Schaubühne – Pearson's Preview Pearson's Preview en-us Schaubühne – Pearson's Preview 890 116 Schaubühne – Pearson's Preview <![CDATA[»Youth without God«. A Conversation with Thomas Ostermeier]]> Sat, 29 Jun 2019 00:00:00 +0000 by Joseph Pearson

I meet director Thomas Ostermeier in his office in the Schaubühne on Kürfürstendamm. He stands at the window, looking out to the street and waves to some of his actors – now out of costume – smoking on the pavement. Behind them pass a phalanx of children, led by their teachers, returning perhaps from an excursion. And I wonder: how different did the view from that same window look in 1933, the year this building’s architect Erich Mendelsohn fled from the Nazis? To what extent can the view to yesterday be harmonised with the Berlin of today? What happened to those children?

Thomas turns from the window, and we begin to speak about his new production »Youth without God«. The anti-fascistic novel of Ödön von Horváth, published in 1937, is often held up as a warped mirror to our present politics. And I wonder what choices the director faces when putting historical prose on the contemporary stage.

Joseph Pearson:
Let us begin directly with the most important words of the title, ›Youth‹ and ›God‹. What is the relationship between them?

Thomas Ostermeier:
Both terms appear to work in concert, but are more separate voices. On one hand, godlessness is attributed to the young people in the story. Horváth describes the age in which they live as the »Age of the Fish«; they are godless, not in a strictly Catholic sense, but rather in the loss of their morality and inner decency. When god does rear his head, it is almost always the Old Testament deity, a terrible god. Horváth allows this god to appear in the youth camp when the murder is revealed. On the other hand, the title also refers to the despair of the protagonist, the teacher, who is fraught in the questioning of his inner values, his decency, and the presence or absence of a god. It is out of an agnostic worldview that he experiences a religious awakening, an epiphany that moves him to tell the truth. He summons the courage to admit that he deviously and secretly forced open a safe-box to read the private diary of one of his students. He also knows more than the others: namely, that the person accused of murdering a classmate cannot be the murderer. His subsequent actions can be read as finding his way back to god. In our staging, we may have pushed these questions slightly to the background, but one can affirm that this was a »godless time«, »eine gottlose Zeit«.

Let’s put the question of religion in the background now and focus on the concept of ›Youth‹. Why is it compelling for you to direct a play about young people? Are young people really so different from adults when it comes to politics?

If the next generation has a more callous worldview than yours, is more hostile to difference than your generation, more disillusioned, then things really have fallen apart. The youth might be considered, since Plato, as having the reputation for being more depraved than their forebears, but youth can also promise the renewal of society, freeing it from abuse of power, corruption, or a deficit of democracy.  That is why the ’68 generation, Greta Thunberg today, or the students demonstrating on »Fridays for Future«, show their colours, and speak out vigorously against injustice. These are young people who are not yet economically dependent on a system that makes them fear losing their jobs. This is an issue of concern for Horváth: the teacher and the school director are both worried about their pensions and, as a result, are afraid to raise their voices. In »Youth without God«, the youth edge towards the abyss, rather than advancing a better future or bringing us to paradise.  And it must be said that, even though the novel was completed in 1936, it tells us something essential both about what happened in fascist Germany and is happening today with the emergence of European right-wing populism – both movements that promote young men. Remember that the leading figures of the Third Reich were all between 30 and 40 years old, with the exception of Hermann Göring. The movement was one of angry young men who wanted to »clean things up« – words that you may have also heard in this or the other speech by a right-wing populist today.

When we speak about Youth and God – about the moral structure of a »godless generation« – how easily can we transpose Horváth’s scenarios to today?

Not at all. I am not interested to use this piece as a kind of template imposed on present circumstances, where individual phenomena can be neatly transferred. That may have been interesting for my production of »Italian Night« or for Schnitzler’s »Professor Bernhardi«, but in this case, I wanted to try something different: I wanted to tell the story of how someone summons the strength to tell the truth, and how this positive role model can awake the spirit of resistance in others. And this, in a time when a high price was paid for this courage to tell the truth. If one did not pay with one’s life, one paid with social status, one’s job, or one’s reputation. This interests me, and, on this occasion, I deliberately tell a story of its time in its time.

You argue that you do not wish to make a direct comparison between our times and those times. But, nonetheless, you are dealing with many contemporary political problems with your adaptation of a novel from the 1930s. There is the expression that »history does not repeat but it rhymes«. Could you tell me about your method when reflecting on the historical elements of the play?

Think of the play as a parable, and one that negotiates questions of personal responsibility and individual courage. I hope that the questions that this history raises will be taken as opportunities to reflect more intensely on our own potential for individual courage in our present predicament. These are questions that we must ask ourselves again and again, always at the risk of realising that we have taken an opportunistic path as we negotiate the conflictual fissures of our times.

There is one peculiar character in the novel, a former teacher called Julius Caesar. He is obsessed with sex. In one passage of the novel, Caesar explains political standpoints based on the availability of sex to different generations. There is also a running theme of voyeurism in the novel. There is the desire of the teacher towards the students as well, which creates a problematic tension. All these sexual tensions – I imagine – provide opportunities for theatre …

Like any good author, Horváth knows about the power of Eros. For him, the erotic always has something of dependency, curse and obsession about it - for example, when Oskar says to Marianne in »Stories from the Vienna Woods«: »You will not evade my love!« Of course, this is a concept of love that points to desire-driven society that is unable to act out its urges. When instincts are suppressed and must be lived out within the narrow conception of a monogamous, bourgeois marriage, this leads inevitably to disaster. I’m not sure how many historians have inquired into repressed sexualities in the Third Reich, and why so much cruelty and sadism emerged from its leadership. What does all this have to do with one’s inner life being out of joint? I think we can make connections. Horváth speaks clearly about them in his book, especially in the figure of Julius Caesar.

Horváth was Hungarian, wrote in German, lived in three countries, grew up in a cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian milieu, and then his world was destroyed by National Socialism. From our present standpoint, is he not both a familiar and unsettling voice?

A utopian ideal for the future of Europe is often dispelled by the argument that Europe is made up of nations with numerous identities and linguistic boundaries that also function as state and national borders. But what is often overlooked, as you have just hinted, is that we have the precedent of a multi-ethnic state on European soil, where coexistence within an enormous landmass was possible: namely, Austro-Hungary. It was a state structure that included speakers of Austrian German, Czech, Croat, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Bosnian, Slovak, Slovene, Ukrainian, Yiddish and other languages. The state did not collapse because of their cultural incompatibility, but because of its hierarchies and an undemocratic state structure, and the lack of self-determination for its individual citizens. I do not believe that we should give up on the ideal of a European state.

When the teacher in »Youth without God« says, »They are human also«, he is referring to Africans, and countering European racism towards them. Saying that people of different cultures and beliefs are »human also« seems obvious to us…

Naturally, it’s obvious…

And yet there are many people today who would resist this obvious statement, especially when voting for far-right political programs…

Indeed, what is obvious to some is not so obvious to others. And, of course, that the teacher rejects the norm has a curious resonance. Europe in 2019 is a canvas onto which many people from African countries project their aspirations. It’s the other way round for the teacher in »Youth without God«; he goes to Africa. There is this thought experiment: what would happen were we privileged Central Europeans forced to abandon Europe, in the event of a humanitarian or ecological catastrophe, fleeing to Africa by boat? We might be stuck in the Mediterranean in fishing boats procured in Marseilles from hawkers and criminals, as the North African states dispatch their Frontex units. One can hazard such a thought experiment.

The novel is often thought of as an anti-fascist manual, because of the humanist position of the teacher and because the teacher’s testimony encourages others to tell the truth and become politically motivated. Do you think the novel can be used as a handbook in this way?

The novel »Youth without God« is definitely not an anti-fascist manual – but rather exposes a dichotomy in the figure of Horváth. As we know from biographical work, Horváth was not the upstanding antifascist as is often claimed. Rather, Horváth fled to Austria, after he had to leave Murnau, after the Nazis laid waste to his parents’ house. He then made a short stay in Henndorf, close to Salzburg, in the literary ambit of Zuckmayer, around whom many German refugees had gathered. But he was then forced to return to Germany to earn money, simply to feed himself. There, he worked as a scriptwriter and wrote a few screenplays for some kitschy Nazi productions. In 1971, Paul Hörbiger testified under oath in court that at least two such films were penned by Horváth – of course, under a pseudonym. There exist also letters in which Horváth sought admission to the Nazi’s state writers’ guild (Reichsschriftkammer). Horvath’s dichotomy expresses itself in the character of the teacher in »Youth without God«: everything about fascism repels and irritates me, and brings me into opposition with it. But if I become a committed anti-fascist, then I will lose my job, my pension, my reputation, and I will be on the run, threatened life and limb, and will go hungry. We have documents in which Horváth states that he cannot write anymore because he is famished. My focus is precisely the teacher’s inner turmoil. The need to act accompanied by a lack of bravery for many reasons. This inner turmoil is, in the best sense, a description of the inner lives, or intimate landscapes, of many sensitive people in the Third Reich. It’s easy from today’s perspective to pass moral judgement.  But then, the price of moral decency was steep. This is, for me, the heart of the material, and for that reason, it is not an anti-fascist manual, but rather material that confronts us with these questions and at the same time describes very precisely the personalities, which surround this »hero«. He is a hero because he finally summons the courage of his convictions to leave everything behind and go to Africa.  

