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Features PerformanceQ&A and Interviews Published 20 May 2014

A Game of Chance

Maddy Costa talks to Sylvia Rimat about the use of science in her work, "the audience as accomplice," and her performance project, If You Decide To Stay.
Maddy Costa

[How shall I start this?

Should I open with a scene from the show?

A line from the interview?

Review or profile?

Should I sketch out a plan?

Start writing and see what happens?

Decisions, decisions…]

Sylvia Rimat’s If You Decide To Stay celebrates the improbable, the possible, the arbitrary and planned. A philosophical enquiry into the process of decision-making, it has at its heart a naval-gazing question: “Why am I doing all this?” And yet, for all its flashes of autobiography, it doesn’t feel like a self-centred show. Its emphasis is on “here and now”, “us”, “together”. Rimat peers inside her own brain to illuminate the neural networks that humanity has in common, the complex interplay of conscious and intuitive, rational and emotional thought behind every one of our decisions. And she encourages us all to feel a moment of acceptance: why beat yourself up for what isn’t when you can take pleasure in what is?

It’s a show awed and humbled by chance, not least, the fortuity of existence. Rimat family lore tells that her grandparents, emigrating from Gdansk to Germany with their three young children, were intending to travel by boat but at the last minute changed their minds and took a train. The boat capsized on its journey; the family would have drowned. Today she’s an emigre herself: born and brought up in Karlsruhe, near the Black Forest, she came to Britain in 2005 to study for a year at Dartington, intending to move to Berlin after. Instead, Bristol’s live-art community absorbed her. These two experiences of uprooting – and the fact that “I never made a conscious decision that I want to live in Britain” – book-end her fascination with the whys and hows of being. “If I was in Germany, I wouldn’t reflect as much,” she suggests. “Because I live in a country that’s not my native country, I feel almost I need a purpose to be here.”

[So this isn’t a straightforward review?

And is that really the best bit of the interview?

Does it work, structurally, to bring biography in so early?

Shouldn’t I talk more about the show? 

The way it’s structured – fractured, conversational, meandering – and makes its workings visible, 

in physical movement, and a series of projections that show the splintering lines of frantic flow-

charts, scrawls of stuttering thought. 

A constellation of abandoned decisions.

How do I decide what’s relevant here?]

If You Decide To Stay. Photos: Carl Newland

If You Decide To Stay. Photos: Carl Newland

But the show also reflects Rimat’s interest in neuroscience, triggered by a symposium on possible collaborations between science and art which she attended while developing her first show in Britain. “I thought it was really interesting to combine the two, because you have all this freedom as an artist – whereas as a scientist you have to be so specific and strict. And when you look into research, it’s really early on: there’s not a lot that neuroscience can know yet.”

Already her work was preoccupied with the mysteries of perception: that first show, Being Here While Not Being Here (2008), attempted to re-create from multiple perspectives her uncommon experience of fainting mid-performance on stage in Germany – and teased audiences with the possibility that she might faint again (she didn’t). It was followed by Imagine Me To Be There (2009), a piece Rimat performs by typing into a laptop, her words projected on a screen behind her. “I wanted to create a show that’s completely absent, that exists in my imagination,” she says. “By typing it, it exists in the audience’s imagination.” During the course of the show, Rimat would invite the audience to carry out small actions: “Depending how they interact, parts of the show come alive.”

And in 2011, she created I guess if the stage exploded…, a live-action experiment with the foundations and functions of memory. Following the advice of a neuroscientist, an experimental psychologist and self-help books, Rimat interwove a sequence of more-or-less surreal images with tasks designed to exercise her audience’s brains and create mnemonics that might help people retain the details of her show. As we talk, it’s nine months since I saw it, and she’s remarkably good-natured when I reveal how much I’ve forgotten – including the basic fact that memory was its theme. Isolated things remain imprinted in my mind: Rimat dipping her feet into a bucket of flour, leaving dusty white footprints across the stage; undertaking various writing tasks and then pelting the stage with snowballs of screwed-up paper; gazing in wonder, and a little trepidation, at an imperious-looking owl. Photographs also remind me that she spent several minutes with her head in a lampshade.

I guess if the stage exploded…Photo: Laura Montag

I guess if the stage exploded…Photo: Laura Montag

[Why am I talking about myself all of a sudden?

And where’s the interview material to back all this up?

Did I find out enough?

Despite asking the wrong questions?

Do I even know what I’m doing?]

