Article by Jesper Halle

 

A kind of mystery game

On Sense of Place – The Great City Wandering I-III

 

Jesper Halle is a playwright and has contributed to Grenland Friteater’s work for years.

hagen

 

1.

The Great City Walk I-III was a part of the cultural project Sense of Place (Stedsans) which was a collaboration between Grenland Friteater and the county of Porsgrunn. Sense of Place, simply an art project for a city and its residents, has been an annual venture for three consecutive years, starting in 2005 through Porsgrunn’s 200 year anniversary in 2007.

The City Walks were undertaken early in the fall each year and lasted a week or so. The general arrangement was always the same. Spectators gathered at one point and were then led on a walk through much of the city of Porsgrunn. During the walk there were many stops where the audience was greeted by an artistic scene of some sort, which counted 14, 28 and 24 each year, respectively, in addition to some surprises along the way not in the program.

These artist features would be of different qualities, such as dance, video, performance, installations, concerts and shorter musical arrangements, and of course the theatre arts such as operas, sketches, monologues and short dramatic scenes. As a whole, the city walks conveyed a certain wild and free combination of traditional and avant-garde, and all that which exists between the two.

 

At the helm of the cultural entertainment were professionals as well as semi-professionals and amateurs. Naturally, among the professionals were many with affiliations to Porsgrunn, or any other association with Grenland Friteater. Others were professionals from about anywhere in the world, for instance Columbia. Among the local amateurs were many organizations involved, like choirs and dance groups.

Much of the entertainment had its strength in through the collaboration of professionals and amateurs. Not by purely superficial cooperation where the amateurs do what they are told to do, but by interaction and mutual respect and admiration of each others talents and knowledge.

 

A large variation of theatrical scenes was present, anything ranging from dramatizations of past events, and scenes that would simply make use of the location’s scenic opportunities rather than its history and social function. A third category was a dialogue with place and past, but simultaneously a sort of tensional relation leaving the audience room to determine for themselves the meaning of the play.

There were successful features within all of the three categories, and I would rather not be without any of them. A smaller variety would be an aesthetical Puritanism that would weaken the totality. The entire project stands as an opposition to the Norwegian high status-minimalism. Consequently, I experienced that the very key elements each year – those that we could not be without – were features in the latter category.

 

Another thing worth mentioning: the city walks were not top-administered projects. The individual groups of people who wished to contribute were, to a great extent, granted an independent responsibility to create their own art in their own place. The features were to be a part of a context and have an obligatory duration, however still possessing the signature of the individual artist, not of some super-artist with complete control.

 

So, what was it that tied these many locations, art forms and artists together? First of all: the features were designed to fit a given place, in a given city. And the city of Porsgrunn, as a sum of people and stories and with a two-hundred year history, was present both visible and invisible during all of the city wanderings.

 

2.

The city wanderings were clearly a success among the public. In a city-county of 30 000 residents, the city walks combined had a total of 10 000 spectators, and could have gotten more. All the wanderings were sold out, and the limit for the maximum number of viewers was expanded each year, just like the number of wanderings. And those who came did so to enjoy a trip by the streets during three, four and even five hours to see something they didn’t know what was.

I believe there’s no doubt that the wanderings also were a success compared to the ambitions as far as “awakening new life in a slumbering city core? Give the residents new experiences and a new liking for their own home? Rekindle the memories of a life already lived…” (From the city wandering program of 2005)

 

But what about the artistry? Was that which we saw art at all? – Merely to make a point, there are many contexts in which that question should be asked, but never is. When I ask that question here it is because the city wanderings were of such a local character. It was an arrangement for and by far by a local society, and it was an arrangement where amateurs were given much space. A project like this can be very important to a local society without further having any grand artistic value, this because one may quickly end up in a situation where the contact between performers and audience makes failure impossible.

 

If you think that was the situation you would be underestimating the Porsgrunn-audience. Surely it is a wide audience of “regular” people, but it is also an enlightened and educated people. Through the duration of 31years of Grenland Friteater and especially the 12 years of PIT, the people of Porsgrunn have seen much theatre. Large audience favourites such as “Harde tak/Tough Measures” and “Kurt koker hodet/Kurt Boils His Head” as well as smaller and more experimental plays have been seen by many. The Porsgrunn-audience is curious and tolerant to a diversity of scenic expressions, though still being an experienced and spoilt theatre-audience.

When they loved the city wanderings is was because in the centre of the varieties was a core of features that were both on a highly artistic level and immediately expressed something powerful and touching in the relationship between the city by the river and the people there. This core also contributed to add coherence and substance. Without those, the city walks would collapse artistically, and thus the members of Grenland Friteater would hear about it the same day, the papers the next, and the bar the next evening.

