EASTAP23 Associate Artists: SIGNA
Signa and Arthur Koestler, photograph by Erich Goldmann
MEET EASTAP23 Associate Artists
Bleak and Durational Dramaturgies
By Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink, Utrecht University, and Thomas Rosendal Nielsen, Aarhus University
The Danish-Austrian performance ensemble SIGNA, led by Signa Köstler and Arthur Köstler, has established themselves as a ground-breaking and provocative force in the European theatre avant-garde since their first experiments with performance installations at the turn of the millennium. Their bleak, durational, site-specific and participatory performances have been shown in Denmark, Germany, Austria, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Estonia, Spain, Sweden, Russia and Argentina. They have been selected twice for the Berliner Theatertreffen, first in 2008 with Die Erscheinungen der Martha Rubin, and most recently in 2022 with Die Ruhe. Their performances have often been the centre of heated public debate, as in 2010, when they challenged the ethics of spectatorship by inviting the audience to visit and to some extent partake in the debaucheries of Salò – a work based on Pier Paolo Pasolini’ controversial movie Saló (1975). They have also been the object of a noteworthy range of scholarly work in recent years, especially in the context of the field of immersive theatre. Their performances usually involve a large number of performers, some of whom have by now become veterans, recurring in several productions, others recruited short-term for a specific production. In this way, experiences and production methods are disseminated to other practitioners throughout Europe, with some of them forming their own companies and taking the line of practice in other directions (such as Sisters Hope and Wunderland in Denmark).
Signa Köstler (formerly Signa Sørensen, b. 1975) created her first installation, Precious Fallen, in 2001, and founded SIGNA together with Arthur Köstler (b. 1972) in 2004. The company is based in Copenhagen. Both Signa and Arthur have their training in the visual arts: Signa read Art History, Film and Media Studies at the University of Copenhagen, and Arthur studied Media Arts at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. However, it is often their former occupations in service jobs as ‘hairdresser, stripper, champagne girl, newspaper deliverer, cleaning person’ (signa.dk, accessed 6.3.2023) that they highlight when describing their competences. This signals both their emphasis on the specific kind of practical and social skills needed to create the detailed participatory dramaturgy of their work, but also perhaps a solidarity with everyday labour rather than with ‘high culture’. Their reservations towards theatre as institution is only one of their legacies from the poetics of twentieth-century experimental theatre – Brecht, Artaud, Schechner etc. SIGNA’s works stand out as radical experiments by creating extensive and intensive environments, fantastical dystopias of naturalistic detail, in which audiences and performers are confronted with, and lured into the exploration of, the dark and painful sides of human nature.
SIGNA are the Associate Artists of EASTAP23, and their keynote-session will be framed as a dialogue between Signa and Arthur Köstler with scholars Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink and Thomas Rosendal Nielsen. The dialogue will unravel and discuss how the practice of SIGNA contribute to the development of bleak, durational and distributed dimensions of dramaturgy for the 21st century.
Read more about SIGNA at their website: https://signa.dk/index.html
SIGNA in conversation with Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink and Thomas Rosendal Nielsen
This interview took place on 22 March 2023.
Thomas Rosendal Nielsen: What are you working on right now?
Signa Köstler: We are just starting up a project in Hamburg, called The 13th year, with actors from the ensemble of the Deutches Schaulspielhaus Hamburg, which is a bit different from our usual team. Normally we work with a number of veterans, who worked with us in previous projects, and then some newbies. We will perform in a big factory hall, where we are going to create a village within a forest mountain landscape. It is a simulation, obviously, yet we will also playwith the fact that it is a simulation. The audience will first enter a fictional layer, which is a kind of Kafkaesque institutional setting where it will be explained that they will be taken back to their 13th year of life. They are asked to imagine that they’re on a bus ride on the way to a summer camp and that the bus gets lost in a dense fog. The driver passes out so they leave the bus and start walking and they come into this village. Meanwhile, they walk through this grey hallway and then arrive in this simulated village. Here they meet the villagers, the simulants, but also a lot of life-size dolls which represent family members. All the audience members are now 12 years old and they’re integrated into these families. Then a fictional story takes off, which spans over several months. There will be cuts in the story where the simulation speeds up, but also interventions where characters from the first level of the fiction will intervene. Perhaps there will be returning moments where the story or the course of events will change. So, we are also working with the mechanics of the simulation, in a form we have not used before. It’s going to be interesting to work with.
TRN: Who are the members of your creative team?
SK: Arthur and I are the core members. Firstly, I develop the concept, the story and the aesthetics. Then the set designer gets involved, with whom I closely collaborate throughout the project, and who also contributes to the concept, while we further develop the set design.
