Vibrations that resonate
Listening, due to be shown at the upcoming Performing HEL showcase, explores communication through low frequency sound waves and sign language. Director Joel Teixeira Neves and actor Silva Belghiti spoke to us about their creative processes and their hopes for the production's future.
The Performing HEL showcase is due to be held in Helsinki on 2-5 September this year. The event line-up features seven full-length performances, including Listening by the Finnish Live Art Society. Listening was performed in front of a live, limited-capacity audience in September and October of 2020 at Kiasma, Helsinki's contemporary art museum. Other performances were put on hold due to the pandemic, but as restrictions are now being lifted, the Live Art Society and the team behind Listening are looking forward to taking their production on tour in the autumn.
Listening's director Joel Teixeira Neves graduated from the Theatre Academy in Helsinki in 2018 but has for many years had a fascination for contemporary performance. I caught up with Neves on Zoom and asked him where this interest arose from.
“I directed my first show in 2009 at this alternative stage in Helsinki. It was my final work at the performing arts program at the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. The work itself was not participatory in any way, but the stage was in the corner of a small room with open windows facing the street, and so passers-by would glance in at the audience that was watching the performance, creating a circular spin that I was left thinking about for years. I did a few more traditional shows in the years after that, but I was always interested in the connection between the audience and the performance,” Neves says.
Spaces for communication
Ten years later, Neves was directing the final project for his master's degree at the Theatre Academy in Helsinki. Titled Voyeur, it was intended to create a viewing experience free from possessiveness, hostility and aggression and to establish a space for genuine coexistence, complementarity and listening. The experience prompted him to study auditive communications and to explore the kind of spaces that would be capable of hosting such communications.
According to Neves, there are fundamental issues with how we currently communicate, which are leading to increasing socio-economic divisions, aggressive political rhetoric and a shift towards populism and right-wing ideologies. This is not a new development, he says. In Finland it has been underway since the 1980s when cuts were imposed on both education and social welfare services. Through his performances, Neves aims to disrupt the expansion of the market economy and the profit-oriented logic that permeates society.
“At this moment in time, my goal is to create performances, where there is simply space and time to be. Where you don’t have to compete for your place. While I acknowledge that the performance space is hierarchic itself, and performance is close to being commodified, this can be worked on. I strive to do this within the process and within the working group. I don’t have a particular need to make decisions on behalf of others or act as if I knew everything. Whether or not there’s a flow or not within the process is of course much up to the director, but my job is to make sure the group gets a handle of the material, that they feel empowered to create and suggest solutions for the performance.”
Listening as a process
The idea for Listening came to Neves as he was working on creating spaces that would facilitate the artistic exploration of human communication. Neves and Silva Belghiti, a deaf actor and the sole performer in Listening, were at the Theatre Academy together for two years, while studying for their master's degrees, Neves specialising in directing and Belghiti in acting.
“We saw other at the gym during those years and had said hello, and I was thinking it would be really interesting to make something together with her, as she was such an interesting performer.” It took some time for Neves to come up with the idea for Listening, but he immediately proposed that they work on it together. “Luckily, she agreed to come along, as this has become one of my most important works for myself,” he says. When I ask her what convinced her to say yes, Belghiti says by email: “I was intrigued, because what Joel proposed was a different art form from what I have been doing. I also admire people who on their own accord want to collaborate with someone who is using sign language.”
Neves also brought sound designer Johannes Vartola scenographer Samuli Laine on board. The four then set out to explore listening as a phenomenon. They would occasionally meander off-topic to discuss things like tsunamis and asteroids, Neves says, but would ultimately always venture back to the act of listening.
“Samuli Laine had a big part in bringing the element of water into the production, as well as for the overall set design. For our very first rehearsal at the Kiasma museum Samuli brought two oven trays from home, which he filled with water and which we then turned the lights on. At the end of the process, we had an entire water basin on the stage. It was a lengthy process, but kudos to Samuli for daring to bring those trays. It shows his professionalism as an artist, his no fuss approach and his willingness to try something untested, and from that envision what it could be. Johannes on his part consulted me regularly on what hertzes were, which was incredibly important. We set off using small speakers and ended up using built-in loudspeakers and large subwoofers.”
When it comes to the practicalities of working with a group comprising hearing and deaf artists as well as sign language interpreters, Neves says they initially held a series of workshops, where they discussed their working methods and planned their collaboration.
“Silva is a professional actor, she’s knowledgeable, she takes responsibility, and she commits to what she’s doing. Working with an interpreter also gave the communication amongst us peace, as what we would say would be interpreted to Silva through the sign language interpreter and then Silva’s response would be interpreted back to us. Waiting for a response worked well for our rhythm.”
For Belghiti the main challenge was being directed in the dark, as she couldn’t see her interpreter. Ultimately, there were no communication problems, thanks to the group’s collective ability to laugh at possible miscommunications. “I’ve decided to continue working with this team with a new project – our process didn’t end here. But I hope that we will be able to tour with Listening before moving on to something new,” Belghiti writes as a response to my question on how the process worked for her in the end.
On meeting the audience
Listening is a multi-sensory experience involving low-frequency sounds that reverberate through the audience members' bodies. The performer communicates with the audience in sign language, but surtitles are available for those not familiar with Finnish sign language. Sign language becomes the sole mode of communication leading to an exploration, not of hearing loss, but of the sounds we can all feel.
On stage, Belghiti was surrounded by the audience. She says she couldn’t distinguish between hearing and deaf audience members' responses to the performance. "The performance is for everyone, regardless of their hearing. Only the applause is different as people using sign language wave both hands in the air, and hearing people will clap their hands.”
One of the most memorable experiences for the working group was performing in front of a group of children, Neves says.
“A lot of people came up to us and thanked us for a wonderful performance, which is always nice to hear. But the best experience by far, was a matinee we gave to a group of children ranging from 3rd to 6th graders with varying degrees of hearing loss. Our performance is not made for children in mind, and we were nervous about their reaction, and how the technology would work with the hearing aids. There are long sequences of just hums, vibrations, and lights in the performance. The kids were full of nervous energy when they came, and one child stated that he for one would not be watching. But once the performance started, they all went quiet, and there were a few there who liked it particularly much,” Neves says, still moved by the experience.
Listening is a live experience
Due to its sensory dimension, Listening does not lend itself to streaming. As the coronavirus pandemic wore on, the creative team did consider how the production might be adapted to an online environment but in the end decided not to pursue It. Back in August 2020 Neves remained apprehensive about streaming in general but has now changed his mind, at least to some extent.
“I’ve had the pleasure to teach theatre students at the Kauniainen workers’ academy in the past few months. We’ve created podcasts, and a few taped performances, as well as streams. And my god these are hungry and smart people. Working with them has opened my eyes to the possibilities that are out there. It’s an art form of its own, and I have a respect for those who do it.”
Listening is set to go on stage at the TTT-theatre in Tampere this autumn. Before that, the group will re-unite in front of an international audience at the Performing HEL showcase. What hopes do Neves and Belghiti have for the upcoming showcase?
“We just hope that we can be allowed to perform given the circumstances. We’re in an amazing league of wonderful theatre makers and great performances. It’s exciting to be judged internationally by people who have seen so much and can judge us in relation to international productions,” says Neves, while Belghiti, as so many other performers, is eagerly waiting to be allowed to perform in front of an audience again,
“Yeah, I’m a bit tense thinking about returning to the stage after such a long time, but in a good way! We had great audiences at Kiasma last fall, and I’m hoping we will have that at Performing HEL and elsewhere as well!”
TINFO / Linnea Stara, 20 May, 2021