How come this is not me, though I am playing myself? - A talk around Rabih Mroué's "Riding on a Cloud" Jan 21, 2016

by Erin

How come this is not me, though I am playing myself? *
A talk around Rabih Mroué’s new work Riding on a cloud
Interviewed and edited by Hassan Maroon

Riding on a cloud premiered at Rotterdam’s Schouwburg theater on the 5th of March 2013. In Beirut, the Lebanese journalist Hassan Maroon met with the theater-maker Rabih Mroué and talked about his new work Riding on a cloud which was presented at the Babel Theater on the 26th May 2013 - the closing act of Home Works 6, Ashkal Alwan’s Forum on Cultural Practices curated by Christine Tohme. The text below is the result of this meeting with Mroué that lasted for more than 3 hours. Hassan Maroon chose to present Morué’s answers without putting his questions, trying to give the reader the chance to go with the flow of Mroué’s spontaneous responses and thoughts without any interruptions.

Riding on a cloud is a performance based on my brother’s story, Yasser. He is now 44 years old. In this work, I try to tell fragments from his life in a non-linear way. My main interest lies specifically in language and representation in relation to his case. When he was 17 years old, Yasser became Aphasic due to an injury in his head. He lost the ability to articulate words and ideas. He also lost the ability to write and partially lost the ability to comprehend spoken and written language. He started to study how to read, articulate and to write anew like a child in a kindergarten. After one year, he could understand what he was hearing or reading, and he knew in a way what he wanted to say or answer but when he tried to utter them, then words would come out of his mouth wrong or completely different than the ones he was willing to say. He had to learn again how to put the letters in a certain order to create a word, how to pronounce them, how to place words next to each other to make a phrase that makes sense, how to collect his broken language to get a meaningful thought, how to organize his present time in order to understand his future and maybe parts of his past.

When I started to work on this project, Yasser was so enthusiastic about it that he gave me almost all the documents he had, including birth certificate, medical reports, his record sheets at school, all his photo albums, personal letters, the instruments he used to use for the physiotherapy at home, his stamp collection, pins that he collected from his childhood, his unpublished poems etc. I was with all these material alone. What to choose and what not choose? How I decide whether this document is more valuable than the other? In which order should I place these documents to tell his story in an authentic way? What does it mean authenticity? And would Yasser agree on the story that I am going to tell about him?

Yasser: Over 20 years time, between 1990 and 2010, I made over 100 videos. Their length varies from 1 to 3 minutes each. I gave titles to all of them. I would have liked to show them all, but Rabih told me that some of them were not worth it. Honestly, I disagree with him. For me, each video has its own story and reasons, and they are all important and have the same value. Anyway, the final decision is Rabih’s, since he is the director. I gave him the complete freedom to do with them as he pleases. I believe he chose the videos that were important to him, and not necessarily to me. Or the other way around: he thought he chose the videos that mattered to me, and left out the ones that mattered to him. In the end, he chose between 15 and 20 videos.

In fact, with all the documents and material that Yasser gave me, I felt so heavy and responsible of his biography; I felt as if someone put a life between my hands and this life is going to disappear in a minute and I have to keep it alive. What should I do with all these documents and how to represent this life very rapidly before it slips through my fingers, how I present these documents for the sake of his loved ones? A feeling that gave me the shiver of fear.

For this reason, I decided to put them aside and try to forget about them. Instead, I started to work on fabricating alternative documents pretending that they are belonging to him and to his story. I wanted to rework, with Yasser, his personal truths and re-present them again as real facts, but without mixing things up in his head neither in the heads of the audience. So I wrote an introduction to make things clear and presented it at the beginning of the performance as an agreement between both of us; Yasser and I:

Yasser: We agreed that I am now on stage. I am playing a character that has the same name as me. My name is Yasser. I am a fictitious character. Yasser on stage resembles Yasser in real life. In reality, there should only be one Yasser, ‘me’; the same Yasser, here and there. We agreed that it would be helpful to play this role, to learn that in theater everything belongs to fiction. We agreed that I have to learn that there is not only one Yasser, but probably two or three, and maybe more than 100 Yassers. But how can Yasser on stage be different from the Yasser outside the theater? Who is he? Who is ‘I’? How come this is not me, although I am playing myself now?

We agreed that I have to learn what it means: to play, to act. We agreed that I have to learn how to differentiate between what is fiction and what is not, between what is real and what is not. These are my words, yet this is not my voice. This is my real story, yet these are not my thoughts. These thoughts are mine, yet this is not my real story. 

