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Let Gob Squad show you a good time

INTERVIEW! This Saturday night, Berlin’s Gob Squad ensemble will embark on a 12-hour, live-streamed odyssey that will challenge the conventions of theatre. We hear the motivation behind this one-of-a-kind piece.

Image for Let Gob Squad show you a good time

What does it mean to have a good time? Over 12 hours of live-streaming, Gob Squad will try to find out. (Photo by Dorothea Tuch.)

The latest show from the British-rooted, Berlin-based ensemble Gob Squad is a one-of-a-kind performance. For 12 hours this Saturday night, the experimental theatre collective will stream live from HAU 1 in Kreuzberg with Show Me A Good Time, a marathon production that will deconstruct the norms of theatre. A blend of live performance and snippets filmed in the real world, Show Me A Good Time sets out to ask a simple question: what does it mean to have good time?  

To find out more, Dermot Cudmore spoke to Sean Patten, an actor who’s been part of Gob Squad since it launched in 1994. He explained why in art, theatre and life, everything is up for re-evaluation. 

This will be a one-time performance, right?

It’s the only time we’ll perform it as a 12-hour, worldwide stream. It’s not going to exist online afterwards, so people have to tune in to watch it. It was originally meant to be a stage-based show with a physically present audience. If, as planned, theatres reopen, then we’ll take a shortened version on the road. 

What added pressure comes with knowing that you’ll only perform it this way once?

In some ways, it’s quite liberating. We’re often constrained by  practicalities – people like to come to the theatre at 8pm, they don’t like it to last more than two hours, and it can only fit a certain number of people. We’ve liberated ourselves from some of those constraints by having this broadcast format. It’s generally quite nice to make a one-off thing.

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Sean Patten has been part of Gob Squad since 1994. (Photo by Joanna Wizmur.)

Do you expect people to watch it all? 

People don’t have to tune in at 6pm and sit with us through 12 hours. They can have us on a full screen and concentrate, or they can have it on their mobile phone or in the background while cooking dinner. People should tune in and out throughout the 12 hours.

How do you rehearse for a 12-hour piece? 

We only did two six-hour rehearsals last week. That was absolutely exhausting, and not something we can do very often. We won’t do a full rehearsal. But we felt that, as we are doing a piece about time, we should do something that’s one, 12 or 24 hours long. So our idea is to go around the clock once. As conceptual artists, if the concept demands, we will do it. 

The show was originally intended for a real, physical theatre audience, right?

We were meant to be performing this weekend at HAU 1 five times. We had developed some material which was strangely prescient. We were rehearsing in February and March as the coronavirus was gradually spreading, and we had these ideas to explore this alien world that we don’t recognise anymore. And then after the lockdown, we added people exploring the streets and beaming it back to the theatre. It’s not a million miles from where we started.  

As artists, the worst thing is a totally blank canvas. It’s good to have constraints, limits and rules to react against.

It seems like the pandemic coincidentally enhanced the nature of the piece.

Yeah. As artists, the worst thing is a totally blank canvas. It’s good to have constraints, limits and rules to react against. In traditional theatre, that’s the text and the script. We don’t work with a text or a script, so conditions and constraints are good for us. It’s been good to have some unarguable constraints – the theatre’s closed, what are we going to do about it?

From my very limited acting experience, being on stage feels completely different with an audience. 

This is a nightmare fever dream of performance. You’re on your own on the stage of HAU 1. There’s no one there, but somehow you’re performing to the world for 12 hours, and no one can hear your scream. It’s a terrible, terrible idea for the performer. It’s torturous. But I also think it’s quite interesting and speaks of these lockdown times, where getting through to people is really hard.

Audience interaction is essential for Gob Squad. Typically, social norms hold people back from being too disruptive, but are you worried about trolls online?

That’s an interesting point. With interaction  you have an unwritten contract of trust with people who could disrupt it. But there isn’t scope for that in this piece, because it’s not a two-way channel. It’s pretty much a one-way broadcast with a few key moments of interaction. 

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Photo by Dorothea Tuch.

 I’m glad! What does “a good time” even mean? 

That’s the central question. What is a good time? We’re asking that on different levels, especially now with the world burning, with the pandemic, the climate crisis and police violence. There’s a sort of yearning for the old days, but we’re questioning if they really were so good. We’re also just asking what people need to get through their day. 

A recurring motif of “a good time,” is to sense, feel and experience things beyond the screen. Everyone is glued to Zoom windows, but can a 16×9 rectangle really tell you how something feels? I guess it’s sort of yearning for a richer experience of the world. The pause button has been pressed. What do we want the world to be like when it restarts? Let’s start with theatres. Do we even need them? What do people want to see in them? And then we go out into the world. What do we want that world to be like? Shall we just you know restart all the airlines and all of the social relations and capital relations we had before, or do we want to have a good time, do we want to make the time better by shaking things up or shifting things round?

Will artworks, or even your own performances, be critical for influencing the way people live after coronavirus? 

I think people need to have common group mass experiences, whether that’s football, church, art or going to Berghain. It’s a part of human nature. That’s the thing I say is essential. Whether it’s our particular form of theatre, I don’t know – that’s up to the audience and hopefully we resonate with them. But I think what’s more important is the basic human need to gather and have mass physical group experiences. 

I think people need to have common group mass experiences, whether that’s football, church, art or going to Berghain. It’s a part of human nature.

So if your art has a positive impact, that’s more because of the societal function it fulfills. You don’t have certain values that you directly try to put out there? 

Individually, we all have points of view on how the world should be – we’re keen to redistribute the world’s wealth, for example. But we don’t see our art as the place to give a concrete message about that. There’s other parts of society which are absolutely the place to carry on political discourse about the way we want to be. Our art is more about asking questions, to open space for imagination: not having all the thoughts and answers at the same time. People wouldn’t want to watch that. 

But you bring your personal life into your theatre in a far less filtered way than is typical? 

They’ve been inseparable for us. We don’t perform roles of characters or anything like that – we’re just who we are. With this particular project, because of mobile technology and the theatre being closed, we can literally take people into our homes and into our lives. We want to show ourselves as not being above the audience, but just say, “Look, I’m a human being, this is how I think and feel and how I see things, and maybe you do, too.” Through this live-streaming technology, we’re able to slice in bits of our real life into the art.    

 Would you say that theatre in Berlin, and maybe even Germany, is more accessible than in Britain?

 I don’t know. There’s more of it here, it’s taken seriously and it’s well funded, but I don’t know if that automatically makes it more accessible. I think different theatres make different efforts to reach out to people, but of course getting people through the door of a building which was often built for the bourgeois elite is inherently a hurdle. Maybe it’s more accessible just because there’s more of it around – there’s all kinds of stuff to suit your taste in Berlin. 

Finally, what kind of online theatre did you enjoy during the lockdown?

The things I liked the most were interactive, happening in Zoom rooms, where it mattered that I was there. And they were the things I thought were most like real performance. There were also things that were just documentation of theatre shows, which I wasn’t so interested in. I don’t think this will be the end of this type of work, but I don’t think you can replace sitting in an auditorium and sharing the same room as people.