Libraries, hotel rooms and shopping centres are places not ordinarily employed as theatrical platforms, and yet, aren’t these public places where the daily dramas of real life play out? Lola Arias and Stefan Kaegi recognised this, and their internationally touring production, Ciudades Paralelas, is arguably the most innovative project featuring at this year’s Cork Midsummer Festival. It is certainly the most ambitious. Staging eight shows in eight separate spaces across the city, each project provides audiences with a new perspective of its site, and Cork city as a whole.
The collective aim of the production is to highlight the paradoxical anonymity and, often, loneliness, of bustling cities; people in such close proximity living parallel yet distant existences. The eight locations act as urban observation stations. The observers are performers as diverse as singers, writers, even the audience function as participants in some pieces. Whether visually, orally or aurally, they erode the boundaries of anonymity and create the essence of community theatre. Writing.ie spoke to author Elizabeth Murray, who performs in ‘Station/ Sometimes I Think I Can See You’ for the inside track on revelatory railways.
writing.ie: To what extent would you agree with the description of Ciudades Paralelas as ‘dramatised people watching’?
Elizabeth Murray: ‘Dramatised people watching’ is a good description. All of the various Ciudades Paralelas events have real people and places at their heart and each production differs in relation to the city it’s being performed in.
During Station, the people waiting or passing through are the central focus. We’re using the physical evidence of what we see and amalgamating that with the natural curiosity of human beings and our imagination as writers. What are the people wearing? What are they doing? Where are they going to or coming from? More importantly, what are they thinking? We’re taking real people and real situations and then superimposing our own expectations and ideas on top. In short, we’re doing what every person on the planet does every day. Whenever you interact with a person on even the smallest scale – a brief glance or passing someone on the street for instance – you immediately register details about them, whether you’re aware of it or not.
For me, the most exciting aspect of Ciudades Paralelas is that in every performance, the audience is involved. They’re part of the ‘dramatised people watching’. In Station, people can observe the stories about others – and themselves – develop. They can also choose to influence that story.
writing.ie: In Station, do you consider yourself as an interpreter or a medium?
Elizabeth Murray: Writing for Station involves a bit of both. Who comes into the station, how they behave and react, is completely out of our control. We’re trying to respond to events and interpret situations in an imaginative and entertaining way yet keep the focus as realistic as possible based on what’s actually going on. We’re also hoping for some participation and will be trying to impact the situation with requests and suggestions that hopefully some of the audience will follow. The audience becomes part of the story and has the ability to alter the course of where it’s going. It’s essentially a two-way stream.
writing.ie: Do you have any preconception of ideas for people’s stories, or is the transcription completely writing-to-the-moment and inspired by each subject?
Elizabeth Murray: The stories will be solely based upon the people and events in Kent Station during the performance. The transcripts are completely ad-libbed for two hours solid. We have no idea who will turn up or what will happen, which is both exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. The key is to be looking for something or someone that is striking, that everyone can recognise and that sparks a story. Keeping the ideas and responses rolling for two hours is quite a challenge. As this is a performance that has taken place in various cities around the world, we have a certain function to fulfill and there are some guidelines that we have to follow. Far from being restricting, these are in place to make sure that Station is as interactive as possible.
For instance, each of the three writers will have a specific area to focus on and the subjects we talk about should be clearly visible to the audience within that space. Physical elements also affect how we write; for instance, only six lines of text are visible on the screens at any one time so the physical description of the character needs to be repeated for anyone joining the story mid way.
writing.ie: We are all voyeurs and potential candidates for voyeurism. What kind of person catches your eye in Station? Is it a face, an action, the book they’re reading?
Elizabeth Murray: I love the way that although people are saying or doing one thing, their facial expression and body language is telling another story so that will definitely impact who I write about and how the story unfolds. I’ll be involving as many people as possible but the characters need to be recognisable to the audience and so colour, objects, actions and position will be key features.
writing.ie: What makes a train station an attractive site for ‘Ciudades Paralelas’, given its goal of staging ‘observation stations for urban phenomena’?
Elizabeth Murray: Personally, I’ve always seen train stations as fascinating places. In fact, everything about trains intrigues me; the journeys we take, the places and people we pass and will never see, the changes in emotion and character that we undergo as we leave A and arrive at B. Train stations are where all of these experiences culminate or begin. They’re melting pots where people from all walks of life with all sorts of histories and futures meet. Stations are functional places yet full of dysfunction. To me, they’re packed with secrets. People pass through train stations and generally feel anonymous and safe; they don’t expect to be observed. In this way, a station is a fantastic viewing platform for urban phenomena. Spend half an hour people watching and you’ll witness a microcosm in all its glory. During Station, people will begin to realize that they are part of a story and I’m interested to see how they will react, how they will help to bring stories to a conclusion or spark a new direction.
(C) Sorcha McCoy Moran, June 2012.