Your recent productions all have a contemporary impulse; they deal with the rise of the far-right in both contemporary settings and also historical ones. And so I would like to end our talk today with a simple question: why did you choose »Youth without God«? 

Of course, the piece is related to the tetralogy of my recent productions: »Professor Bernhardi«, »Returning to Reims« and »Italian Night«. Now we add to these »Youth without God«, in which I engage again with the resurgence of the far-right, always connected to the question, which part the left plays in making that resurgence possible.

But in dealing with this material, I also noticed how the question of individual responsibility, bravery and moral courage is becoming more and more important to me. And these are precisely the questions posed by »Youth without God«. I find this enormously compelling. And it is just the right moment to bring this material to the stage.

<![CDATA[A Glittering Abyss. »abgrund« at the Schaubühne]]> Thu, 28 Mar 2019 00:00:00 +0000 by Joseph Pearson

The set gleams.

»›abgrund‹ is about the surface«, director Thomas Ostermeier tells me of the play written by Maja Zade, »It’s a play of light, a wealth of glitter; it’s the glitz on the surface«.

A kitchen bar, made of stainless steel, is the only piece of furniture that stands in the centre of a dark set. A minimal light hangs above the table; the wine glasses and kitchen utensils catch the glow. Behind, illuminated stark lettering announces the scenes, the many small conflicts to be played out around this expensive designer space.

I have never seen an Ostermeier production so stripped of furniture; but there is enough here, in Nina Wetzel’s stage design, to create a world familiar to us: an apartment in Berlin, in the year 2019. It is the most minimal of backdrop to set in relief Ostermeier’s ›Kammerspiel‹.

During a break in the rehearsal, I am drawn to the stage. I sniff a wine bottle. Is it real Chardonnay, or water? The red wine looks authentic. But it smells of blackcurrant. There are half-eaten bowls of chocolate pudding littered on the reflective steel surface. A water carafe stands full of colourful crystals.

»The water tastes better with the crystals in it«, actor Laurenz Laufenberg tells me.

»Maybe they infuse the water with minerals – « I suggest, not believing in any more spiritual explanation.

»Ah, Quatsch! du spinnst wohl«, Alina Stiegler says – don’t be daft.

»The food is all real«, Laurenz goes on, »There’s salad, lamb chops. The pudding is delicious, but too much of it can put you to sleep«.

I ask him, »Are you really eat all of it during the production?«

»Of course!«

»Some actors don’t like too much food in their stomachs«.

»But it’s in the scene!« he tells me, and I tell Laurenz he’s being very »method-y« today.

I return to my seat in Saal B and on-stage the scene resumes. I start to feel strange. I can’t help now but feel that my conversation with Laurenz at the kitchen bar was theatrical. The actors are involved in the same kind of colloquial talk. Moritz Gottwald and Christoph Gawenda discuss the quality of products at Tchibo; Jenny König remarks you can always find a little something to buy there. The kitchen-chatter interlaces convincingly. They are even talking at the same volume as Laurenz and I did; all the actors wear microphones, so their speaking voices can be used on stage.

But I know that what is now happening on stage is not the same as my conversation a minute ago. If reality were reproduced exactly on stage, we wouldn’t believe it. The talent of ›Kammerspiel‹ is to create a fiction we believe is real.

I ask Ostermeier how he achieves this effect.

He says, »A lot of it is about rhythm. These past weeks I have trained actors, with exercises, to observe how language is rhythmically composed in real life. Most of the time, reality is faster and more structured. There are more ups and downs in volume. It is more musical than 90% of what is happening on stage. I try to build up the awareness of that difference. But I really didn’t need to force the actors: they were completely obsessed. Everyone, since rehearsing, has listened differently when they are invited to a dinner«.

»Presumably it helps that these actors have all worked together before«, I suggest.

»You would be lost without the spirit of an ensemble. Most of them know each other and have built a level of trust that can only happen over years. They know that a performance is created by the interaction between them, and wouldn’t happen if each had her solo. They are used to this kind of acting: they know it can work, to make the audience believe they are not performing«.

Maja Zade’s text, in Ostermeier’s words, is »colloquial«, about the surface of an evening when dinner guests make small talk.

Thomas tells me, »I am obsessed with realistic behaviour and colloquial conversation. I must say it’s rarely done in a good way in German theatre, and directors in contact with contemporary writing tend to overdo what is happening. But, in the English tradition, there is a beautiful history of well-made colloquial plays. I am trying to go farther than I have before, by using in-ear microphone headsets. In the best of cases, you actually feel invited to dinner, like you are sitting with the other guests. And if the actors don’t need to project their voices, they can really imitate the subtleties of small talk and create intimacy. These headphones also allow you to work with frequencies and sounds you cannot normally use in theatre. Since there are fifty-three [sic!] scene changes, there is room for an expansive sound design, and for music, which both lend another layer of horror and strangeness to this world«.

Listening to Zade’s text on stage, I think back to the visual poetry of it. I remember speaking to one of the actors when she first received the script, and she told me: it’s very beautiful but I don’t know when to speak! Indeed, the script does not assign lines to particular voices but reads instead as a long prose-poem, with a hermetic elegance on the page. Here is just one example of a scene:



if bettina had gone into the room a second earlier

if pia hadn’t woken up

if gertrud had woken up

if pia had stayed at the table

if the baby monitor had been louder

if she

if she

if he

if the two of them

if you

if i



Ostermeier tells me, »I loved the text the first time I read it. I had the same experience you seem to have had: it’s very poetic, very clear, well composed, you might even talk about a long poem. What I find a little bit sad, honestly, is that by having to make a choice about who is saying what, you end up with a well-made play all the time, and some of that beauty vanishes. At the same time, you get something in return: it is as if an animal has been bred from it. The text gains breath, you can see what is really happening – even more – in a three-dimension space where more than one storyline is told and we slowly begin to understand the catastrophe at the centre of one of them«.

This catastrophe – which we won’t spell out here – might be read as the »abgrund« of the play, a word that in German both suggests the precipice and the abyss. It’s a piece that invites interpretation.

I certainly am tempted to give a hasty reading to everything I see: the use of a gauze screen in front of the actors, and another one behind them, allows for double-layered video projection; they suggest to me the multiplicity of possible interpretations. The projections also give a sense of recession, that there are several levels to the play’s reality. Often the projections are out-of-focus, lending a sense of ambiguity. Meanwhile, the minimalism of the stage allows the darkness from off-stage to creep in. I can’t help but interpret that, here, we feel the abyss which is the play’s title. But I shake my head, who am I to say?

Ostermeier tells me, »I try not to know at every moment where the play is leading. Sometimes, I try more and more to get closer to a truth inside the play, which neither Maja nor myself knows. I cannot tell you what it is going to tell in the end: whether it more Bourdieu, or more Lacan, or neither of these«.

French theorist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of »Habitus« and cultural capital are one lens through which to understand the action. Bourdieu argues that a person’s cultural capital – which allows them social mobility in a class society – is connected to their ›Habitus‹: the knowledge of cultural markers they have inherited, the objects of cultural value they have collected in their homes (like an Eames chair), or their institutional position in society. Lacan’s notion of the ›Real‹, meanwhile, is perhaps suggested by the abyss in the play, that which escaped the symbolic, and cannot be reduced to meaning. Perhaps both theorists share their value as cultural capital themselves: drop either name at a dinner party and see what happens to your stock price.

Ostermeier tells me how cultural capital works at such an evening: »We feel the familiarity of being invited over to friends for dinner, and they are cooking. But you feel that no one is really communicating. Everything they say has the same value, whether you are talking about refugees or truffles in the soup. During rehearsals, we got to thinking about Bourdieu and the competitive exchange of cultural capital in social situations.  Who has the best story, the most incredible news, the most shocking gossip, or specialised knowledge about pop culture, art, design, or politics? All these subjects have the same value because it’s not about digging deep into issues, but a stock market about coming out the best«.

»Is there a reason this competition takes place in a kitchen in Prenzlauer Berg?« I ask.

Ostermeier throws up his hands, »Prenzlauer Berg! You know, honestly, I’m fed up with it. Already in 2002, with my production of ›A Doll’s House‹ we were talking about this world. No one said the word ›Prenzlauer Berg‹, but I was interested then in the new bourgeoisie, ›die Neue Mitte‹: people who dreamed of a career in start-ups during the social re-invention of Germany, as we belatedly absorbed Reaganomics and Thatcherism«.

»It’s a young urban professional world of people with money and distinguished in their aesthetic choices, always knowing ›le dernier cri‹: be it in art, theatre or music. This was something new in Germany. Germany always had rich people, but they rarely cared about being contemporary: they wanted their villa, their Bentley, to go hunting, to live a traditional old-money lifestyle. Now, new money no longer tries to imitate these people. Instead, they buy a loft in a former industrial quarter, living a life you could just a well find in Sydney, London or Vancouver. They show they are wealthy in different ways: by ordering champagne with their pizza. A lot of these people in Prenzlauer Berg bought their apartments with money from their parents, but have an identity problem. They are performing to be Prenzlauer Bergers. But they don’t know what they are performing, as they try to build a different world from their parents. The biggest accusation is that they are doing exactly the same thing that their parents did, except with different clothes and music. And they are repeating their parents’ patriarchal patterns, with the wife at home raising the kids. They care about cultural capital in the same way – as people did in bourgeois 19th-century circles – but they are creating different markers«.

