(German: Wolfsch, Mensch und Hundsch, review of Signa´s immersive theatre play “Wir Hunde / Us Dogs”, Wiener Festwochen 2016)

Signa may come from sign or signal. A command you give, an icon you understand. Following the rules of others, like with an ultra-sonic whistle to call or repel dogs. In Signa´s Wiener Festwochen contribution “Wir Hunde/Us Dogs” you are getting handed over an electro-shocker in case you dare to go to see the wolf humans, Wolf people or “Wolfsche” (a mixture of “Wolf” and “Mensch” [human]) in the darkest parts of the house inhabited by the community “Canis Humanus”. You may choose to enter a tunnel designed almost without light as a mix of “Subway” (a now forgotten movie from 1985 with Highlander Christopher Lambert) and a post-apocalyptic fantasy of Tank-girl dreaming of Mad Max in psychodrama therapy inside of a Victorian house. The wolves are waiting in jeans jackets in chains, one of them Signa herself, like creatures from the West Side story ready to dance with you, negotiating their territory….or slit your throat.

Christopher Lambert in Subway

Your choice is to use the taser (called “Viehtreiber” in the play – an electric “cattle drover”) to keep your borders and them at bay – or not. I choose to not get provoked and hate myself afterwards for using it on a human – no matter if they play animals or not. The male Wolfsch instantly did jump to my throat and pushed me against the wall, trying to dominate the situation while insulting me further and making me responsible for their demise and retreat as Wolf-beings. What I did not foresee was, that when Signa took over to grill me – the human with a weapon – she would take the taser up (I put it away for demonstrating my peaceful attitude) and immediately use it against me. That was a tad too much to bear even for my openness and winding it out of her hand and controlling myself not to retaliate, which took quite some effort. It is clear that the performance I am not hesitant to call “theatre” was crossing borders in controversial ways unfolding an interaction normally unheard, unseen und unfelt in a secure space of “theatre”, “a stage” and “an audience”.

Actors and visitors mingled in the shards of the theatre´s 4th wall, built in the late 19th century by the naturalistic attitude of theatre makers to “suspend disbelief”. They were training actors to not play towards or with the audience and doing that would be bad acting and getting “out of the role”. This paradigm became a declared target at least since the 60ies (see e.g. Augusto Boal and his “Theatre of the Oppressed“) but rarely broken down even in 2016. In “Wir Hunde/Us Dogs” we, the audience, felt like naked emperors in a world full of sometimes poorly dressed humans playing dogs – or better – human beings also recklessly exposing/playing their dog nature. But in the end they were exposing us, not the other way around. The strength of Signa and her partner in crime, the Austrian Arthur Köstler, is to turn the tables with an enchanting scenography, careful lighting and sometimes with brute force.

You are interacting, talking, playing, asking, singing, drinking, answering and not just sitting there getting exposed to the genius of the director and his puppets of a cast. Normally they would try to convince you of their agenda in aesthetic ways by playing well and with more or less well written text – but largely ignoring YOU being there. This would otherwise be suspending the magic belief that it is all a “play” and maybe not to be taken seriously. On the other hand Signa is creating a magic circle where you get personally addressed and actors are listening and reacting to your (sometimes clumsy) answers – you are taken seriously. You are a guest. It´s basic hospitality exercised. In normal theatre the audience does not exist, we are sitting behind a fourth wall, in awe (or boredom) of the spectacle. We shall not shout or ask questions or touch the actors or throw water on them. Or, my god, you may get your hand licked by an actor with a veritable beard because he has a friendly encounter with a girl entering the world of “Canis Humanus”. Not all are the same, so her female companion, less sure if she should allow that, was rather making a bigger circle around the human on all four with a big yellow collar around his neck..

