I read in the Kanuti Gildi SAAL’s booklet that Henrik so desperately wants to perform at festivals, that he is putting out an actual festival piece. In English and all. I’m thinking as I read, I’ve never come up with a piece just for the sake of a festival. I’ve made it to the festivals with just my regular maikepieces. I met Henrik at a cafe to find out how does this work – I suppose no one wants to just keep performing at Kanuti. Being that the festivals are like seven-headed dragons – defined, yes, but not much to grab hold of, this is going to be a long story.
M Maike Lond Malmborg
H Henrik Kalmet
PA Performing arts
E.N. Elmo Nüganen
Paul Paul Piik
Priit Priit Raud
H – the charm of the performing arts (PA) is that they are indefinable. They appeared beyond the traditional at some point. Dramatic art is clearly defined, there are rules on how to process it, what is canon, what is methodology. And this is great, but at one point I have a feeling that people entering that landscape are somewhat boxed in. If you want to be in dramatic arts, you are immediately shown to your toolbox and manual, but in case of PA one’s not choked up on the outset.
M – I think that the difference between the two is that PA requires the creation of the new toolbox and methodology at every new go.
H – yes, and this is the biggest plus as well as the biggest problem of PA. On one end this multiplies the possibilities, but on the other gives way to critique about amateurishness. So that the performing artist might not be that accomplished. This can’t be self-taught and therefore, it is a bit of a risky business.
M – On this landscape no one (including yourself) has been granted with the right toolbox and methodology.
H – you are right. We have a piece with Kinoteater where we have a (real) teacher on stage. He is not an actor. After the 40th performance there’s a huge difference between where he started and how he’s performing now. His acting could only evolve through the hit or miss approach. Not a single PA piece will have a chance for 40 runs and consequent development in Estonia. But those pieces from other countries which make it to SAAL Biennal for example, have had a chance to travel and have been performed many times over. We do not have that option here – in order to survive, an artist would have to put out a new piece. You’ll have a chance to play a piece 5-6 times and then have to move on to new things. Therefore, there is no room for development and reflection on how far you’ve come.
M – I agree that’s the toughest part. By putting out a piece you know your artistic choices and decisions but only through performing you will know what else is there. That knowledge shall give room for calibrations – what should be less, what should be more. If you’re not putting out a “festival piece” you will keep putting out pieces which will only have 3 showings.
H – it’s like being at the crossroads. On one hand, if you can pull off 6 shows at Kanuti with the big hall more or less sold out, then this is already an accomplishment.
M – yep. I’ve never been offered six performances.
H – I think, yes… three and three. Three in a row and then another three in March. Well, I don’t know, I think something’s bound to happen. I wouldn’t know how this will go down with those that have seen (my) other stuff and come to see this now.
M – do have your own audience?
H – yes. And how it’ll go down with them… we’ll see. Maybe they’ll find it interesting, maybe not, maybe it’ll be tragic.
M – haha… and now you’ve made a choice that might restrict you to 6 shows only.
H - mhm.
M – by hoping that this will be a festival piece?
H – you know I’ll say this – the heading, it’s a provocation of sorts.
M – of course it is! And it’s a game, yes?
H – yes. And I wouldn’t know if this is going to be a festival piece. It could be just because of the title – it fits the (festival) context. And all these aspects come into play hence exploring and analysing this is really exciting. By looking at PA pieces one can notice the unintentional currents, there are things that tend reoccur from piece to piece. Makes you think, how and why do things keep popping up. Is the occurrence individual or is it the toolbox that provides for such recurrences?
M – do you honestly believe that there are some universal elements that the performing artists, who put out festival pieces, employ to score festivals?
H – this can’t be reduced to let’s say – getting naked will do it. Or that by having nudity, you’ve almost nailed it. But it is possible to sense that some elements work. And they work on a specific audience. And if this suits you (the artist) then you are bound to reuse those elements. E.N. at the City Theatre knows his audience, he knows which melodramatic pedals to push, his audience loves it and this is exactly what he gives them. You’re confident that you and your audience value the same things. You will not have to force yourself into doing something, it just so happens that you and your audience share common views and principles. I don’t think someone would go against their principles, a la, we will have to have the blow up dragon on stage in order to score a festival invitation.
Take Munich for example (Spielart festival), you could see that some pieces were political, some were dealing with social issues…
M – but Chekhov has it too!
