On the Threshold of Fiction

Seeing a car on the driveway of their secluded farmhouse near Holmestrand, Southern Norway, Cecilie Solberg Knudsrød thinks it’s the friends she and her sister are planning to meet on this August morning. She rushes downstairs, opens the door and instead finds a stranger shouting, ‘Haven’t you noticed? Your barn’s on fire!’ By the time she gets to the barn, filled with equipment and harvested carrots, the flames are bursting from the windows. Cecilie turns back and runs upstairs to the bathroom where her father is shaving. ‘Dad! Dad! The barn’s on fire!’ Without bothering to put on his clothes, he dashes outside and somehow manages to rescue a tractor from the flames.

Store verdier gikk tapt i brannErnst M. Aas, ‘Store verdier gikk tapt i brann’, in: Tønsbergs Blad, August 9, 1995

By the time a local journalist finally made it to the site, the fire brigade had already given up hope of saving the barn. All that was left to photograph was a pile of smouldering ruins. Pasted in the family photo album, the newspaper article he wrote seems out of place between the cheerful pictures of holidays, birthdays and other celebrations.1 Next to the article is written: Så kom den triste dagen. ‘Then the sad day came,’ translates Cecilie to the audience gathered in an Amsterdam theatre, almost 20 years after the fire.

Cecilie Solberg’s telling of this tragedy is one of the presentations that grew out of the Family Theatre workshop led by theatre maker Vivi Tellas and organised by DasArts and Frascati. In Tellas’ opinion, people and objects serve as archives: they carry a reserve of experience, knowledge, texts, and images.2 During a one-week workshop, she taught a group of seven young international theatre professionals how to investigate their own archives.

When looking for dramatic themes like love, death, appearances, deception, secrets and betrayal, what better place to search than your own family? The nuclear family is the nucleus for fundamental emotions and concepts of the self. Your parents are the first authorities you learn to obey – and resist. That is why Tellas asked the participants to delve into their family histories and see what stories would lend themselves for staging as performances.

Memory Work
The stories we tell about our past are not only to be taken literally; they also serve as personal myths that shape the ways we think about ourselves and the world that surrounds us today. As the British film scholar Annette Kuhn shows in her book Family Secrets, what is included in the stories we tell over and over again is as important as the family secrets and notions about power play that are excluded. Investigating these stories will not lead us to the truth, but it will result in greater knowledge and maybe a sense of truthfulness.

To activate their memories, Tellas asked the participants to bring family pictures and some cherished objects to the workshop. These were treated as ‘evidence’, as she calls it, which of course is reminiscent of detective work. Instead of staging a complete story with an anecdotal plot line illustrated with props, Tellas likes to work backwards. The stories grow out of the evidence. The past is treated as the scene of a crime; exactly what has happened is unknown, but some traces remain. You need to interpret these clues, decipher signs, make deductions and attempt to reconstruct the ‘past present’.3 This process of memory work may be even more important than the resulting story itself. Therefore, browsing through family photo albums, discussing pictures of birthday parties or the organisation of the household formed a major part of the workshop.

Special contributions were made by Karlijn Kistemaker’s mother, who had agreed to participate, and Ariadna Rubio Lleo’s parents and sister, who were eager to join as a family. This mix of people from different generations gathered round a table to share their personal stories definitely added to the idea of an impromptu family. Because the stage was used as living space, in the course of a few days the theatre gradually filled with homey smells of orange peels, cinnamon and wood.

Threshold of Fiction
When interviewed about her work, Vivi Tellas once recalled what Thomas Bernhard said about yesterday’s newspapers: they lose their efficacy, their reason for being, and go on to form part of a poetic world, part of an archive.4 It is exactly this subtle shifting from fact to fiction that lies at the heart of Tellas’ poetics. Unlike most other theatre makers who use documentary material, she is not particularly interested in everyday life itself, or in the overtly theatrical. Rather, she is occupied with the threshold between document and fiction. Her work distinguishes itself by its articulation of how the ordinary is extraordinary and how the extraordinary is, in fact, often part of the ordinary.5

Discerning these fleeting instances and their potential is a rather intuitive practice. Tellas had asked the participants to look for moments that had changed their lives, that have left scars and may still be dangerous today. While discussing the material they brought as evidence, she trained the young artists to recognize these possible thresholds between fact and fiction. The defining action is to carefully frame a situation and choose what needs to be shown, not to direct or stage it. When you push too hard, the ordinary and the commonplace will evaporate and you will move directly into the realm of the extraordinary and the spectacular.