Jean-Léon_Gérôme_-_Diogenes_-_Walters_37131

It just does not happen in theatre that you feel to redress an actor or actress because their pants are hanging down and you cannot bear the indecent gazes of others, so you cross the border and heave his/her pants up – “they act to have paws and not hands most of the time” justifying your action. The art-form of live-action roleplaying allows them to be fully immersed in their character while they let you peek inside one evening into a play ongoing for weeks, sometimes 24/7. Brilliant in timing and cut´n´glitch rhetoric, a true Cynic (from Ancient Greek κυνικός (kynikos), meaning “dog-like”, and κύων (kyôn), meaning “dog”) following purposefully or intuitively the path of Diogenes of Sinope, enigmatic and witty Amanda Babaei – just to name one of the wonderfully performing cast. Who does this inhuman and transgressing thing to actors you may ask – well, it is strong because they all seem to have chosen to play this role and accept the hierarchy and the visitors – to embody the theme. Yes, it mirrors the questions being raised perfectly. The actors are being asked to perform and develop their role, fulfilling the emotionally highly addictive exercise to serve the purpose of the play, being submissive to the directors and the audience. Its all about power. What may save the day in critical and moral upheaval is that the duo Signa/Köstler is exposing themselves, too, with the cast, being part of the community.

It just does not happen that you encounter a now famous German actor (Andreas Schneiders) being part of a TV show exposing a shameful scam of a European Television Broadcaster singing dog-songs to you and smiling like a sad and mad Jack Nicholson. He helped Jan Böhmermann in his show “Neo Magazine Royale” (of German state run ZDF) to expose the exploitation of low-income families where weird, nerdy socially inapt bachelors get recruited for a dating show called “Schwiegertochter Gesucht / In Search For A Daughter-In-Law”. He played the fake alcoholic father of a hopeful son loving turtles – and making it to No. 1 Bachelor – getting paid only 150 EUR for ~30 shooting days. (hashtag #verafake or see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mG_Fyc-nyOs). He has 3 dog people and thinks of taking in a fourth one, Schnucki…as her half-sister Tapsi is already part of the family. Eerie greyzones pop up in your head where fiction and reality, live-performance and media blend and augment each other.

It actually does not really matter if one plays a master or a dog, for a visitor it is your choice who is more interesting for you. You find yourself patting the heads of Dog People the whole evening long or listening to the justifications of obvious abusive characters disregarding their entourage of puppies kept for their pleasure. You may hold the hand of the count who has called for this 40th anniversary of the community he founded, who the first “Hundsch” (Dog person, Dog people) was and why his first wife (a “Hundsch” too) died. For some he might convey that his legacy is “tolerance for those who are different” and that there are so many out there he cannot welcome in his sanctuaries. That you need to open your heart to the submissive souls out there, to protect them and give them a family and a purpose. Of course, this mixture of a Viennese late emperor (all inclusive grey heavy sideburns-beard and round playground bed in dim light like in a French brothel of the 70ies (- or 20ies?), holding court like Hollywoods early silent-film star Louise Brooks depicted by Crepax – only the count being old and severely ill and with a more impressive beard and a less influential haircut than Brooks.

Louise Brooks cited and drawn by Guido Crepax

The idling blonde alpha-dog-woman next to him indeed having Brook`s famous haircut feels like the animal soul of the old man externalised. The human aspect of keeping her gets underlined – he found her as a drug addict, starved and dazed – only later realising that she was also a beautiful woman. Do we believe the old aristocrat´s tale while Mozart is meandering through the vast room and a soap opera is silently running on a TV in the 70ies living room cupboard ensemble which would make our parents cringe. Nature is being put in front of our noses, that people can´t help it and some get dragged to and locked away in mental asylums if they are not within a community. Looks may be secondary but abusing a relationship because of your “looks” is definitely a focus the whole interaction is pointing to. Dog people get trained to say no, they tell us innocent visitors who are transgressing into their family lives, otherwise abuse is too easy and will happen. You get an eerie feeling that they do not say no to you being here. In my humble view such workshops to say no would be highly beneficial in our world under pressure.