H – if you are doing a piece on the refugee issue with two tents on stage, then I would understand that they’re there purely for the subject of the piece. It is difficult for me to evaluate or detect whether it was done sincerely from the heart in order to cover the subject no matter what or whether it was done consciously, as in - let’s take Shakespeare’s Storm and have the cast in tents speaking different European languages so we could play it anywhere.
Subjectively, it seems that lately more festivals draw from a certain topic – like, this year we shall have a program on political theatre. And by going down that road they box up themselves as well as the performers and thus, fall hostage to specifics. Be the piece good or bad – they are forced to choose the ones that fit the criteria. In the end pieces that correspond to the specifics out-rule the artistic quality of the content. If festivals establish such boundaries, then we will consequently have artists trying to fit into those boundaries.
M – there are other types of festivals which do not opt for one subject, but the selection is instead cross-sectional. I’m not absolutely sure, but I think Baltoscandal would qualify as such. Comprehensive.
H – it would be best if a festival would not limit itself.
M – Would you then wonder about the vision of the curator, if there were only top pieces listed for a festival. It would be easy to point fingers and claim that the crowd circling these festivals is completely closed, since the same performances can be seen everywhere.
Would’t your Festival Piece (https://saal.ee/et/performance/3842) then be excluded from the closed circles as only peterampeish pieces were welcome? Considering the above – maybe a festival concentrating on a topic or a certain vision would be better as it might, in turn, give someone unknown a chance.
H – still, it’s intriguing that certain subjects cannot be controlled by mathematical equations, but if you have enough material then those patterns can be picked up in retrospect.
M – in retrospect it can be jokingly said that indie bands of the 2000s were not allowed on stage without a xylophone.
H – yes. Paul says based on his earlier experience with Midwinter Night’s Dream festival (Tallinn City Theatre festival) that human resource is the costliest item on the budget. Naturally, solo projects are more cost effective. Small chamber pieces – individual, vulnerable, personal stories etc. So, it is possible to pick things out, I’m not saying this understanding will get you a spot on a festival, but nevertheless, it’s interesting to see.
M – at times I get blamed that I’ve put out a festival piece and therefore get listed for festivals. What do I and Philippe Quesne have in common? Nothing, except for all the decisions that have been made, have been completely thought through. There’s not a single oh-that’s-pretty-cool-lets-put-it-in random thing. I think this is the only common aspect these so called festival pieces have. I believe that no-one is entering the black box thinking, I’ll go this or that way just because the mess shall likely appeal to the curator. And yet I hear the artists claim that oh, that’s not a festival piece I’m putting out, but rather something way more profound.
H – maybe they’re saying that because getting listed at a festival requires marketing of some sorts and promotional work and by negating the latter, they negate selling themselves. However, I believe if invited, they would likely go too.
M – with 10 journeys (https://saal.ee/et/performance/4096) I just received the invitations. Maybe Priit had said something, but I don’t believe in blind selling. And I don’t think Priit or any other curator should think otherwise.
H – Priit also says that once you’ve had a festival piece, getting another one is much easier.
M – yes, since the curators will be curious as to what you are up to next.
H – still, this is a subjective matter. And right now we are talking and debating the decent pieces. But if you think of those pieces that you sometimes see at festivals, the kind where you just sit there and go… what was that. Being that PA is such a blurry territory, bluffing seems an easy way out.
M – bluff or co-production. Is this what you’re trying to do?
H – well, the direction changes throughout the rehearsal process. And whatever I choose to do at the outset, the piece is still just a commentary. Deriving from my own position and background. It cannot simply put out a so-called PA piece. Yet, at the same time my aim and wish is not ridiculing the genre as such.
I like the genre as a spectator as it’s free of some things. And different. In the case of good productions, I’ve always admired the courage of staying true to oneself. I’ve approached the issue from my theatrical background so to speak – the classical theatre most and foremost aspires for compelling expressions – here the artist does not do that, there seems to be no self-doubt in the process. I often feel that in the other theatre we become slaves to the audience. We start flirting with the audience. Being loved by the audience becomes so vital that you cannot, but keep offering. There the audience has your leash, whereas with PA, its vice versa.
M – you’ve got a good point there.
H – here the artist knows that even if this or that scene is too long in the classical sense of things, it’s worth keeping as it’s vital for the piece. And then the audience no longer gives a toss, they’re hooked on the choices the artist is making, like, what is his deal?
M – now that you’ve established your piece as a PA piece, do you feel increased sense freedom?
H – yes, it allows for a different approach, it allows using totally different tools.
M – now you get to draw the door to be opened yourself.
H – exactly.
M – have you been to many festivals as a spectator?
H – yep.
M – what about performing?
