FIND 2016 The Voice of the Leader: A Study Part Two of a Conversation with Sanja Mitrović
by Joseph Pearson
7 April 2016
Sanja Mitrović’s piece »SPEAK!«, at FIND 2016, brings the director, and Flemish performer Jorre Vandenbussche, together. The duo’s critical review of the rhetorical strategies of dictators, presidents, and even mass murderers, explores how political language sways, deceives or even changes us. Mitrović is something of a polymath – a director, choreographer, and actor – who hails from Serbia but lives in Belgium. Her work is collaborative in character, and politically-engaged; that is the scope of her company, Stand Up Tall Productions, founded in 2009. At FIND, she also introduces a piece on the relationships between football and theatre, »Do You Still Love Me?«, the subject of Part One of our conversation. Here, Part Two explores »SPEAK!« and the influences that drive Mitrović to produce theatre.
Joseph Pearson: The question of political rhetoric looms large in »SPEAK!«. Again, what political/historical events, or influences, brought you to treat this question of politics and language? What led you to this investigation? What did you learn, or want to impart, about democracy?
Sanja Mitrović: I started thinking about this topic after Barack Obama’s inauguration speech in 2009. It was a mesmerising moment, which seemed to offer a possibility of change, a new kind of hope for the future. I asked myself why exactly it had such a profound impact, especially when, after the first moment of exhilaration, came a disappointing reality in which this charismatic figure proved unable to live up to the promises of such a perfect speech. I was interested in a situation in which we fall for a certain proposition or idea. As human beings, it’s normal to always wish for and believe in something better. We get let down, and begin to hope again. This cycle of hope and disappointment could, in a certain sense, be taken as a cornerstone of the entire political process, and it encouraged me to research the rhetoric of political speeches. What is it that we look for in them? What kind of worlds do they offer? And how do these promised worlds influence the way in which we, eventually, elect those whose duty it should be to represent our hopes and expectations?
Another impetus to start thinking about this topic were studies from recent years, which point to apathy and a loss of faith in the political class. They show low voter turnout and disengagement from the democratic process, especially among young people between 18 and 24. This seems to be an endemic problem, which opens up all sorts of questions, among others how we choose our representatives and to what degree this reflects the ways in which we want to be governed. So I wanted to create a situation in which participation and the act of voting are not only symbolic, or addressed metaphorically, but have an actual impact on the outcome of the evening.
With regards to democracy, it’s interesting to consider the concept of »free speech« which, I feel, has recently gained another meaning in the democratic discourse: it becomes a justification for hate speech. This is obvious from the recent escalation of Islamophobic, xenophobic, and racist language which by now is a routine part of discussions regarding the refugee crisis, the Middle East, or American elections. Until a few years ago, I've been living in the Netherlands. There, it was easy to observe how right-wing parties, such Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom, developed strategies to appropriate free speech for their own political ends.
In terms of the content of the show, I was generally interested in what could be considered visionary or »idealistic« speeches, which later came to be recognised as having defined a specific historical moment, a new vision of the world, or a certain ideology. For example, the speeches by Martin Luther King and Vaclav Havel. On the other hand, I used military speeches, designed to mobilise and create a sense of unity in moments of conflict or danger. Such are the speeches by Saddam Hussein and Winston Churchill. It was interesting to explore the dynamics between these two functions of a political speech, which occasionally converge into one.
Could you tell me a little about your collaboration with Jorre Vandenbussche? How this came about and in what ways it has changed or influenced the way in which you do theatre?
It’s a great pleasure to work with Jorre, his approach to performing and his presence on stage bring a special energy to the work. We’ve been performing together since last year, and before that I worked with two other actors – Geert Vaes and Matthew Sys – in previous stages of the project. Since the piece is rooted in the relationship between two performers, playing with different partners inevitably brings out different tensions, so there are always nuances in intensity and meaning with each iteration.
Could you tell me about your choices for movement, sound, lighting for »SPEAK!« How did the material and collaboration shape your choices?
»SPEAK!« has a very simple form and I always wanted to keep a direct, clear structure which would reference an election campaign: two people, head to head, and the audience as the third protagonist. For research, we’ve been analysing a lot of video clips of politicians, their body language, the set-up, the aesthetic elements of their presentations. Politics today is a highly sophisticated, affective system based on images and gestures in which a performance of a message is as important as its content, and often even more so. Since the early days of mass media, the presentation of political speeches has undergone a fundamental change. Someone who is an impeccable speaker on radio might not win the same votes in a televised debate as he or she might not be photogenic enough, or might not have perfected their gestures. With television in particular, and today with Internet and its endless, 24-hour cycle of feeds, this performative element – »how« you present something – has become dominant, and there are whole professions, spin doctors and public relation agencies, training politicians as to how most effectively »play« their roles.