One gets suggested “Canis Humanus” is perpetrating a supportive view, even though the whole community is obviously based on a feudal hierarchy also represented in architecture. The families seem to be treating their dog puppies worse and worse the lower you get in the levels of the house, creating a more and more uncomfortable atmosphere for the visitors of the “Day of The Open Door”. Doors open and what you see, what you feel you might not like. Signa is not there to please and its actors are taking an a Herculean task of letting you play with them. You may become victim, or witness to the dog training of a new dog person in the cellar of the house – but it might stir the feeling that the person/actor is the victim and you the perpetrator. But then why is she/he saying yes to perform here? Why do you not throw or throw water on her? The question and emotion may rise again two weeks later at the family table when it is funnily joked about to train the young Weimeraner dog with cold water if he does not obey. The straightforward message of what is right and what is wrong – not just in a theatre context – is still not easily to be pinpointed. Nothing in here is only good or bad, but what you may experience inside is that people depend on each other and that they acknowledge and mostly respect each others roles, creating dynamics normally locked away behind closed doors and behind thick curtains.

It does not happen that you get handed over a list of telephone numbers with the photocopied invitation folder, where all the Masters (the German/Austrian words for the dog people owners are “Herrli / Frauli” a lot more cute than the straightforward “Master” or simple “Owner”) can be called. Yes, they pick up. Yes, even during an evening when visitors roam the house. What a brilliant option to call a play you have been part of after two weeks – and can continue the dialogue. This is what convergence media or transmedia promised 10 years ago and is seldom delivering (see e.g. Wired (2010) – What is Transmedia). Wir Hunde and Signa´s approach is brilliantly extending the boundaries of theatre in time and space and compelling ways. Unforgettable if you have the chance to accidentally meet one of the Dog People on a Sunday strolling in Vienna, out of game (with his girlfriend?) three days after you have been inside the play. You have seen him being his character – you pass by, nodding, smiling, like partaking in a bigger conspiracy, a secret society nobody else does understand…

The borders blur and that is the art-form and art of Signa, in an environment where the gods of theatre only allow the choir to preach to the actors (or the audience) and the fourth wall is as firm as steel-enforced concrete. One thing is clear after 5 hours spending with a fully immersed cast in pastel colours of a brown and yellowish to pink spectrum : it´s as confusing as magical and a hell lot of more fun and a deeper impacting and lasting impression than any well-written play I have experienced so far. Those clever plays which get usually acted to death. The classics have their place, but seeing a good Shakespeare adaptation is as rare as observing the 4th wall getting torn into pieces and you getting gently taken by the hand. Theatre is more than ever in a profound need to change its paradigm and re-negotiate its form. We are in times of awesome stories delivered to our fingertips by black mirrors we are carrying around everyday – and which compete heavily with the attention span of the post-industrial mind less and less used to good analogue entertainment and complex messages.

Signa shows where the benchmark of grey zones lies, of providing a storyworld and crossing its borders through a theatrical dynamic. The adjectives mind-blowing, transgressing, courageous and touching only grasp parts. But – beware…the audience has no idea what they are getting themselves into. Yes, it may be difficult to communicate this without experiencing it…but letting people step into a strong Live-strong Action-Roleplaying family hierarchy unfolding and cooperatively built for weeks is a very strange – but indeed compelling experience. Its raising the urge to get back in. This form they found, very close to emotionally demanding frameworks of interaction without an audience like developed in Live-Action Roleplaying or its extreme from Nordic Larp (see http://www.nordiclaro.org) needs as much praise for trying new grounds as it needs maybe more consensus beforehand for inexperienced visitors – and a long debriefing afterwards. Wir Hunde feels like theatre as close to Nordic Larp as it gets – remarkable and bold! Highly recommended if you dare to challenge yourself – and others…in suspending your beliefs and getting sucked to the other side – for a while.

see www.volkstheater.at
and www.signa.dk