H – nothing. Conventional theatre is to a great extent culture and language specific, it’s not easy to take it out of its context. It could be done with classical pieces that the audience knows the narrative of, but whoever would want to see those? In general terms everything’s going to be the same.
M – they fiddle with the format.
H – yes and if you happen to find this universality within PA then it tends to be something much more interesting and unique. Not just a format or interpretation of something.
M – is it a solo?
H – yep.
M – how long is it?
H – an hour.
M – And now that you’ve done the performances at Kanuti and you get invited to, let’s say Tartu, then how much time would you need to set up?
H – that’s a good question.
M – take a guess.
H – well, I think it could be done in a day.
M – would you have time for a run-through during this?
H - not the whole thing, just the technical run-through.
M – hour big is your set? How many flight cases? Trucks?
H – it’s not that big. Even though the visual is very important for me. This starting point is vital. I’ve compared it this way. One could start with the black box…
M – black box? You mean an empty stage?
H – yes, let’s put it this way. An empty stage. Then you start creating your world and the audience will be in awe, how a whole world got created from nothing. This starting point is in a way a zero point of initiation. But if the visual is there at the outset (H raises his hand slightly higher than the table top), the zero point becomes something different. It’s no longer set at zero. This could of course be lost during the process. But in the end those who start from zero and creation goes awry, will not inch much further from zero. But if I started a bit higher and were to come down a little (his raised hand is descending like a landing plane), then I’ve gotten a slightly better result. (laughing)
(I’m laughing too)
I’m also interested in what are we cheering for? What does a piece do to us? If in conventional theatre we aim to please the audience, we give them what they want. We are at service of that aim. With the performing arts it’s vice versa, the artist takes us somewhere unexpected. Take Iggy’s b o n e r (https://saal.ee/et/performance/4093) for example. That first part where he was trying to get it up. I’m sitting there thinking, what is he doing, what am I doing – I’m cheering for a guy to get it up in all sincerity. Can he do it or not - and I am a 100 per cent engaged. This is the moment when you realise that the artist has taken you somewhere as opposed to you leading the artist.
M – I as a spectator didn’t make that choice.
H – yes, and that’s what makes it interesting.
M – and when you go on your imaginable Tartu tour, would you mind if the local technicians were to tell you that there’s no way those lamps still up from last performance could be taken down? Or that piece of rope hanging from the ceiling. Would you be ok with that?
H – well, I would like to tell them it’s a no-go. I come from the environment where we make a lot of compromises. I don’t know, but I see where you want to go with that question…
M – haha, yes, I’m getting at all the important dilemmas bound to pop up at festivals.
H – I’m trying to picture that piece of rope right now – and no, I wouldn’t want it there. But I know how things work around here. I don’t know whether it’s a matter of finances, but things are not so… how shall I put it… all-encompassing. If you’re doing something, do it well.
The latest example being AD 2341. You cannot mess everything up and leave the pipes in the ceiling perfectly aligned. You do something about them too. That’s the difference. Yes, and when we have a showing somewhere else then I get it, I’ll have to go to the max with everything.
M – There, so before you’re off to Tartu put it down in the rider that all cables and pieces of rope that are not yours shall be taken down. And if they’re not happy with it, you can always refer to the rider and claim that you had an agreement.
H – well, in reality they’re going to say, the guy responsible for those cables is away for two days and that’s not my area of responsibility.
M – haha.
H – Performing with Kinoteater at the Harbour Theatre we were told that no, that projector is not my responsibility, the sound-guy will know what to do with it. When will the sound-guy get here? He should be here soon. But the sound-guy was like, we have a special projector-guy, I know nothing of this.
M – special projector-guy?!?
H – well, where is the projector-guy? Oh, he won’t be coming in today. Who’s going to be on duty for tonight’s show then? Well, to tell you the truth, no-one’s going to be here.
M – haha, well good thing he was honest about it. But when you’re watching those festival pieces then going to the max and accuracy in details is one thing they have in common.
H – absolutely.
M – I asking as am convinced that the details that are invisible are as important as the details that are visible.
H – absolutely.
M – those invisible details are part of what’s making a piece good.
H – yes. Festival pieces can present their conditions since they have been invited to be a part of a festival. But here it’s like they’ve done you a favour by providing a space for you to show your piece.
M – it also depends on the the stylistics of the piece. I’m more flexible with 10 journeys. Sometimes I’ll just use the working lights as they tend to be cleaner in some premises, rather than start hanging up fresnels. We shall adapt to the space and the possibilities offered. Moreover, general white should be the same anywhere you go. But it’s not. Do you want to do a festival piece so that you get more stage time? Or because with the City Theatre you won’t have that chance?
