In the pop-up performance series “Bench Invasion,” (circus) artist Dieter Missiaen of Belgium’s Compagnie Krak is creating community in different parts of the world by bringing 10 local people, each with a bench under their arm, into a public space. Together, they actively invite people to come and sit next to them. They build the benches, sit, slow down. They are present, they listen.
This series comes as one of the results of Compagnie Kirk’s ongoing artistic research project that probes into the connection between artist and audience, between spectator and spectator, as well as from Compagnie and show co-creator Dieter Missiaen’s own reflections. “I am a performer with my own stand made up of several benches,” he explains. “Because of Covid, there was a long time when I could not play and had no audience. Therefore, I decided to go into town with a bench, a part of my stand. Now my audience was not sitting on it, but I was. I tried to be present with them.
“I soon learned that so many people want to tell their story to someone who has time to listen. I listened to many beautiful stories, but I also met many people in misery. It became clear to me that our society is missing some things. And those things are time, attention, kindness and presence. At first, I was walking around with my bench alone. But after a few months, I felt it was time to do this together with other people, and so ‘Bench Invasion’ was born.”
Already two rounds of “Bench Invasions” have occurred this season in public squares and festivals across Europe, once in Compagnie Krak’s native Belgium and another time in the Netherlands. In each respective location, Dieter has partnered with local cultural organizations like the city of Bruges’ Brugge Plus and the Terschelling-based theatre festival OEROL, who have reached out on his behalf to randomly-chosen area residents in advance of the performance, inviting them to be one of the 10 “bench bearers.”
Those who agree to take part arrive on the day of the show as they are, with no rehearsal, 30 minutes before the scheduled time in order tomeet with Dieter in person and pick up their benches. These benches come preassembled, and are light enough for the bearers to carry them under one arm as the show formally begins, and the 11-person team goes on to meet their public.
Throughout the first part of the show, these benches become the nexus point for a series of meetings between bench bearers and their sitters. Within the larger public setting, each bench serves as an intimate venue wherein artist and audience can organically connect and share both a seat and a conversation.
These meetings end with the bench bearer inviting their sitter to a closing moment later that day.Then the benches are disassembled, and bearers take them back under their arms as they walk further into the space, looking for another person to engage with.
At the end of the day, everyone comes back together: the bearers of the benches and the people they’ve met. Bystanders are also invited to participate.
Together, they help to turn the benches into one long table in the public space and sit down to hear a final story from Dieter with accompaniment by violinists Anna Buevich and Anouk Sanczuk. Finally, with glasses in hand, everyone gives a toast, in words and music, to their shared moment, to the beauty of life and of the now.
Afterwards, the communal table is turned back into benches again. The public square is empty, and everyone continues on their own ways.
“Really making time for someone by listening and being present with them is something that is often lacking in a hectic society,” Dieter says. “With the image we create by seeing all these people with benches out on the street or in a square, looking for contact, we show a different perspective on all this.”
The “Bench Invasion” project has received plenty of interest from festivals and cities in the US, South Africa, and other parts of Europe, hoping to help stage future performances. At this time, Compagnie Krak has plans to take the project to Lithuania, Austria’s La Strada festival, and back to the Netherlands in the coming year, and will reveal more destinations as their plans solidify in the next few months. More details about the project can be found on the company’swebsite.
“With this invasion, we don’t always reach a lot of people, but we don’t need to,” says Dieter. “The beauty is just in the small.”
Source: Modified Compagnie Krak press release. Main image from show page on Compagnie website