Who needs actors any more? This year’s London International Festival of Theatre has been dominated by real people onstage: six Falklands veterans, a gaggle of teenage girls, a troupe of Romany travellers dancing and more. Elsewhere, Bryony Kimmings is conscripting an ‘army’ of young men for a future piece and Unfolding Theatre has formed a band of ex-instrumentalists for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Drama school is starting to look like a disadvantage.
If it’s en vogue right now, Rimini Protokoll has long been ahead of the curve. The Germany-based collective has been putting non-performers onstage for more than a decade. It has trained old women to be Formula One racers. It has had pets dance pas de deuxes with their owners and restored retired politicians to the radiowaves. Ten years ago, the company restaged the world premiere of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit with a cast of children and cardboard cut-outs.
It’s quite simple, says Jorg Karrenbauer, who has worked with the company since 2005: “If there is a story to tell, why not let the people that experienced that story tell it themselves? Why have someone pretending to be that person tell it?”
Rimini Protokoll has long preferred reality to renditions of it. “We’re quite sceptical of the moment of representation in theatre.” That includes actors, he insists. “There are some good actors but, most of the time, it’s not interesting.”
Founded in 2002 by three graduates of Giessen University in Hesse – Stefan Kaegi, Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel – Rimini Protokoll has built an eclectic body of work, in much the same way as Britain’s Blast Theory. Working in different combinations under a single name, its projects have ranged from books to radio broadcasts. Cargo Sofia put an audience in the back of a transparent freight truck for a taste of long-haul drivers’ lives. Call Cutta connected participants to a call centre employee on the other side of the world.
In its focus on real encounters, Rimini Protokoll has been credited with inventing a new form of documentary theatre. Karrenbauer, who met the company’s members when they were in residence at the Schauspeilhaus in Hamburg, admits there’s some truth in that, but he offers an important clarification as well. “Documentary is always about the truth,” Karrenbauer explains. Rimini Protokoll often tinkers with its material for theatrical purposes. “We take over people’s stories at a certain moment. We rearrange them, cut them and extend them. It’s not always true, what they say onstage. It’s not necessarily their experience of life.”
The key, he continues, is that Rimini Protokoll is “less interested in facts than we are in people”. Rather than simply arming an audience with information, the company aims to reveal a human subject more fully – less about stats than sociology. “Rather than informing people about oil companies in Kazakhstan or wherever, we’ll try to show who’s working there and why, to show the people behind a situation and their motivations.” Ultimately, it’s about behaviour – every bit as much as a Chekhov or an Ibsen play.
5 things you need to know about Rimini Protokoll
1. Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel have been working as a team since 2000.
2. Since 2002, all its works have been written collectively under the label Rimini Protokoll.
3. Rimini Protokoll was awarded the silver lion of the Biennale for Performing Arts in Venice in 2011. The multi-player video installation Situation Rooms about the weapons industry received the Excellence Award of the 17th Japan Media Festival. In 2015 it was awarded the Swiss Grand Prix of Theatre.
4. Rimini Protokoll has been based at HAU Hebbel am Ufer Berlin since 2003.
5. Jorg Karrenbauer has collaborated with Rimini Protokoll since 2005.
Its latest piece, Remote X, one of the centrepieces of this year’s Milton Keynes International Festival, puts us – its audience – in the frame. It’s an audio tour that walks you through the city; a disembodied, digital female voice in your ear, instructing you through several urban spaces – cemeteries and hospitals, churches and trams, public squares and private rooftops. Along the way, it turns focus on our behaviour, both as individuals and as a group, while examining the systems that govern us – be they psychological, social or political.
It’s the third Rimini Protokoll piece to play in the UK in recent years – all of them musing on ideas around democracy. Best Before, part of LIFT in 2010, centred on a computer game, allowing audience members to control their own avatars. Our ‘life choices’ – intelligence or looks, for example – determined our options later on in the game, while individual decisions impacted on the wider population and the society shaped as a result.
Two years later, 100% placed 100 Londoners on stage at the Hackney Empire, made up to reflect the capital’s demographics as closely as possible. That show consisted of a series of straw polls – first, descriptive questions about things like profession and salary; then, prescriptive ones on politics and morality. You left both shows with a sense of democracy as a slippery, unstable system – one that didn’t necessarily deliver palatable answers to society’s problems.
Remote X, first seen in Berlin in 2013, considers group dynamics in a different way. “At the time, there was this term: swarm intelligence,” says Karrenbauer. Though it has parallels with the notion of ‘hive mind’, the phrase actually refers to the way in which complex masses might be organised or directed by external systems, be they natural or artificial. That digitised voice, whispering in our ear, represents the complex algorithms, built on big data, swirling through our lives and our societies. How much control do we really have? “What happens if you decide not to participate?” says Karrenbauer.
He continues: “This kind of technology pretends to improve our lives, to help us through day to day, guiding us in the car, but potentially, in the future, telling us what to eat and drink and think. Big data companies are gathering that information.” Remote X lets us be led by it and asks whether or not we’re comfortable with that.
“This is the game behind it,” Karrenbauer clarifies, “to play around with how predictable we are and, indeed, how predictable we have to be. A city works based on deals – behavioural contracts. You have to be predictable. People have to stop at red lights.”
Sometimes the real world is just a better stage
Indeed, the city itself is Remote X’s protagonist. It’s been staged all over the world – from Moscow to New York, Zurich to Bangalore. The process starts on Google Maps, plotting a route from afar, with the audio track re-edited to fit later on. About 50% of the material changes each time, but its meaning can prove much more malleable. “When we did it in India, they saw it as political,” says Karrenbauer. “They don’t do art in public space so for them, it was a tool to regain the city.”
Because it exists in public, in the real world, Remote X plays out its politics. “You’re using the city in a different way than it’s meant to be used and finding new ways to look at the city, your own city.”
It’s that real encounter with a real space that ties Remote X to Rimini Protokoll’s work. “Sometimes the real world is just a better stage,” Karrenbauer insists. “To rebuild it in a dark room and close the windows takes a lot of money and effort.” Instead, Remote turns public spaces into viewing platforms, shaping us into an impromptu audience to watch passers-by.
“It’s always a little bit about how theatrical everyday life is. Just by framing something and looking at it as theatre, you can make the streets into a stage,” concludes Karrenbauer.
Profile: Rimini Protokoll
Chief executives/ artistic directors: Stefan Kaegi, Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel
Executive managing director: Heidrun Schlegel
No. of performances per year: 430 in 2015
Audience figures per year: 40,000 worldwide in 2015
No. of employees: One full-time; freelance teams for every production
Funders: Annual institutional funding of €135,000 by the Berlin Senate, single project fundings according to project character
Key contacts: Kaegi, Haug, Wetzel (directors); Heidrun Schlegel, Daniela Bellm, Juliane Mannel (production management
Remote Milton Keynes is at Milton Keynes International Festival  from July 15-24