“We will appear very soon,” reads the sign hanging above an empty stage. At least, the stage is void of people. It is however, covered with instruments—a drum set taking center stage, keyboards and pianos strewn left and right, microphones all over, guitars to the left, other various instruments, and large mysterious domes hanging out near stage right. Lights shine on a plain backdrop, and the audience waits. “We will appear very soon. We are now behind the curtain but we will come into sight very soon,” the sign reads. The audience laughs, and I snicker to myself as I watch through my computer screen, courtesy of OnTheBoards.tv. This is the opening of Songs at the End of the World, a collaboration between Dutch theatre ensemble Wunderbaum, and Touki Delphine, a collective of musicians/theater artists/performers. This performance in particular occurred on May 5, 2012 at The Long Center in Austin, TX. And now in 2015, I am waiting with the audience of 2012 for the performers to appear, “very soon.”
Songs at the End of the World was an idea sparked by a quote from the documentary, Encounters at the End of the World by German filmmaker, Werner Herzog: “Antarctica is the last place where you may drop down, where you shake the earth and can’t stay put anywhere else.” In Songs, using the blank white canvas of the icy plains of Antarctica, the performers tell/reinvent stories from their childhoods, through monologue, through dance, through song. While Antarctica may seem desolate, barren, and frigid, Songs latches onto the vibrant life of the continent—emperor penguins, seals making beautiful and strange noises beneath the ice, and the deep spiraling magma within a volcano. As Herzog’s quote suggests, Antarctica is a place close to the core—of the earth, of ourselves—where all else is stripped away revealing who we really are, and thus with Antarctica in mind, we may re-imagine our lives however we so choose.
In the way that Antarctica (both literally and metaphorically) is a blank canvas for the stories themselves, so is it the perfect canvas for an experimental form of storytelling. Wunderbaum defines Songs at the End of the World as a theatre-concert. Music is both what carries, underscores, and drives the stories. It is a distinct experience comprised of equal parts theatre and concert with all performers onstage at all times, ready to support the action both physically and musically. Unlike a musical where songs spring forth from the larger-than-life emotional states of the characters, Wunderbaum and Touki Delphine weave music into Songs through a hearkening back to the freedom of childhood and imagination. When one actress paints herself blue and dramatically relives a childhood audition using an absurdist poem, the drummer acts as her scene partner, responding to her vocal and physical movements with symbol clashes and drum beats, supporting her. Two actors as children dance across the stage, “ice-skating” in leotards, and the other actors engage through play, some using instruments, some merely with a focused energy.
On the other hand when appropriately fit into the story, music emerges in more of a concert-like form, with the theatrical elements in support of the music. One of the most fully aesthetically engaging scenes in Songs is in fact a song. Most of the performers are engaged in instrument playing or singing, while in a beautiful moment of surprise for the audience, others pull strings connected to the aforementioned mysterious lumps onstage, which become giant flying jellyfish. An actor clad in swim trunks, snorkeling mask and fins, lies belly down on a tall, rolling cart pushed by another actor, swims across the stage now flooded in blue light. This is the epitome of all contextual and theatrical elements in this play coming together in a moment of synchronicity. Finally, the performance (almost) concludes with a piece in which one performer does a very bizarre solo dance, then is joined by the entire ensemble doing the dance in unison to music they just created. The audience applauds, the play is over…then the ensemble performs an encore musical number—a convention more characteristic of concerts than of theatre.
Songs at the End of the World engages and inspires me both as an audience member and as an artist. The collaboration between these two Dutch groups produced a multi disciplinary, multimedia, imaginative theatre-concert that inspires nostalgia, hope, and the wonder of a child first discovering the world. Antarctica can be the blank canvas of our collective imagination, a physical or metaphorical place for artists/humans to come together to see, and think, and play, and create. Here in this state, we are stripped to our cores. We are ready to begin.