The Old Gypsy Kingdom - 2006

Dissolving Divides

“The Old Gypsy Kingdom” was influenced largely by the happenings of Alan Kaprow. However, instead of a freely unfolding event, driven forward by a series of seemingly random preset occurrences or actions, I wanted a solid framework. I wanted to start the happening with a fully operational society, wrought with all the traditions, religions, taboos, unspoken rules and laws of any other society.

It was into this structure that I would place performers and audience to play out their own unique stories within. So, the preparation for this performance was dedicated mostly to the crafting of a world in which the divide between audience and performer would gradually, and systematically, break down to create a united population capable of acting freely, without the hinderance of arbitrary roles usually present in an act of theatre.

The underlying motivation for this event, unbeknownst to the audience or the performers, was a personal desire to experiment with economics, government, tradition, subservience, societal class and free will -- self-contained and without outside influence of any kind, all veiled in a surreal night out to the theatre, enveloped (initially at least) in fun and games.

A glimpse: the gypsies live in their kingdom, waiting for unwitting customers (the audience) to stumble across into their borders so they can solicit them to purchase their wares. The audience are given a handful of marbles when they enter which act as currency in the world. The first section (‘day’) of the show was based on one of the simplest of human societies’ interactions -- buying and selling. An activity easy for audience to understand and to interact within unselfconsciously. So, before they knew it, they (the audience) had already entered themselves as irremovable stitches into the fabric of our world.

The building which we performed in was divided into a number of locations, each with an inherent significance attributed to it. The wide open first floor was the market / games ground / town square -- the commons. The mezzanine level that encircled the open floor was the land of royalty, where only the Queen, her servants and her invitees were permitted. Underneath the mezzanine balcony was where the entire population of the Gypsy Kingdom went to spend the ‘night’. For at ‘night’, the untouchables would come out. With a touch of the cap to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the untouchables dutifully cleaned up the commons every night in exchange for the ability to exercise their right to kidnap a member of the Gypsy Kingdom (audience member or performer) who they would pull, often screaming, back to their lair. And finally, a roped off prison area and circular court was placed in a dark corner of the venue by a group of elevators.

As the play progressed through ‘day 2’ and ‘day 3’, the traditions dissolved, the currency devalued, and the ruling order was overthrown, the significance that these places had held suddenly disintegrated. And once again, the performance became about the dissolution of divides.

I crafted the unfolding structure of the performance to be a measured toppling of a ruling party, culture and traditions, supplanted eventually by a democratically (or otherwise) created system, and it worked a treat.

I relished watching the slow degradation of the monetary system: At the beginning the marbles handed to the audience were precious and coveted, able to purchase goods and services. By the end of the day they littered the floor and had been reduced to use as projectiles. Hyper-inflation if you will.

This same pattern occurred with government: we saw the toppling of the established government, followed by anarchy, followed by a re-established government, often followed by further anarchy.

The Untouchables who before had been slaves now reassessed their situation and took liberty into their own hands.

Take any group of people and lock them away with each other for awhile with a few patterns and simple guidelines and societies begin to form, rituals are established, the re-creation of behavior flourishes. When there are no outside observers, locked in a world of their own, it is amazing what yearnings of the unconscious pour forth into reality, and often are fulfilled.

Venue

I used a large building with a very modern design. I asked the university if I could use the space for a play and they agreed, not knowing that this wasn’t some quiet Shakespeare scene in the corner, but a chaotic gathering of madness.

The University of Otago Commerce Building, a wonderful and modern open air, four storied structure with a long slanting glass roof. You enter the building up a set of stairs that leads to a mezzanine level encircling the bottom floor. The bottom floor is reached by a wide set of stairs and is tiled, containing about 15 circular tables and chairs spread out evenly through the room. Trees growing on the ground floor remain green all year around because of the retained warmth offered by the glass roof. Birds nest in the trees and in the winter a handful of brown leaves cover the floor.

Process of Creation

The Characters

To create characters without any rehearsal time I wrote out a sheet for each actor that looked something like this:

Name: Gerald

Mantra: “Never give up!”

Sells: bouncy balls

Likes: stuffed animals

Hates: Mark, the toilet paper merchant

Objective: Take the throne

Attributes:

--laugh during awkward silence

--talk in a high-pitched voice

--walk with a limp

--needs to take medicine every 15 minutes

--always shadow-boxes in moments of anger

--looks every female he meets from head to toe before speaking to them

--tries to be slightly higher then those he speaks to

The actors didn’t get these sheets until an hour before the happening, during which time they memorized the aspects of their character. I had a different set of actors every night and so I wrote each card specifically for the actors in question. For instance, one night I had two similar looking young girls who I made twin sisters character for.

The objective section of the above sheet will become clearer once I discuss the format of the show.

Each night had anywhere from 10 to 15 actors, the majority playing the Gypsies, two to three playing the Untouchables, and the same actress playing the Queen every night. The Gypsies had free reign over the ground level and slept on the ground level underneath the Mezzanine. The Queen had full reign over the whole building but spent most of her time on the Mezzanine level yelling out instructions to her underlings over a PA system. The Untouchables, which I’ll speak more about later, only came out at ‘night’.

The Structure

The First “Day”

The show would take place over three ‘days’, beginning when the audience enters into the space and are given a handful of glass marbles, which functioned as currency in our world. The various gypsies have their wares displayed for sale: a weapons stall, a clothes stall, a fireworks stall; there were bouncy ball, stuffed animal, toilet paper and rope merchants. The gypsies sell their wares, bargaining a price with the audience in the currency of the glass marbles. This bartering/introduction of characters is what the first ‘day’ consisted of, as the audience wanders around the kingdom.

