A postdramatic analysis of Julian Hetzel’s performance installation: “(Still) The Economy of Waiting”
In this paper I would like to explore the concept of postdramatic theatre and apply it to a very current piece by Julian Hetzel. His performance installation “(Still) The Economy of Waiting” was performed at the theatre and dance festival SPRING in Utrecht in May 2013. I would like to argue how this performance installation is an example of the developments described by Hans-Ties Lehmann in his book Postdramatic Theatre. I will try to do this by describing the performance how I remember it. I was also lucky enough to be able to interview Julian Hetzel right before I went to see his installation, I will also use the interview to emphasise my argument. Since my primary question is: “Is this performance postdramatic?” I will begin to give a short explanation of what postdramatic theatre is, as described by Hans-Ties Lehmann.
Postdramatic theatre arose in the sixties of the twentieth century. The first and maybe most important characteristic of this new tendency in theatre is that it is trying to break away from the principles of dramatic theatre. Dramatic theatre, also referred to as the Aristotelian drama, was dominated and dictated by the dramatic text. As described by Lehmann: postdramatic theatre ties to “breaks away from the dramatic paradigm (and from literature and such)” (Lehman 31). With postdramatic theatre he thus wants to direct the attention from theatre that primarily focuses on drama and text, to theatre that focuses on, for example, the effect among spectators. “It (postdramatic theatre) wants the stage to be a beginning and a point of departure, not a sight of transcription/copying” (32).
There are four main characteristics in Lehmann’s postdramatic theatre which I think are emphasized in the performance I want to analyze: first, that the dramatic text is no longer the structuring principle of performance. Second, that there is no linear structure in the performance. Third, presentation is more important than representation. And fourth, Hans-Ties Lehmann puts the emphasis on theatre as an event. “Theatre is defined as a process and not as a finished result, as the activity of production and action instead of as a product, as an active force” (104). In this characteristic the concept of “the spectator” is very important.
The idea of the performance as an event is my starting point in the analysis of Julian Hetzel’s performance installation (Still) the economy of waiting, which I will explore next.
Julian Hetzel is a performance maker, theatre maker and musician with a background in visual arts and communication. He has been in the Netherlands for almost four years and was an artist in residence for the SPRING festival 2013. With his piece, “(Still) The Ecnonomy of Waiting”, he is touching upon the paradox of waiting and labor. In his words “I am looking for the elements of the daily life that have the potential to be something else, I’m looking for the poetic potential” (Interview May 16th, full interview: see Annex).
The performance by Julian Hetzel took place at the Janskerkhof (Utrecht) in five different containers. Each container consisted of a different ‘situation’ that involved waiting.
The description of the performance I will write next, is my own experience. As Julian Hetzel stated in the interview I conducted: “It’s not a theatre piece; it’s a performance installation. It’s very visual, so every person that enters will have a different experience because they encounter different things” (Interview May 16th)
The performance installation is “a parallel universe.” While walking into the first container, you enter a different world. The walls of the containers are really thin so at the same time you’re in another world but you are still aware of what is happening outside the container.
Container one consisted of a museum guard who was protecting one painting, a portrait of himself. In container two there was a women behind glass, she repeated the time out loud every thirty seconds. You could hear her speak through all five of the containers. So every thirty seconds you would hear “at the next sound the time will be …” and then she would ring a bell. She kept doing this every thirty seconds, which was really exhausting to listen too, let alone be the person having to say it every thirty seconds.
The third container was designed like a waiting room. You could hear this very standard elevator music; there were chairs around the edges of the container, really bright blue carpet, and a water container. When I walked in there were two people in the container, they were talking. The most confronting thing for me was not knowing who was acting, if I was allowed to talk, or to move around, did I have to sit down and observe their conversation, join in or just walk through to the next container? These were the thoughts that were going through my head at the time. I decided to sit down, when they stopped talking I asked one of them if I was aloud to continue and she told me “no, you have to wait.” So I did. This was probably the most awkward situation in the whole performance experience. The second person went through to the other container, so I figured there was only one actress in the room. Still, I had no idea if we had to talk, but the silence was even more awkward so I started to ask some basic questions. We talked for a while, and the whole time I kept wondering if she was acting or being her genuine self. I constantly questioned her identity and her presence in the room that made the waiting situation very confrontational for me. After what felt like a long time she told me I was allowed to go to the next container.
