“Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, USA”.
“Oh, come on!”
“Right, Mr. Commins, here’s a few questions for the audience who can’t see us at home: what do you look like?”
“Where are you at right now? Help us imagine your surroundings. For example, I’m in London, I’m sitting in front of a mini Buddhist temple in the room I’m subletting for the rest of the month, there are lots of inanimate things on the floor.”
“OK, so… I’m in my little flat in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, way up on the Ménilmontant hill, one of the highest points in the city… I’m in the living room, facing my computer… my neighbour is tearing down a wall a few meters above me, so I feel like I’m at the dentist. It’s quite impressive”.
This short conversation could actually be the start of a real show. A show in a theatre, in a physical place where people congregate to watch, admire, hate and discuss. And just by reading these couple of lines, you could be taking part in a performance.
Eli Commins is a writer and director currently working in France. He is the head creator of Breaking, a project which involves the gathering of audiences in one single environment with different authors connected to a social network. The authors upload the different images, news and conversations they are having, right at that moment, with someone present in an interested area. In Commins’s case, the interested area is usually affected by a natural disaster or social problems and unrest, for example the elections in Iran, the eruption of Mount Redoubt, the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.
When interviewing Commins, I found that attempting to enter his head is as intriguing as trying to get out his ideas of it, the latter action being virtually impossible – his work is a breakthrough in theatre. It’s a breakthrough for how we can change the way we perceive, for how it changes our fruition and how it modifies our participation. It gives the idea of ‘new writing’ a whole new meaning.
Commins’s work on Breaking started at La Chartreuse in France a few years ago. La Chartreuse is one of the largest digital culture and theatre centres in Europe and it hosts one of the greatest contemporary theatre festivals in the world, the Festival d’Avignone. He recalls, “The idea came in the form of a ‘sonde’, literally a ‘probe’, that was organized at La Chartreuse by Franck Bauchard (the Chartreuse’s director); the idea was to explore theatre as a means to deliver news, or to evoke current events in general, which was also presented as a way to return to one of the most archaic social functions of theatre: to inform the spectators about what was going on in the world”.
For these ‘sondes’, each artist had to prepare a session at a given time, in competition with the TV news bulletins of the major channels. The goal was to have people show up at the theatre to get their news, instead of watching it on TV. The authors each prepared a ‘module’ they could play during the performance. Commins’s was based on Twitter, which later became the foundation of Breaking. The main idea was to use the theatre as a transition space between the people assembled in the theatre and whatever they decided to look at in the outside world. Commins explains, “We had several phases, the first one, on the eruption of Mount Redoubt in Alaska, was essentially about a group of nine friends in Anchorage. We simply read their tweets on stage and followed their lives for a few days: very ordinary situations, with the smallest details of everyday life (‘Do you like my green shoes?’ ‘Do you think she likes me?’), and also the looming threat that at any time, depending on the winds, the city could be buried under volcanic ash.”