Photo: Zdravko Yonchev, Malina Molnar, Robert Puțeanu
Concept by Alexander Manuiloff
What I Saw
This show took place in the narrow blackbox space of the Csiky Gergely Theatre. The setup was an oval of chairs that took up the whole rectangular space, presumably for the audience, and in the middle of the space, a table. On top of the table sat a box with a sealed envelope on top. Under the table was a trashcan. Above the table was a single microphone, hanging down by its cord. Aside from dim lighting to help the audience see the chairs, the only other theatrical light was a spotlight above that table. There were no performers in the space.
Even though there were ushers to show the audience where the door was, no instructions were given to the audience about where to sit. When we finished taking our seats, the lights above the audience dimmed, leaving us in relative darkness but still able to see each other. The light above the table remained unchanged.
No performers appeared, and no sounds were made. In fact, nothing happened at all. There were no instructions, no voices, nothing to indicate the “beginning” of the performance other than the dimming of the audience lights.
We sat in relative silence (with spurts of giggling from the large number of theater students in the audience) for an undetermined amount of time; it felt like about five minutes but could have been longer or shorter. Eventually, someone from the audience stood up, walked to the table, and opened the envelope on top of the box, pulling out a single sheet of paper which looked, from my vantage point about 8 feet diagonally away, like a single sentence. The audience member pulled the microphone to their mouth and read the paper inside. The paper read (in English): “The performance will begin in five minutes.” Louder giggling ensued.
After a few more minutes of waiting, a second audience member walked to the table and opened the box to reveal a stack of similar envelopes. They took the one off the top and read it in a similar manner.
The following proceeded; I ended up not taking notes during the performance due to the nature of the show so I’m now relying on memory and immediate post-show notes:
Audience members, at first hesitantly, and then with more and more gusto and variety (sometimes in groups), came to the table, picked up an envelope, and read what was inside. After a few minutes, it became apparent to all of us that THIS was the performance, that no performers would be coming to join us (we thought though I think there was a strain running through all of us that our “performance” could be interrupted at any moment), and we were on our own.
Each envelope contained only one sheet of white paper with a varying amount of text on it, always centered in the middle of the page. The text ran in two strains of narrative:
1. About the performative aspect of the show itself (“the performance will begin in […] minutes or hours), or about why the performance cannot begin, which ranged from practical (the performer is not present) to existential (about the nature of performance itself).
2. About a true story from Bulgaria from 2013, in which several people burned themselves alive in protest. The narrative was in the first-person voice of one specific protester/self-immolator, protest leader Plamen Goranov (although the audience only knows this person as Plamen). The narrative of Plamen, read in the first person, begins with letting us know of his plans, leading to the moment he is going to set himself on fire.
As the performance proceeded, the students essentially became the leaders of how our performance was going to run. There were no explicit rules about what we were supposed to do, but once we got going, it became clear that one of our unstated goals as an audience was to get through all the envelopes (this was not a specific rule). Many forms of games and rebellions popped up: one audience member put the envelopes out of order; one reached down to the bottom to the last one, seemingly to try and end the show; papers were made into paper airplanes; read out of order; crumpled; hidden…but one rule that seemed to pop up in our audience was that each paper, at some point, would be read.
Over the course, the narrative of Plamen (the story of which I was completely unfamiliar, and I thought it was fiction), receded to the background. The texts about performance were read but seemed to hold little meaning. For our audience, the performance became the reading of the text itself, driven by the theater students, who were having a blast in the freedom to do what they wanted with the text.
Eventually, what we thought was the last paper was read, and the lights came up. Then, one student popped up, pulled a paper out of their back pocket, and read it. All papers at that point had been discarded neatly (though not always throughout the performance) in the trashcan. Once that paper was read, the doors were opened, and the audience left, eventually. It seemed some audience stuck around to see what else might happen.
Watch The Trailer
Profile of the show by Manuiloff
“The State” is theatre without actors and without a director.
The performance is just the text, the audience as well as people’s basic conceptions of how to function in a society. The audience is seated in a circle round a table on which letters are placed in a box. Lights go out apart from a spot on the table. There are no instructions. People from the audience will have the freedom to read these letters or do something else with them creating thus their own small society, their own rules how to proceed with the situation and their own unique performance. The first several letters to be opened are designed in a way that, without any prompts, people will want to read them aloud and share with others, thus starting to perform actually. Part of the letters tell the story of the last conscious night of Plamen Goranov before the morning of 20 February 2013 when he burnt himself in front of the Municipal Council of Varna, Bulgaria, protesting for a better society. In reality, he did not leave any letters. This text is all fiction, but based on months of research on who Plamen really was.