This is the first time that I ask someone who is not an actor to play his role and his story in front of an audience. Which is something new for me. It was a big challenge for me and for Yasser. Someone might say that Yasser was not playing a role or acting as a figure but he was performing as himself. It might appear like he is not playing a role, but in fact he was. He was actually playing two roles; himself (let’s call it “real” Yasser), and another one that I invented for him (let’s call it fictional Yasser). Even if the differences between the two characters are minimal in comparison to Yasser in life, still both of them are not really Yasser. The question of how we can represent a character on stage is one of my concerns as a theatre-maker. For example, imagine that I am acting on stage a role of someone whose name is Vladimir and Vladimir has almost the same story as mine, the question of whether I am playing myself or not would not be an essential matter since Vladimir is a name different from mine and by consequence it will be easy for the audience to accept that Vladimir is a fictional character even if they know me personally and they know my story before watching the performance. And this also could be applied on the character Hamlet. I mean, the question of fiction and real will be always valid, because still we could ask, how much do I added to Hamlet’s character from my personal life and experience. In case I play Hamlet it will be certainly different than any one will play Hamlet even if the director and the instructions are the same. In this case, does Hamlet stays purely fictional?

Anyway, there are many schools or methods of theatre. But let’s make it clear, this performance does not belong to the therapy theatre in any sense; that type of theatre that might help its participants and/or its audience to get out of a certain trauma. On the contrary, Yasser talks about personal matter, very sensitive period and particular event, transforming them into abstract ideas and intellectual questions. And again, we are in the language domain, which is my main concern.

In this sense, I would suggest a theatre that plays conceptually on the relationship between fiction and reality on the one hand, and between absence and presence on the other hand. I don’t deal with them as dichotomy that oppose each other nor as complementary twins. For me, they are condemned to be together always and no way to separate them or to distinguish one from the other. I want to put the audience and myself as well into a state of confusion by keep asking all the time: where do the “real” start and where it ends. Where do “fiction” start andwhere it ends. Is this role composed or not? Is this the voice of Yasser or the voice of Rabih through Yasser? Is it both or neither that no this?

It seems very difficult, if not impossible to me to separate fiction fromthe real. For me, the borders between them are not only blurred but in fact, I don’t see borders between them at all. This is why I always accept anything I see, hear or read and consider it as a reality by itself and try to take it seriously as a true version among many other alternative versions, and try to understand it from this perspective. And when it comes to art and theatre, then no matter whether the story is fabricated or not, no matter whether it is true or not. What matters is, the questions that it put, the doubts that it makes, the ideas that it raises and the discussion that it evokes…

It is also about confrontation. This takes me back to the question of acting. Usually the tension is created between the characters themselves or inside the character him/herself as an interior monologue. For me I prefer to create the tension between the stage and the audience and try to make the tension on the stage at almost zero degree. By doing so, people will be more engaged with the performance. They themselves should participate by their own reflections and questions on everything they watch and listen.

For me, theatre is a platform where we think; where we ask questions and where we try to shake the norms and stereotypes. It's an open space to share our doubts and our thoughts, and even our feelings with others. But still it is a space where there are rules and everyone has to respect these rules. This is why theatre-makers have big responsibility towards their spectators because they have the authority and the power during the show and the audience accept this willingly. So theatremakers have to be careful not to misuse this power, by manipulating the audience or playing the role of teachers, preachers or politicians who believe that they have the knowledge and the truth to give it or teach it to others...

But let’s go back to Riding on a cloud and let me ask myself about the relation between Yasser as a subject and me as a theater maker. I mean that the relation between us is so close, it is about two persons who belong to the same family, it is a personal story and after all it is a tragic one and can easily slip into emotions and melodrama. So the question is how to present this without being too emotional, without slipping into a pathetic show. To make it clear, in 1987, unfortunately, a sniper shot Yasser in his head and fortunately, he survived it. It took me all these years - till 2013 - to approach his story. I could have done this before and I would have never done it. It doesn’t really matter.

I always think about the distance one should take and the time one should have before producing an artwork about very sensitive events. How one can create the exact distance that would allow him to think calmly and free her/him from strong emotions, which would probably stop her/him from being rational? How much time do a person need in order to be able to talk about a traumatic event? One month after it has happened? Six months? One year? Three years, 20 years? In fact, I am asking such questions to say that it is impossible to find a clear answer.

Each person is different from the other; hence things are purely individual and particular, and we can’t apply a general rule for everybody. Knowing that it is very dangerous to generalize. Objectivity has nothing to do with this matter. And coming back to the question of distance, I believe that when we start to talk about a subject, we have to take different distances from it not only one; we should try to get as close as possible to see the very little details and try to go as far as possible to see it within the whole scene. And between the two distances there will be so many points to stop and observe. And at each distance, there will be a new point of view to discover, more details and information to find, more ideas and questions to raise and more possibilities and more relations to different things and events, etc.

Therefore, when one works on a specific event, she/he should keep moving and changing points as much as she/he can, in order to get more interesting questions, thoughts and ideas but no conclusions. Because, with conclusions, the case will be shut down as if all the existing points around the subject have been already completed. For me, it’s impossible; moreover it would become in a way religious. Riding on a cloud plays with the documentary mode as much as it plays with the drama mode, but without putting the two modes in confrontation or in opposition. I, personally, prefer not to label my works with such stickers, simply because I would like to free my works and to have all the possible choices and to not imprison myself inside fixed forms or dogmatic rules.