Arthur Köstler: Our set designer is not only a set designer, he is also a logistics master and whatnot, for several years now. He can do pretty much everything. He is also a brilliant actor, even though he never wanted to act. Every member of our team acts, alongside whatever else we do. To continue with the team, I have a technical assistant because I’m mostly responsible for everything that’s going on with light and sound and media. Next, I have an administrative assistant because I also take care of everything with budget and contracts and logistics et cetera. She also works on set design, which we all do, because we work very close together. If we cannot place a cable because we first need to build a house in the village, for instance, then we all build that house before we continue with something else. So, there is a core team of five people, and four interns who help us with all those tasks.
SK: The concept further develops while we create the physical framework for the work, when we are building the set. A lot of ideas come up then. After hours I often do an evening round, together with the set designer, when it is calm; we joke around with the objects and imagine how things could come to life, or how the different actors could connect to the different spaces. So, many conceptual ideas spring from the physical environment.
TRN: Everyone is acting and also sharing the practical work. Is this a principle for you?
SK: Well, it has become a principle. It started as a necessity back in the days when we had lower budgets. Now we are at a point where we can ask for support from the theater, which takes some load of the actors so they can focus on rehearsals and creating the character biographies. But for me it is definitely an integral part of our work, to be involved with the material stuff from the start. I have observed that our interns, even though they are young and have little experience, usually function very well in acting because they’ve been there from the beginning and they develop this sense for the space, at a much deeper level because they have helped creating it.
Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink: You mentioned that you will be working with actors from the Hamburg ensemble this time, together with some of your veterans. How do you introduce the actors to your working principles or values?
SK: It is a very important question, since our way of working and acting really springs from the group as a whole; this is absolutely decisive for how the whole thing will work. Therefore, we spend a lot of time to establish group awareness. An actor can be brilliant but if he lacks basic group solidarity, then improvising together is going to be very difficult. There needs to be a high level of trust and loyalty within the group. In our rehearsals we try to facilitate this. We are with a group of 30 people. Both during rehearsals and in the actual simulation, the group is distributed over the space, working in smaller groups. They form the families, and they also take on responsibility for creating family stories and characters biographies within the larger story frame. It is really important to emphasize that everybody is equally important. This may seem quite simple, but when an young intern of, say, 19 years old, works next to one of our veterans or a very well-known actor from the ensemble, it is very important that everyone feels secure and feels free to contribute with input because everyone’s input is needed in order to make this entire fictional story as dense and detailed as possible.
TRN: So are you basically building an ensemble feeling and ethics for every production?
SK: Yes, this needs to be established every time. It is not something you just say “this is how we do”, and then it works, it is something we constantly strive for. There should be the possibility to express any kind of doubt and frustration, but to do it without aggression. We do not tolerate any kind of discrimination or chauvinistic behavior.
LGN: I can imagine this is important since a lot of your work is precisely about risk, violence and crossing boundaries.
SK: It is our experience that the more trust and solidarity and fun there is in the group, the greater are the possibilities for playing the opposite. If you have a group where people feel insecure, you cannot play these dangerous things. When we work with themes of sex and violence, we also work very precise. All is lined out, and everyone has to set their boundaries very specifically. Sexual or violent interactions are also carefully rehearsed. It looks very spontaneous when it happens during the performance, but it is based on agreements between the actors of what is possible. There’s a lot of bias around our work; it is often seen as wild and limitless, whereas we actually base the whole work on the security within the group. There have been speculations about us working extremely hierarchical and in sect like structures, but this is what we explore and show in the pieces. We show it in order to criticize it! But it takes a constant awareness to avoid that the group develops unhealthy structures and power dynamics.
LGN: Earlier you explained how the concept evolves through the creation of set design and how this in turn may have an impact on acting or the creation of character biographies. This all relates to dramaturgy, but do you actually use this word in the creation process?
AK: Not so much.
SK: But we have worked with a dramaturg, for many years now, in Hamburg and Cologne. Since 2007 we have worked with the same dramaturg, Sybille Meier. In the beginning I did not understand at all what her job was. In the German theatre system, there is always a dramaturg involved. First, I thought she was kind of a watchdog from the theatre, but then I got to know her better, and now she is very much a resource for us. Sybille focuses on understanding what my vision is, what is important for me and how this can be conveyed clearly. She is like the second pair of eyes, at times also critical.
LGN: In addition to this, your way of distributing the events in space and time also involves dramaturgy. Would you agree?