‘This theatricality is not cleaned up for presentation but presented “as is”, as incongruous as that might be,’ Carol Martin remarks on the work of Tellas.6 In a time when even everyday personal life is permeated with a penchant for the spectacle, it is admirable that Tellas chooses to present daily situations in a non-spectacular way. It is also challenging on various levels. Artists are accustomed to transforming their material into something new, to shape it the way they want to. In Tellas’ poetics, however, the artist has to adopt a much more reticent approach. One has to operate more as a dramaturge than as a director. At the same time, it requires an audience that is receptive to this subtle approach to theatricality. All of which leads to an art that is vulnerable, sometimes uncomfortable and ideally truthful.

Love and Loss
As stated, investigating family history has a lot in common with unravelling an enigma in a detective novel. Except that in a novel, there is always an ending, and usually a resolution. Memory-work, however, is potentially interminable: at every turn, further questions are raised, and there is always something else to look into.7 The resulting projects were essentially open-ended, with a lot of questions left unanswered – as in real life. Why did Eilit Marom’s parents get divorced twice? Why did Karlijn Kistemaker end up practicing clarinet in an African beach village? Why does Cecilie Solberg’s twin sister claim it was she who opened the door, rushed to the barn and warned her father in the bathroom – not Cecilie? Apparently, it’s possible to share memories that are either true or false.

The ‘close readings’ of family history and everyday life that are the result of this workshop confront you with uncertainty about your own past, raise questions about your own memories and make you wonder about the ways you act differently inside and outside of your family circle. It all builds up to the notion that each individual is a conjunction of different desires, aspirations, assumptions and codes – not a fixed entity but a fluid one.

Bound by the underlying themes of love and loss, these stories prove to be very personal and universal at the same time. They remind us that the way we live together is not limited by assumptions about our ‘own’ culture. We can empathize with an Israeli girl who feels disappointed with her macho dad, a young man coping with his rather traditional family where the conversation has to be kept superficial in order to maintain peace, the life-changing decisions of a Dutch mother enchanted by a love in Senegal, or the predictability of lives that pulsate to the rhythm of the seasons on a family farm in the Norwegian countryside.

Apart from the stories, the presentations offered many images that unintentionally proved to be theatrical, disclosing glimpses of the truth: a sheet of paper held by trembling hands, a golden-brown cloud of ground cinnamon in the rays of a theatre spotlight, a mother sinking her teeth into an orange and sucking out its juice like a hungry animal.

Participants in the Family Theatre workshop led by Vivi Tellas: Anne-Charlotte Bisoux, Elina Cerpa, Karlijn Kistemaker, Arthur Kneepkens, Eilit Marom, Ariadna Rubio Lleo, Cecilie Solberg Knudsrød

In: Every Nerve – DasArts Magazine 2013-2014; editors: Barbara Van Lindt & Karin van de Wiel; design: Thonik; publisher: DasArts

  1. Ernst M. Aas, ‘Store verdier gikk tapt i brann’, in: Tønsbergs Blad, August 9, 1995
  2. Alan Pauls, ‘Kidnapping Reality: an interview with Vivi Tellas’, in: Martin, 2010, p. 247
  3. Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets. Acts of Memory and Imagination (Verso, 2002, new edition), p. 4
  4. Alan Pauls, ‘Kidnapping Reality: an interview with Vivi Tellas’, in: Martin, 2010, p. 252
  5. Carol Martin (ed.), Dramaturgy of the Real on the Word Stage (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 11-12
  6. ibid, p. 12
  7. Kuhn, Family Secrets (op. cit), p. 6