Essay by

Power Plays

Cutting-Edge Political Theatre in Germany

Essay by

I have paid close attention to German theatre—their repertory model, generous funding, and powerful shows that seem to prioritize directors—since I was introduced to it in university. It was antithetical to everything I was accustomed to in America, and I was intrigued. My latest trip to Germany, with the Goethe Institut to attend the Politik im Freien Theater Festival in Munich in November 2018, gave me an even better idea of it, in terms of its strengths and weaknesses and its independent scene.

The festival name translates to “politics in the free theatre” and it features the most important work happening in the independent scene in German-language countries. “Frei theatre” in Germany refers to independent productions that aren’t produced by the country’s 140 state and city theatres—the latter of which received generous subsidies.

That said, many of Germany’s world-famous theatre artists are from the free scene. And if the work shown at the Politik im Freien Theater Festival is any indication, the free scene seems better suited to address pressing issues in Germany today than its state theatres. The state theatres are big ships: in a country of eighty-five million, thirty-five million theatre tickets are sold to their shows yearly. Yet, most of their ensembles are white, most of their directors are men, and their leaders are politically appointed. The free scene is more diverse, isn’t politically bound to a constituency that has a conservative idea of how to interpret the classics, and has a more bottom-up funding structure.

Theatre in Munich

The Politik im Freien Theater Festival is run by a governmental organization called Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (BPB, or the Federal Office for Civic Education), whose focus is on teaching democratic values to its citizens. (This focus fulfills a mandate in the German constitution written by American officials during World War II). The triennial festival is hosted each time by a different city’s artistic and educational institutions, who also select a theme. The organizers pull no punches in stressing the political nature of the festival. In 2011, in Dresden, the theme was “fremd,” which translates to “strange” with connotations of “alien”; at the time, the city was an incubator for the nascent xenophobic, anti-muslim group Pegida.

The theme of the most recent festival in Munich was “reich,” which translates to “rich.”

Munich is the home to many of Germany’s major corporations, such as BMW, and multinational companies like Google have their headquarters in the city. Unlike much of Germany, Munchners have a reputation for their outward displays of affluence; a walk through the city center is a walk through a bizarre site of globalized wealth. In the half mile between the city’s two state theatres, most store windows contained at least one item pushing a thousand euros.

The festival was co-presented by the Münchner Kammerspiele, a state theatre led by Matthias Lilienthal, who has been on the cutting edge of German theatre for a very long time and who has integrated aspects of the free scene within the neoclassical repertory, bringing shows from the scene into his theatre’s programming.

The theme of the festival, reich, plays on Lilienthal’s tenure as artistic director. Munich doesn’t have much of a free scene, and, with its inaffordability and fairly conservative demographics, it’s unlikely it could. Yet Lilienthal’s decision to hire prominent free-scene artists into the repertory is a powerful statement on where he believes German theatre should be heading.

The Postdramatic Theatre

A newcomer to the German theatre scene may be surprised to see how few of the plays at the festival feature story, narrative, or characters. Instead, many of them are more interested in bending the rules of theatre. Rather than depict the world as it is, this type of work explores the ways in which we create, see, or interpret theatre in order to create a play where the content and form are one in the same. (If this sounds confusing, it’s because it is.)

In the German-speaking world, the lead scholar of this type of theatre is Hans Thies-Lehmann, and its most well-known practitioners are a stable of collectives that have risen to prominence in the past twenty-five years. Three of the premier groups from this school, Gob Squad, Rimini Protokoll, and She She Pop, were featured at the Politik im Freien Theater Festival. All of these groups also happened to be founded at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies, where Thies-Lehmann and Andrzej Wirth taught. Performers of this school create texts in inventive ways, sometimes turning audience members into performers by having them work through games or prompts, or working with non-professionals who tell their own stories on stage.

This type of theatre is rarely produced by the state theatres, and artists and collectives working in this manner have access to only a fraction of the cultural funding made available by the German government. Yet the post-dramatic collectives like Gob Squad and Rimini Protokoll, who make the most politically and socially consequential work in the country, are in high demand worldwide. The shows they presented at the festival help illustrate their importance.

If the work shown at the Politik im Freien Theater Festival is any indication, the free scene seems better suited to address pressing issues in Germany today than its state theatres.

