DEPARTING MINDS Minds over matter

Existence Theatre are a Fremantle based group co-founded by interdisciplinary artists Bello Benischauer and Elisabeth M Eitelberger. Over two decades they have refined their practice by combining video projection, live sound composition, movement and text as spoken languages, while challenging theatrical and performative methods, culminating in acclaimed productions Code of Rituals, The Witch and the Goat, and Lonely Mars. Existence Theatre’s new show Aufbruchsgeister: Departing Minds is set to continue their innovative streak but take things in a new direction, with a poetic drama about a desperate search for allies in uncertain times. Ahead of the show’s run at Fringe World this summer at Old Customs House from Friday, January 14 until Saturday, January 22; BRAYDEN EDWARDS spoke to Elisabeth Eitelberger to find out more.

Great to see Existence Theatre back at Fringe in 2022 with Departing Minds! Where did the idea for this come from and how long has this show been in the works for?

 The idea – as usually with Existence Theatre productions – has evolved from reflecting on some of the issues that people are concerned about under current circumstances. Not only here in Australia but everywhere around the world. While the broader context of this poetic exploration sits within the topics of micro-racism and stereotypical stigmatisation, we try to capture what it is that causes these issues.

Our work invites the audience to pause, and think about how we relate to each other. What lies beneath, which evocative feelings can we convey to our audience to make them understood, if they are on the receiving end, and create more awareness in others. What do we say, how do we say it, what do we do, how do we do it, how do we generally treat each other, and how do we want to be treated ourselves?

For this show we have been working with a new ensemble over recent months and while the text was written over a year ago, it reads as if it was a response to recent protests. It alerts us of the dangerous means of populism, and how it can manipulate people and initiate hate.

Departing Minds brings a bunch of people together, who have the fear to lose their freedom in their personal surroundings, so they decide to leave their old lives behind. Once they meet, they realise that even if they share this fear, they are completely different from each other and are now thrown back to face themselves.

Departing Minds wants to take audiences away from thinking in black and white. It speaks to the human being in all of us that needs to keep connecting with self and others. For the protagonists in this show it is the only way to survive.

Who are Existence Theatre and how would you say your shows are different from other performances?

Our works are philosophical, and don’t send audiences home with a solution or a complete story. We instead want people to rethink their ways of being. Sometimes there is no answer to the questions that we ask. But we share feelings, emotions, make the topic tangible, open a dialogue. Artists not only entertain people but show them something that can change their perspective, that can inspire them. Often people walk up to us after a show and say “you break all the rules of theatre.” We meet on eye level with our audience, and I think that is what makes our performances different and so emotionally engaging.

Existence Theatre, based in Fremantle, is a unique form of performance theatre that my partner Bello Benischauer and me have initiated. Over the past twenty years we have refined our practice and combine video projection, live sound composition, movement and text as spoken languages, while testing theatrical and performative methods. We engage with changing ensembles.

Due to COVID restrictions, our recent works have been produced in WA. Former projects took place internationally. Our explorations are site-specific works, known to be poignant, powerful, critical, non-conventional, poetic and surreal. As the name Existence Theatre predicts, we examine existential questions about human identity, meaning, choice and personal responsibility and depart from postmodern theatre. This is the fourth year of showing our work during Fringe.

The team of performers for Departing Minds include Emma Benischauer, Elisabeth Eitelberger, Ainsley Marr, Liv Richardson and Aileigh Rose McKee. Sound is performed live by Bello Benischauer.

The theme of connecting with others seems central to this work, and in fact some previous shows by Existence Theatre as well. What do you think are some of the common barriers people face when building relationships with others?

Speaking from my own experience, I find it hard to face confrontations. Connecting with others openly, showing own vulnerability, can lead to confrontations. It sometimes seems easier to look away, ignore or avoid unpleasant situations. But in the long run it doesn’t make me happier.

The show illustrates how people try to make their way through life, how self-consuming this process can be and how easy we can get into a conflict with someone else. Having an argument with a familiar person seems less frightening than to defend personal needs, values, and beliefs to a stranger. Cultural and social differences play a huge role in that context as it requires respect towards each other on both sides to make it work.

The show also examines the way people respond to unexpected situations, which I think a lot of us would relate to over the past 18 months. How is performance art like this important in recognising our differences, and commonalities when we are put in unfamiliar situations?

When you see and meet performers on stage, who you can feel expose themselves to a soundscape that forces them to adapt their movements constantly… You see them sweat, puff and struggle through their text lines while their physical endurance gets challenged in front of you. When they get really close to you or can only be heard from afar, all this creates a relationship to you. It evokes feelings that are deeply connected with yourself. Such performance art makes audience members feel felt. Everyone experiences their own story. We show the strengths and the limitations of a human being. Such performance theatre lays open what stays usually hidden behind social masks.

And if there was one key message you would like audiences to take away from this show, what would it be?

Ignorance and discrimination shall have no voice. Connecting with others is not always easy but a necessity. Showing vulnerability is a strength.

What’s next for Existence Theatre through the rest of 2022? Anything else in the works we can look forward to in the coming year?

While there is a show in the making, a new text gets written, edited, made ready for development. The next developing phase for a new production starts soon after Fringe.

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