The fourth container was a very visual situation. This container was filled with smoke, there was one bench right behind the door I had walked through, I could barely see anything. I decided to sit down on the bench, which was a good call since I suddenly noticed that the rest of the container was filled with water. The container was designed to be a lake. At the far end it was a figure, it looked like a shadow of someone, since the container was filled with so much smoke I could barely see another person in there. I did see movement, I questioned if the person was actually there or if it was a projection of some sorts. But when the smoke faded a little I could definitely see someone standing about eight meters away from where I was sitting. I sat there for a little while before going back to the waiting room.
The same women that was in the waiting room with me before (the “actress”) was still there, she told me I had to wait again before going through to the next container, which, of course, I did.
The fifth and last container was completely white, there was one man sitting on the far end of it. This was a man in old clothes, missing some teeth, but he had a friendly face. I said “hello” he said “hello” and we started talking. I learned that he was homeless, he was someone Julian Hetzel asked to join his performance, and he was asked to sit in that container all day and talk to anyone who came in, although he wasn’t aloud to speak first. He told me he was thankful Julian asked him to join the performance because it meant he could have a roof over his head for at least a few hours. This was definitely not an actor. We talked for quite some time; he was very nice and very sincere, which made it even harder for me. It is a very confronting experience to sit in a white room, on a bench, two meters away from a homeless man, who is sitting on the ground, talking about his days on the street, knowing that when this performance is over he’ll go back to living on the street. At the end of the conversation I wished him good luck with everything and left, I was outside again, in the middle of Utrecht.
I hope the description I gave gives a good feeling of what the performance installation entails. Now I want to go over the most important characteristics of postdramatic theatre, according to Hans-Ties Lehmann, as described in the first chapter and see how this performance applies it. I will do this based on my own experiences and the interview I conducted with Julian Hetzel.
The first characteristic is that of the dramatic text is no longer being a principle of performance. I would like to quote Hetzel on this matter, he stated: “Even though I’m the maker of this project, and all of it is based on my vision and my ideas. There are rooms that I don’t control. Like the conversation, will people talk to each other or will they sit and wait? I have no control over the spectators and how they act in the different rooms” (Interview May, 16th) There are no scripts, no structures, even the performers are asked to sit in the different containers and wait for spectators to come in. They can talk, but don’t have to. Nothing is controlled.
The second characteristic is that there is no linear structure in the performance. There is a duality in this performance. One the one hand the spectators are expected to go into the containers in a certain order, so in that way the performance does have a linear structure. On the other hand, the spectators can choose how long they stay in one room. The last two rooms are the only ones with a limit, as in there can only be one person at a time in those containers. So people are expected to wait until the room is free again. The rest of the rooms can be visited/experienced for as long as the spectator wants. “It depends on who you are and how you experience waiting” (Hetzel, Interview May 16th)
The third characteristic is that presentation is more important than representation. I would like to bring this characteristic together with the last one, which is theatre as an event, because I think they go hand in hand. I think it is clear that this performance installation is a hundred percent presentation. Like I emphasized before, every spectator will have a different experience of the performance piece. It all depends on their own idea of waiting, how they react to it, how they interact with the other people in the containers et cetera. At the same time this concept makes it an event. The girl in the waiting room won’t have the same conversation twice, same goes for the homeless person in the last container. It all depends on the spectator. Like I stated before: nothing is controlled.
Julian Hetzel has created an event, not a theatre piece, an event. It is an event about waiting, a very specific kind of waiting; waiting as an action. It will be different for every person; it all depends on who you are.
I have analyzed this performance installation in relation to postdramatic theatre as defined by Hans-Ties Lehmann. I can conclude that I have experienced it as a postdramatic theatre installation. Since every experience of the piece is different, I cannot speak for others. But in my view, in what I experienced, saw and felt. I believe that I can define it as postdramatic.
Foster, Susan Leigh. Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press: 1986.
Hetzel, Julian. “Looking For The Poetic Potential.” SPRING Utrecht. Ed. Allison Van Spaendonk. Utrecht, 16 May 2013.
Lehmann, Hans-Ties. Postdramatic Theatre. Oxon and New York: Routeledge, 2006.
(Still) The Economy Of Waiting. Dir. Julian Hetzel. Janskerkhof, Utrecht. 16 may 2013. Performance Installation.