Training for the Future. Three Débuts at FIND 2019
by Joseph Pearson
25. März 2019
What’s in a début, when one steps onto a new stage? ›Début‹ is a rich word in French: ›débuter‹ means to start, but the etymology from the Old French is from the ballgame boules, or pétanque, referring to both the action of first throwing the ball, but also the displacement of the other player’s ball (›de‹ and ›but‹ meaning ›away from the goal‹). The word suggests both the starting point and the future.
Three companies – from China, Canada (Québec), and the United Kingdom – appear for the first time at the 2019 FIND festival. The ›début‹ is not just for the visiting theatre companies, but also for the audience listening to new voices. Even when the themes are familiar, they are filtered through different languages and cultural expectations, challenging our expectations, perhaps even changing our minds.
What these débuts all share is that they have documentary concerns about how we will live together, cooperate, or interact competitively in the future. The pieces reflect on fame, popular culture and social change in China; technophobia and body enhancement; and rapacious individualism and the future of the welfare state. As each starts its ›partie de boules‹ with us, we might wonder whether the ›lancer‹ will reach its desired position, and what will be knocked out of the way.
Last fall, the Schaubühne’s debut tour to China was cut short. This gives an even greater significance to welcoming a Chinese theatre group to Berlin to début at the FIND festival.
Director Li Jianjun and the New Youth Group are a rare voice of documentary theatre in the People’s Republic. He tells me that »everything that I do in theatre reflects on how China is changing«. His work has developed from interpretations of the vernacular fiction of Lu Xun (»A Madman’s Diary«, 2011) to documentary pieces which bring to the stage the voices of Chinese citizens affected by the country’s rapid industrialization and urbanization (»One Fine Day«, 2013). Another work, »25,3 km« (2013-14), was set on a moving bus through the transformed suburbs of a Chinese metropolis, as passengers reflected on their relationship to a changing urbanscape and society. »Peasants and farmers are abandoning their land for the city, and their relationship to their new home is a mix of love and hatred«, he explains.
The director tells me too about his own background, how he also came to the city: »Personally, I am a migrant, I went through the college entrance exam and came to Beijing. My father thought it was Chairman Mao who changed his life, and without him he would have been a farmer his whole life. After the Chinese Revolution, he became involved in the Communist party and believed in the story and world of Chairman Mao. But before my father died, he was disappointed by the reality. I came from the North West of China, but I rarely go back there. I really wonder what my relationship is between myself and my origin in the north of China«.
The director might feel estranged from humble origins, but everyday people remain the mainstay of his artistic production. »Popular Mechanics«, coming to FIND 2019, focuses on their experiences of popular culture. Li Jianjun advertised in the media, and online, asking applicants to send a video clip of themselves doing a favourite monologue. »We were very curious how desperately they want to be on stage and perform in front of others, how strong their desire to act was«, he tells me. The chosen performers were then given the opportunity to interpret popular characters from streaming media, film, theatre, or literature, on-stage. But since these performers are non-professional actors, the line between their performance and everyday life easily blurs.
»How do you work with the actors?« I ask.
»I would say that it’s an idea of zero theatre, of a minimal set or props, even stories. I am always moving towards reduction. Meanwhile, I do not change the way that the actors and actresses perform, but want them to preserve their individual form of self-expression«.
»Could you tell me about the title?«
»The title is a faithful translation from written Chinese«, the director tells me, »The piece is ›popular‹ because all the actors are average Joes who come from outside theatre, and because the content derives from popular culture. They express themselves through a popular idiom: some from pop culture of the 50s and 60s, when foreign dubbed films were popular in China and became a cultural environment; but also from the 90s and later. Our actors tend to choose to perform what was most popular in the years in which they were growing up. One of our older actors chose Communist revolutionary films, praising Communist culture and the USSR. They are choices that all exist in the memory of the Chinese people«.
»One of the risks of when one débuts a piece in a foreign country is that the audience has a different cultural memory and associations. Are you worried that the Chinese popular culture references will be lost on a German audience?« I ask.
Li Jianjun replies, »It’s a good question. I’m curious how a German audience will see this piece – I feel a real sense of anticipation of how a Western audience will respond. After the year 1978, when China started reforming and opening up, we introduced many dubbed Western films, mostly coming from Socialist countries, but also from elsewhere. These films, including Western films, left their traces and created a foundation for Chinese popular culture in that era. Because popular culture in China since the reform has included Western symbols and signs, there’s a point for connection«.
