FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2023

2023 Festival Archive: Livsmedlet Theater

Livsmedlet Theater: Invisible Lands

January 19-22, 2023

Chopin Theatre

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

With special support from: American-Scandinavian Foundation and Finnish Cultural Foundation

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A Big and Consequential Journey for Tiny Figures: Invisible Lands by Livsmedlet

An Essay by Claudia Orenstein

Finnish collaborative duo Livsmedlet offers in Invisible Lands an intensely moving experience of the plight of refugees as it traces a harrowing journey across dangerous, policed terrains towards safety and asylum. The show uses minuscule, static figurines of people in varying postures, rearranged moment to moment in different ways across diverse body parts of its two human performers, to tell its tale. It’s one drawn from Europe’s migrant crisis in the wake of the war in Syria but sadly resonant in too many other international contexts. 

As audience members enter the space, they find their seats on three sides of, and in intimate proximity to, the white rectangle that demarcates a constricted playing area. Here and there on the white flooring lie gatherings of tiny human forms, provocatively laid out and variously flanked by ordinary, everyday-sized objects—a spray bottle, a glass bowl, a camera. The accompanying sounds of crashing waves allow spectators to begin conjuring their own scenarios as they contemplate the setup: small figures, large objects, loud pounding surf—stories of danger are already set in motion.

A man and a woman (Ishmael Falke and Sandrina Lindgren), wearing matching yellow shirts and khaki pants, enter the rectangular space. After some time listening to the roaring waves, they ritually discard their shoes and socks. The man then pulls his shirt over his head and, revealing his bare back, lies down, curled up across the woman’s lap. The image is almost one of a pietà or of comforting someone in distress. But the man’s back soon transforms as well into a stage for the small characters that the woman lines up across it, along with a model of a town. As smoke magically rises from the fabricated city, we understand this line of humans to be fleeing their hometown as it burns. 

During the journey that ensues, this original multitude dwindles; at each phase figures disappear in the face of new hardships. And the human performers are progressively revealed as not merely puppeteers or dancers using their bodies as physical settings for the enactments but as the refugees themselves, their flesh increasingly marked by the travails acted out by their tiny avatars. A bus journey in the dark of night with a smuggler begins at a deserted spot near a lone lamppost. The scene is set up in miniature on the bottom of the woman’s feet as she lies on her back, legs in the air. The light of the lamp is powered by a battery pack wrapped by an ace bandage around her ankle, applied by her partner in a previous scene after a small figure’s misadventure. The bus then travels through the dark down a winding road, headlights on. (Impressively, the performers control a full array of technical cues from the stage by means of a foot peddle.) When the bus stops at daybreak and the lights come up, we see the road the vehicle traveled painted black-and-white in curving lines across the woman’s body. 

A trek up a mountain and across a barbed wire fence, while being shot at by marauding helicopters, is enacted by figurines clinging to and hiding within the legs of the two performers, who sit next to one another, knees intertwined to create mountain ranges. The search, seen from the helicopter’s point of view, is filmed from the stage and projected through live feed on an upstage screen. Although it is the small figures that scramble over the fence placed atop the actor’s knee, it is the male performer whose hands suddenly end up streaked with red blood from the barbs. 

For a hazardous boat journey, the man paints his partner’s stomach blue, and it is on the rough, rolling waves of her every breath that the small vessel rides and eventually overturns. The two performers, sitting side by side, then pour water into bowls they place in front of themselves and plunge their faces in for a disturbingly long stretch. Spectators can’t help but squirm and physically empathize with the humans, wishing them to disengage from the bowls in order to take another breath, while viscerally apprehending the struggles of the refugees in the dangerous waters. It is then on the man’s back, which the woman now paints half in blue as he lies across her lap like at the beginning, that tiny bodies from the wreckage wash up on a shore as miniature sunbathers look on. Only a single, surviving small figure appears in the final episode, standing at a border crossing, which opens to let her in.

The show ends with Lindgren now alone, while Falke lies in stillness across the floor, once again donning the yellow shirt and khaki pants she wore at the beginning. But in pulling the shirt over the blue paint on her stomach and the black lines of the road on her chest—her hair still dripping from her watery plunge—then pulling her pants on over her bandaged leg, we see that underneath her ordinary, familiar clothes she bears the scars and memories of every step of the journey, everything she has suffered and lost. She is deeply and forever transformed.  

