Performance art collective Existence Theatre like to do things differently. Founded by Bello Benischauer (writer, director, producer, video and sound composer for this show) and Elisabeth Eitelberger (dramaturgy and performer for this show), the pair start out with a vision that might first appear on a page in the form of poetry and simple drawings.
They’ll work with their performers for at least six months leading up to a show, spending time first developing trust and affection within the ensemble, before devising the piece all together without pressure, taking the time to see what takes shape and which performers are drawn to which characters, and how those characters reveal themselves through movement, dance and spoken word as the work begins to take shape.
Ascribing to a more old-school, all-inclusive approach to performance works, Bello himself met the audience as front of house. This results in a friendly, relaxed, welcoming atmosphere from the get-go. We’re invited to select a stone from a pile and some people are offered colour cards. These are used to split the audience on either side of the room upon entry into the performance space. Some are asked to take their shoes off. It becomes clear early on that the audience is invited to leave their fears at the door and to trust the ensemble.
As is usual with postdramatic theatre, there is much audience participation throughout the show, with performers variously pulling audience members into the show to join in a dance, to participate and aid in a ritual, or handing a glass of wine to enjoy as a sacrament as we go through the various rituals included in the show inspired by Bello’s many travels around the world. The idea is to highlight the connectedness between us, despite our many different cultural backgrounds.
Eschewing the main stage, instead, the vast floor space is cleared with two rows of seats for the audience on either side. In the middle of the floor is a line of costume pieces, creating a river that at first forms a border between the different sides of the audience, around which the performers have to manoeuvre throughout the show as they advance from ritual to ritual, epiphany to epiphany.
But slowly, over time, as the performers keep dipping back into that river to change outfits as the theme changes, indicating the passage of time over the ages as the river disappears, removing the boundary and allowing the audience members to come together in the performance space. This ultimately became a part of the performance in a dance at the end of the show in honour and celebration of the breaking of this boundary.
With everything visible, the mechanics of the performance are completely out in the open. From the very beginning, as the audience enters the room, they’re confronted with the performers out on the floor stretching, breathing and preparing alongside the river of outfits they will be changing into and out of in front of the audience as the show progresses.
The vibe is anticipatory but calm, comfortable and confident. Rather than being hidden in a bio box, you can see Bello operating the music throughout the show. In terms of lighting, the performers themselves make use of portable lights to highlight and distort certain elements and key moments in the performance. At no point is the audience asked to pretend that they’re not witnessing and being a part of a show, and the immediacy this creates makes it easier to get lost in what is being presented.
The venue of Victoria Hall was as good as a performer itself in the show, with psychedelic, ever-shifting lighting projected onto the stage (seldom used, with the main hall floor being used as performance space instead) and onto the back wall. A penchant of Existence Theatre is site-specific devising of their work, after all. As a result, the performance space itself comes alive in a way seldom seen in traditional theatre.
All of these postdramatic elements break the boundary between audience and performer, allowing the audience to feel a part of the show, and to truly experience the rollercoaster of emotions brought forth through the rituals explored. Performers Emma Benischauer, Sarah Healy, Gala Shevtsov, Daniela O’Mara, Rina Ronnie, Sophie Regnier and Elisabeth Eitelberger completely own their roles.
Each performer had the opportunity to incorporate their personal experiences and heritage into this show exploring rituals and how they help us make meaning of our lives, and the time spent crafting this show results in performances that are convincing, delivered with emotion that is genuine, irresistible and infectious to the audience witnessing it.
Afterwards, the audience is invited to share in a meal, with a delicious curry replenishing from within what the intense emotion and ritualistic nature of the show depleted. Bello mentions he always wants to do food, for free, so that the audience and performers can once again come together in communion and take the time to chat about and process what they’ve just experienced.
Existence Theatre is a group to keep an eye on. If you can leave your judgement at the door and be willing to participate with an open heart and mind, their work is for you. You’ll feel like a part of something bigger, replenished and invigorated for days after the show.