The end of the first day is decided on by the actress playing the Queen who is on the Mezzanine level, overseeing the action below. She was played by a large actress in an unbecoming purple dress. When she felt enough barter and introduction to the characters had occurred she yells over the PA system “I’m tired” whereupon the Gypsies shuffle the audience underneath the Mezzanine level and hand out blankets and pillows and read story books, trying to distract their minds from the specter of the Untouchables.

The Untouchables come out only at night to clean up the mess the Gypsies make during the day, but in return (a la H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine) they take one Gypsy back to their lair - sometimes an actor, sometimes an audience member, we toyed with both. After that the second ‘day’ begins.

The Second “Day”

The Queen who visited her minions during the night re-ascends her mezzanine throne and conducts ‘the games’. The whole second ‘day’ is full of these ‘cultural’ games, some of which were invented beforehand, some of which she invented on the spot. They involved all the actors and all the audience (who by this time are right into it) and included:

--stacking all the chairs and tables in the building into a structure at the end of the room (about 15 tables and 100 chairs) as fast as possible

--knocking that structure over

--picking up the leaves that have fallen off the trees and delivering them to the queen

--racing up the staircase (which is only allowed to be accessed on the Queen’s explicit permission)

--dancing competitions

--bouncy ball dodge ball

--fashion shows

--duels

The overall winner of the games was invited to spend time with the Queen on the upper level and became her personal escort (an extremely high honor). Thus ended the ‘day’ and the subsequent ‘night’ resulted in another Gypsy being taken into captivity by the disgruntled Untouchables.

 

The Third “Day”

The third day, seemingly open ended to the audience, was in fact incredibly complex. Each character, as I mentioned above, had an objective. This objective was to be carried out on the third day. And the rules that hitherto had been sacrosanct could slowly be breached. Some of the various objectives included:

--establish a commune with audience members of your choice

--take the throne

--murder the queen

--establish a democracy

--free the untouchables

--protect the queen

--aid the wounded

--accuse the most timid audience member of witchcraft and take them to jail

--build a playground

--establish a police force

--preach and establish a new religion

...and so on...

This third day started and ended in absolute chaos. The line distinguishing the audience from the actors quickly blurred and eventually faded. Some common themes kept occurring (which I consciously installed into the objectives) including the formation of a new government, personal liberties, warfare and sabotage, etc. Some images remain strongly with me from these third ‘day’ sections of the play, some of which I’ll share below:

The most timid audience member rushing around the massive space with a trail of toilet paper flowing behind him.

The funeral of the queen, all audience and actors surrounding her body, deep in some impromptu religious ritual, consisting of sustained chants and bowing.

And army of untouchables looting the weapons of the village and taking position on the high ground of the staircase, declaring their freedom. This wasn’t met with lightly by the self-appointed police captain of the Queen, who drove them out of the building itself. The play suddenly was taken onto the streets with massive battles ensuing.

The commerce students studying for exams coming out and wondering why we were being so loud at 12 at night. They were angry at first, but the Queen managed to subdue them by offering bouncy balls which she suggested they pelt at the minions below. Soon there were twenty or so commerce students standing around the mezzanine railing pelting the audience and actors with bouncy balls as they scurried like mice below.

The sight of a lady (audience) mock weeping over the body of her chosen political candidate, who she thought would free the gypsies from a recently establish tyrant.

In a number of performances elections were held after the murder and dethroning of the Queen. This happened about three times if I remember correctly. The candidates would stand on the mezzanine floor and give their speeches to the audience below. Two out of those three times an audience member was elected the new leader. He often ended up being a tyrant as well.

During one performance a malice developed towards the untouchables which united the entire audience in the cause of killing them. I was reminded instantly of Nazi Germany and watched on as the untouchable lair was routed and they were tied up against the large metal pillars that hold up the mezzanine level, and endlessly harassed.

In another instance the audience tried to rescue the prisoners of the Untouchables who had been taken the previous two days. In a poignant moment the prisoners refused to be saved as they had come to love their captors and respect their culture. This led directly to the untouchable rebellion that was eventually driven onto the streets, outside the building!

The “Sister” of the Queen (and audience member) who declared the throne after the Queen had died was stabbed in the back whilst giving a speech on the top of the stair case. She rolled down about sixty stairs to the bottom. It was a spectacular display. She must have practiced the art of rolling down stairs many a time before. She happened to be my friend and when I spoke to her a few days later she displayed the bruises all over her body like marks of honor.

A swing was built with rope, secured at the mezzanine level and extending down to the floor which its builder charged audience members one kiss to ride.

One audience members took to rollerblading around the mezzanine level again and again while chugging back a bottle of wine. Eventually another audience member took to pulling him along on the back of his bicycle. This went on for over an hour.

On the last performance the actors really didn’t want the show to end, because they knew it would be the last. There was an unspoken desire to see the show last deep into the night. And so I have many a recollection of audience members and actors dying dramatically and coming back to life over and over again.

What I Tried Achieve...

The structure was created as such to slowly lure the audience members into interaction. They started with the very simple act of buying and selling, the act of exchanging goods which is familiar to them in an unfamiliar location. Then the playing of games which is also familiar but a bit more creatively and physically demanding and requires a higher level of interaction. The third day is designed with the assumption that the audience by this time would be fully incorporated into the story and could work with the actors to progress the narrative. This structure worked perfectly.