It began with a tutorial for handball: a performer on stage took us through the optimum grips and throws for the game. Soon, we glided into a rehearsal for the opening of an Ikea store. Followed by a team building tutorial featuring corporate body percussion; then by the biblical story of Genesis demonstrated in 60 signs; followed by an advisory for old people on how to fall the ‘correct’ way. And so on and so forth. There were a few muffled laughs, but for the most part, the audience seemed confused. What was happening?
This marked the beginning of the theatre play Our Daily Performance at Alliance Francaise of Madras. Performed by the Paris-based theatre troupe Premier Stratageme led by Giuseppe Chico and Barbara Matijevic, the play was a hit at last year’s Avignon Festival, and is now on an India tour, with performances in Pune, Puducherry and Chennai.
The play is inspired by hundreds of YouTube tutorials, and re-enacts these to propose ‘live user manuals’ for how to live in contemporary society. The underlying idea is that our social media feed is often driven by millions of anonymous users without us even being aware of it.
After the initial confusion had subsided and the audience settled into the new, rather absurd world we had been thrown into, there was palpable appreciation of what was unfolding on stage, punctuated by a lot of laughter.
A tutorial on how to write our first rap song in under an hour elicited a warm response — turns out English has a natural iambic-pentameter rhythm that makes rapping in it quite easy. There was a tutorial on the ideal couples’ workout for Valentine’s Day, in which the bossiness of the women coupled with the helplessness of the men was hilarious. But my personal favourite was the Shadow wrestling at home: freestyle training, in which the instructor convinces you why you don’t need an opponent to practise shadow wrestling, and then spends the next 10 minutes wrestling a big, bouncing ball, which is supposedly attacking him.
The play mixes dance, martial arts, singing and acrobatics to create a unique experience, which attests to the diverse backgrounds of the performers themselves. Nicolas Maloufi has played handball; Marie Nédélec is a singer; Camila Hernandez comes from the circus; Shihya Peng has done classical and contemporary dance; and Thibault Mullot has done acting. Together, the crew of five make a great, and heterogenous mix. The performance is in French for the most part, with subtitles projected on the screen behind.
Somewhere amid it all, comes the line which seems like the clue to the name of the play: “But believe me,” says the wrestler, “the performance is everyday, whether the audience is watching or not.”
“The reason the play is called Our Daily Performance,’” says director Matijevic, “is because the struggles that the performers have in their scenes don’t relate to any extraordinary situation. They’re all about what can really happen in life. You’re old, you can fall, so this is how you should fall. You’re a girl, you can get attacked, so this is how you should defend yourself. These are anxieties that we can all connect to at some point in our lives. There is this sense that we need to be prepared and fit for these situations, and ready to perform well when they come about. Hence the name,” says Matijevic.
The Premier Stratageme duo arrived at the concept of YouTube tutorials quite by chance. They started coming across a large number of them on topics which, on the surface, seemed ridiculous; but soon, they realised that underneath the mirth was a lurking, ever-present danger; an underlying fear and anxiety about an invisible ‘shadow-enemy’. In a sense, that’s how humans are wired. But it’s also a condition heightened by the Internet — which just like the play, allows users to surf from one seemingly unrelated topic to another, all in the quest for an amorphous ‘something’ that never quite arrives.
The Internet has been a topic of interest for Matijevic and Chico right from 2007, when they first started working together. That was when the net was picking up, and everyone everywhere seemed to be on it all the time. “So our basic premise became, here’s this thing which is becoming so big and important in everybody’s lives – so how can we take all this material done in a virtual space, and put it back in the here and now? What happens when you take something usually seen alone on a screen, and re-embody it in theatre, such that it is consumed in person and as a collective?” says Matijevic.
Their past performances betray a similar preoccupation with digital media and what it does to humans. One of their plays, Tracks, uses thousands of sound clips recorded by anonymous users across the Internet to create a subjective soundscape of the year 1989. Another one, titled I am 1984, takes inspiration from Wikipedia—and how it facilitates a chain of interlinked reading that sends you down rabbit holes—to portray Matijevic’s own experience of the year 1984 in a series of interrelated dreams, facts and events.
Until now, the group’s work involved taking inspiration from the virtual realm and re-embodying it in the physical. But for their upcoming project, they are planning on doing the opposite: taking everything they have learned about theatre performances, and putting it in a virtual space. “So what we’re creating is not happening in the theatre, it’s online, and it’s live. And it’s improvised. We’d also like it to be interactive, so you can stay at home, and see something that is being performed in the moment, and you can react to it, or you can also find yourself in the show,” says Matijevic.