Features Q&A and Interviews Published 14 February 2012

Eli Commins

Eli Commins began his career as a playwright and has a particular interest in the temporality of text in live performance. He has been devising 'Breaking', a series of real-time messages delivered social media since 2008. He is based in France.
Guen Murroni

This leads to my inevitable question – was there one particular episode where threat took over? Commins responds, “Many times. For the Iranians, for instance, corresponding with me could be life-threatening.”

The people Commins interacts with on Twitter for Breaking come from all walks of life, the important thing is that they are close to the action, that they can write during the performance and that are, of course, interested in playing along. Commins tells me how they even came across an Iranian undercover cop during a performance, “He was trying to get info about anti-government militants, everybody had figured it out,  he was trying to make friends with some of the students through Twitter to identify them, but he was too incompetent to achieve anything. Of course, in the play, it was important to have people like him as a counterpoint.”

With regards to new work, Commins is focused on a completely new idea called Writing Spaces, which was shown at the Théâtre de la Cité Internationale and Cité de l’Immigration in Paris. He talked at length with a man named Manuel Tavarès and recorded their conversations. He tried to capture the fragility, the changes of Manuel’s own memory in order to build a pattern of it. “I was looking for contradictions and unfinished narratives in his way of remembering his story, the performance is structured by these different paths of memory.”

Writing Spaces is also about interactive nature and focuses on real time but the audience is called into action and all involved are connected together via computer. In Writing Spaces, the spectators navigate through a textual map, and lead an actor through that map. On their screen – they all have an iPad – they receive text and choose which text to follow, which makes the actor interact with them and keeps changing the course of the play. Each choice is in fact a new step on the map – the map being the structure, the text everyone navigates through.

Is there an end to the play?” I ask. Commins replies, “for socio-economic reasons… and battery reasons…and actor unions reasons, but it could go on forever”.

Commins’s work gives a new sense of freedom to theatre and has an exciting gathering quality about it that allows the spectator to feel more involved and why not? You never know what’s going to happen, you never know when it’s going to finish.

A project like Breaking shows how live performance can still offer something unique, a breaking off from our everyday consumption of information which is often monopolized by the mass media. Commins keeps on experimenting with new devices and his custom-made software to create his performances that requires endless testing and interaction. There’s no doubt these new art forms are about breaking the rules and dealing with a new dimension for theatre, reinventing narrative techniques, playing with a whole new idea of proxemics and a continent of textual possibilities.

“Sometimes, it can really make you crazy,” says Commins as we come to an end of our conversation. And to that, I say, bring it on!

Visit Eli Commins’s website here.


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