The Last Free Space

Pablo Gisbert in Conversation with May Zarhi

El Conde de Torrefiel is the company of Pablo Gisbert and Tanya Beyeler, based in Barcelona. Together they create stage works, collaborating with performers, dancers, and actors. Pablo was a guest of the last performance conference at the School of Visual Theatre in October 2018. This conversation is thought of as an extension of the time spent with him during the conference.

El Conde de Torrefiel

May: Hey Pablo! I thought we would focus this talk mainly around your last piece La Plaza, and from there we see where we get to… Maybe you can start by talking about how you and Tanya started working on this piece?

Pablo: Hey May! So, in the beginning Tanya and I were asking ourselves: what is the most radical thing to do today in theatre? This is how we approach work: posing the question what is strong to do today in theatre in terms of form, not in terms of content. This brought us to think of the use of time on stage.
In the text screened on the backdrop throughout the work, there is the question: For how long can you watch the same image? This is a key question in the text and for the creation of the piece. The first image in La Plaza doesn’t change for 40 minutes! It is a situation of no image: the stage is empty, black, there is the text projected on the backdrop, some sound and at times a gradual change of light. It’s quite challenging. Then we worked with the contrast between the rhythm and dynamics of the projected text, which is fast and strong, almost advertisement like in style, in contrast to the very slow, calm movement on stage that comes later on in the piece .

The other key idea concerning La Plaza has to do with the meaning of the word. La plaza is the public city square, where people usually gather, meet, watch other people. But one can think of another meaning as well which is your brain. La plaza as the public space is in the form of a circle which contains life, people, happenings. Your face and head is another kind of circle that contains thoughts. Also, in Spanish, La Plaza de Toros is where bullfights take place. So, putting these things together: in the piece you get a sense of walking around the plaza, you see various scenes happening there – a group of Muslims coming after their market time and chatting, a tourist group walking around, a cinema set etc. But at the same time, the projected text itself is your own Plaza. The entire text is one’s thoughts, it’s like reading one’s mind. Meaning, you can watch the world, but in parallel you also always think about the world. And these are two separate and parallel tracks happening in the piece, and in real life as well.

M: Is it something you often do? Separating elements?

P: Yes, in our pieces we tend to separate the five senses: what you see, what you hear, what you taste etc. This, I find, is more real than the theatre of Chekhov for example. I find the hyper synchronicity between the different senses perverse. Soviet art – soviet realism – is one of the most perverse art forms because it is fake realism. For me the art of Rothko is more real. 

When I studied theatre, I didn’t like this unquestionable link between what the actor does and what he/she says. I felt it would be much more interesting to deconstruct and cut these connections between image, voice, movement. I think the deconstructed theatre is much more realistic. I see our theatre as hyper realistic, not abstract. 

M: And in terms of the practice itself, what does your studio time while working on a new piece look like?

P: When we start a creation, we start by moving a lot. During the five-hour-rehearsals, we ask not to use iphones at all (unless there is an emergency) and we try not to talk. After this month of choreographic movement process, a structure emerges, and from that point on, we start working while adding the possibility to talk in the process itself. Throughout this month, some images and topics start appearing and reappearing: the immigrant, violence against women, other different topics appeared. They come up in a spontaneous, unplanned way, not through a text or a directive from us. 

Then, I write the text only at the very last moment, around three–four weeks before the premiere. Our three last premieres were at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels, and they kindly asked us to finish writing two weeks before so they had the time to translate it still to Flemish and to French. If it was in Spain, I would have liked to write until the very last moment.

M: Wow, I find it amazing that the text comes last in the process, because for me watching the piece La Plaza was all around and about the text! 

P: Yes. I feel I have to create the text for the things that happen on stage already: for the movement, for the rhythm of the piece, for the images we created, for the stage, not before. I never write the text beforehand.

M: And after you write the text, do you give it to the performers to read?

P: No. I think it’s more interesting if they don’t know the text. Because after rehearsals, we always walk all together, we go to have a beer, we always share time before and after the rehearsal, and all the subjects of the text are already there during these conversations in the “off time.” So maybe they didn’t read the text itself, but they KNOW it. 

M: At what moment did the costumes - the Japanese Zentai, which conceals the performer’s face - come into the work?

P: The Zentai costume came almost a year before the premiere. I saw it on Amazon and decided to buy two-three Zentais (30 euros each) for the rehearsals. So they were present in the process, but not the entire time. We finally decided to use them, but only one month before the premiere. Till then we were working on other options for the visuals of the piece.

M: In your works, when you tour you always work with a group of local performers that join your team of performers. How did this come about?

P: Well, it works like that: For each project the festival publishes an open call, specifying what kind of performers we look for, depending on the piece. In La Plaza, our performers choose the extra local performers, they meet two days before the show and teach them the movement material in a four-hour-rehearsal + a general rehearsal. 

In terms of life experience, it’s super special because after the performance you go out with all these people, you get to know them, through this strong experience of performing together. As a result, many of our pieces have a kind of rough aesthetic to them. I’m not a fan of amateur theatre, but at some moments I feel this quality of non-professionals performing, bringing an amateur or ugly movement style, supports the work we do. 

M: While watching La Plaza there was a certain relief for me by the way you express yourself in a non politically correct manner, revealing thoughts that many people have, but don’t dare to say. For example you write about the Muslims:

“according to surveys, Muslims are always the problem…
Once, you heard someone say: they make the country ugly… 
Even though we don't see it that way,
you don't have to be a well-known intellectual,
nor a visionary artist, nor a history professor,
to know that the next genocide will be against Muslims.
And this time we'll be watching in colour and sharing it on Facebook."

