The Humans tells the story of two spirits named Tophole and Pantalingua, who would rather see the Earth not created. The work is modeled on the comic writings of Aristophanes and set during the dawn of time and space. In a battle against the egomaniacal Creator, Tophole and Pantalingua conspire their way to an accidental Paradise Lost, ultimately corrupting the eponymous humans—portrayed as a vast, songful, and statuesque Greek chorus—into the flawed mortals we are today.
That’s the story behind The Humans, a theatrical production imagined, written, and directed by visual artist and writer Alexandre Singh. While the story is one that would already incite us to go see the play, it surely offers us more: from the sensational visual aesthetics of the set design true to the work of an artist to many more surprises in the music, dances, costumes and more.
Though The Humans has all the ingredients of conventional theatrical play, it is somewhat atypical. The structure of the play is one of a Greek comedy, but its style is not: The servants try to upset their masters, but no matter what plan they come up with, it never works out. In a way, each character in the play embodies its own theatrical style, as with the character of MsChief, a reference to kabuki theater. The character of Charles Ray, on the other hand, is quite Aristophanic and makes use of Shakespearean verse. The masks that the Humans wear are inspired by Commedia dell’ arte. The story in general, but in particular the character of Tophole, makes the play as a whole quite Woody Allenesque.
Contributing to the dynamic visual nature of the play are the costumes designed by Holly Waddington. The costumes of the statues (consisting of the Chorus, who later become the Humans) are a mixture of images of Hellenic bas-reliefs and traditional classical Greek costumes, and later on in the play, the costumes of the chorus-turned-human are inspired by James Gilray, Daumier for their masks, and 1830s-style Parisian dress. The identity of each character is strengthened by their costumes: Charles Ray, N and MsChief are inspired from the Elizabethan era; Pantaligua from 1920s artistocrats; Vernon is vaguely inspired by characters such as Dottore from Commedia Dell’Arte and Tartouffe by Molière.
The play starts with Gregorian music, then has a nineteenth-century waltz, followed by some Baroque references, and continues into the swinging thirties, big band, barbershop and Rameau as the final song. Not to be dismissed is the live (folly) sound element to assist the story throughout the play. The play includes nine songs in total, all lyrics are written by Singh (the music is composed and arranged by Gerry Arling, Touki Delphine (Rik Elstgeest and Bo Koek) in collaboration with Annelinde Bruijs, Robbert Klein, and Amir Vahidi)—and each one of them remain buzzing in your ear, making you wish you had them on record.
The choreography of the play is conceived by Flora Sans and is mainly based on three styles: Baroque, Contemporary, and Lindy Hop. Throughout the play, there is a visible evolution in styles, but also within each dance there is an evolution between the beginning and the end of that dance. During the first part of the play, the choreography focuses on Baroque dance and poses of Greek statues. There is an obvious switch (during the "Toilet" song), a key moment when the statues become human, for which the style used is Lindy Hop. In each scene, Flora Sans creates a subtext by complementing the story with gestural and dance moves.
There are more than fifty people involved in the play, and this excludes the crucial work of a dozens more volunteers, production and technical assistants. The Humans counts seven principles, twelve chorus members, a choreographer, eleven persons on the creative team, two in makeup, a costume designer with a team of twelve assistants, a producer, and more than twelve people working on the set and props.
Singh, who was born in Bordeaux, France to Indian and French parents, was brought up in Manchester before studying Fine Arts at the University of Oxford. The play has been ruminating in his mind since high school. It also has been in the mind of curator Defne Ayas since they first met in New York in 2005. And so, when she took up her post as Director of Witte de With in 2012, this was the first project she wanted to realize.
For Singh, this play is not only a bold move but it is also a new step in his professional career: He has done many one-man performances, or lecture-performances, but never until now a play, and one of this scale which surely marks his debut as a theater director. Though one would mention that his approach in developing this play does not necessarily step far away from the way he is used to working: Singh’s work derives at once from traditions in literature, performance, photo-conceptualism, and object-based installation art. All of this also transpires in The Humans.
In April 2012, Alexandre Singh relocated to Rotterdam upon invitation by Defne Ayas, Director of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (and Curator at Large of Performa) to develop his play. At this stage, The Humans had been played out in Singh’s mind but not yet in practice. From April 2012 to January 2013, Singh transformed Witte de With’s exhibition spaces into his workshop, studio, script room. And from January 2013 to present, Singh continued working on the play and its production from a studio in Rotterdam. Throughout this period, Singh developed his research that would feed into the realization of his play, and shared this through thematic and monthly public events that took place at Witte de With in the program Causeries.
Taking its title from the French verb causer—to converse or chat—the Causeries were set up as a series of discussions in which Singh expanded on The Humans’ key themes, ranging from cosmology and cosmogony to satire, theatrical costumes, and scatology as well as key inspirational figures such as Aristophanes, Alexander Pope, P.G. Wodehouse, William Hogarth, John Ruskin, South Park, and Woody Allen. Rather than discursive events in the well-known format of a conference or a symposium, the Causeries were conceived as informal conversations between the artist and an expert in a given field. Much of these discussions have been instrumental in writing the script or inspirational in the development of characters, or even the look of the masks.
After eighteen months (and counting) of production, The Humans had its world premiere in Rotterdam on September 28, 2013 at the Rotterdamse Schouwburg; The Humans premieres in the U.S. tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of Performa 13. While we may still be able to catch the play in other cities around the world in the upcoming years, The Humans will also morph into a video installation, including a number of props that would be presented in Singh’s exhibitions. His forthcoming exhibition in January 2014 at Sprüth Magers in London will show the masks.
Amira Gad is the Managing Curator at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam.
Photos courtesy of Witte de With. © Sanne Peper.