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»status quo's« Mirror on Injustice (and Patriarchy in the Theatre)

»status quo's« Mirror on Injustice (and Patriarchy in the Theatre)

by Joseph Pearson

January, 08 2019

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«.

status quo

by Maja Zade
Director: Marius von Mayenburg
World Premiere