»One thing the Western audience will be wondering about is the question of censorship in China. I wonder if this is a challenge for documentary theatre which tries to be a reflection of the lived world?«
The director replies, »First of all, a large proportion of theatres are not only controlled by the government, but national, regional and provincial theatres are also owned entirely by the government. Theatrical creations are not totally independent artistically. The audience for theatre in China is also not huge, but rather limited. As far as I know, very few people are doing documentary theatre. For that reason, theatre today in China has a very limited influence. The biggest change in Chinese theatre in the past decade is that it is becoming more and more commercialised and focused on business success. This poses a challenge for independent documentary theatre.«
»If documentary theatre is rare in China, how do your audiences react?«
»Some of the audience resists it. They have an idea of what theatre should be like, and our theatre isn’t similar to it, so they don’t like it. But this is a very small section of the audience. Most enter the theatre and see that there are ordinary people telling stories on stage. They can sympathise with these actors and issues. This is the influence we are looking for. The responses I receive from the audience are divided depending on whether they are frequent theatre goers or have no previous experience at all«.
»Which is more receptive? The ones with more or less experience?« I ask.
Li Jianjun smiles, »The people with no theatre experience! I like them better. While those with experience often start to make judgements, the others are more devoted to the experience«.
A début of a different sort awaits with the French-Canadian production »Post Humains« by actor and co-director Dominique Leclerc. Montréal may not seem like such a cultural jump from Berlin – and Leclerc’s journalist partner and husband Dennis Kastrup is from Berlin – but the subject matter can be controversial for new audiences: bio-hacking, implants, and self-optimizing technology in cyborgs (who build mechanics into the body to enhance sensorial capacities and performance) and transhumanists (who believe humanity can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations through technology). For many, talking about these new innovations – and the jump into the world of body manipulation – is itself a début.
Leclerc came to the subject because she has been dependent herself, for more than a decade, on technology, to treat a medical condition. This dependence, and her curiosity, brought her into contact with the cyborg and transhumanist scene.
»The cyborgs that I met were very DIY, open-source, with a mentality that is very progressive. My piece is the result of the four years since my discovery of the cyborg and transhumanist scene. When meeting the founder of the Cyborg e.V. Berlin, Enno Park, I realized that he is hearing impaired, but with implants he can focalise on a conversation, and this posed for me the question of the limits between curative medicine and medicine that actually improves our capabilities. I remember how my husband reacted when I attended my first cyborg meeting. It was one of fear. Now, I want to take my audience down the same road, to get beyond that fear. The more often I met these people, the more I understood their motives. The more we go forward, the more the feeling of fear stabilizes. We get beyond the theory and leave the theatre feeling legitimated to talk about these issues. The piece is about testing our frontiers.«
I comment that »Many people are hesitant, or condemn, implanting our bodies with chips, or enhancing our senses through technological manipulation. Where do you think this condemnation comes from?«
Leclerc replies, »There is religious baggage, but there is also something I still can’t fully explain. Many people take the drug Ritalin, for example, to perform better. It’s a form of transhumanism. But they accept it perhaps because it’s a pill, because a pharmaceutical company makes it, and because the product can be bought legally. In Canada, we have recently legalized cannabis, and I know people who before that would take pain medication and never touch weed. Then suddenly cannabis is legalized and those people’s opinions have changed. Or think about how I use my mobile phone. If I lose it, I don’t even know my husband’s phone number, it’s impossible to reach him. Part of my mind is now in the machine, even if that outsourcing is not visible. Nobody thinks this is weird, but people who enhance their bodies in more visual ways are thought of as freaks. People have problems with visible enhancements, but the changes that happen invisibly are happening already. These are all things I wish to question«.
»Is not the problem also because – in an era of climate change and privacy concerns – many people have lost faith in technological progress? They have lost their optimism?«
»We say we are no longer optimistic about technology, but in practice we accept its advancements, either because it provides enjoyment or makes our lives easier (even when in the end our lives often accelerate as a result). And when it comes down to health, people who are healthy might find it easy to oppose transhumanism. But if you fall ill, suffer a life shock, it’s rare that you will say no to a pill that will help or cure you. When you are getting older, you want to be younger. When you suffer, and there’s a solution, you take it«.
