Ant Hampton’s Autoteatro turns audience into performers

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By Chitra Kalyani

Assigned roles, seemingly at random, your group of five is attached via headphones to a device. In the minutes that follow, you produce a psychiatrist, an amalgam of Freud and Frankenstein, and one of you has to save the others from madness.

So goes “GuruGuru,” an experimental work by Ant Hampton, or rather an experiment that you go through as performers/audience. Two of Hampton’s works are being presented at the Viennoise as part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D_CAF).

“GuruGuru” is Hampton’s second venture into Autoteatro wherein, according to Hampton, “one moment you’re onstage and another you’re…enjoying the performance.” Hampton’s first adventure with Autoteatro, called “Etiquette,” took place between a duo sitting in a café.

“Everyone said, ‘That’s a great idea, but push it,'” director Hampton tells Daily News Egypt. And this is exactly what “GuruGuru” does. Entering seamlessly into the minds of the audience-performers, the voices on the microphones becomes the voices in one’s mind, creating a sensation that, as Hampton admits, is “deliberately unsettling.”

The voice is a deliberately chosen site for Hampton, where some meaning is intended, but another escapes unintentionally. “Between people not particularly used to voicing out loud,” an instructed performance can still “conjure up uncannily live people.”

As early as the first line of “OkOk,” Hampton’s collaboration with Gert-Jan Stam, performers’ thoughts are echoed in lines they have to read. “The text accepts the reluctance” of characters, says Hampton, and then “teases their performances.”

Deliberate omissions of punctuation allow for the natural voice and intonation of the reader to take over. It “capitalizes on the skills that everyone has,” says Hampton, “not forcing meaning, but allowing people to fall into it in the moment.”

“Everyone can read what everyone is saying,” but there is something again that is “deliberately unsettling.” The play second-guesses the characters’ thoughts, frequently creating a sense of paranoia and anxiety. Yet co-writers Stam and Hampton were in fact “trying not to be psychological.” It is the “unfolding,” and the concern with the present moment that is more interesting, so that meaning is created while one is reading, even if instructions such as question marks are absent.

“I’m not interested in plays, or in playwrights,” says Hampton, who would rather have the audience and actors “accept that fact that [they’re in] a performance.” The playwright plays an interesting, silent, and perhaps ironic role in “OkOk,” and one character’s script contains side-comments such as “Really?” or “Stupid stupid stupid.”

Challenging language and cultural systems, Hampton shares his loves for “systems under duress,” together with long-time collaborator Sam Britton (aka Isambard Khroustaliov).

Britton, who also produced the original sound for “GuruGuru,” has collaborated with Hampton on theater performances since 1993. In 1999, Hampton cooperated on “BLOKE” with Britton, in which unrehearsed actor takes to the stage.

The ‘bloke’ is given pre-recorded instructions — open the box, choose a costume. Lights go off and he’s instructed further: find the match, light it, think a dirty thought. Dirtier! —again the ‘voice’ second-guesses and interacts with the performer’s thoughts.

“BLOKE” marked the series of “unrehearsed performances” that became trademark of Hampton’s theater project entitled “Rotozaza.”

With Autoteatro, Hampton sees a return to a form that had begun with “BLOKE.” Adam Curtis’ documentary on the history of psychoanalysis titled, “The Century of Self” was a “huge influence” on the making of “GuruGuru.” Taking a backward approach to psychoanalysis, “GuruGuru” (which also means ’round-and-round’ in Japanese) is about a focus group that creates the psychiatrist. The guru is animated by Tokyo-born award-winning filmmaker and graphic artist, Joji Koyama, who is now based in London.

Dalia Kholeif, who assisted the production of the play in Egypt and also produced the Arabic translations of the performances, said characters for were in fact assigned. “I felt like I was the director,” said Kholeif, who had to chat with characters for a while to cast them to roles.

Both audience and Kholeif found reactions baffling. In one performance of “OkOk,” when the lights at the Viennoise turned off, Kholeif said the characters continued to read aided by their mobile phones, assuming it was all part of the performance.

Lines between reality and fiction are also blurred in “GuruGuru” where one character is asked to share a personal insight, and even to leave the confines of the room, while others wonder whether s/he is “told to do so.”

In a three-day workshop that Hampton gave at Studio Emaddedin, he was again concerned with pushing boundaries, “writing non-verbal scripts for impossible shows.” He says the process is akin to making impossible architecture, a practice which is nevertheless “hugely valuable for the artist.”

“When you pull back from concerns [of practicality],” says Hampton, “essence comes through.” It is not about “dancing in the street,” says Hampton thereby taking a new stage, but taking the stage anew, as one does even within the confines of a small room with “GuruGuru” and “OkOk.”

Fiction and reality, self and performer coalesce, and the boundaries are challenged as far as one’s philosophical meanderings allow. Most, as they step out of the room, ask, “Did the show end?”

You can reserve performances of “GuruGuru” (5 persons) and “OkOk” (4 persons) by calling 012 1113 7374. Performances continue till Friday April 13 at the Viennoise on 11 Mahmoud Bassiouny St. To know more about Ant Hampton and his theater style visit and


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