The letters share intimate moments of the character’s last minutes on Earth but also open space for discussion about our basic rules, principles, values and – even the fundamentals of theatre. Such as acting or being present. Following the author or being the author. Theatre’s generally authoritative structure whereby some things are said or done on the stage, from somebody else, but the audience is rarely truly involved in the creation, is a process to be questioned. “The performance” as well as its value nowadays is also questioned. The state and the way we organize it is questioned and is there on display to be observed by the acting audience.
After Theatertreffen, Nachtkritik wrote that a connection between form and content “has rarely been better” than in “The State”. Tim Etchells put it this way: “The State takes us to one particular edge of the contemporary theatrical – a conceptual work, reflecting on the conditions of performance that nonetheless harnesses the power of narrative to look at real political issues“. After Globalize:Cologne International Theatre Festival, Ron van der Sterren wrote: “Manuiloff managed to not only make us participate, but also do something we all wanted to talk about afterwards. He made it the most natural thing that could ever happen.” After Temps d’Images Festival, Jatekter magazine called “The State”: “A genius theatre idea: razor-sharp, sensitive and complicated.”
Susan Stroupe of The
Center for International Theatre Development (CITD) wrote after Teszt Festival: “The State, in its simple complexity, can resonate with audiences young and old, all over the world.”
Important context: Since early 2013 Bulgaria saw more than a dozen of people, young men and women, burning themselves in public spaces in protest against a failing state, corruption, poverty and very probably – in despair. The most recent case took place in December 2014, just a month after a young and successful woman self-immolated herself in front of the Presidency in Sofia. However, the case with Plamen Goranov (36) of late February 2013 is perhaps the first and the most well-known. None of the people who committed such painful suicides left any letters with motives, as Jan Palach did in the Czech Republic back in 1969.
Bulgaria has had the most massive wave of protests in 2013 since the time of WWII. The country is an active part of the growing protesting movement throughout the world that started in 2011 with the Arab Spring and the Indignados movement in Spain.
History: In 2015 the text was selected to be performed at one of Europe’s biggest and most influential festivals THEATERTREFFEN, Berlin, in Haus der Berliner Festspiele, May 3 2015 (as part of Stueckemarkt). This made Alexander Manuiloff the first Bulgarian writer to be ever invited with a text to Germany’s most prestigious theatre forum. The performance was then invited to Cologne’s International Theatre and Dance Festival GLOBALIZE:COLOGNE in October 2015 and TEMPS D’IMAGES festival, Cluj, Romania (Nov 8, 2015). In 2016 It received invitations by the Euroregional Festival TESZT at the Hungarian State Theatre in Timisoara, Romania
(May 2016), the Faki Festival of Alternative Theatrical Expression in Zagreb, Croatia
(May 2016) and Montag Modus series of the Collegium Hungaricum in Berlin
(June 2016). E/NTRY Platform of the Red House, Sofia, Bulgaria
(April-June 2016) also included the performance into its programme, as well as 41st Edition of the International Theatre Festival of Macedonia MOT
(September 2016); 10th Edition of SPOT Festival in Carei Romania; Kolkata International Performing Arts Festival KIPAF, India (January 2017) came next.
So far the English text has been translated into Bulgarian, Romanian, German, French, Macedonian and Hungarian. The original of the text is English as the writer gradually quits writing in Bulgarian and is switching to English in a protest against (intellectual) corruption in Bulgaria.
Nuts and Bolts
Cast size: 0
Touring Size: 1 author (+1 technician if theatre can't provide any). Usually 1 in total
Minimum height/width/depth of stage: 4m/8m/8m
Maximum height/width/depth of stage: 20m/35m/35m
Load in time: 3 hours
Strike time: 1.5 hours
Cartage information: Whole set fits in one standard checked-in item of airplane luggage
Translation options: Can be performed in English
THEATERTREFFEN, Berlin, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, May 3 2015 Cologne’s International Theatre and Dance Festival GLOBALIZE:COLOGNE in October 2015
TEMPS D’IMAGES festival, Cluj, Romania (Nov 8, 2015)
Euroregional Festival TESZT at the Hungarian State Theatre in Timisoara, Romania (May 2016)
Faki Festival of Alternative Theatrical Expression in Zagreb, Croatia (May 2016)
Montag Modus series of the Collegium Hungaricum in Berlin (June 2016)
Rituals Festival, Berlin E/NTRY Platform of the Red House, Sofia, Bulgaria (April-June 2016)
41st Edition of the International Theatre Festival of Macedonia MOT (September 2016)
10th Edition of SPOT Festival in Carei, Romania (November 21, 2016) Kolkata International Performing Arts Festival KIPAF, India (January 2017)
Future performance dates:
21 November, SPOT Festival Romania January 20, 2017,Kolkata International Performing Arts Festival KIPAF, India
Available for touring from: 11/29/2016
Representation: Alexander Manuiloff, Rozalina Laskova +359/886829226
Writing and reviews
Concept Author: Alexander Manuiloff
Alexander Manuiloff is a writer who denounced publishing on paper in Bulgaria in 2011. He publishes online in Bulgarian and in English and earns his independence from working on film scripts, theatre performances, writing articles as well as from direct contributions from his readers.