Science gives Rimat’s work ballast and rigour, a serious purpose to her natural playfulness. Although she’s reluctant for research to be seen as her defining feature – “I don’t think I’ll always be making work like this,” she emphasises – it suits her. (There’s a note of regret in her voice when she says, in the middle of If You Decide To Stay, that her parents wanted her to be a mathematician. But it’s the regret of missing out on financial security and regular holidays.)

Her next show contemplates the present moment, and “how we experience time. When you look at that from the perspective of the brain, it’s really interesting: we experience the past through our memories and the future through our imagination – and then there is this little bit of the now in between. I’m also interested in how perception is delayed by a little time: the perception of different senses arrive at different times and then the brain puts them together to make sense or interpret.” So far her research includes “a conversation with a mathematician about Einstein’s theory of relativity, time dilation and space-time continuum. I’m really interested in how we think that time is something so basic, something we can rely on, but is actually quite contradictory and not as straightforward as we think.”

Rimat admits: “That sounds really heavy – it’s not like I understand any of it!” Yet the mischievous imagination she brings to these subjects can make complex ideas feel light and graspable. Thinking about time delay for the new show, for instance, she says: “I might have a cockerel in it – the cockerel that was supposed to be in If You Decide To Stay [but was edited out]. So it’s like a weird time delay. It doesn’t fit in there, but I just have to make it work.”

[Every day, relentless as clockwork, my daughter, aged seven, fires another question:

What’s your favourite colour?

What’s your second favourite colour?

What’s your favourite song?

Favourite TV programme?

Favourite food?

Second favourite food?

Who do you like best?

Who do you like best in this picture?

My head spins I don’t know I don’t know 

I DON’T KNOW

One day, she asks

what did you want to be when you were seven?

Do I tell her 

I just wanted to be grown up

so I could make my own decisions?]

Imagine Me To Be There. Photo: Peter Empl

Imagine Me To Be There. Photo: Peter Empl

It was while conducting research for If You Decide To Stay that Rimat realised she’s always wanted to be involved in theatre: “Even though there are moments where I think, ‘God, why am I doing this?’, it’s not that random. There are clear values and beliefs behind it that led me to this life.” As a teenager, “I was really interested in performing, but I felt like I had to take my energy into being an activist. I was involved in Amnesty International and an anti-fascism group; at night I’d go to a school and spray slogans, things like that. Maybe that was my performance.”

After doing a theory-based theatre degree in Hildesheim, Rimat founded a theatre company, then started to take a fairly traditional path through the German theatre establishment. “I had a little period working as a director’s assistant, in Hamburg at the Schauspielhaus, in Berlin at the Volksbuhne. But I really didn’t like it: it’s very hierarchical and rigid.” Since moving to Britain, she’s mostly made work as a solo artist: “I miss the band feeling,” she says, that sense of shared adventure and togetherness you get in an ensemble. She finds collectivity in other ways: lately, as a member of Residence, the Bristol-based artists group with whom she’s shared a multi-purpose office/rehearsal/performance space for the past four years. “It’s great just to be able to share knowledge with other like-minded people, to talk about things and ask each other things, have a space to do something you really want, and be able to show work in progress to each other. It’s a really important reason for me to be in Bristol, having this exchange, and a context where I belong.”

[Something I’m missing,

something elusive, just within earshot,

but not comprehension.

A note of sadness

to do with missing home?

or a longing for children?

or being in the late-30s – 

“suddenly you haven’t got this thing any more, yeah, everything is open, because you have made 

some decisions. I’m not that young any more, even though I feel quite young, it’s not everything 

open any more” – 

We gather on stage to celebrate every little decision that brought us to this moment, this place, together, now. Crisps are shared, rum spilt. But something forlorn pulses in the room. 

Time running out.

“I do what I want to do but you would kind of need three lives to tackle all the things that you could be doing.”]

In the absence of fellow performers, Rimat turns her gaze outwards, into the auditorium: “I’m really interested in seeing the audience as an accomplice and going on a journey together, to find out something together.” From the beginning, If You Decide To Stay is a conversation, full of questions – some trivial, some profound – directed at the people in the room. We answer not with our voices, but small torches, so that our thoughts, our decisions, flicker in the dark like stars.  We live in a time, Rimat points out, when: “In theory you could decide to do anything, because you have all these opportunities – but at the same time you have the pressure, to make the right choices.” If You Decide To Stay uses its time to relieve that pressure: and that feels like an act of generosity.

[End there?

Really?

But there’s so much missing:

so much I failed to ask,

so much I can’t know.

But that, too, is part of the show.

]

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