Days full of performances, discussions and workshops with young people from all over the world – this is exactly what was happening at the Assitej Artistic Gathering, an International Theatre Festival.

Between the 2nd and 7th of September performers, directors, actors and critics travelled to Kristiansand, a beautiful town in the south of Norway. During those days they exchanged ideas, discussed the future of theatre and saw each other’s performances.

Opening ceremony

On Monday Evening, the foyer of Kristiansand’s Theatre- and concert house „Kilden“ filled for the opening ceremony. Framed by a beautiful singing and dancing performance, the different representatives of the theatre delivered speeches about the role of performing arts in todays society. After listening to them, it was the audiences turn to talk. The moderators, a woman and a ten-year-old girl, gave a little Norwegian lesson, in which everybody learned to ask „skal vi være venner?“ („Shall we be friends?“).

As a conclusion to the first day you could enjoy a very shortened version of Peer Gynt in the form of a  theatre concert. This meant a stage filled with a mix of actors, dancers and an orchestra playing Edvard Grieg’s great music.

              Kitchen table discussion

Tuesday started with the so-called kitchen table discussion, conducted by artistic teen ambassadors from across Europe. This means two Italian, two Danish and two Norwegian students sat around a table, decorated with fruits and cookies, and talked about this year’s topic of the theatre festival: „Towards the Unknown, Confronting the Present“. The discussion is traditional part of the project „Theatre European Engagement Network“ (T.E.E.N.), which gives teenagers from the named countries the possibility to travel to different theatre festivals, see performances there and write about them.

Around the kitchen table an audience consisting of adults as well as young people was sitting and listening to the ambassadors discussing questions like „How do we react to the unknown?“ or „What is the unknown in theatre?“. They agreed, that the future might be the most unknown thing at all, but also the present can be unknown. But when does something stop to be unknown? When you have discovered it, when you see it? The unknown is, what keeps us alive and life is about turning the fear of the unknown into curiosity. Such thoughts were shared, before the debate was specified on performing arts. The leading question now was, how much you must know before seeing a performance. What information should be written down in a programme, so that young people will read it? The ambassadors shared their experiences on entering a performance with or without having read a programme and talked about watching performances in different (maybe unknown) languages, not only spoken ones but also dance a music as more universal languages. As something unknown in theatre was also stated the „stage behind the stage“ to discover the work that is behind a performance.

Closing, the debate became more general. The ambassadors gave their opinion on how you could make art and theatre more equal to science subjects in school. People from the audience were now invited to take a seat at the kitchen table and talk into the microphone in form of a blue cube. The main question was how to make theatre more attractive for young people. This topic would later also be discussed in a co-curatorial workshop that we participated in.

Performances and workshops

After a little workshop about kids as an audience the T.E.E.N. ambassadors went to see a performance called „About Shadows“. It was a dance show and a shadow play at the same time, accompanied by some live music. You could for example see the dancers forming a table behind the canvas or see their shades turning to the opposite direction then themselves, when they were in front of the canvas. It was enjoyable to see, although there was no relation between the single scenes at all.

A Belgium performance named „Rita“ finished the day. It told the story of a woman suffering from dementia, and her caregiver, who had some struggle to keep her under control. Rita was played by a tough man, as he spent 70 minutes walking and dancing in pumps. In the end the whole audience stood up, having had some nice laughs about Rita putting her handbag in the fridge or the caregiver telling about a dead dog he had carried in his sports bag, which had been stolen.

The last performance for the T.E.E.N. participants was maybe the most special one. It was a non-verbal performance named “Persona”. „Persona“ brought the lives of three young men and a woman closer, who were not only living together, but also going through good and bad times. The performance treated with topics as friendship, one-sided love, sex and identity and managed to talk about them not in a stereotypical way. They all wore masks, though not beautiful ones. The masks showed painful grimaces instead of beautiful human faces where the true characters could hide behind. Masks can also be something old, you want to get rid of. And they did. Every character had their scene in which they took off the mask and revealed the face under it. These scenes were embedded in the daily life struggles of these four people, like missing toilet paper or the kitchen being a mess. Working as a sort of “layer beneath”, was the extraordinary choice of music, that fitted very well together with the single scenes.

Co-curating with Teens, that’s what the workshop on Wednesday was about. For over an hour young people walked around papers lying on the floor and answered the posed questions. What is important for teenagers to see? Only stereotypical teenage topics? Definitely not. It is not only about the topic, but also about the way the topic is presented to wake the interest of young people. As they said, they don’t need adults playing 17-year olds and showing teenagers their own problems. It takes high quality to convince teenagers who have not had any contact with theatre yet, that this is nothing weird or boring from your schoolbooks. This lead immediately to the question what quality actually is. One answer was presence on stage, another one was actors, who know what they do and who know what they want to tell.

Another workshop we participated in was about writing critics. Everyone was allowed to choose some candy related to the „taste“ of „Persona“, the performance we had just seen. The participants could express their first thoughts about the performance. You could take a piece of dark chocolate for bitter, milk chocolate for sweet etc. Tasting something sour or salty all participants started writing and afterwards discussing about the written things. That certainly resulted in controversial discussions, not everyone understood the flat-sharing-community from the performance as friends. Seeing it as a family within a mother and her son were kissing, led to confusion and misunderstanding.

Full of new impressions it was time for the T.E.E.N. participants to travel back home. Leaving Kristiansand’s concert hall with the beautiful architecture and the theatre behind in the rain. Though the conversations about the experienced things would last on longer…

Written by: Martha Gärtner

 (Kilden Theatre in Kristiansand)