I add, »But behind this surface of cultural competition there is the precipice, the abyss, perhaps even the ›Real‹ – «

Ostermeier replies, »It is not that the characters understand that there is an abyss, or that they are constantly trying to avoid looking at. What Maja does with the catastrophe in the play is to show how these people are unable to handle or confront it. It shows their emptiness and insecurity, their inability to deal humanely with one another. The question of empathy is central to the play. The play does not celebrate misanthropy, but rather mirrors it. And by holding the mirror, she wants to overcome this behaviour. The catastrophe could be many things: a terror attack, an illness, a bus accident. But that’s not the point of the play. The point is to confront the character with something she cannot put into a frame, where there is no one to call guilty or to blame for what has happened, even when four lives are destroyed as a result«.

<![CDATA[Training for the Future. Three Débuts at FIND 2019]]> Mon, 25 Mar 2019 00:00:00 +0000 by Joseph Pearson

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

<![CDATA[Be Grateful! </br>»Danke Deutschland – Cảm ơn nước Đức« at the Schaubühne]]> Tue, 19 Mar 2019 00:00:00 +0000 by Joseph Pearson

Right-wingers attack a home for immigrant workers. A building goes up in flames. A crowd of thousands stands by and applauds.

These images – projected on the multi-tiered set, strewn with flowers, above the Schaubühne stage – are not, as one might anticipate, hateful reactions to the recent refugee wave, which reached its apogee in 2015. Rather, they are already almost thirty years old: from Rostock in 1992, during the worst mob violence directed against immigrants ever experienced in post-war Germany. Many of those who lived, in terrible conditions, in the multi-story Plattenbau centre for asylum seekers, the ›Sunflower Tower‹, were from Vietnam.  

»For me, it was interesting to compare the relationship between immigrants arriving today to the preceding immigration of Vietnamese to Germany«, Sanja Mitrović, the director of the production »Danke Deutschland – Cảm ơn nước Đức«, tells me.

»What does the lens of the Vietnamese experience tell us about Germany’s notions of belonging, and its capacity to absorb difference?« I ask.

Mitrović replies, »The Vietnamese community in Germany was part of one of the largest migrations that happened in this country [there are more than 100 000 in Germany today]. It was interesting to look at this example of attitudes towards immigration, definitions of what it means to be a good immigrant or a good citizen, and how the status of the immigrant has changed from the second half of the 20th-century to today. As these questions are dependent on social and economic conditions, I was interested in how the definitions Germans used have shifted, how they were shaped and instrumentalised by different political systems. This is the main dramaturgical line of the piece. I was interested in observing the differences between the former East and West of Germany, and the Vietnamese communities in both. The conditions were completely different, but there are also fundamental similarities, which help us understand reactions to the recent refugee crisis, populism, the rise of the right wing, and neo-fascism today. Migration, meanwhile, remains a key topic. It will continue to grow as the consequence of political conflicts and the capitalist economy, but also because of climate change and ecological catastrophe. By the year 2100, it is estimated that climate change will be responsible for the migration of a billion people«.

»You mention the divergent experiences of this community in divided Germany – what specifically was different about each?« I ask.

»In the Federal Republic in the late 1970s, both conservative and social democratic parties accepted war refugees from South Vietnam who were persecuted by the Communist regime – the so-called ›boat people‹ who fled over the South Vietnam Sea. When they arrived in West Germany, they received sponsors, language courses, the right of free movement, and easy access to the job market. The community was then asked to be grateful. The Vietnamese community in the West was put in the position of not wanting to be a burden, not raising their voices, in the fear of being sent back. In other words, they were invisible«.

»And what was the situation in the GDR?«

»In the East, contract workers were sent by the North Vietnamese socialist government from 1980 onwards, as part of study or aid programs, often to learn skills in the GDR that they could take home. They arrived full of hope; they felt it was an honour to have been chosen to go to Germany, a country they saw as their Socialist brother. But the reality was they lived in isolated hostels, spoke hardly any German, and contact with locals was not allowed. Integration was difficult. Then, after the fall of the Wall, these contract workers paradoxically found themselves having to compete in the market to stay in Germany. Many opened private businesses –  became self-employed, opened flower shops or restaurants – others were offered money to return to Vietnam. Both communities, in the West and East, had different experiences of immigration and overcame different problems. But even though Germany reunited, the two Vietnamese communities living here remain divided. On stage, we have a first and second generation contract worker, a first and second-generation ›boat person‹, all people who might otherwise never have met. In this project, they have the opportunity to discuss each other’s stories«.

During a rehearsal, I listen to how they recount their experiences. A student of medicine from Vietnam tells how she arrived in East Germany in the 1980s. She went excited to build a better life for herself but was soon surprised by the vocabulary she was learning in her German classes: Messer, Loeffel, Kartoffel. Why are we only learning words related to food?

She and the other Vietnamese women, who came with other more specialised skills, were required to work in kitchens. They were not allowed contact with Germans. She had to hide a pregnancy for seven months to prevent a forced return to Vietnam. As she speaks, a photograph is projected: I see a much younger woman standing before the World Clock in Alexanderplatz. The time in Vietnam is many hours ahead.

The manner in which these everyday histories are presented is through a patient and methodical – and I think deeply touching – school of documentary theatre that has been elaborated by Milo Rau and others (Mitrović herself has acted in Rau’s work). The body of the witness is present, time and space are provided to tell one’s own story, and we see projected the confirming primary sources – letters, snapshots, news footage of events that changed lives. But what I notice already about the Mitrović production (which might distinguish it from some Rau pieces whose long-form testimonies are very demanding) is its attention to tempo, to movement, the body, to dance. We oscillate between a meditation of human experience in history, and then we are suddenly dancing our hearts out.

»I like to play with musicality«, Mitrović tells me, »As you could see, it is present in the different layers of text, visual materials – such as photos and live video – and the choreographed sequences and body movements. For research, we had many interviews with the Vietnamese community in Berlin. We visited some of them in their homes, and from these encounters we chose our cast. As always, when I work with both professional and non-professional performers, the process in the most important thing. It takes you to unexpected destinations. We share stories together and look for parallel material that supports these stories. Even before that, we do theoretical research, which takes a long time given the complexity of the topic. The main point during the rehearsals is to work with all these elements in a musical, rhythmical way so they can create a sense of tension: between official history, events that are put under the carpet and forgotten, and the personal stories of the actors. Dance, meanwhile, creates a rhythmical dramaturgy«.

»Finally, I wanted to ask you about the title of your production. ›Danke Deutschland‹. It was, of course, an expression used during the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, to thank Germany for recognising the 1991 independence of Slovenia and Croatia. You are a Yugoslav director. The conflict in Yugoslavia was imbricated with questions of ethnic and civil citizenship, diversity, inclusivity, and the future of socialism. All are themes central to the current production. Yugoslavia is a country that dissolved. Vietnam and Germany are ones, divided in the Cold War between opposing ideological and economic systems, that reunified. How is Yugoslavia, then, present in this production?«

Mitrović replies, »The idea of Yugoslavia as a multi-ethnic socialist state is still relevant to the key problems that Europe is facing today: questions of ethnic as opposed to civil or transnational belonging, questions of multiculturalism and diversity, inclusivity and equality. This was the kind of project that Yugoslavia was and, under certain conditions, it functioned for half a century. The European Community was imagined on similar principles but, like Yugoslavia at the end of the 80s and early 90s, Europe today, and even Germany, is neglecting these notions. There are attempts to make them seem less valuable, to belittle them as not logical or ›impossible‹. It seems we did not learn a lot from the example of Yugoslavia. Instead of supporting internationalism and multiculturalism, there is a return to narrow nationalistic impulses, which in the current political and economic atmosphere descend all too easily into xenophobia and neo-fascism. Germany had a key role in the break-up of Yugoslavia. There was a song in Croatia, called ›Danke Deutschland‹, which was an expression of gratitude and support for the separation which tore the country to pieces. So the title of the show has multiple meanings. First of all, it refers to the Vietnamese community and the imperative of gratitude for those who came here wishing for a better life. They simply had to be grateful no matter what conditions they were offered, and were required not to criticize – these were the conditions for being a ›good immigrant‹. But this title also has an ironic connotation, in the sense of my own background and the destruction of Yugoslavia«.

I see how the comparative lenses of Vietnam and Germany, divided between capitalist and socialist systems, investigate the bigger questions – of migration, belonging, citizenship. But where then is this third national example of Yugoslavia on-stage? I didn’t hear the word Yugoslavia mentioned once during the rehearsal. Where is this example of a multicultural, third-way Socialist, and non-aligned confederation, before it was destroyed by nationalism and the subsequent neoliberal turn?

»Is Yugoslavia… a ghost?« I ask.

»Yes«, Sanja Mitrović tells me, »It is present even when you cannot see it«.

<![CDATA[Staring the Accused in the Eye. Talking Gender at FIND 2019]]> Thu, 14 Mar 2019 00:00:00 +0000 by Joseph Pearson

Is theatre an effective place to discuss social and political questions such as women’s or queer- and trans-liberation? Social media reaches many more people. Streaming video is available on demand, without the immediate hassle of actors and staging. Theatre might seem an antiquated, even quaint, platform for social change, but it has advantages over many other forms of political engagement, as the visiting productions assembled for the FIND Festival 2019 at the Schaubühne suggest.

It’s perhaps no surprise that, with #metoo, questions of gender and power are at the forefront in this year’s festival. (The Zeitgeist is also very much present in the house productions, such as in the direction of Patrick Wengenroth and the new plays of Maja Zade). Four visiting productions, in particular, from three continents, grapple with the challenge: »THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR« (New York City), »TRANS (més enllà)« (Barcelona), »Paisajes para no colorear« (Santiago de Chile), and »A Generous Lover« (London and Liverpool).


