Eighteen years ago a remarkable thing happened in a psychiatric institution in Brazil. Two theatre directors, Sérgio Penna and Renato Cohen, were invited to co-ordinate a workshop for 20 patients, alongside a therapist called Peter Pál Pelbart. Theatre-makers do outreach work all the time, but these particular patients wanted to do something more ambitious than theatre “by loonies, for loonies”, as they put it, and a new company was formed that would go on to perform in France, Germany and now Scotland.
There are many fascinating things about Ueinzz Theatre Company, who visit Glasgow for the first time next week. Performances of the same show can vary radically in length, sometimes by several hours, depending on how far they deviate from the script. Their work references everything from Finnegans Wake to Batman (via Joseph Beuys, Jean Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka and Michel Foucault).
But the most interesting thing about Ueinzz is their decision to blur the line between carer and patient. The company is a mix of ex-patients and ex-institution staff, but no distinction is made between the two – all are just members of Ueinzz. “The whole project of Ueinzz is to say that there’s a spectrum of mental states, but these don’t break down into easy classifications,” says Barry Esson of Arika, the organisation bringing Ueinzz to Glasgow. We are conditioned, he says, to make “binary distinctions” – carer or patient, sane or insane. But these, he argues, are oppressive, reinforcing structures of power.
“It legitimises certain mental states and delegitimises others,” he says. There is, for example, research suggesting many similarities between the behaviour of some highly successful CEOs and entrepeneurs and the behaviour of psychopaths. “How would you define a mental illness?” says Esson. “Schizophrenia might be defined as the inability to connect individual signs and signifiers to objects in the real world… well that’s the f***ing banking crisis.”
Ueinzz, simply by functioning the way they do, challenge all this. To help me find out more about them, Arika arrange a Skype interview with two company members, a former patient and a former member of staff, but refuse to tell me which is which. Would it be offensive to ask?
In the end I am spared this dilemma. The Skype interview falls through and I e-mail questions instead. A few days later I get a set of answers sent on behalf of the whole company, which feels appropriate. I ask them whether company members take on particular roles, since Ueinzz seems to function like a loose collective, but I’d read an article by Pelbart referring to “actors” and a “costume designer”.
“There is no script written by one person, it is the combination of all ideas and we do not have a director,” Ueinzz reply. “We’re all directors, the scene is not from one person. (We have) several producers, who are also actors, jugglers, master brewers.”
Is it true that performances can be so radically different? “That’s it, every day something new can happen, a newspaper report can influence the presentation, music heard in the day, or simply the desire to do something different, there is not a rule, we don’t think to change it in every show, it just happens. And with these changes may happen a butterfly effect, a small change of a person changes the perception of the other and so on.” The way chance events shape Ueinzz’s work is illustrated by the way they got their name. An early rehearsal involved an exercise exploring the different ways people communicate. The patients were asked which languages they spoke, and one who usually only communicated in indistinct growls answered – clearly, assertively, and unexpectedly – “German!” Nobody knew he spoke German, so he was asked what German words he spoke. “Ueinzz,” he said. What did Ueinzz mean? “Ueinzz,” he said. Inspired by this, the company’s first show became a story about a group of nomads in search of the Tower of Babel. In the desert they find an oracle. When he is asked where the tower is, sometimes he replies in indistinct growls, sometimes he says it’s in Germany, and sometimes he responds with a magical word: Ueinzz. Once the company had agreed on how the word should be spelled (the man didn’t know), it became their name. Fittingly, a group whose work is about challenging definitions was named after a word that signified only itself.
The show Ueinzz are bringing to Glasgow is called No Ready Made Men – they tell me it is about “the excluded community ruled by the ones who are holding the security and want to create chaos among the humble people of society”. It will be staged twice, as a performance and as an open rehearsal, so I ask them what the difference is, given how fluid Ueinzz’s shows seem to be anyway. “The open rehearsal is performed like in the public square (on the street), and with great joy and freedom (beer),” they reply.
If Ueinzz is a long way from a night out at Edinburgh’s Lyceum or Glasgow’s King’s, they are very much at home in Arika’s latest five-day programme, We Can’t Live Without Our Lives. Like Ueinzz shows, Arika’s work has been difficult to categorise since the organisation left behind Instal and Kill Your Timid Notion, their experimental music and film festivals, for a series of “episodes” (we are now on Episode 7) exploring radical, challenging ideas around race, gender, politics, community and art, via a mix of performances, film screenings and workshops.
“It’s not easily defineable,” admits Esson. “What’s nice about calling it an episode is that, like an episode of EastEnders, the one you’re watching now is defined by the one that came before, and will define the one that comes after, so it places it in time as a kind of trajectory. It suggests a narrative, an ongoing deepening of things, and spending time together. We spend a lot of time having conversations with people who are going to be involved and lots of them still don’t understand it until they come.”
The theme of Episode 7, broadly, is how people take care of one another. Alongside four Ueinzz events, the programme includes a daily “non-essentialist, transgender, queer, (cyber)feminist daily radio show” broadcast on Resonance FM, that uses the tropes of morning radio shows – “wacky sound effects, adopted characters, special guests and formulaic speech patterns” – to critique the “scripted behaviour and controlled empathy” of the care system.
“I feel like this episode has come out of a slow learning,” says Esson. “Maybe it was a bit reductive to think about race, and then to think about gender, because between all of them, one of the points where these struggles overlap, where you might want to find common ground and solidarity, is care. Spending time with people in those communities you learn that actually there are bigger themes to do with how we distinguish what our body is, how we try to resist being criminalised and pathologised, and how we propose that we would care for each other better.”
• Episode 7: We Can’t Live Without Our Lives, Tramway, Glasgow, 15-19 April, www.arika.org.uk