And it’s not only the speaker that matters but the entire visual field. Sometimes the lighting, or the position of the microphone, or where someone stands in the room, can be a decisive factor in making one speaker more attractive than another. In the show, the only scenography we have are two large staircases designed by the architecture firm LLAC from Brussels. They are reminiscent both of lecterns and more ancient symbols of power, like ziggurats or pyramids. Practically they function as pieces of furniture; they are mobile and by changing positions they change the perspective of space, which then becomes activated, almost like another player. And movements, of course, as part of delivery, give a strong subtext to the content of speeches. In the beginning, we were copying movements from the speeches we watched, but soon we realised that we needed to adapt and make them our own in order to really go for the audience vote.
You took a course with a PR agency. Was that useful? What did you learn?
Yes, we worked with a specialised agency from Den Hague which offers professional training to Dutch politicians. With them we looked at different historical figures. For Obama it’s characteristic that he normally uses a teleprompter, so essentially he doesn’t even have to be familiar with the speech as he’s just reading it. But he’s so natural in his delivery that he can create a sense of addressing each and every person in the audience. Another example is Theodore Roosevelt who approached every speech as if it were a film for which he needed to assume a role and get into »character«. Hitler had a characteristically aggressive attitude; he always speaks from the position of absolute authority. We explored various rhetorical styles, gesticulations, tones of voice, and then we practiced different approaches. At one point we were given a task to write and perform an original text, and a spin doctor who trained us gave feedback: how to stand, where to look, what to do with our hands, what are the weak and what strong points in our performances.
Could you tell us more broadly about your experience between cultures and political systems? You are from a part of Serbia with a Hungarian population, you studied Japanese, you now live in the Low Countries… I’m sure there are many more layers than this. How do you see nationality? National variants of power? How has your international exposure helped you create a particular vision of politics and theatre?
When I lived in Serbia, I graduated in Japanese language and literature, so it may seem that my involvement with theatre began almost like an accident. But perhaps there is a deeper connection, which goes back to a fascination with slippages between cultures and languages. This has been one of the main characteristics of multi-ethnic, multi-lingual Yugoslav society in which I grew up; it motivated my study of Japanese; assumed another, perhaps more existential aspect when I emigrated to the Netherlands in the early 2000s; and continues to inform my practice as a theatre maker. Displacement is helpful in gaining another view on your country, nation, and yourself, but it doesn’t automatically mean that you understand clearer or better. It’s just a different form of understanding, coloured by physical distance and certain kinds of loss.
What’s interesting for me in these spaces of instability and tension is that they define how I think about myself and the wider reality. There isn’t a fixed idea about it, but the sense of one’s place in the world is constantly shifting, switching between two perspectives —personal thoughts, emotions, memories, experiences, and those we share with millions of others.
Someone once suggested that my work could be seen as a repeated re-enactment of the loss of grand narratives, and the perpetual search for new identity. I didn’t necessarily think about it in those terms but it’s an interesting angle, and it makes sense on some level. There are certain themes which consistently run through the work, and what I’m interested in tends to correspond to the so-called grand narratives: the questions of nation and nationalism; immigration and xenophobia; the meaning and efficiency of the political process; cultural, economic and social differences that define the era in which we live. All of these questions are central to how we, as society, understand ourselves at any given historical moment. The necessity to ask why things are like they appear to be, the curiosity about and engagement with the world are, for me, at the heart of every creative process.
Speaking of which, why is it that you do theatre (as opposed to another art form)?
To my mind, theatre, like any other art, should be a reflection of society. The concept of art for art’s sake doesn’t amount to much. Without connection to its immediate surrounding, and a negotiation of its own position, art becomes a mere decoration. Theatre lies, but I do believe that it still can aim to change our perceptions about life and how we live it. Even though it occasionally feels like a dinosaur, theatre still has power. For me, its power lies in an active dialogue between people, on and off stage. This unique moment of sharing a physical space, at a specific moment in time, and the energy of exchange that comes from it, is something which should be cherished and nurtured in the era of all-pervasive, detached digital communication.
To return to »Do You Still Love me?«, [the subject of Part One of this conversation] the show is not made exclusively for either the theatre audience or for football supporters. Much like its central premise – bringing two groups of people together – its aim is to allow for a space of encounter. In Reims, or recently in Marseille, where we worked with groups of Olympique de Marseille supporters who don’t usually mix, or are even in conflict with each other, it was fantastic when other supporters turned up for shows in large numbers. You could really feel a very special and charged atmosphere. They chanted, cheered on their mates, strongly responded to references about local community and events, and in the end we even had smoke bombs and flares going off, which wasn’t part of the staging. This, of course, coloured the perception of the »other« audience as well, and for me it was encouraging to experience theatre on that level of connection and exchange.
This is Part Two of a Q&A between Sanja Mitrović and Joseph Pearson.
Concept, direction and choreography: Sanja Mitrović (Belgium/Serbia)
Premiered on 12 April 2016