In »THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR«, the Wooster Group of New York City, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, revisit the infamous 1971 Town Hall meeting chaired by writer Norman Mailer, who confronted leading figures of feminism’s second wave, including Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, and Jill Johnston. The event was later captured in the cult-documentary film, »Town Bloody Hall«. The Wooster Group has now created a meta-narrative of the documentary film, re-enacting and commenting on the historical roles for the contemporary stage.

I spoke to Kate Valk who plays the role of lesbian writer Jill Johnston, an activist known for commenting that »all women are lesbians, they just don’t know it yet«. During the Town Hall meeting, she was prevented by Mailer from finishing her speech, after she went over her allotted time.

Valk tells me, »I’m amazed Mailer thought in the moment to take the vote, like a game show – like the Gong Show – to have the audience applaud and decide whether she was allowed to continue speaking«.

»An applaudometer«, I say.

»Jill says in her account that men still command the lower register«, Valk says wryly, »And in the last chapter of ›Lesbian Nation‹, Jill publishes the speech she wasn’t allowed to finish. We frame our play with Jill Johnston’s writing about the event. And if you look to 1971, you see that her writing was the most modern, anticipating blogs and vlogs. It’s one of the best roles I’ve ever had. She’s a performer, she came there to disrupt the event. She was conflicted about going. None of her serious lesbian friends thought she should. They thought the event was appalling, that you could even have a debate about women’s liberation. But she came anyway, as a citizen jester«.

I suggest, »It’s an epic set-up, putting her alongside Mailer, who is known for macho writing, arguing in ›The Prisoner of Sex‹ that women’s liberation was an attack on men. How do you see Normal Mailer’s role now – as the male moderator and mansplainer – in the age of Trump?«

»Mailer is a good entertainer. He didn’t say to his panelists, get the fuck off stage, I’m calling security. Trump is also successful with the crowd. Every time I hear him it’s appalling. But he is talking to the whole room and he’s got everyone listening«, says Valk, who goes on to tell me how the production has two actors playing Mailer, »Dividing him, it just works. It makes the persona less dominant by having two of them«.

»Meanwhile, you cast Diana Trilling, the literary critic for ›The Nation‹, with a male actor« I say.

»It is interesting because Trilling’s argument is all about biology, and today you can more easily change your biology. Why not have a bigger conversation? We include men who become women. That’s why Germaine Greer seems so cranky to us today.«

»I can imagine Greer wouldn’t like a man cast in a woman’s role«, I comment. (Greer has been accused of transphobia, a word she has said does not exist, calling trans women »ghastly parodies«).

»She’s suffered as a woman and she doesn’t want someone to swoop in without that suffering.«

»It makes one think that a lot of water has passed under the bridge in terms of gender politics since 1971«.

Valk counters, »Yes, but we immediately felt that this material could resonate today. Not just about what was being said, but also the difference between uptown literary giants versus radical downtown lesbians. The discussion also had a pugilistic nature made for great theatre. And younger people come up to us after the show, not knowing anything about what it was like in the 70s, telling us how it speaks to them. As an artist, when you choose material for some intuitive reason, for some irresistible impulse, it’s gratifying when it is revealed how resonant it is.«


The evolution of the conversation about gender since 1971 is immediately apparent in the work of director Didier Ruiz, who brings seven transsexual voices to the stage, recounting their journeys of transition. Ruiz is well-known for putting the everyday testimony of prisoners and factory workers on stage and in film.

Ruiz tells me that the piece’s title »TRANS (més enllà)«, may well have been rewritten as »Més Enllà (trans)«.

»›Més enllà‹, or ›beyond‹, is more important than ›trans‹ because we go beyond the narrow question, we can begin to talk more broadly about identity and acceptance«, he tells me. »I also wanted to avoid being reductionist, to accept all the specificities of the differences we embody«.

Ruiz cast non-professional actors, who, apart from being trans, had to fulfil two conditions: that they would be available for two years and couldn’t be artists.

He tells me, »Thirty five people replied, of all ages. I chose seventeen of them for a more intensive audition, and from there we found our final seven actors, who range from 24 to 62 years old. What was interesting was that the oldest turned out to be the youngest in transition. I lived with this experience of transition from the very beginning. I asked, and re-asked, the same questions of everyone, and then began to choose. In the end, it became a montage: of what resonated, like in a film, what materials sat most successfully together«.

The challenge for touring with the production has been that the parts are not exactly written out, but partly improvised. Subtitles for that reason can only approximate what the actors say.

Ruiz explains how »Language recounts an intimate story and it’s very difficult to get the actors to tell their stories in another language other than Catalan, or Spanish. Apart from thinking about language in performance, I also keep asking myself about how to tell an intimate story so it sounds like it has been told for the first time. Why is it that we do not arrive at the same innocence? There are many challenges that arise when offering this kind of testimony«

»Your work was produced first in Barcelona, but then went to the festival at Avignon. Did you expect the audiences to react differently to the piece?«

Ruiz replies, »The political and social situation in Catalonia is extremely advanced when it comes to the question of transsexuality, which is not the case in France. I thought about the problems that Romeo Castellucci had in Avignon, when discussing religious questions, and wondered whether we might also face resistance. But, in fact, the public was extremely warm and receptive in France, even in small villages where we later played, especially the young public. Adolescents, in particular, take these stories for what they are, with great emotion. The young public is important because they are the adults of tomorrow. With each production, we have done something important if we have changed the opinion of just one or even two people«.

»Why have you chosen such a minimal stage design for the production?« I ask.

»My interest of this work is to throw a light on things, and to remove any elements that could hide or impede the testimony. For this reason, we have a stage which is bare, but full of light, and you can focus on the individual. There are other elements: a transparent curtain. There are images, videos, that suggests explosions, biological processes, that explode in a cosmos, that are there to allow us to breathe. It is all so we can focus on the word«.


Teatro La Re-Sentida, in »Paisajes para no colorear«, similarly puts documentary testimony on stage. Nine adolescent Chilean women, also non-professional actors, speak about violence and women in society. Unlike in Ruiz’s production, however, they do not draw primarily on their own stories, but rather interpret those taken from 140 testimonies of gender-based violence, including a number of shocking femicides.

The title is revealing of the project’s scope. Paisajes, or, literally, »landscapes«, are the name in Spanish for children’s colouring books. Except these stenciled images are »not to be coloured in« (»para no colorear«).

Marco Layera, the director, tells me, »After a year of workshops with young women all over the Chilean capital, we found that the reality of female adolescents in the country was very harsh, tragic and dramatic. They were very dark stories, often hidden stories, that had been locked up a long time, and never told to anyone – not to parents, not to teachers. Some of it was locked up because of a violence that held them in. This is the analogy with colouring books: they are stories that have resisted colour: grey stories, black stories«.

I ask whether there is something historically specific to the experience of violence against women in Chile, because of the brutality of the Pinochet era? But Marco tells me that although the violence of the dictatorship is always in the background of Chilean society, the girls were more concerned with disputing and giving themselves autonomy from the capitalist system.

»The most obvious and evident example of the capitalist system is exposing the figure of the woman as an object of desire, for consumption. These girls fight against these images. It is surprising that 13 to 18-year olds are strongly conscious of them. They are a very empowered generation«.

»Why did you choose to tell a story about violence against women from the point of view of adolescents?«

Layera tells me, »This whole thing began in 2015, when there was a series of assassinations of very young people in Latin America. The company researched the reality of the adolescent feminine world in Chile, asking how these stories related to the history of our country and the contemporary paradigm. How did young people position themselves in an adult-centric discourse? What we believe now is that the adolescent world is the true avant-garde because they are the ones installing a new paradigm. They relate in a horizontal way, amongst themselves, with more empathy and solidarity«.

What Marco suggests I do is not just follow the »voice of the adult« but rather talk to the young women themselves, and so I speak with two from the production: Matilde (15-years old) and Constanza (18-years old).

Going on-stage gives her autonomy, says Matilde. She tells me, »Personally, the hardest part was not to talk about these issues on stage. It’s harder to speak about them in families, in school. When you are on the stage, you are safe, because people are going to help you, you are not alone«.

And Constanza tells me, »When I speak on stage, I can feel my anger. It’s necessary. The difference, when you are with friends or family, is that in the theatre you are listened to without being interrupted, especially by adults who can be very closed-minded. In theatre, we can scream and nobody will say ›no‹ to us. After you release all of this energy, you are able to tell adults things they might not want to hear«.


La JohnJoseph echoes, independently, the observations of these two young women when recalling how, »Justin Vivian Bond (a New York-based transgendered artist) said that they only feel safe on stage because there are so many witnesses. Nobody can do anything to you. Theatre hands you a lot of power. You can shape things for yourself. How you live it, command it, and frame yourself in it, makes it totally mutable. And theatre has largely been an oral medium, like testimony. It’s a contract between the audience and you, as the performer, that they will listen to you for an extended period of time. That itself is unusual«.

In »A Generous Lover«, La JohnJoseph, a London-based Liverpudlian, cares for a partner who has been committed to a psychiatric institution for bipolar disorder. Conflict ensues between the gender-queer visitor and the medical institution that favours the cis-gendered and heteronormative.