 

By my own account I believe that an indication that something qualifies as art, not merely as a hand-crafted work or a commercial cynicism or a politically correct cultural product, is that it makes you believe that nobody could make this or do this except those who actually did. This is a sign that the city wanderings – not just the individual features with their undisputable artistic qualities – but the city wanderings as a closed entity is a rather unique work of art. None other than Grenland Friteater could make this happen, and it is probably first at this time that they could do so.

 

To the viewer in me it was like this: the city walks were an experience I looked forward to a long time ahead of, and by the time of the wanderings I was given new insight and clusters of large and small joys, which gave much to think about once it was all over. The theatre-worker in me believes that the city wanderings housed many elements that ought to be more prominent in Norwegian stage art.

 

– Many in Norwegian stage art should envy the special contact between audience and performers that the city wanderings created. The companionship and trust between audience and performers made the audience more tolerant and friendly compared to what they would experience, not that they would be without a sense of critique.

 

– Another thing to rapport from the city walks was the successful combination of well-known and unknown. The well-known: the audience recognizes several of the performers; they know the city and the people there are references to. They can laugh at many somewhat exclusive jokes and has a greater understanding of the material because of the reference to a familiar world. The unknown: they are unaware of the exact contents of each feature, and are easily surprised between stations as well. Most of the viewers will during the wandering encounter artistic expressions they didn’t know of to begin with, and that they wouldn’t usually experience on their own in a different context. A thought that comes to mind is: is it not often the apparatus surrounding a work of art that keeps viewers away from it and not the art itself?

When people in Porsgrunn, the city where one used to say “Skien can handle the culture, and we’ll handle the industry”, have the opportunity to experience an art show such as the city wanderings close at heart, I will consider it as an indication that when “ordinary” people avoid certain art-experiences, it is not because they couldn’t enjoy them, but because the apparatus surrounding the art clearly states that this is not something for just anyone to enjoy and understand. When everything regarding a work of art declares the art as difficult and elitist and for us members of the club, ad perhaps not for the man in the street, the man in the street moves on. This is not all that odd.

 

As I previously stated, Grenland Friteater alone and no other could have created something like the city walks I-III, and now at first. The trust and companionship that makes people in Porsgrunn contributes as performers, and in the shape of documentary-like features, as well as working voluntarily in great numbers to complete a project it has taken 30 years to make. And the artistic force and practical experience that a project of this magnitude demands, has likewise not become present over night. And not least, it has taken many years to build the diversity of artist contacts from the outside who are also important participants in the city walks.

 

Thus it is also limited of what others can learn from the project. Since the near pre-modern relationship between the members of Grenland Friteater and the population of Porsgrunn is a long way from the relationship between institutional theatres’ paid workers and their audience, as well as from the relationship there is between non-institutional project-theatres’ post-modern nomads and their audience. It takes time, a lot of time, much love and an infinite amount of work to create such a relation.

 

3.

As one might understand, it is not an easy feat to place the city wanderings within a given genre, at least as a collected work of art in its own right. First of all they define their own genre, but a genre from many ages ago that they have similarities with must be the cycles of mystery games of late medieval times.

They too were a form of station-drama where the individual features had much independence and were made by different people, at the same time as creating a sum of the independent pieces. Where the features in the city walks were produced by artists and artist groups with a large degree of autonomy, each scene which contributed to the drama of a mystery cycles was created by an organization of hand-crafters, or any other association. Where the members of associations such as choirs, rock bands, dance groups, and even hand-craftsmen were performers in the city wanderings, the performers in the mystery games where members of the organizations.

 

And as it is the case with the city wanderings, the audience and performers in the mystery cycles were also a part of the same social unity. There is yet another parallel in that the mystery cycles also housed a certain artistic professionalism, especially in key positions such as direction and production, and even in that the city council in the medieval age was co-responsible for it, not unlike the role the administration of Porsgrunn plays in the city wanderings. Another parallel is the one where the situation of the audience is similar to the mystery cycles. The audience could see each other and communicate, and last but not least, they moved from scene to scene to view the individual features, if it of course was not the other way around, i.e. the scenes were drawn passed the audience.

 

What people get to see in both cases has been spectacular, surprising, entertaining, thought provoking, and often loose and free. Simultaneously there has been a great deal of sincerity involved. In both cases the games have been about something important to the artists. In the medieval age the relation between Man and God, in Porsgrunn 2005-2007 the relation people have to their city and the relation between people living there.