»You and your husband implanted yourselves with RFID microchips on-stage, before an audience. How do you expect different audiences to react?«
»The level of resistance depends on the cultural context. In France, the debate is largely condemnatory and critical. Transhumanists are awaited by fervent philosophers. But in Berlin, I’ve been to an event, hosted by a communications company, where implants were given away for free. And it was super commercial. I felt like I was 14-years old being offered drugs. Will I do it? Will I try it? I saw myself, this reaction, and afterwards thought it makes no sense to participate«.
»But Berliners are perhaps more worried about the privacy issues, and being hacked – « I suggest.
»There’s, of course, a big difference between an RFID chip and one that has GPS and is biometric. That scares me. But people are afraid of being tracked by the chip, even if it doesn’t have a GPS, when meanwhile they have a phone in their pocket that tracks them everywhere they go. In Sweden, for example – where they apparently don’t like cash and prefer cards, and have more confidence in government and the system – the idea of chips is more popular. In Québec, a lot of these questions are not even in the air. Then again, we need to remember that every audience is different, and the public in Montréal is very different from small towns where I’ve toured«.
»Why did you implant yourself?«
»There are many reasons why. It’s a symbol. I wanted to pass from observation to experimentation. I wanted to call attention to the fact that this is the first form of technology that is being inserted into the body without a curative purpose; it is time to be conscious of these rapid changes in our society and question them now. There is also a poetic value in doing something that is disputed by people, to bring attention to it. I want to bring them into a grey zone, to create a space for the extremes of opinion on this subject, even for those who condemn. But no matter how much people oppose this technology, the developments will go on without them«.
James Yeatman is no stranger to the Schaubühne (he co-directed »Beware of Pity« with Simon McBurney), but this is the first time that his theatre group Kandinsky, produced by co-writer Lauren Mooney, steps onto the theatre’s stage. The British group also arrives at a tense new time in British-European relations. Brexit was propelled largely by populism and discontent, in an era of a deteriorating social contract in Britain. The production »Trap Street« might even provide something of a warning for Berlin’s future, as it struggles with the phenomenon of gentrification. The piece tells the story of a social housing block (or »Estate«) in London’s East End, which faces demolition. It is a symbol for the destruction of a post-war ideal of social democracy.
»One cannot help but think of the June 2017 Grenfell Towers fire when one thinks about a tower block and social neglect – « I suggest to Yeatman, »Is this what you had in mind when you developed your production?«
»Grenfell happened after we began working on the show and put a huge weight of responsibility on what we were doing, which was frightening. This was a huge tragedy with its own highly specific causes which are being investigated in a large public enquiry right now. The story of Grenfell has never been ours to tell. Indeed, we are careful to show that all the events in our play take place before the Grenfell fire in summer 2017. But I would say that the reason Grenfell became such a politically sensitive story in British culture – as opposed to ›just‹ a tragedy – was because to many people it seemed to be the terrible apotheosis of inequalities of wealth and access to housing which had been building up in London – and across the UK – for several decades, and that’s what we were investigating. The aim of our show was to chart the collapse of the postwar housing dream, to see if the stigma it attracted – as dirty places where the architecture had created criminality and deprivation among its residents – was fair, and if what’s been created to replace it is worse«.
»You personalize this story around the experiences of a working-class woman in an Estate – «
»That’s right. We chart a woman from one of the first families to move into a fictional estate, which is loosely modelled on Thamesmead, once a bold and new housing experiment in Southeast London until the money dried up. They never built any shops there. Increasingly it was where the government dumped people who couldn’t find housing elsewhere. Its reputation was sealed when Stanley Kubrick filmed Clockwork Orange there in the 70s. Our piece is modelled on that sad story, from the utopian dream of public housing to it being a place for pariahs, with the twist that they are now all worth shitloads of money, even as they are being demolished«.