I observe, »Your piece covers a number of different topoi: Northern England, the psychiatric facility, how gender is experienced in each …«

»The piece is set in London but I grew up in Liverpool and Blackpool. I wrote this piece for three voices: my own authorial voice, a narrative framing voice, and a character within the world of the play. To differentiate, this character, Joan, is the kind of woman I grew up with in Liverpool – a very funny, working class, Liverpool, Irish Catholic, Scouse woman. This character came naturally and was easy to write; she is largely based on my mother. When I was in the psychiatric institute with the person I was trying to support, my mother would say things like »how’s that lunatic doin’?«. That’s not the right language. But you know what I mean. She is very to the point, down to earth, the only character who knows what is up while the narrative voice is heightened and confused.«

»Your story is based on a lived story, isn’t that correct?«

»My partner of seven years was a classic manic depressive. He was sectioned and forced into a psychiatric institute against his will. He didn’t want to be there. Luckily we lived five minutes from the hospital and I could be there five to eight hours a day to help him. He was not always aware he was in hospital. Sometimes he thought he was in prison, or I had done this to him. But I was the lifeline to the real world. We present that on stage and haven’t mocked it up. Alexandra Spencer-Jones is the director, and her father also spent time in psychiatric hospitals, for mania. So we both understand how this world works, and agreed that because the set is verbose we should have a minimal set of white objects that suggest the classical world, the medical world, and a garden party. We started with bold ideas and stripped them back«.

La JohnJoseph’s story is told through classical illusions: it’s a journey to the underworld, with appearances as diverse as Orpheus and Katherine Hepburn.

»We have a borrowed classical framework, especially from the ›Divine Comedy‹, but also from ›The Wasteland‹ and epic poetry. Dante wrote in vernacular Italian when it was not the thing to do. So I asked myself how I could I use Scouse, the vernacular from Liverpool. But I was interested that Dante was also a cosmopolitan poet. Liverpool voted Remain, and keeps its staunchly specific culture and humour. It is pro-Europe and not insular. Left-wing, anti-fascist, and anti-racist movements are centred there, all trying to connect through the vernacular, but not losing their identity as part of a larger collection of people«.

»How do issues of gender express themselves in this journey?«

La JohnJoseph tells me, »The central clash of the psychiatric unit, is the classic one of the institution and the individual. I use they/them pronouns, I dress the way I do. And with my own gender identity, I was mistaken as a patient on more than one occasion. I’m not the patient; you have decided because of how I look. Not so long ago, a person like me would have ended up in a psychiatric institute for the same reasons. Psychiatric institutes are segregated between male and female wards. Largely on the male ward, it was men, and the visitors there were mostly female. So I was lined up with the female visitors on the male ward – straddling both directions, not being a male inmate and not being a female visitor. Queer people have a different morality and sociability, different cultural references. Straight doctors and pharmacists think you are mad if you are quoting a Bette Davis film as opposed to X Factor contestants. Being queer was taken as part of madness or illness«.


I began this essay suggesting that theatre has advantages over many other art-forms in political engagement. In conversation, Marco Layera of La Re-sentida articulated: »We have always asked themselves the same question: how a group of liars, or fakes, enclosed in black walls, illuminated by artificial light, can have an effect on the outside world or on reality? We know that theatre is not the only privileged place to see ourselves as a mirror or reflect on society, and if you add to that the elite character of contemporary theatre, you might conclude that the effects of theatre are very narrow«.

But Layera goes beyond a »pessimistic conclusion« saying that working with adolescents brought La Re-sentida’s artistic practice in close conjunction to their social practice. »We wanted our work to have a true and gratifying impact on social life. And from that perspective, everyone that participated in this process was completely transformed by this production: it’s the best and most beautiful thing that could have happened to us in theatre«.

Why did this happen?

Because theatre puts the body on stage, making the individual’s political problems immediate, impossible to dismiss as an abstraction. It provides an uninterrupted space for testimony, where the spotlight can linger, and the »lower register« of a heteronormative male or adult voice does not intrude. And as Anne-Cécile Vandalem reminds us, theatre is a place difficult to leave half-way through. You cannot press pause as in a Netflix video. It is also a safer space to speak: stage-invaders are rare, even at the Schaubühne.

As we move to so many more virtual forms of discussion, theatre reminds one not only of the humanity of the disenfranchised and courageous, who stand before you, but also the urgency to make changes. While #metoo provides a virtual space for that message, without the body of the speaker the accused is not obliged to look the victim in the eyes.

<![CDATA[Looking at a Star, Awry. Vandalem’s »ARCTIQUE« at FIND 2019]]> Thu, 07 Mar 2019 00:00:00 +0000 by Joseph Pearson

»ARCTIQUE« is a thriller set in the future, on a boat steering towards the promised land, a Greenland made rich by global warming. Anne-Cécile Vandalem’s treatment of her subject has an operatic scope. Her theatre is not reduced to tiny miniatures. It is augmented by bold and ambitious direction. The backdrop is the near-infinite space of the arctic. What’s at stake is humanity’s survival. The formal execution – of setting the drama on an enormous cruise ship – could hardly be more challenging. And, of course, there’s music. 

»ARCTIQUE« was the darling of the Avignon festival last summer. It comes to the Schaubühne for FIND 2019, where Vandalem is well known. Her piece »Tristesses« appeared in Berlin in 2017, as the first instalment of her trilogy, which deals with the end of humanity. »ARCTIQUE« follows it both in theme and cinematic style. But while »Tristesses« takes place on a Danish island embattled by the far-right, »Arctique« takes us, by ocean liner, to a northern Danish possession in a time of ecological catastrophe. 

I speak with the director, thinking her theatre is a rare mix. She is a political agent in our world, but her commentary is set in a surprisingly hyperrealistic landscape. Her work is plot-driven, and humorous, but is still strange enough to create Brechtian distancing. She is a director who specialises in creating atmospheres, but she does not ignore a good story. 

As Vandalem explains, »For me, fiction is extremely important. It’s really the foundation of what I do: it’s my starting point, especially suspense fiction. Fiction becomes a mode of action that is both poetic and political. I have the impression that for a long time we have steered away from fictional narratives – at least when speaking about theatre culture in Belgium and France – and favoured instead forms that are more abstract. This return to fiction typifies my work, and creates a sense of distance from reality. We are so tied to reality, and for me, theatre, and poetry, are forms that allow us to see from a different point of view. It’s said that if you look at a star in the sky straight on, you have trouble seeing it. It’s only when you look a little bit to one side that you see it better. For me, this explains my approach to theatre«. 

I reply, »Not only do you tell a story, but you are also very funny. Could you tell me more about the role of humour in your work?«

»Humour, like fiction, creates distance for me. Derision is a way to confront reality. Humour is not always seen as very noble, and when you treat serious subjects with humour, you can be accused of diminishing the subject’s gravity. But for me, when I stand back, we again understand better«, says Vandalem. 

»When I hear the word ›distance‹ I cannot help think, of course, of Brecht. But when I think of Brecht, I’m not usually thinking of a sense of humour …« 

Vandalem counters, »It’s funny you say that, because I had a professor at Conservatory, who was German, and who really made us work with Brecht and humour. And he helped us understand just how much humour can be found in the works of Brecht. That really shocked my other profs, who weren’t convinced that humour and a distancing effect could have much to do with one another«. 

The fictional – and humorous – voyage on which Vandalem takes us is to the end of the earth. In fact, we go on several, often seemingly contradictory, journeys. We voyage on the physical plane, but also simultaneously on a psychological and existential one. The story that »Arctique« tells is documentary but also fictional. We cross the ocean physically on a cruise ship, the Arctic Serenity (I think of a phantom presence, like the Flying Dutchman, but one that turns out to look more like the Love Boat). In fact, the location is based on a real ocean liner, the Crystal Serenity, which in 2015 completed the first crossing (for a boat of its kind) of the fabled North-West passage.

The arctic route from the Atlantic to the Pacific was, until recent times, impassable because of perennial ice. Early explorations, such as the doomed Franklin Expedition, ended in a spectacular stories of deathly cold and cannibalism. But as global warming melts the ice sheet, so too has the North-West passage’s fable ceased to be fictional. Vandalem’s story takes place in the future, and its fable of the future will also likely become documentary. A journey to a Greenland may, due to global warming, become – for those living father South, in a world that has grown unbearably hot – one to an El Dorado. 

Vandalem tells me, »The first time I went to Greenland in 2016, I thought I was ready to confront it. For me, it was just a fantasy, from childhood impressions, stories I read when I was little, of adventurers, the great expeditions in the North-West. I was caught up in a mythology and imagined that it was a place I could go to at a point in my life when I was left with nothing else. This is what I expected. I even had the romantic idea that if I went there, I would die there: in the great North, the empty spaces, in the cold, the void. But I wanted to talk to people there about this fantasy of mine, and also about death«. 

»What happened when you got there?« I ask. 

»Well, I was surprised by what I found. The only condition I had was to live with local people, so that I would not find myself just being a tourist. And, of course, I was surprised by my conversations. Especially when I began speaking to people about global warming. I understood that my idea of it as a catastrophe was a completely European viewpoint, and for them it is rather the symbol of the possibility of independence, the opportunity for them to exploit their resources. And so I felt very much put in my place. And this interested me, to learn to see things differently. The irony, of course, is that it is the multinationals from abroad – Total, Canadian and Danish businesses – that are most likely to exploit, as colonisers, these resources«. 

Vandalem’s productions are ambitious and spectacular. She tells me that the biggest difficulty was creating the movement of a boat at sea, but the company found solutions using sound and oscillating lights. The other problem was to recreate the enormous scale of a cruise ship like the Arctic Serenity. But through video, the many cabins and hallways of an enormous ship could not only be suggested, but depicted. 

