Mobile Phones on Stage

I just returned from a great play with the title MOBIL at the Hans-Otto-Theater Potsdam about our mobile life and mobile devices. Almost all dialogues had been replaced by talks on the phone or even messages left on mailboxes. That revealed a society permanently on the move, compensating that lack of physical proximity by an excess in mobile communication. A vivid and intense performance of the actors gave these topics a touching expression.


As the title is promising the play was all about mobility. Even the stage itself was not located in the building of the Hans-Otto-Theater but in the Schaufenster of FH Potsdam. It was furnished very scarcely and hastily, resulting in a place that “could be anywhere. They’re all the same, anyway” as the characters stated. Clearly it was not made for them to feel cosy and they didn’t intend to stay long as they were spending their life always on the move. If there is a thing left to call “home” it does not mean a certain location.


The basic story is explained easily: Two couples loaded with corrupted relations meet by instance in the consequences of a bomb attack targeted at an airport – propelled by their mobile phones: All of them are used to share their lives with their friends and families on the phone, without regarding personal circumstances or the intimacy of the content.


There is the widow of the Boss of (supposedly) Motorola, Claudia, now or still managing important deals for the company. Used to cool reasoning and unquestioned commanding, she tries to project all her (version of) love onto her son to an extent that makes them look like a couple over the first half of the play.

Her son, Jan, not only accepts her money but is in return so devoted to her and her givings that he even splits with his girl-friend (via mobile-mailbox!) to fullfil the time consuming butler tasks of his mother.

The other couple is formed by a mother, Sara, left by her husband some time ago and her recently abandonned daughter Rosa, an adult as well. They are not only unlucky in what concerns men but are unable to develop a warm relationship with eachother. Both of them are longing for love and nearness which can never come to blossom as they to each other on the phone in endless and hysterical monologues.

The role of the Mobile Phones

Mobile communication enables people to be permanently on the move. They travel the globe restlessly, leaving behind not only the idea of “home” but also the potentially caring networks of friends. As they still can get the feeling of being near by getting in touch via phone they stay in fact physically separated.

There is little chance to evade the system. The only decision left is losing all your social contacts without the phone or having friends that don’t give you up – and thus will have you equipped with the necessary devices. Once you are in the game you have to play by the rules.

Being an unevitable technological pre-condition the mobile phones become a symbol for social relations themselves, the only thing that contains the voice of the others, the only thing that is left to embody the distant person. Not surprisingly, the characters in the play talk to mailboxes or phones – even when hung up – like to the real person they want to address (giving another example by the way for the Media Equation proposed by Reeves and Nass described in my diploma thesis).

Being available at all times at least in principle redefines switching of the phone as a personal statement of impoliteness. As it is the only and familiar gateway to the other person its malfunction in the often hysterical situations but also entirely understandable in the case of the terrorist attack at the airport (the “real life” connection here is obvious) results in sheer anger and desperation.

All characters lead their lives completely indepentently or at least separately from each other, they are synchronised via mobile communication. Always on, always just “two button to press” away they stay in contact, exchanging commands, thoughts and sorrows. Although the actual take-off at the airport never takes place, even traversing continents and time-zones will hardly change this permanent ping-pong of “are you there” – “how you’re doing?” – “I love you.”

On the other hand the system of mailboxes makes you more indepentent of time constraints that are typical for phone calls: You can have your message recorded with noone interrupting. Sometimes it is not even desired to be called back, as in the example of the son who declares his love for expired this way. Moreover, this “modern kind of technology” lets you record your environment as video and your dialogues on the phone as audio-protocol. The usual elusive words can not only be pinned down and stored but also re-played and resampled within other contexts and talks or even used as templates for certain types of conversations.

Observations at the periphery

Inside the very cool and repelling room that is set up as the hotel lobby a vending machine takes care of the guests. Of course, a consequence in the story because face-to-face or unmediated human-to-human communication is really rare and becomes quite special and even precious that way. But the machine can’t be blamed of any flaws, it has something to offer for every situation the characters find themselves in: Be it talking all night and needing an energy drink, be it an instant snack or be it beer-supply to stay drunk while trying to forget about the human desaster one is part of.

mobil installation fhp

And even outside the play one can find a remarkable installation done by a couple of students of FH Potsdam, one that is used to promote the performance: Each of the four characters of the play can be seen as a life-sized video-projection inside the shopping-window-like front of the building in which the play takes place. A mobile phone number is attached to each projection. The actors seem to just hang around but suddenly come to action and answer their mobile phone when their number is called. One can hear them talking via one’s own phone while seeing the corrseponding video on the screen. A perfect metaphor for the play, you have to stay on your side of the window, watch the emotions that unload and all important talking takes place in your phone.

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