»Are there turning points in the chronology of this story that you tell?«
»Yes, the key thing is a policy that happened in Britain under Thatcher in the 1980s, called ›Right-To-Buy‹. It gave people the right to buy their council houses at a discounted rate based on how long you’d lived there. It was for many a popular policy that gave people what is a now a highly lucrative foot on the property ladder, but it also completely shattered the communal ideal of social housing and increased the stigma on those who couldn’t buy their homes. Moreover, it reduced the number of homes available for social rent and has led to the housing shortage in London today (which is often used for anti-immigrant rhetoric – that immigrants are claiming the fewer and fewer council properties, while people who grew up in the city can’t get access to them). I’d argue that more than any other government policy, Right-To-Buy changed the social contract in Britain, promoting the individual over the group. Our show hinges around that moment, that policy«.
»Most people in Berlin rent their homes. The importance of home ownership in Britain is hard to understate – «
»Absolutely. The ownership of a home and what home you live in, in Britain, is a really hard marker of class, and of your position in society. It can seep into any conversation if you live in London. You can make huge assumptions about background from where you live, how the area has gentrified, what type of place you live in. People are very defensive and rightly sensitive about answering such questions. It’s a huge minefield. The idea of owning your own home and this weird expression, that an ›Englishman’s home is his castle‹, is built into the British psyche«.
»You have named the council estate in your piece after Jane Austen: ›Austen Estate‹. Why is that?«
»In Jane Austen, people are obsessed about houses. It is the whole crisis of the novel, ›Persuasion‹, that they will lose their family seat. Estates are often named after novelists. There is the Dickens Estate in Southeast London, all names after different Dickens characters. I thought it would be inconceivable if an Austen-character Estate didn’t exist either, named after the country houses in her novels. And if you watch a Jane Austen TV adaptation on a Sunday night – usually they are 6-parts long – it’s all house porn. And, oddly for Jane Austen, these miniseries show much bigger houses than in the books. Calling the Estate after her seemed a fine touch«.
»Is it strange to come back to Berlin right now, at a time when Brexit features so strongly in the news, a situation that many ascribe to the breakdown of social welfare in Britain?«
James replies, »This is a really complicated question to answer. Personally, I find Brexit an absolute tragedy. I grew up in an integrated Europe, to me it’s never been anything but a good thing. I’ve had the privilege of working here at the Schaubuhne on ›Beware of Pity‹, and I’m so excited to bring this show over now, but that excitement is really tinged by the shame of the anti-European stance of Britain at the moment«.
»The strange thing about Brexit is realizing how over half of Britain seem to see these opportunities as a bad thing, and see my pro-European-ness as the arrogant attitude of a privileged Londoner – I woke up in June 2016 and realized that half the country seemed to hate what I believed in most strongly. It’s sobering that the country can apparently change its self-image so quickly from the openness and diversity of the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony to what to me feels like the much more insular view of UKIP and Brexit in only four years«.
»Yet the sense of disenfranchisement that motored Brexit lies in the issues we’re trying to look at in this show – in the gradual unpicking of the social contract that’s taken place over the last 30 years, of the way in which big money has hollowed out people’s homes and just turned them into houses: property which can be bought and sold for increasingly crazy figures«.
All these directors, débuting at the Schaubühne, stand inside their drawn circles, looking towards their goals.
I think of Li Jianjun’s bus coasting through the periphery of a Chinese city. Its passengers, who were until recently farmers, stare out at the mass projects of urbanization with a sense of both amazement and anger. They then retreat into the comfort of familiar popular films and past anthems. I wonder how different the expression might be on the faces of those required to implant new technology in their bodies simply to care for their health. Or what agency and power must be felt by transhumanists who believe they can harness this technology – like positivists of yesteryear – in times to come? Britain meanwhile negotiates a poorer and more provincial future, a warning to Berliners as their neighbourhoods gentrify, outpricing inhabitants at an astonishing rate.
An aspect of international theatre that one can most appreciate – because these productions come from other cultural paradigms with often different assumptions – is its capacity to displace and knock us in new directions.
It must be asked (not to belabour the metaphor too much): after the ball is thrown, have we really moved away from our goal (›de-but‹)? What do we gain when looking back at causes of our predicaments; the present explained by digging through the wreckage, an archaeology of ruined dreams – be it the utopian visions of Mao or the post-war welfare state? As these productions play for the first time at an international festival, the audience too is given the opportunity to train for the future.
Translations from the French by Joseph Pearson