»We use a great deal of montage and two principal cameras. This helps expand the sense of space. It gives an impression of, say, the polar night, vast distances, and what the immense sound of the ocean is like when you are trapped in a space that is only two metres squared«, she tells me, »The music also has a very particular function, which is dramaturgic. Everything centres on this music. Our Arctic Band is missing its lead singer, and so a little girl fills the place. And with its love songs, the band acts like a phantom that animates the boat«. 

»And what of the polar bear? I saw in your trailer that you work with an enormous animal!« 

Vandalem laughs, »Yes, I wanted a bear. He was necessary. The vengeance of nature. I did some research and found the creators of this bear in England, who had made one, in fact, for Greenpeace, and also for Radiohead. I contacted them and they made me the same model and it’s really excellent. It’s our bear«. 

»I don’t want you to give too much away: but I have the suspicion that this existential voyage by boat, this maritime thriller, in a moment of ecological catastrophe, probably doesn’t end very well …« I suggest. 

Vandalem replies, »Here, I think we need to talk about hope. For me, it’s there – in the story of the adolescent on the boat, in the depiction of youth, in the story of how nature penetrates the world of this boat. And if, effectively, it is not in the story, then we can put hope in the hands of the spectator. It’s there that we find the force of hope. There is always something possible. I believe too in art: that it brings us together, and that theatre can be an enormous political force. Especially today, when so much is virtual. In theatre, we are brought together physically and confronted with real people. And it’s one of the last places – because it is hard to leave a theatre – where we are persuaded to stay until the end of the story. Theatre demands a great deal of courage.« 

As I write this essay, I am flying high above the vastness of the Canadian arctic. Soon we will reach Greenland. From the plane window, I imagine the frozen ships of the Franklin Expedition somewhere below, caught in the ice. I imagine the Arctic Serenity passing through the North-West passage that was once frozen, with a polar bear loose on-board. I imagine also the voice of a band playing on. It seems remarkable that so much »empty« space – territory that for so long was impassable (and feels like it still should be), this canvas for our imagination – might be our inhabitable future. I look forward to observing this topos more closely – not from a high window, but from the stage.


Interview conducted in French. All translations by Joseph Pearson.

<![CDATA[»status quo's« Mirror on Injustice (and Patriarchy in the Theatre)]]> Tue, 08 Jan 2019 00:00:00 +0000 by Joseph Pearson

If »status quo« is a mirror, look into it and you might see yourself.

The reverse image of the play regards gender power relations. Roles are switched: men are asked if they plan to have children in a job interview. Women control the conventions of everyday language (not »man denkt« but »frau denkt«, for »one thinks«). Men are complimented for their looks, while women get promoted.

In the bent mirror of Maja Zade’s new piece, directed by Marius von Mayenburg, this inversion­­ – where women are in power and men are subjugated – invites one (or »frau«) to question unacknowledged everyday sexism.

The director explains the play’s device to me as follows, »This is a play that uses this very clever trick of exchanging the genders to make things visible that we are otherwise used to, which we have learned to see as normal. Even if they are not normal and, in fact, wrong. It’s a play for men, that men should see, because they might leave the theatre with a new perspective on the world they're living in. And, for women, it might be a relief and even fun to see a man struggling with their everyday situations«.

The play focuses on the experiences of three young men – all named Florian, all played by Moritz Gottwald – who begin new jobs and face different forms of sexism and abuse: in a theatre, chemists, and estate agents. The multiple working worlds show a breadth of class and incomes. As Mayenburg tells me: »The problem addressed by the play is not one peculiar to a certain part of society, but rather it is spread all over society: and doesn’t depend on educational backgrounds or how much money you make«.

He adds, »Part of the beauty of the play – something very characteristic about it – is that this problem does not play out in private situations. In most plays – even political plays – the main conflicts play out in private environments. But here, most scenes are in work environments instead. This is special and unusual, because people behave differently in private. There’s a certain fiction of the private and public self that you only see if you see people at work, where you want to show yourself as a person who is able to achieve things, but you can’t escape the private person who is vulnerable, and who depends on recognition«.

A case in point is a scene I watch from the practice stage, in which a theatre director, named Bettina – played by the fearless Jule Böwe – is being interviewed by a journalist during a rehearsal.

Bettina tells the journalist: »Theater ist ein gemeinsamer Prozess, wir sind keine Alleingängerinnen, keine Solistinnen.« (»theatre is a group effort, we’re not doing it by ourselves, as soloists«). But the director simultaneously exerts her power over the people around her through a series of subtle but arguably ruthless gestures. It’s a brilliant take-down of the theatre director’s perceived omnipotence. I ask Mayenburg to explain the anatomy of this scene.

»The play is based on very precise observations«, Mayenburg tells me, »That’s part of Maja Zade’s craft, and also her art. She is able not only to observe precisely, but also to remember what she sees and find words for it. She’s not copying reality, but finding a condensation of reality, and there’s also poetry to her language. When we worked on this scene, we thought it would be beautiful if the power the theatre director wields on those around her were visible. There should be a contrast between what she says – that the theatre is a collaborative enterprise – and what she is doing – which is making all the decisions on her own«.

»We see her ruling the place, giving directions to everyone – not just to the actors in the play she is directing, but also to the costume designers, and those who organise the theatre. We wanted to show power, not just to criticise it. And to show that it is something that enables you to create. That’s why we invented all these people who interrupt and confront her with problems, and we see her solving one after another, while at the same time she gives a press interview. The scene has been complicated to create, to make it look natural, but we are on our way«, he says.

I can’t help but notice again how »status quo« is a mirror. Mayenburg and I are, after all, imitating the scene in the play: I am interviewing a theatre director while he works on a practice stage. An inevitable question poses itself: does Mayenburg feel especially self-critical, as a cis-gendered man, directing a play that lampoons the gendered authority of the theatre director?

He smiles, »Since it’s Maja’s play, and she has worked for years in theatre as a dramaturge, a lot of situations in this play have to do with her own experience. And here comes something very beautiful about this production. We started with a lot of conversation among the actors and the other people involved, including the interns and other departments of the theatre. We spoke openly about our experiences with sexism, how it is to be a woman or man in this work environment. It was touching how open this conversation was and we learned a lot about what is really going on. I hope in my rehearsal room that there is some kind of freedom, that people aren’t under huge pressures, and that they can express themselves. It is something I believe in«.

Mayenburg – and I’ve observed this from many rehearsals – must be one of the least authoritarian and gentlest directors in the city. But I need to ask, »How does one get away from the problem of power in theatre directors, when the director’s job is to … direct?«

»It is like in an orchestra where you have a conductor, who can’t do anything without his musicians. But they can’t do anything without him or her«, he says, »The problem in theatre is the concentration of power around the job of the director. It is problematic, because it is difficult to think about a different concept. If you need fast and strong decisions, you will always have a concentration of power. And as soon as you concentrate power in one person, this power can be abused. What’s even more important, this job attracts people who have the tendency to abuse power«.

»And not just in theatre – « I venture.

»Yes, also in the economy or in politics«, he replies,  »It is mainly a question of time: the more time you have to make a decision, the more people you can involve in the process of finding a solution. When there are quick decisions to be made, you need a concentration of power, and a reliable system to control this power. «.

»When you speak about controlling power, I cannot help but think of #metoo. Has #metoo had an effect on how you approach this text?« I ask.

»I think #metoo is influencing not just how we think about this play (which was written before #metoo), but all of our interactions right now. It changes the context of every conflict. Suddenly, there is public awareness. If you are in a conflict, you are not alone anymore. You are not just speaking into a vacuum, but to a room that resonates. This is a change: it has become more likely that people will listen if you decide to talk. There has been a massive silence about these injustices, because we all feel that our society and our economy is based on these power structures, and we are afraid to question them. But this questioning is necessary«, says Mayenburg.

I reply, »When you speak of a room that resonates, might that room be the theatre?«

Mayenburg replies, »The room that resonates is the public. Theatre is only an extremely small and very particular part of it. We are a mirror. We are playing games with reality. We are trying to make invisible things visible. We are trying to seduce our audience to identify with personalities that they never thought they would have anything to do with. #metoo is not theatre. It's not pretending. It's not a show. It's not entertainment. Christine Blasey Ford is not an actress. The death threats she received after her testimony are real, she can't just leave the theatre and be somebody else. So it doesn't feel right to hijack #metoo and claim that what we are doing could be compared to what real people risk who break the silence about the abuse of power. It is they who create the resonating chamber about which I am talking«.

<![CDATA[GETTING TO »Q« </br> Queering the stage in HE? SHE? ME! FREE.]]> Tue, 04 Dec 2018 00:00:00 +0000 by Joseph Pearson

Actor Eva Meckbach stands on stage tuning a guitar. This action – adjusting the string to an accepted pitch – seems to carry a second meaning in a production about gender performance and the performance of music. Can you tune gender?

»HE? SHE? ME! FREE.« is what director Patrick Wengenroth calls a »gender jam«. The sheltered set in the Schaubühne Studio makes you feel like you are in a garage, attic, or basement, jamming with your friends. Singing and playing together creates an intimate space for improvisation and drawing people together. It’s precisely the right atmosphere for a truth or dare session, for sharing secrets, for exploring gender trouble, and experimenting with gender fluidity. It’s a »safer space« to ask hard questions: what does it mean to be a woman, under the rules of the patriarchy? To be trans? How do you identify and respond to power categories? Why do these questions make so many people (and governments) nervous? Are you nervous?