In theatre two separate Silver Lion prize winners at the Venice Biennale, Rimini Protokoll and Ferran Dordal, chose him to work with on their latest projects. Alexander's films and dramaturgy works have been invited to major festivals around the globe.
Reflections by Susan
Since one of the threads of the festival was the role of the audience in performance (this was the first performance of the festival that jumped in head first into this exploration), and I am both well-versed in audience interaction, and was trying to have a bit of journalistic distance, I tried to be mostly an observer in this performance, although I did find myself jumping up to open a few of the envelopes throughout the course of the show.
In speaking with creator Alexander Manuiloff, he illuminated that he is passionate about how democracy can be explored through performance, and decided that creating a performance “about” democracy was fairly useless. Instead, he wanted to give the audience the opportunity to practice democracy themselves. What became clear through talking to him is that each performance is VASTLY different. No two audiences act alike in any capacity; according to Manuiloff, who watches each show from the booth and controls only when the lights go down and come up at the end, audiences have behaved in all sorts of ways: sometimes destructive, sometimes creative, sometimes communal. Papers have been set on fire (recalling the story of the Plamen), single audience members have tried to take control of the order, and in one instance with a small audience, everyone came to the table together and read each envelope, in turn, in order, and then spent a long time after the “show” talking about it. Manuiloff pointed out that there are no instructions to leave the theater, and many audience members have lingered long after to reflect or have conversations.
What struck me most about the performance I experienced was the abundance of joy, mostly generated by the large amount of college students present and driving the show. In many ways, the “state” we created as an audience was reflective of the students’ values: games could be played, rules could be bent or altered, but not to the point that we descended into chaos. No dictatorship was allowed: at one point an anxious-seeming “adult” attempted to restore narrative order, and after he sat down, the students immediately returned to their joyful anarchy. Why this struck me was the nature of the narrative itself: the story of Plamen is sober, tragic, and very politically weighty. The other narrative seriously questioned the very nature of performance and audience. But because our audience was filled with young people who were more interested in what they could do than what the show was “about,” we ended up with a narrative that was more about the relationship between passionate, young creatives and seasoned, mature professionals, and about how youth relate (or don’t relate, as it were) to the past. My desire to keep journalistic difference soon became suppressing my own anarchical desires to play with the students in order that they could be as little influenced by adults as possible. I came out of the performance in a mood of reflective ecstasy at what I just witnessed in those young people.
Over the course of lunch and the next few days, many heated discussions took place about this performance, many of them reflective of what happened among audience members, whether destructive or creative. And in it’s simplest description, the “point” of The State seems almost too obvious: put a group of relative strangers in a room together with no rules, and see what happens.
That simplicity is what is both problematic and revelatory about this piece. While the simple structure allows for the seams of our constructed society to become clear: where the lines of politeness fall, what we have been trained to do as audience, how we instinctually act when the metaphorical teacher is out of the room (as I said, the students in our audience literally made paper airplanes…it was almost too perfect). Outside of the narrative, which Manuiloff acknowledges is often sacrificed to meaninglessness in the creation of the audience performance, the central question of the piece for each audience member really is: “What do YOU do in a tense situation when there is no clear leader?”
And while that type of simple performance can be exhilarating, a conversation with a fellow festival-goer a few days later illuminated a different, more problematic and/or difficult idea for me. What I had been originally ruminating on with this colleague was that I thought the performance was less about democracy and more about the theoretical anarchy, where the audience is bereft of rules and must organize from nothing. While an audience of The State could become a democracy, there is no prompting that leads them in that direction specifically. However, my colleague pointed out to me that in fact, the show is more tyrannical than pure, idealistic anarchy: it is more like the Old Testament, where a high-up authority figure has left specific texts to a people to do with them what they will, while that authority figure watches silently from afar. This image struck me, because from my vantage point, I could SEE Manuiloff sitting in the booth, watching the proceedings, and I did wonder if there would ever be an instance in which he would intervene. The performance was not a creation of a state from nothing; we were given the equivalent of the Ten Commandments and left to our own devices. Reflecting on my conversation with Manuiloff only affirmed this perspective: he was very insistent on the precision of the environment, the size of the papers, the text, the unchangeability of any element of the world he created for humans to populate.
However, I don’t think these theocratic aspects of the show invalidate its possibilities. In thinking about complicity, another thread of the festival, it’s a powerful reminder as one sits through or participates: there is no way you are not complicit in what happens in The State, in whatever actions you choose to perform or not perform, and that simple but complex metaphor is always an essential one for audience to wade through. The State, in its simple complexity, can resonate with audiences young and old, all over the world.