SK: We have an idea of the whole evening so you can say that’s a kind of a dramaturgy. In a typical setup, first the audience is gathered and given an introduction, which sets some kind of frame. Then they are taken out in smaller groups, where the frame is deepened. This is also where a kind of bonding takes place, and needs to take place. This can also happen on a sensory level, via touch or they get something to eat or drink. Often we have some kind of master plan of how the audience moves around, for instance, via a schedule, or in smaller groups, with meetings here and there or how the actors move around or hang around, with complicated overlaps and so on. So this is a kind of dramaturgy in itself. And then within each actor’s group there is another dramaturgy, because there will be some leading stories or conflicts, actions that need to take place, or something going on. On top of this there are all kinds of meetings or things that happen spontaneously.
TRN: So the spectator’s and the actor’s journeys combine into a kind of dramaturgy. How does the space come into this: are you adapting to the space or adapting the space to the dramaturgy?
AK: This time we’re going to make the space from scratch. We don’t have a building that has a certain ground plan, so we make the ground plan ourselves. The space is a big part of the logistics. We also rehearse these logistics. If, for example, we make a master plan where the actors have to be at a certain place in a certain time, with a part of the audience, we sometimes take balloons instead of audiences and use those balloons, to find out whether there are too many people in the space, or if they fit into a narrow passage at some point, and so on.
SK: We usually work site-specific in existing buildings, like the hospital in Aarhus. Then we respond to the rooms in the building, what can be placed where? Or if there is a strange room in the building: What could happen there? But it is not so different from the current project, actually. We’re going to build ten houses, and we will get furniture and all kinds of things, and then we also ask: okay, this is what we got, what can we do with this? It is much like The Sims, the computer game. It is programmed so that the things generate what the characters do. This is also how we work: the set is also a kind of a script.
LGN: Yes, you could look at it as environmental storytelling, a term from game theorist Henry Jenkins. Game designers or science fiction writers design worlds in order to create stories. It seems you are describing similar processes.
AK: Yeah, very much.
SK: It is a resetting of the audience’s perception as well. On the one hand, we want things to be very authentic, for instance, if we want to create a messy scene, we work with real dirt and real detritus, and it really smells. So there are these authenticity markers. But then we do something with the space, for instance we change the color scheme, which makes it kind of eerie. When the audience enters that world, in a particular role, like a patient or a visitor or a 12 years old , and they enter a world where things are just a little bit warped, this can create a change in perception and perspective that also makes them navigate differently than they normally would. This is why it is so important to pay attention to every detail in the set.
LGN: This environmental storytelling or material engagement also informs how actors relate to the set, right?
SK: Actors really tune into the rooms when they help creating it, they start imagining life there and get emotionally connected. In the early days when we had less budget everyone was involved with building the space. We don’t do this anymore because the downside was that we actually had way too little rehearsal time. Now we try to give the actors much time in the space. You can be in character and clean the space, for instance. By cleaning and tidying you also engage with the objects and that kind of gives a little bit of the same effect. It is also funny, at some point they really click with the objects, usually when they start grasping their character. Then they stop ‘acting’ with the object and just start doing things, using the objects instead.
TRN: Your described earlier how you need to be inside the work, even as a director. The dramaturg is sometimes described as the outside eye, so is the director. But when there’s no outside eye, how do you maintain the distance needed to make creative decisions?
SK: I never thought of having to have a distance. I want it the other way around. I need to get in as deep as I possibly can in order to make creative decisions. Because I want the audience as deep into it as possible. This work is not something to be looked upon from the outside. This is also a problem with critics, sometimes, because they’re trained to have this distant look at things to describe it. But then you don’t get the essential experience of what the piece is, because the piece is very much about letting yourself go in meetings and intimate interactions and to let things unfold and happen. That is also why it is essential that I play myself. After each show, we gather together and evaluate the event, how we experienced the audience and what kind of mood they were in. If I am not in there, I wouldn’t be able to say anything. But sure, I need to have an overview in a way.
AK: It is a sort of oscillation between distance and the opposite. We train every actor to be a sort of a director, because once the show is running, we don’t know what’s going on in every corner, but they know what’s going on around them. Also because it’s all improvisation, they have to learn how to direct themselves. So on the one hand, as an actor, you are in character, but on the other hand, you’re always checking yourself, checking what’s going on, where do I place myself and what would be good now and what would be good to do later. We all have to be able to design our dramaturgy for the given situation, so to say.
SK: We also are test audiences for each other. And when I go in as a test audience, I ask how does this affect me emotionally? Does it affect me? Does it not? Is something happening to me, does it make me angry, irritated, or bored. It is from this feeling that I direct and not from looking from the outside.
LGN: Thank you for this chat. We look forward to continuing the conversation during the conference.