Do you know your neighbour? Do you know the person sitting right next to you on the train? The person standing in front of you in the line of the supermarket? Or have you ever wondered about all the people passing by on the street?
Katrine Bugaj, one core member of the theatre company ‘Out of Balance’ which was founded in Copenhagen, were trying to answer those exact questions in the new project called ‘Borders’ which was being performed at the Grusomhetens theatre in Oslo last month.
The group with many members from different cultures and countries is currently touring around all Scandinavian countries and is tackling bravely the difficulties of breaking down borders: ‘You can find borders basically in all areas of human life. There are geographical, cultural, personal or physical borders’ says Katrine Bugaj and thereby points out only a few areas where we fail to interconnect with each other. Thus she reflects upon all those situations where boundaries have prevented us from communicating with each other.
‘Especially from a foreigner’s perspective and being raised in New York I feel very strongly that people from Northern European countries are reluctant to get in touch with each other’, Bugaj says and encourages people to approach each other, to let down all guards and get curious about other people’s lives.
Openness, trust and close contact with strangers in a time of terrorism, violence, vandalism and increasing suspiciousness? ‘Of course it is necessary to maintain certain limits. You have to be aware of your surroundings, you have to find a suitable amount of self-protection in our fairly confusing world. We certainly had good reason to build up that culture of fear. But if you find the right compromise the process of opening-up can be so rewarding and relieving’.
In the actual play presented by ‘Out of Balance’ a young man is being confronted with the anonymity of his own house when his neighbour passes away. He suddenly realises that he did not know that person at all. A strange world, a strange concept of living where you do not have a clue who is living right next to you, a floor above or a floor below.
The protagonist of the play becomes an incarnation of our modern 21st century society. A society of urbanisation and digital communication where people are oftentimes forced into limited space and physical contact with strangers. Yet, this is not a new idea. Already in the last century Franz Kafka wrote a piece titled ‘The neighbour’ in which he depicts a man who guesses about his neighbour’s occupations and ends up paranoid and insane in the end. People have always wondered, asked and observed their fellow men but rarely came up with any revealing or satisfying answers. Everyone of us is caught, trapped in a single body, unable ever to reach out properly to another person. We depend on our own point of view, that tedious subjectivity which never really allows us to see the surroundings through our neighbour’s eyes.
‘At least on the stage we try to come across those barriers’, tells Bugaj and admits her passion for breaking down the ‘4th wall’, a term used to describe the distance between audience and actors. ‘At one point an actor enters into the audience, another time it is an object. And finally after the play is over we invite the whole audience up to the stage for a drink.’
Even though the activity of the spectators apparently differs from country to country they all enjoyed being involved in the process of the play and contributed to the great reception the play has got so far. As it is with many parts of Scandinavian behaviour and attitude it just seems to take a little bit more time over here. However in the end of every performance the actors succeed to establish the desired relation: ‘People have become so used to just being passive, we are all always consuming something. We try to change this exact strategy, we don’t want to be just talking heads’, she laughs.
As an admirer of Tennessee Williams and Ibsen, she is also a huge defender of the use of retrospective on the stage: ‘The linearity of time is just another frontier we seek to overcome’. In the group are members from different parts of the word, from different northern countries, with different mother tongues and only English as a basic communication tool. That is a challenge and a new border that needs to be deconstructed. It can be like opening new doors, like discovering a secret once you’ve overcome it.
So can theatre actually help to tear down a couple of those walls between us?
‘For sure’, agrees Bugaj, ‘Theatre has always been a room for interaction, a tool for testing our boundaries. We introduce the people to a very visual and physical storytelling. The whole body is involved and energy is passed on to the viewer. One can’t get much closer than that.’ Advanced mobility and ways of communication have enabled us to think global, to move closer together: ‘All that flexibility and mobility that many people are afraid of enables us to learn so much more about human nature. Without those opportunities we two wouldn’t be sitting here together.’, Bugaj smiles.
However in that overwhelming century of possibility one maybe needs a room like the theatre. A place where time, language, physics do not seem to matter. A space to reconsider, a space to reflect on and to test his or her own limits. Because isn’t that a great deal of what we are occupying ourselves with all day long?
We are learning new languages, we are travelling abroad and we are entering new relationships just in order to get closer, to share, to join in. So go ahead and learn a language! Invite your neighbour for a chat! Or have a drink on stage!