Doctrine (How to survive under siege)

In the last seven years, Indian actor and director Rehaan Engineer (b. 1976) has created no less than twenty stage projects, from text-based theatre to video installations and performances. Besides this, as an actor he was also to be seen on screen and on stage. In 2001, together with actor and director Nadir Khan and film director Pushan Kripalani, he founded The Industrial Theatre collective in their hometown of Mumbai (Bombay), a metropolis of thirteen million souls, a dazzling seaport and the centre of the financial and entertainment industries in India.

As stated on their website, the mission of the collective originated in a particular need:

Mumbai, we thought, faced a serious shortage of theatre spaces.  Theatrical work in the city, we felt, was being handicapped by the constraints of over-familiar and over-used venues.  We started the Industrial Theatre Co. to discover and popularize alternative spaces for theatre in Mumbai.  Before too long, we discovered how complicated the dynamics of getting people to frequent exciting new spaces really are.  And quickly moved back to using theatres.  Today we'll work anywhere.

The Industrial Theatre finds its origin, then, in a longing to open up the physical boundaries of the classical theatre space. But in a broader sense, it concerns an exploration of the challenges and possibilities of a contemporary theatre language. That is probably precisely why their project was slightly too avant-garde for the average Indian theatre-going public, which wasn't all too quick to abandon the beautifully decorated theatres - and Bollywood cinemas - for a theatrical excursion into an art gallery or a factory.

The formal innovation sought by Engineer and his partners is contemporary, which means to say hybrid: in other words, multimedia theatre which aims to gather under a single heading refined, text-based theatre, video installations, radio plays, short films, performances and music. Their own stamp reveals itself in the carefully chosen texts from drama and world literature (not seldom from the Anglophone realm), a solid troupe of actors, the flexible use of film and live videocameras, an original score, a minimalist set and an economical, pictorial lighting design.

Doctrine. How to survive under siege, the performance commissioned by the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, is also based on the collecting and confronting of texts from different traditions and periods. The aim is to uncover their links and points of convergence, or at any rate, to map a space in which the different ideas and insights can interconnect, so that a field of tension emerges which will also shed light on the theme of the performance. In a sense, then, the interrelations are not so much of a narrative nature, but rather of a thematic nature, intuitive and poetic.

Engineer has already applied this collage technique in past performances, such as Manifestly False (2002), based on the work of the 20th-century British playwright Howard Barker and the 12th-century Sanskrit poet Jayavada; Blackbird 13 (2005), a collage of texts by, among others, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the poet Wallace Stevens; and Visible Mass: A Meghadutam Scrapbook (2007), in which he juxtaposed the undated Sanskrit epic Meghadutam of Kalidasa with the work of American poet Jorie Graham. In each case, Engineer's work involves a dialectical process. Comparison leads to paradoxes and fault lines that bring forth the underlying reality of opposite forces and ideas in relation to a number of abstract themes (sexuality, love, longing, transcendence, the ineffable).

The starting point for Doctrine is the military treatise of the Greek strategist Aeneas Tacticus, How to survive under siege, dating from the 4th century BC, a practical handbook with advice on how to defend a city-state against any form of siege. Besides this, Engineer was also particularly inspired by British painter, art theoretician, poet and novelist John Berger's introductory remarks to his book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (1984), in which one reads: "Part one is about time. Part two is about space". In reversed order, this becomes, in a more figurative sense, a structuring principle for the performance, in which the experience, first, of a shared space and, second, of a shared time, are central: the being-together of audience and actors. Berger has an exceptionally sharp eye for the details of everyday life and the most memorable moments of our lives, as opposed to those more fleeting moments. Moreover, a number of other secondary texts were used, such as the wartime diaries of a woman from Beirut and the raw, fragmentary theatre notes and dialogues of American playwright Richard Foreman. These are open and dynamic texts that circulate freely on the Internet.

Next to the historical value of Tacticus' text, the metaphorical resonance of the idea of "siege" is especially important. This notion evokes political, moral and psychological connotations which exceed the context of the besiegers and the besieged. With some imagination, the entire theatre experience in itself can be seen as a form of siege, albeit an unthreatening and harmless one. Spectators and actors are temporarily brought together in an enclosed space, with the difference that the spectator's decision to be there can be called voluntary rather than imposed. In any case, the idea of a siege as a form of shared experience has interesting dramatic consequences for both actors and audience. Besides the individual's psychological fears and traumas resulting from a state of siege, it is especially the way in which the individual experiences a temporary community and an unchanging, inescapable situation that is interesting for a theatrical adaptation.

There are numerous ways of approaching the notion of siege. The historical meaning of the term can be tested against current events; namely, the fact that daily, in one or other war zone in the world, people are the victims of some form of siege. Moreover, Engineer also sees the siege as a form of resistance within the performance, resistance amongst the actors themselves and between the actors and audience. From a linguistic point of view, resistance, then, concerns the nature and content of the conveyed information, in short, an exploration of the forms of direct and impeded communication.

This is of some importance, as Doctrine is a multilingual performance and that is precisely what opens up dramatic prospects. Four actors - one Indian, one English, one French- and one Dutch-speaker - share the stage and each speak their own language, whereby the Dutch- and French-speaking actors don't simply translate the text for the bilingual Brussels audience. Some texts are spoken in the three languages, other fragments only in one or other language. The conveying of information from one language to another - or, precisely, the withholding of information within one language - will, to an extent, also bring forth a dramatic tension.

The nature of the texts also offers the actors a certain liberty in their characterizations. Engineer is not interested in well-defined, fixed characters, but in an open and fluid process of acting and not-acting. Starting from their own experience and interests, actors can push against the texts. The illusion of characters emerges sporadically, but at other times, the actors can equally communicate specific bits of information, or comment on the rest of the action on stage, or even step out of their role and just be themselves.

Finally, video and the audience itself play an important role in Doctrine. Engineer, who in the past also designed theatre video-installations, is once again integrating video material from different sources in the performance. Film and video make possible other ways of narrating as well as ways of dealing with presence and absence - taken together with the here-and-now experience of theatre, this can also lead to new viewpoints. Doctrine even takes this a step further, especially as concerns the presence and involvement of the audience. Spectators, and by extension any one who wishes to do so, can film themselves before the beginning of the performance in a room specially equipped with a video camera. These video materials will then be used in the performance, yielding a particularly original confrontation between the viewer and him- or herself. Theatre as a mirror, which will leave no one untouched. But also theatre that wants to be transparent by uncovering the creative process and removing the borders between actor and viewer.

Bram De Cock

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