Invisible Lands uses tiny, immobile figurines to bring spectators into an empathetic relationship, not only with the human characters who manipulate the figures but, more importantly, with the real migrants whose actual experiences the show reflects. It is one of the most affecting artistic presentations on this important, timely issue that I have yet witnessed. 

Play Video

View Ishmael Falke’s presentation above or watch full symposium on Howlround.

Ishmael Falke at the Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium

On Saturday, January 21, 2023, Ishmael Falke was a speaker at The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium session entitled “Boundless Bodies.”  

The event was co-hosted by The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, moderated by Dr. Paulette Richards, and held at the Studebaker Theater as well as streamed through Howlround.

Transcript of Ishmael's Presentation

Okay, so thank you for introducing and big thanks for the festival for inviting and I'm very happy to be here and performing "Invisible Lands", Paulette gave an introduction about me. I will give brief introduction about our company, which is actually Duetto.

So I work with the dancer choreographer, Sandrina Lindgren. And our work, our theater duo is called “Livsmedlet”, which is Swedish word that is tough to pronounce, but it means groceries or essential grocer things you, elementary things that you get. And this, my background is in puppetry and her back background is in dance and choreography. And what we are doing for already about 12 years is that we try to create, we are creating different kinds of hybrids between puppetry and dance. So the topic of our symposium, “Boundless Bodies” is I feel relating quite directly to our work in different forms. Just a few words about how we work together. We try to avoid dividing the creative process in this sense that, “Okay, you, you will do a dance scene, I will do a puppetry scene, and then we just put it up together.” Instead, we try to really work on each element of the show, starting from very like discussing the concept and up to the very last details and from both perspective of puppetry and body. And eventually as the more we work together, the more we find out that they’re not separate objects, but they’re together. So what is uniting is that we are object based. So whether the object is a live organism or an what is kept as inanimate, it’s still an object, it is a material. And in this sense we are materialists that, yeah, that manifest in different ways. I feel that it is richness to, in this work, to be able to step out of one’s own, I would say the own art discipline conventions. So I know myself that since I’ve been educated in puppetry and working also outside of our theater duo with a lot of puppeteers, so for good and bad, there are many conventions, on how we should approach a play and also on traditional roles within the working group. And then again, dance field has their own conventions. So when you’re working with someone from a different field, you have to go over this conventions and find out what is working in practice and often it becomes something new. So I’m going to present our work through three different shows that we made. I will start with “Invisible Lands” that is here in this festival. You can still see us three times, today and tomorrow. And “Invisible Lands” is a show that we created in 2015, in spring 2015. And we started to work on it just without a theme, just with artistic inspiration to combine miniature figures and create body landscapes for them. So we experimented for quite a while with this material until we developed a certain language, but we still did not have any direction or a theme for it. And as it happened, we were scheduled to have a premiere in Finland in April, 2015 and as we are approaching our premiere, the big crisis of refugees coming to Europe was happening around and the images of refugees, long lines of refugees in different landscapes and both of refugees et sea. The images were overflowing from the media. And then we realized that, okay, if there is one thing that we should tell at this moment, it’s this, we should, it should reflect what is happening in the world. So this is how the basically the theme and the medium came together in our show. So it is a show about refugee travels and we play very strongly on scale using two parallel visual narratives, one very miniature scale and the other on full body. So, and we try to use this duality, this physical duality of the big bodies and the miniature puppets in order to suggest that many different perspectives on this phenomenon of refugee travels. Without judging it, we don’t need to, without adding any drama to phenomenon that is already dramatic enough. So we found out that working in, working very intimately to, with the audience, the audience is actually surrounding us in public seat that is a little bit formed like a boat, a small refugee boat. So we are sitting all very tightly together and people are very close. It’s very sensitive in a way, but very rough. And we use images that, for example, we use a view from a binocular. So a person watching from binocular over a landscape and seeing something else. We use video projection with this, but we offer the perspective of a single person that is running for their lives, but also a perspective of a pilot of a helicopter that is hunting down these people and also the viewpoint of a news anchor. So we try to use all these different viewpoints and we found out that that combining physical body with this inanimate small figures that are not really puppets. They’re tiny little bits of plastic, but they’re bodies still. So combining these two opens up ability to connect with this phenomenon in many different ways. And this is what we wish to give, not to come up with a certain slogan or saying, but just to offer the audience a possibility to watch. And the bodies they become a platform for private, say like private events, very private intimate events, somebody physical actions, somebody’s holding their breath underwater, for example, somebody is taking care of another person which is wounded, but it’s also a platform because of the different scales. It’s a platform for a whole geopolitical event or many events, actually, we did it originally for Europe, but as we were performing it here, they already came up comments about people immigrating from Mexico, for example. So it’s, and we created it 2015 thinking that we will connect and comment on something which is relevant now we did not have any idea that it’s going to be relevant for so long. 