The cast is practicing their songs, all about »a man’s world« – about freedom and paranoia. Wengenroth tells me, »I’m a Spotify junky; I listen to a lot of music, and music is in all my plays. Maybe even half of this evening will consist of songs and music. I started building a playlist a year ago when we knew we’d do this production. It grew to 210 songs. I presented several to actors. But they came back to me with more songs that they thought were fitting. In the end, it is a mix. Half come from them and half from me. I didn’t insist on my playlist in the end, because when they can relate to what they are doing on stage, it always gets better«.

This sharing tells you a little bit about how Wengenroth does theatre. He stretches back in his chair in his Adidas track pants, a hoody printed with a black panther, his long hair pulled into a ponytail, his nails painted lavender and pink, and tells me: »I always think that the product you make on stage – the process of how you create the play – has to correspond to the working atmosphere. I don’t call myself a director, but rather a »Realisator«. That’s important, because we are doing it together. As I’m also on stage as a performer, I am not the director who sits in front, saying you have to do this or do that«.

Co-performing with the other actors means that Wengenroth can continue to remain in the production, and see how the show develops over time.

 »Often being a director is sad: you have your premiere and then you’re gone. The production goes into repertory and it’s often no longer your product. That’s one of the major reasons I always try to be on stage. Not to exert control, but to be part of it. Our previous show about the contemporary wave of feminism, »thisisitgirl«, has been running for nearly five years now, and it’s given me the opportunity constantly to reframe and adapt the discussion, and react to developments such as #metoo, so the performance remains contemporary and not something that feels dated«.

On stage, Ruth Rosenfeld has just finished crooning her musical number, partly re-enacting a viral video-clip concerning housework (We’re not giving away anything yet, come to a show to find out!). And Patrick turns to the others and says,  »We better do some texts now, so Joseph doesn’t think it’s all music«.

In front of the practice stage is a work table. Texts as various as Fritz Riemann’s »The Basic Forms of Fear« (»Grundformen der Angst«), Yukio Mishima’s »Confessions of a Mask«, Virgine Despentes’s »King Kong Theory«, and Judith Butler’s, »Gender Trouble« are stacked on the table. It’s an enormous field: from Marxism, biology, economics, biopolitics, post-Fordism, Accelerationism, Xenofeminism, to Cyberfeminism…

I ask Wengenroth,  »How do you work with the texts; how do you take on such an enormous body of literature?«

 »We do it by starting with the personal issues. We write them down and then combine them with the literature and theoretical texts. The funny thing is the more truthfully you talk about your personal issues on stage, the more fictional they seem to the audience! We then have a dozen songs to respond to the same number of texts. Some of the texts are spoken by all the actors – we have three biological women and three biological men – but we also have solo performances, even a Wittgenstein number if you can believe it«.

 »And which of these texts – that respond to the personal – have drawn you more than others?«

 »A couple of texts have been very important to this production. Judith Butler, of course. But also Paul B. Preciado’s »Testo-Junkie«, about the biopolitics of testosterone use in a female to male transsexual, where he’s gender-hacking himself. Or »The Argonauts«, by Maggie Nelson. The actors have all read this text. Exploring the author’s romance with the artist Harry Dodge – who is fluidly gendered – the book turns the concepts of love and marriage, motherhood, pregnancy, and making a family and gender, on their heads.«

 »I know some audience members will probably be asking themselves what a cis-gendered man is doing co-creating a performance about gender fluidity«, I suggest.

Wengenroth tells me,  »Yes, I’m a heterosexual, cis-gendered guy. But what we try to do here is to look at the material with scientific interest and an emotionally open perspective. I don’t really see why this should be bad. But let’s go deeper: theatre is nothing else but pretending to be something that you are not, isn’t it? And when I think about the LGBTQIA+ community, I am most drawn to the Q. I have an affinity for this queer community«.

»Why is that?« I ask.

»Because I’m also often in the situation where I feel outside mainstream expectations for what might seem like trivial reasons: because of the non-traditional roles I take on in my family life, because I like appearing on stage as a woman, or because I like to wear makeup in my daily life. Or maybe something else is going on. Let me give you an example. Sometimes after a show, I go home still wearing my make-up and wake up with it when I take my kids to school. The other parents are sometimes confused if I have glitter under my eyes. They look at me differently. And they ask me: why are you wearing make-up? And if I like, I can tell them: it’s for a theatre performance«.

<![CDATA[Looking for the Future: Ostermeier’s »Italian Night«]]> Tue, 13 Nov 2018 00:00:00 +0000 by Joseph Pearson

I’m looking at a series of photographs, taken on a research trip to Lower Bavaria by director Thomas Ostermeier and his set designer Nina Wetzel. Ostermeier grew up in this region. He points out chalky, plain, and water-stained facades, dark peaked rooves. Many of the interiors of these country pubs are derelict, with broken furniture. »The Gasthaus is dying all over Bavaria because the new generation is not taking over«, he tells me, »Look here – « In another photo, a barmaid opens a window that allows her to sell beer directly to the street. But it doesn’t look like this innovation is used now very often. A ghostly feeling comes from the tavern’s interior, with its many unoccupied places that were once for merriment.

The towns where these pubs are located might at first glance appear to be at the edge of political life, but with the rise of right-wing politics, they are increasingly at the centre of national interest. When I see pictures of these abandoned and underused spaces, I can’t help but think about the perceptions and realities that buoy the Alternative for Germany: economic inequality, a lack of experiences with people from different backgrounds, and the feeling of having been left behind. In the October 2018 elections, the AfD was the second most popular party (after the CSU) in every riding in Lower Bavaria, with almost 30% support in some localities. The playwright Ödön von Horváth appreciated how political life in the provinces impacts the centre in his Volksstücke. The small town becomes a laboratory of political conflicts – most notably in his 1931 play, »Italian Night«. In it, a town’s left-wingers cannot organise themselves to face the fascist threat.

I enter the practice stage of the Schaubühne and am surprised to see this provincial world materialise before me. We are in the fifth scene of Horváth’s play, in a pub, modelled after the photographs Ostermeier took. I see a long illuminated sign, reading »Gasthaus Pichlmeier«. An ancient cigarette machine is stuck to the white rustic façade. A pool of urine has collected at its base. Characters look through windows. Conversations are overheard. Then the set suddenly revolves, and we enter a well-worn interior – that could be from today or fifty years ago – decorated with Italian colours, streamers, a string of lights recycled from Christmas. A small-town band, »The Riccardos«, play a trumpet, guitar and synthesiser. Songs amplify like »It’s Now or Never« or Germanised takes on Italian pop tracks – songs that »almost made it«, Ostermeier tells me. The patrons, meanwhile, sit on dark wooden chairs, at tables with bevelled edges and artificial flowers, gripping their Steins. A gang of Communists slouch in padded jackets, posing with wide stances, smoking, with the projected machoism of the powerless. Perhaps they are recovering from a pub fight, or anticipating the next political catastrophe.

Horváth’s play originally contained a series of »pictures« of country life (each one constituted a scene of the play). But under Ostermeier’s direction, we have instead continuous action that feels more like a film. It’s taken as if in one shot, through the modular revolving set, inside and outside a pub without scene changes. The whole effect of the mise-en-scene is frieze-like – Felliniesque, or perhaps from Visconti – and I’m impressed how space on stage is used by large numbers of actors without it ever feeling messy.

Thomas Ostermeier, sitting in a swivel chair facing the stage, turns around to me, and I ask whether there will be video in his production. Or if he’s discarded what is often seen as a trademark device. He replies that he wanted a fluent feeling of the events. But he doesn’t use video to achieve this effect. Instead, I notice the »imprint« of film in the production: the movement of the stage creates that effect for us. We can alternate between scenes that create distance, where we are lost in the crowd, and then the stage revolves, and we are given moments of intimacy.

Ostermeier remarks, »I can tell you, it’s a lot harder to achieve this effect this way, without the video«.

Meanwhile, on stage, a Communist raises his voice at the bar – a quote from Horkheimer – »Wer aber vom Kapitalismus nicht reden will, sollte auch vom Faschismus schweigen!«. »If you don’t want to talk about capitalism, then you’d better keep quiet about fascism!«

And suddenly we are deep in politics. The play might be read as a lampooning of the left-wing. The Social Democrats throw parties, the communists are devious and ideological, and the two camps cannot agree on anything, and – in their disunity – are unable to face the rising threat of the fascists, practising with their rifles at the other end of town. The Left loses its appeal to the very workers it is meant to represent.

Ostermeier tells me, »If we had done this play six months ago as planned, it would have been prescient. Now, it is just contemporary.«

Indeed, the production was supposed to premiere last Spring but was delayed due to an illness in the ensemble. Certainly, if we look at the results of the SPD in recent elections in Bavaria and Hessen, one could say the production would have hailed the impotence of the traditional Left (although the Greens have meanwhile emerged as a moderating force). But I don’t think the delay makes Horváth’s play’s contemporary resonance any less striking. The company had to make very few changes to the text to make it reflect today’s political climate (such as when they bring the far-right rhetoric up-to-date by lifting text, for example, from today’s Identitäre movement).