What kind of reactions do you receive while performing this piece all over Europe? 

El Conde de Torrefiel

P: We had a lot of problems. A big festival in Marseille was co-producing the production, investing a lot of money in it. When the programmer came to see La Plaza on its premiere, he decided not to program it in his festival. He told us honestly: “I cannot program this work in Marseille, where 52% of the population are Arabs.” 

Many theatres told us that they cannot program the piece these days in their country. And it’s ok, I mean my job is to create pieces and their work is to program and to say what fits and doesn’t fit their audiences. 

For me La Plaza is not a conversation or an essay. It’s more similar to a talking brain, it exposes one person’s thoughts. And in this space of your own mind, you can think whatever you want. You don’t need to compose yourself or censure yourself, it’s the one space where one is actually free - the space of one’s thoughts. And this is dangerous, because this is the last space of freedom, all other spaces are governed and controlled.

M: What about audience’s reactions?

P: Ah, many people leave the theatre during the show. For example I realise many left-wing people left during the show in Pompidou in Paris, in Zurich as well, always during the slow motion image of the 20 female Muslims and the person with the gun. On stage everything is calm: The women just came back from the market and they are chatting with each other while there is this person standing around with the gun. Of course the gun is violent but the situation and the actions aren’t at all. The violence is in the head of the one watching, projecting it on the image one sees. This is typical to life’s situation as well - when we see a Muslim in the street we immediately connect it with thoughts and images of violence and fear, whereas the situation and the reality itself is not violent at all. 

M: And what about the moment you talk about Porn?

P: Oh, people react very strongly to that moment. Porno is one of THE taboos in Western culture. I never liked sex on stage, I always find it problematic and ugly, but there is something about the world of Porn that fascinates me: the world of cocaine, narcotraffic, sex. I’m curious how to make it differently on stage. In our next work called KULTUR we want to talk about love, literature and lucidity, through the image of a sex scene. We are currently thinking how to find the people that would perform, because obviously they are not professional performers but porn professionals, so what are the tactics to find the right ones. Let’s see, it’s an experimental piece.

M: Do you separate between experimental pieces and “real” pieces that you do?

P: (Laughs) Somehow yes, La Plaza and Guerilla have very strong dramaturgy. In what I call experimental pieces, like the one we recently made in Athens or this one for Austria, I allow them to be not perfect in terms of the aesthetics: lights, dramaturgy, costumes. Of course all the pieces are experimental, but I make a distinction for myself. I think it liberates me somehow.

M: You know, shortly after your visit in Israel, a new law passed in Israel by the name of “Loyalty in the Arts.” Beyond different complexities and practicalities these processes also lead to auto-censorship, controlling the space of freedom of thought. How is this in Spain?

P: In Spain, it is forbidden to express something against the kingdom and the flag of the country. There are some artists that had to leave the country because of that. Some are in Belgium and in Switzerland. In one of our pieces one year ago, we put on stage the flag and did different performative actions in front of it, it created problems and we had to stop performing it. Otherwise, our government is socialist and the mayors of the big cities in Spain are still left-wing, although it’s the first time after 30 years since Franko time that an extreme right party named Box entered the parliament in Spain. Catalonia is getting more and more independent and Spain is getting more and more fascist. But I see it not as a local problem, it’s a current world problem… 

M: Did it change something for you to become a “hit” and to play in big renowned festivals such as Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Steirischer Herbst in Graz etc?

P: No. I mean, it’s great to be in these festivals when all things are well organized etc., but to tell you the truth, I feel our most radical pieces were our first pieces, 15 years ago. These festivals have a fashion - the ones that are considered good and hip for a certain period are there for five years and then it changes. So in that sense, now we are the hip ones. But my daily life is super normal: having a kid, now waiting for the second one, living outside of Barcelona, going to work. It’s not a romantic artist life. When I was 20 years old, I wanted to be an artist. Now I’m an artist and I’m asking myself what would I like to be in 15 years. I would like to change my life so that when I’m 50 years old, I’ll be something else.

I mean, We are creating challenging pieces for adults, but my daily life is playing with my small daughter. And I’m thinking now how can these be combined: playing with toys and at the same time talking about politics, Muslims, form etc. But I can say this, I’m afraid, I’m super pessimistic. Throughout human history, all the intelligent people have been pessimistic: in the Greek period, in the Roman one, all the intellectuals, writers, artists have been pessimistic, I share the same feeling with them. There is no single good moment in human history. If you think in terms of food and fun, life is fantastic at the moment. But if you open your eyes wider, life is an absolute horror film. At the same time, my daily life is very optimistic: I want more children, I live by the sea, in an apartment full of green, I am not falling into dark holes… So it’s these two sides that I hold.

M: What’s your next thing for this year?

P: This year we are going to have a new baby boy and two premieres! One of them is in the city Matera in Italy, which is the cultural city of Europe this year. It is one of the most ancient, oldest places in Europe, it has something very similar to Jerusalem. It was used as the set of the film The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson, the film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo by Passolini and the film Ben Hur from 2016 that got 12 Oscars and talked about Jerusalem. So we want to make some links between Matera and Jerusalem. It’s amazing for me that life brought me to be in these two cities for the first time one month apart. 

July, 2019