H – umm… well, the correct thing to say would be - both. In brackets, the latter. But also because I’m fascinated by the universality and the way things affect us outside our own context.
M – and the change in audience.
H – yes. And the comparison with other pieces – how does the material work in other environments. Not, that anyone is giving out medals.
M – That way you’ll know more about your work.
H – and hopefully it will lead to discussion, maybe some artist will go down the slippery slope and claim my piece is lacking festival fitting elements and that it will never be a part of a festival as it’s missing this, that and the third thing etc.
M – haha… and I could come and say that Revo has not cleaned up the rig and the floors are unwashed? and yet, I just made a claim that there’s no such thing as a festival piece. I’m the one putting my foot in it. Fooled already.
H – And if we were to continue with these simple things, we’d end up with a festival piece.
M – let’s talk about market situation. In the case of City Theatre and Kinoteater we can hardly speak of competition with other theatres. The City Theatre has its own audience and its different pieces are not competing with one another. No-one’s throwing stones across the hallway.
H – of course not. And there’s no competition with other theatres. There’s a segment that comes to see our pieces and they will see the majority of them. It seems that they’re not that bothered about quality. Yes, some pieces have fewer showings, but that doesn’t matter. The size of the audience remains stable. I feel that PA’s potential is really wide. It all comes down to defining things. Sometimes, watching a piece I find myself thinking that this is not that different from what people would see at a conventional theatre. They are simply missing out by not coming here – they think that this here is something completely different, a performance of some sort. Just out of ignorance. It could have a much larger audience.
M – but with your festival piece you will be a part of the huge festival market?
H – luckily, I know nothing of this market.
M – it’s a market like any other – some buying and some selling, some brokering and some lobbying.
H – maybe it’s the market that makes the PA world so intriguing. This is something that is lacking in conventional theatre – the show’s sold out anyway. The number of showings won’t change. It’s exactly the experience I’m after, that’s something that cannot be experienced in conventional theatre were people just keep coming and coming and all you have to do is push something, anything their way in return.
M – so now you’ll have to come up with the price tag for your piece. Have you any idea how much it’ll cost?
H – yes. It will cost a lot.
M – they do! So will everyone involved with your piece be travelling with you?
H – no I don’t think so. They won’t.
M – how many will you take?
H – I would take them all… I know, I know, I can’t. But not less than 3.
M – Three people? You, the technician and the producer?
H – oh right, the producer. Then we’ll have one more. I don’t know if the technician will be able to manage on his own.
M – and a single hotel room for everybody?
H – naturally…. haha… on different floors. Paul’s doing the calculations based on sold out shows.
M – you’ll not have to worry about selling out shows at festivals. You’ve been invited, it’s not for you to worry about.
H – yes, yes, true. We’ll see. My background is a little different, I can only assume that the show’s sold out. I get that you cannot assume it here.
M – I saw an ad for a TV show at my mom’s house – are you in one of those?
H - yes.
M – in short: you’ve all sorts of different projects at hand already, but still you have to have this one here as well?
H – and your point being…?
M – what else is there? Are you in a band, take dance lessons or are you a semi-professional amateur cross-country skier?
H – erm… no, I’m not. And I don’t believe that everything I do is equally amazing and relevant, but I would like to come a full circle and try as many things as possible, at least for a while. Given that I have this chance. And eventually I should come to that something I would like to do the most. And which would be best for some sort of a message.
M – and books will be written about you as as the man with the most life experience ever lived.
H – haha… I don’t think that as an artist, good and fascinating work can come only of the position of angst, financial predicament and an unheated room. And that if I choose to be involved in something else, I will lose my credibility. I have a feeling I can do both.
M – are you a multitasker?
H – I’m a shit multitasker, multitasking is lightyears from me. I can do different things, but I’ll have to do them at different times.
M – and you can fit everything into 12 months?
H – all those things? Yes. And everything outside that theatre, that TV show for example, that is something that is offered exclusively to you and you only. It just doesn’t happen randomly.
M – just like the festivals.
H – precisely. Well I could just have created a PA piece, but it would still have been a festival piece in a sense.
M – haha, I think you’ve assumed quite a task for yourself.
H – yes, I want to know how I’ll be able to cope in this context, with the elements of PA.
M – what was your major at the Drama school?
H – acting, class 2012.
M – I see.
Maike Lond Malmborg @ 22 February 2016