»It’s remarkable how we can still identify with Horváth’s portrait of all the varieties of a social democratic left. He also gives us a play that shows us how these democratic forces can lose the countryside, which becomes more and more infiltrated by the right. The big gap between big cities and rural areas is also strikingly contemporary. That is also the reason why I am doing this play: I appreciate that you see on-stage a reality that we all want to ignore. It’s a world that most of the audience left behind themselves, because most people I know in Berlin come from the provinces but no longer want to be connected to it. It’s like a divided country, where the big cities have forgotten about the rest. This is also in the play. It’s also why I think it will be interesting to put this on the stage in the middle of Berlin, which considers itself so open to the world and so cosmopolitan. I am really curious how it will work here.«

While, there has been a strong tendency – in the press, in cultural production – to connect our current experience to that of the Weimar Republic, the constellation of political problems, of course, cannot be the same in Horváth’s play. As Ostermeier tells me, »It might seem we repeat the same mistakes, but the situation today is of course different. To say the opposite would be banal. What I try to do is provoke, or shock, so we understand where we have been already«. Indeed, »History does not repeat, it rhymes«. The play provides a frame through which to analyse our ability to respond to the right-wing.

I ask Ostermeier whether the play provides us with any solutions to the Left’s divisions, or at least some guidance in negotiating our current political terrain.

He replies, »No, it does not provide us with solutions. Rather, it asks the right questions. But let me ask you: would this be an interesting play if it answered those questions? Again, probably not.«

»So, where do we go from here?« I ask him.

»If you are looking for solutions, then maybe listen to the women characters«, Ostermeier suggests, »Or consider what we need to do to reinvent popular aesthetics on the Left to make them truly counter-culture, so they can capture young people’s attention. Or consider what happened during the Unteilbar demonstration in Berlin some weeks ago. People from a wide political spectrum were able to come together and work together. You need a broad message – such as redistribution of income and wealth, anti-racism, respect for diversity – to create solidarity that goes beyond the kind of hair-splitting of issues that is common on the Left«.

The stage revolves once more. Perhaps, we are swept up in the movement. Thomas tells me that »the set is just a little bit scary, like a haunted house«.  And as I watch its spectral movements, I wonder what this play might tell us about German politics in the coming six months, and whether it might again be prescient in unexpected ways. Perhaps, we will be terrified.


À propos, the future is also the subject of a conference on the topic at the Schaubühne on the 25th of November, entitled: »Which Left do we want?«

<![CDATA[Champignol in a Half-Shell, or Comedy Despite Itself]]> Tue, 09 Oct 2018 00:00:00 +0000 by Joseph Pearson

Over the practice stage looms an enormous portrait of Venus rising from the waves. It’s leaning against a wall, upside down, and many of the actors seem slightly off-the-wall and upside down too today.

I noticed them earlier doing funny walks in the parking lot, before the rehearsal. Then there was twitching, grimaces, exaggerated gestures, and histrionic voices, over the simple task of making coffee in the actors’ kitchen. Obviously, working on Herbert Fritsch’s production of Georges Feydeau’s 1892 vaudevillian wonder, »Champignol malgré lui« (»Champignol in Spite of Himself«), does something weird to your everyday life. Or is the cast just really pumped for a bit of slapstick on a Monday morning? – their inner animals coming out, everyone slightly mad on and off stage?

Fritsch gives me an explanation, laughing, »The actors are ständig dabei, always ready in their roles. They are always working with the material. The audience gets into it too: I remember when I played Sir Andrew Aguecheek once in Twelfth Night, I noticed audience members walking like I did on stage afterwards«.

Indeed, there is something infectious about how voice and movement come together in a Fritsch production: words are expressed physically, as if through a seismograph, a wire wiggling, the body like a speaker trembling with noise.

A run-through of the extremely complicated second act gets underway. Herbert Fritsch has jumped onto the practice stage, where he quickly strikes an attitude, to show an actor a desired expression. Fritsch’s wiry frame moves precisely – he was an actor himself, after all –  »Like that«, he explains.

Feydeau’s script is already precise in its mise-en-scène: where to stand, how to gesture. And the dramaturge Bettina Ehrlich explains to me that it was almost impossible to cut the play; it is so tightly crafted. The deconstruction of the Ödön von Horváth text we saw last season in Fritsch’s production of »Zeppelin« is hardly possible here; this play encourages a rendition from the front to back cover. 

Scenes from the second act take place in a military camp. There’s a case of mistaken identity. The wrong Champignol has been called up for the army. To make matters worse, the real one shows up too! There is the comedy about hierarchies and petty power struggles.

Robert Beyer is a zany and power-hungry officer, leading the roll call. The soldiers are contorted behind him, standing in a line. In fact, there are large numbers of people on-stage, many drawn from the ranks of the theatre program of the University of the Arts (UdK). They are in their first year, and it is their first time on the professional stage.

»How is it to work with young actors as opposed to seasoned professionals? Do you work differently with them?« I ask.

Fritsch tells me, »No, not really. I work with the students the same way as I work with my other actors. There is no difference; they are doing the same work. I don’t want to give them the feeling that they are students. When I approached the UdK, I also did no casting. I talked to them and said that they should all come. And I love how much joy they bring to the production; it’s been a very welcome collaboration«.

Mon capitaine! they cry out, using the French pronunciation. Mon lieutenant! Meanwhile a percussive music – by Taiko Saito, Ingo Günther, Fabrizio Tentoni – guides the formation.

Fritsch tells me that his works are operatic. After all, he just returned from Hamburg where his production of »Così fan tutte« premiered.

»The text needs to dance and sing«, says Fritsch, »It has to have a musicality in movement, speaking becomes almost singing. That the piece lives for its musicality is a clear goal, so that the work can be internationally understood, even though German is being spoken. I do not just stage the text’s content, but also its musicality. And I avoid the didactic in favour of the musical. When theatre gets didactic, it’s the end of theatre«. 

I wonder whether, indeed, it’s natural to follow Mozart with Feydeau. But this production’s rhythms are rather different: off-kilter, the pleasure in the loud and jerky, the strutting, creeping, and the prancy. The quick gestures – tick-tack – make me think of the original meaning of the word »slapstick«, named for a hinged wooden bat that makes a loud sound when struck. The bright colours used on stage and in costumes are just as striking.

»But it’s not just musical, it’s also bodily – « I suggest.

»It is dance«, he replies.  

The gestural and audible composition is completed with Fritsch’s expansive use of space. The actors race about the scene, hiding behind an enormous sofa upstage, before darting downstage to mirror one another before the audience.

»They must use the room, they must fill it«, says Fritsch, »Even if one actor is alone on stage, she must also use the space. I want the actors to use large spaces on stage, as this helps the text hang together, not the opposite«.


After the rehearsal, I sit with Herbert Fritsch outside in the late-September sun and talk about comedy as a genre and its historical dimension.

»Thinking about the influence of Brecht, I feel there is an expectation on the recent German stage for theatre to be strange and distancing. But usually this is also accompanied by a heavy seriousness. What impresses me is that your work distances, but in its musicality it is also very joyful. Why is distancing so often accompanied by sadness?« I ask.

Fritsch replies, »I can’t provide a simple answer. But I think that the German feeling of guilt, and fear of showing joy, has something to do with it. And I think this is a mistake. I have often said that what was created in the 1920s, and what was destroyed by the Nazis in the 1930s, is something worth reclaiming. The Nazis tried to exterminate the comic, so we have a job to bring it back. People say that the Germans have no sense of humour, but we have an unbelievable sense of humour. I think Wagner is hilarious, it’s just that it is played heavily«.

»So Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or ›working through the past‹, has been partial when it comes to comedy. Because we think we need to take on a serious tone when discussing serious subjects, and so we sidestep the comedy that was lost?«, I suggest.

»Yes. Think about this: the bright colours I use sometimes shock people. But I ask, would they prefer if everything were brown? Brown!«

Fritsch goes on to tell me how he was originally worried about staging a play with so many military scenes, and that eventually he felt he could in fact »demilitarise« them because of the comedy. Indeed, artistic responses against fascism and militarism need not only be serious. Perhaps this is an opportunity for a higher appraisal of comedy on the Berlin stage.

This leads me to thinking about how the comic works of Georges Feydeau (1862-1921) were taken more and more seriously over time. Originally they were produced as slapstick and vaudeville – genres of farce often considered to be without psychological complexity or moral claims. But, eventually, on account of their sophisticated structures and almost existentialist humour, they soon became part of the French literary canon. Feydeau was recognised as, arguably, the most important French humourist since Molière, and his works became (at times ossified) staples of the Comédie-Française repertoire. And in French, of course, the word »comédie« means both »theatre« and »comedy«.

Feydeau is then a natural stepping stone to think more broadly about debates in criticism and stagecraft about the place of comedy on the stage. There has been, of course, much debate in literary history on the supposed superiority of tragedy over comedy. Philosophers from Aristotle to Nietzsche argued for the superiority of tragedy and comedy was relegated as an arena for low characters, superficial moral inquiry, simple diversion, and shallow emotions. Meanwhile, as William Hazlitt opined, »Tragic poetry [is] the most impassioned species« because it takes us to the »greatest depth of passion and the sublime«.

But from the view of practitioners – the playwright, the director, and the cast – is bringing an audience to pity and fear really less difficult than making them feel joy? Or as Vivien Leigh said, »Comedy is much more difficult than tragedy, and a much better training, I think. It's much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh« and that, as an actor, »You walk a tight rope in comedy. Tragedy you can wallow in«.

Are the emotions elicited by comedy – empathy, self-criticism, the recognition of the vanity and ridiculousness of power structures – so much less sophisticated? Perhaps they might be the very ingredients most needed in anti-fascism, found in a place we don’t expect: a colourful Fritsch-directed comedy by Feydeau.

Schaubühne – Theory