Exploring the Human Condition, ZU-UK is Disrupting the Expected

Theatre innovator ZU-UK was born from the collaboration between Zecora Ura and Para Active, two companies engaged in alternative experimental theatre for over two decades. 'In 2006, we came together to create Hotel Medea' explains ZU-UK’s Co-Artistic Director Jorge Lopes Ramos. 'This was an overnight piece where we refined our approach to game design, participation, interactivity, live performance and multi-disciplinary innovation, later also with the inclusion of technology.'

'After that, ZU-UK's mission became about the human condition, contemporary loneliness and making the most of public space and places where people don't expect theatre or arts to happen,' continues Lopes Ramos. 'We aim to engage with people who might think that art is not for them or people who might be put off by the idea of a gallery or a theatre building. We constantly notice who's been attracted to the work, what channels we're using to invite people and if there is a specific demographic that's been privileged – as often is the case with art events – we intentionally change what we do and how we communicate, in order to disrupt that. We constantly ask ourselves what's the role of space in its dramaturgy, meaning, purpose and vision, and what invitation this is to the public.'

ZU-UK was one of the first companies to pioneer immersive theatre, a term that the creatives try to avoid at all costs for its current association with advertisement, fashion, and corporate events, which cause 'more damage than good'. 

'We weren't trying to make anything immersive, we were just working on ideas, on spaces and genuinely thinking of the audience being at the centre of the experience. Making immersive theatre is not even achievable because nothing can be immersive. People can be immersed by something, but that's up to them to decide so. If one of our audience members, players, or guests walks out of a piece and says, "Wow, I was really immersed by your work" it's entirely up to them to define their relationship with the work. We strongly believe that it is not up to the makers to decide what is or isn't immersive.'

we want to imagine how would those ten hours be, just before a person loses their sanity

The Anglo-Brazilian team is currently developing the Decalogy of Loneliness, a ten-part work that aims to explore the dramaturgy of ten hours in the life of a person and re-design this sequence of daily events as if they were artworks. 'The project is inspired by current politics, the unstoppable agenda around the vilification of poor people, the framing of mental health as a health issue (as opposed to a socio-political one) the appropriation of public space for the construction of flats and the moving of residences into places of disengagement with the community' says Lopes Ramos. 'Less public space means less opportunities to meet people, especially those who think differently or belong to different communities. Decalogy of Loneliness is about loneliness in the intimate sense, as well as in the socio-political one and it's also about how mundane the opportunities to engage can be. We often think of art as some extraordinary event that is really far from us, whereas ZU-UK is interested in the opportunities to enhance how we relate to ourselves and each other on a daily basis, in ways that aren't exclusive to special one-off events.'

At the base of their observations lays the case of Woyzeck, a German soldier who killed his wife and whose trial inspired Georg Büchner's homonymous play. 'This was the first time in history that mental health was used in the defence of the perpetrator and the first time a working-class person became the defeater in what is considered the first modernist play. Through the pressures of religion, army, work, science, experiments, family life and all those layers that weight on top of the poorest, Woyzeck suddenly became insane and we want to imagine how would those ten hours be, just before a person loses their sanity.'

To do so, ZU-UK relies heavily on the use of technology, which is considered just one of the many elements that feature in our daily routine. 'We are not obsessed by technology in the way that we have to work with the latest products. That's not the point of what we want to do. Technology becomes a tool for our work and another potential medium for engagement' continues Lopes Ramos. 'Objects, technologies and spaces have invitations to participate that people aren't necessarily aware of and we're fascinated by them. Elements of technology have now become extensions of our body and extensions of our understanding of how communication works. Rather than something "other" that we look at with amazement, technology is something that helps integrate or develop different mappings of communication.'

Their multi-disciplinary projects are run in collaboration with academics, industries and non-arts partners, and they're currently looking into the use of public phone booths and communal transports as a mean of randomly engaging with an audience. 

At the beginning of July, the company offered a preview of their latest double bill, which will run on a larger scale from 16th November to 3rd December 2017 in partnership with Theatre Royal Stratford East. Both pieces are set in the theatre's restaurant Gerry’s Kitchen and allow the participants to experience various levels of mixed reality, with the contribution of live performers and digital components.

In The Blind Dinner Date, pre-existing couples and complete strangers are paired, provided with headphones and invited by a human facilitator and a series of recorded instructions to interact.

'Working with bi-neural audio and a mapping of microphones from every participant and actor means that the soundtrack becomes more than a simple soundtrack, but the piece itself. This is a mixture of composed recordings and live elements, so whatever constellation of individuals is there on the night will be able to input their personal content into the final result. As a couple, this becomes an opportunity to revisit the relationship, ask questions they might not ask each other anymore, or might have never asked. This also brings a lightness and a playfulness to the looking at each other as a couple from the eyes of when they first met.' As a part of the piece's development, the team is currently collecting data on the process of match-making, which will allow them to offer tailored experiences to people who have specific interests for example, in the case of same sex couples.

primal actions are associated with the use of machinery in a precarious balance between perception and reality

In Goodnight, Sleep Tight each player is equipped with a virtual reality headset and tucked into bed by a maternal figure. The aim is to provoke in the participants a sense of home-sickness and give them the opportunity to look through the eyes and the body of a child. 'The use of VR allows us to work with a precisely synced mixed reality, where what we see on our headset is what we feel on your body, with live human warm touch, and that overrides our understanding of what's going on. Playing with a live and a virtual environment synced together, we are able to achieve a different kind of embodiment for the player. Something that we wouldn't be able to achieve with just a performance nor, most importantly, with just the use of technology.'

The decision to set this double bill in a restaurant comes from the effort to understand the role of public space and explore the human condition as a mixture of fear, death, connection, meaning, poetry and dream. Adulthood and childhood intertwine and swap places, feelings are nurtured with the use of complex technology and primal actions are associated with the use of machinery in a precarious balance between perception and reality. 

The works of ZU-UK evoke a dystopic world where the alienating sense of proximity without intimacy that we often experience in public spaces is juxtaposed to the deceiving intimacy of couples whose proximity is often undermined by a lack of communication. As already the case in Hotel Medea and the consequent project Audiences Documents – where audiences were invited to the V&A a year after seeing the show to discuss their experience – the human being, their sensations and their memories are the true essence of ZU-UK's performative artworks, which offer to the participants a unique and unforgettable journey.

Visit ZU-UK’s website for more information on upcoming events.

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