Unfortunately it’s still relevant. Yeah, I think this is, this is about “Invisible lands”. Then I will give two more examples of different shows that we did where we are using, we are combining bodies and objects. So the next one I’m speaking about is called “Full measures” and this is, it’s again, it’s a duet, but it’s actually a trio, for a trio for a puppeteer dancer and foldable measuring sticks. I’m not sure how do you call them here. And it’s the kind of sticks that carpenters use, for example and it discusses the how our culture’s obsession to measure everything as much as possible is affecting our body and transforming our world and how our body is actually becoming yeah, measured all the time and there is, it’s not a new phenomenon, but I think it has been taken to the extreme in the last years there is kind of movement called the quantified self. And probably everybody here recognize this from, your mobile phone is counting your steps. And some smart watches are counting whatever pulse and tell you how did you sleep at night and advise you to, so we are measuring all the time, everything. Also on sociological levels. We are turning everything possible, all different values of just this example, values of care or togetherness or affection, whatever kind of abstract. But existing values are put down into numbers, grades. And once you quantify everything into numbers, then you gain certain kind of knowledge, but you lose a lot of other knowledge. So in this show, could you pass the next picture?

PAULETTE: Yes.

Okay. We play with, we create a world that is made entirely of this measure sticks and we depicted how to, random people kind of transform from how to say, from a very intelligent or kind of socially aware people that can have a conversation. How do we regress as people into a primitive stage while the measure sticks just come more and more and transform the whole stage. So that’s, this is another way to approach connection between bodies and objects. Now you will actually will see a short kind of lightly adapted scene of it in tonight’s, “Nasty, Brutish and Short” it’s called. Yeah, the cabaret. So yeah, so welcome to get a small impression.

PAULETTE: Great.

Yeah. Then another show which is called “Inevitable” translated from Finnish and Swedish, in English it would be inevitable. And this is a show that is made out completely from objects. It’s a story of, history of 100 years that, the whole show is one very long domino effect of chain, of reactions. So what you see here is the forties and you see thirties, maybe no thirties, and then basically they’re not actors, no actors, they’re just objects dropping, pushing like whatever, causing other objects to react. And the audience is following the reaction through a very, very big space. And, but there are people there and the people are used as objects also. Could you pass on to the next one?

PAULETTE: Sure.

So we do use performers that are located there. You don’t see their face and they’re doing kind of everyday actions, but their actions are also part of the whole chain reaction. So what we are, from this point of view of body and objects, what we discuss in this piece is how our body and how we as a kind of entity individuals are part of a random chain of reaction and how do we build our different narratives of history, politics, whatever, based on a certain perspective that we have on this great domino chain that is life and the universe. And where our bodies that we try to define as ours, that we have the agency on them to decide what to do with them, they are actually just part of this reaction chain. So in that’s inflicting also on our decisions. And the point here is not so much fatalism as it may sound, but more maybe to kind of create a certain kind of empathy from this humble point of view that we are all connected through this chain of reaction. And throughout this, or like in the different shows that we create, our main message, hidden message that we try to kind of plant is that through the bodily aspect of both objects and humans, we can create a certain kind of empathy because for theater viewers to watch thing, you can watch something on an intelligent level, you can process a text and other ideas. But then there is a certain level of physical identification that we do. Physical well, physical empathy that our body feels and it’s a kind of root that passes by the intelligent part and goes directly to our lizard brains. And, but does affect us, deeply affect our opinions and how we do and we find out that through having the physical and the bodily in, on a very, yeah, prominent place, we can access much more this kind of empathy. I think that’s it.

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 19-22, 2023
Chopin Theatre (downstairs), 1543 W. Division St.

US Premiere

Across the desert, behind our back. Up the mountain, down our spine. Over the sea, just under our nose. On the day the war broke out, we left home.

Finnish visual theater duo Livsmedlet brings a unique meeting of puppetry and choreography to Chicago, to explore empathic approaches to refugee travels. Geography and politics extend and transform to create organic performance platforms – bodies. Take a closer look at what presence, connection and endurance are really all about in this mix of performance, projection and puppetry.

Image Gallery

Past Performances and Further Reading