said, “by the collective’s research work underpinning the stories told onstage, which were all true. But up to what point is it legitimate to be telling the stories, to use them for the purposes of the play? Is there a limit?”. Helgard’s reply was entirely straightforward: “Everyone tells their own story, our job is to encourage them to provide as much detail as possible, but when they decide to stop they establish a boundary and we have to respect it”. Not surprisingly, this question opened up wider-ranging discussion, especially around the well known and routinely misused feminist slogan “The personal is political”. The stories told in Conference of the Absent are personal – these are the real lives of real individuals – but they are also highly politically charged. These people’s absence is itself political, and many absences in their lives result from global crisis situations such as wars, socially selective denial of civil rights and protection, worldwide ecological destruction. The pervasive power relations of our time (and not only ours) ensure that certain voices will always be present in public debate while others are consigned to absence.

The question of responsibility

On the evenings of November 2, 3 and 4, Theater 1 at Mattatoio and on the afternoon of November 3 in the main Goethe-Institut theater, then, the stage itself served as dramatic metaphor for a widespread social phenomenon: subjects denied a voice received one through others who in sociological terms enjoy the privilege of always being listened to. But this implies the valid question: to what extent can the substitute tell the story of another human being? Where is the threshold between representation and appropriation? Whom may we represent? Here the debate arose from some of the participants’ qualms. Many admitted that once onstage for the first time they were unsure of what to do and especially of what they were expected to do. Should they act in the sense of trying to speak “like” the person they replaced, or simply act as a spokesperson? At least in terms of what Rimini Protokoll wanted for the performance, the answer was the second. Some participants called into question the weight of responsibility they felt in telling someone else’s story; others felt no such burden precisely by virtue of the substitute role, and could let themselves get caught up in the story.  Independently of its various possible interpretations, the concept of responsibility is central. 

On this matter, Helgard argued that audience responsibility of various kinds is not just the central theme of the play but the particular reason for its success. “A play is normally produced in one place and performed in another, or several others in the case of a tour. In this case we packed up a lot of creative and technical components of the production and took them from city to city, creating a series of original scripts. Artistically and for ecological reasons (in the sense that not traveling with a troupe saves tonnes of CO2),  we wanted to break out of the tour routine and hand responsibility on to local teams and most importantly to the audience.”

A parallel with everyday reality offers a conclusion here. Perhaps it might be said that we are not responsible for someone’s lack of a voice in public debate, but that this becomes our responsibility unless we offer up our privileges to enable the speech of another. Something like this occurs in the play, where bodies transcend physical presence to serve as the medium allowing another to speak. Within the personal boundaries they each set, this process politicizes the bodies of self and other at once.