Some people describe my performances as semi-documentary, and I wonder what does this “semi” means? Is it a drama that takes the form of a documentary? Did this “semi” come from the use of documents, pictures, interviews and other material in a performance? Is it sufficient to use such material to be labeled as a documentary or a semidocumentary? Riding on a cloud isn’t the first performance where I use pictures, documents and interviews with people involved in real events to build my story. I did this in my very early works, in 1998 with Enter Sir, we are waiting for you outside in 2000 with Three Posters, in 2003 with Looking for a missing employee and more.

As I mentioned before, we both invented many things that have nothing to do with Yasser’s personal life. Our family was surprised by certain facts that never happened to him, but they all accepted these new facts without arguing or objection. Why? Is it because the narrative was supported by photos, videos presented as documents? In the other hand, and in spite that he was providing the spectators with some factual reports it was neither to proof any matter nor to solve any riddle, nor to teach his audience nor to give conclusions. Anyway, I didn’t want this performance to be neither a documentary nor a semi-documentary, nor I want the audience to become voyeurs. This is why Yasser in the performance becomes also a spectator watching himself while he is on stage. So in other words, I wanted him to be part of the audience and to be able to look at his story as if it is not his.

He was playing on two registers: acting and being a spectator and sometimes mixing the two at the same moment. I also decided that he should be on stage alone and be responsible of the whole performance during the show. So he is controlling almost everything and orchestrating the whole show. He takes us and we follow him.

Yasser: Can I work with you on one of your performances?
Rabih: Work as what?
Yasser: Whatever. Usually I work at the sound mixer, operating the soundtracks of performances.
Rabih: But I don’t use any music or sound effects in my performances anymore, unless they are played live.
Yasser: All right, then I’ll do whatever you want.
Rabih: Like what?
Yasser: I don’t know.
Rabih: Me neither.
Rabih: Okay. How about we do a performance about you?
Yasser: About me?
Rabih: Yes. A performance that tells your story.
Yasser: Are you serious?
Rabih: Why not?
Yasser: Do you think my story is worth telling?
Rabih: I don’t know. What do you think?
Yasser: I don’t know either. [Short pause] No, I don’t think it’s worth telling. It’s banal, and there are many stories like it. I’m sure you can find stories that are more interesting and more important than mine.
Rabih: I agree. But in principle, would you accept to tell your story on a stage?
Yasser: I don’t know. What about you? Can you tell your story on a stage?
Rabih: Of course I can. But my story is not worth telling either. It’s banal, and there are many like it.
Yasser: What, then?
Rabih: Nothing. But we can invent it.
Yasser: Yours or mine?
Rabih: Yours, of course. I’ve already invented my story in many performances.
Yasser: So you mean my story?
Rabih: Yeah.
Yasser: Mmmmm… Okay. Why not?

We live in a world surrounded with documents and officially we can’t live without our documents،٬ from the ID card to the credit cards, from the bus tickets to the passports etc... Our life depends on documents whether they are hand-written, printed, digital documents etc. they construct (and deconstruct) parts of our reality. They have so much power. Everything around us including our bodies has the potential to become a document. This is why I am interested in this subject and I try to re-work every document I am going to use in my performances. I try to play with them, add something or take things out of them. Sometimes I forge them and make them looks as if they are my own. But this is not really important. Because for me, instead of asking, “what is a document”, I would prefer to ask why documents. By raising this question, I attempt to understand how they work, I try to investigate the possibility to escape their dominations and their authorities; seeking for manifestations and events that might fissure our inevitable destiny of being “bar-coded” and identified only through documents…

Usually, I use them among other material such as narratives, testimonies and trials, to propose an alternative version of history, which might contradicts the official versions. Knowing that, my version neither aims to replace the existing ones nor to find a place next to the other versions. My version aims only to shake the official versions, to put doubts and raise question on them at certain time and place; this is why it should only appear during the performance and should disappear the moment it ends; like a ghost. Moreover, it tries to blur the traces, passing from one side to the other without borders, reversing the signs, stirring up the norms and shaking up the certainties, questioning the role of politics to create alternative realities that re-questioning our political positions and by consequence our actuality. 

This text is based on an interview by Hassan Marron with Rabih Mroué done on the 28th of May in 2013, in Beirut and re-edited on the 11th of October 2013 for the...

Translated from Arabic by F. J. Bazzi

*Published in Dokument, Fälschung, Wirklichkeit, Materialband zum zeitgenössischen Dokumentarischen Theater – edited by Boris Nikitin, Carena Schlewitt und Tobis Brenk. – Publisher: Theater Der Zeit © 2014.