An octopus stands in the center of this piece (presented in Moving in November as a film), how was the idea to this piece born?
Stefan Kaegi: In fact, for several years now, I have been very interested in using the theatre stage as a space to try to understand animals and also our relationship with them. I find the non-artificiality of what an animal does on stage fascinating. I think that’s why theatre professionals always say that you should never put children or animals on stage, because they are ‘stronger’ than the actors. And it’s true. So, with animals in the theatre, we are somewhat breaking a taboo, and at the same time opening a window into reality. Moreover, for me, the animal on the stage is also a kind of mirror, which I love to hold up to the audience. I had already directed shows with grasshoppers (Heuschreckenin Zurich), ants (Staat in Mannheim) and guinea pigs (Europa tanzt. 48 Stunden Wiener Kongressin Vienna). All these shows were about our perspective on the nonhuman. Perhaps it was after working for a whole year on a project where there was a robot on stage (Uncanny Valley) — a machine that performs actions because human programs it — that the idea was born. I wanted to try to understand something, someone, an animal, that could perhaps have a more anarchic impact on me, outside of my control, and that would also confront me with another form of intelligence. One day I met Judith Zagury, who has this amazing place where a lot of animals live, not so far from Lausanne. And she introduced me to Nathalie Küttel.
Nathalie Küttel: I’m an actress originally, and I’ve always had a connection with animals. In 2015 me and Judith, we watched a documentary, and there were these two professors. It was amazing what they were doing with octopuses. We realized how intelligent these animals are, and how they can learn without negative reinforcement. We said: we should work with octopuses. We wrote to Professor Graziano Fiorito, and his reply was: “When are you coming?” So, I went to work there for several months. After a while, I was in charge of twelve octopuses. It’s funny because I was never afraid, I never felt lonely, yet I was spending eight hours a day in a basement, sometimes all alone with the octopuses. I was in another world. I don’t know, octopuses have always fascinated me, because of their beauty, but also because of their strange nature. It’s as if they are beings that I have always known.
Can you tell more about the working process with this highly intelligent animal and the developed strategies to work together?
Judith Zagury: There are a lot of things that we were not aware of, especially the commitment that you have to have in terms of monitoring the animals’ living environment, the work that this implies and the knowledge that you have to acquire in order to be able to keep octopuses. We found ourselves faced with a universe. Octopuses live in salt water, so we must recreate this environment. You have to be there all the time to ensure their wellbeing, to play with them, to stimulate them. And then it becomes addictive, you don’t want to leave them. We realized that water must be considered as a true living organism. So, yes, the infrastructure and installations we have set up in Gimel are ultraefficient and sophisticated. But that doesn’t solve everything, we have to keep on learning. We thought that machines could solve a lot of things, but it’s never like that with living beings.
Would you like to talk more about your impression of the developed relation between the animal body and the human body on stage?
Judith Zagury: What is disconcerting about these two creatures, which we have been working with, is that we observe them, but they pierce us in return. You feel like they are always one step ahead of you. You don’t ever know how long it will take you to do something. Either they steal the net when you want to clean the aquarium, or they grab your hand and take the probe when you want to analyze the water parameters. Another day, they spit tons of water in your face before you can do anything. It’s a surprise. You don’t think in advance about what you’re going to do because it’s screwed anyway. The two octopuses are very different. Sète is thoughtful, delicate. Agde is full of energy, she’s always looking to make contact with us.
Stefan Kaegi: That agility and curiosity, I wasn’t expecting that. When Judith, Nathalie and I went to Paris to see the octopus in the aquarium, we saw an animal that hardly moved at all, until the very last moment when its keeper arrived and fed it. There is an enormous difference between an animal that is observed by, let’s say, ten children every five minutes spending perhaps half a minute looking at the octopus without producing any special reaction in it. Compared to the quality of the relationships that the octopuses develop, particularly with Judith and Nathalie, but also with me when I go to see them. It seems to me that, in scientific research, we often want to avoid too many interactions to not disturb the analysis. On the other hand, during the months of rehearsals, I think I saw relationships develop with two singular individuals. And during most of the rehearsals, the octopuses were very active and curious. For me, as a director, it’s a catastrophe to work with a protagonist that is not at all predictable. And at the same time, it’s a tremendous gift. In theatre, unlike in film, every performance is different, it plays out differently every night. With the octopus, this is taken to the extreme, because in this show, it is the animal that decides what it wants or doesn’t want to do. The octopuses are not trained. They define much of the action, interaction and dramaturgy of this show and it is new every night. The theatre and the performers will have to adapt to that. But it must be said, and I didn’t expect this either, that these two octopuses seem to be aware of the state of concentration of rehearsal. I have the impression that it’s really something different when you’re there in the afternoon, even when you put the lights on as if it were really the show. It’s a different concentration than in the evening, when there’s audio, when everyone is in the space and the eight people who are there during the rehearsals are focused on that. It seems that there are certain parameters, certain behaviors that are repeated in this situation. Is this comparable to the situation we will have with an audience?
Nathalie Küttel: For me, it’s something that’s been going on for five years and that I just can’t shake. When you meet an octopus, there is such beauty there, but not only beauty: intelligence, something strange too, even a connection The fact that they surpass you, that they surprise you. I wanted to be able to make this known, to make it visible.
This interview was conducted around July-August 2021.
Photo: Philippe Weissbrodt