Creation (For Dorian) / Actors Who Don’t Get Applied Like Paint

Gob Squad’s Creation (for Dorian) features three members of their ensemble and six guest artists—three of whom are a generation or two below the ensemble, three of whom are a generation or two above. The piece explores the act of treating actors like objects meant to be deployed for aesthetic purposes while exploring powerful provocative questions around image and beauty, like: “Have you ever been told you were too thin for a role?” or “Have you ever been told you were too old?”

two performers pose with outstretched hands

Gob Squad's Creation (Pictures for Dorian). Photo by David Baltzer.

Similar to most of the plays at the festival, Creation (For Dorian), which evokes the Oscar Wilde novel in its title, features little, if any, story. At the top of the show, one actor is fiddling with a video camera, another is finishing an ikebana flower arrangement. After contemplating their mortality—members of Gob Squad’s collective are all now mostly in their late forties—they bring out their guest artists. At this point, the focus of the play shifts to the guests. With only two days to rehearse the piece, the actors respond to provocative yes or no questions truthfully on stage and tell stories of their lives that relate to growing into, or aging out of, a life in the theatre.

Like many of Gob Squad’s pieces, the format of having guest actors perform most of the play factors heavily into the overarching meaning of the piece. Creation (for Dorian) focuses on what gets projected onto the actor by the author, director, and audience without ever needing to dive into narrative. The younger actors are asked to portray emotions or states of being that fetishize their youth, like “hope.” The older actors are asked to tell stories of their lives; one moving account was of a dancer’s relationship with a critic who had praised his ability to “fly,” until the dancer found that, at a certain age, he could no longer make his impressive leaps. In every town the show is played, new guests are brought in, which means six of the actors each night will have a strong relationship to the community, and three will be puppet masters and instigators. For a play about performers reflecting on their careers as performers at the mercy of other people, Creation (For Dorian) achieves aesthetic resolution by placing the authority of authorship squarely in the hands of its guest artists. 

Paradise Now / Power and the Director-Actor Relationship

Power relationships are a constitutive of theatre. The actor is traditionally given a small fiefdom over their body or voice, but is intended to be subservient to the director or playwright of the piece—the author who controls where that body goes and what that voice says. Of course, in this post-dramatic theatre world, authorship has been redistributed, flipped, and deconstructed. Still, if the most recent Politik im Freien Theater Festival in Munich is a testament, politics in theatre are all about power: who has it, what they are allowed to do with it, who is made accessible to it, and what the viewer consents to upon walking into the theatre.

Swiss director Milo Rau recently wrote a manifesto, and one of the provocations suggests that “theatre is not a product, but a production process.” It stands to reason that the process of theatre, if not necessarily the product, ought to be utopic. The festival lineup featured “political” work while provocatively recreating toxic power structures within their production process.

performer with a collage of images being projected onto them

Michiel Vandevelde's Paradise Now. Photo by Clara Hermans.

Opening the festival was Paradise Now (1968–2018), a piece directed by the youthful Michiel Vandevelde, which appropriated elements of the Living Theatre’s Paradise Now. The production begins as a piece of youth theatre in the guise of chic contemporary performance, or perhaps it begins as a piece of contemporary performance in the guise of youth theatre. Young artists, age thirteen to twenty-three, walk downstage to minimal electronic sound design.

The piece is powerful and controversial, offering a strong interpretation on the nature of hope and rebellion in a post-capitalist society. The actors form tableaux of famous scenes from every year counting down to 1968, and then the music shifts and the actors assume a kind of frenzied, deeply embodied dance. A young boy is held in the arms of an older boy. A girl is lifted into the air by two boys as they snap her like a whip in the air. Her head comes precipitously close to the floor at lightning speed. The moment culminates with the older actors climbing into the audience, standing on the arms and backs of the chairs, and stripping fully.

The show contains political text written by the actors and partially edited by the director, which incorporate quotations by the semiocapitalist thinker Bifo Berardi. Berardi is clearly a major influence on the director. And for good reason: his writing suffuses the direness of the rise of fascism with a hope for an awakening from the status quo, which eventually consumed the anticapitalist fury of the social movements of the sixties and seventies. Essentially, Paradise Now offers a kind of balm for the disenchanted.

Every person I spoke to after watching the piece felt they could only formulate an opinion if they knew more about the production process. During the show, the actors speak about their difficulties and successes finding hope in a politically fraught world full of despair. Did these statements belong to the young artists or to the older director? How was the nudity and associatively sexual content generated and handled in rehearsal? It seems like, in a way, this is one of many works happening now in Europe that is interested in exploring power relationships between actors and the director in the rehearsal room.

Politics in theatre are all about power: who has it, what they are allowed to do with it, who is made accessible to it, and what the viewer consents to upon walking into the theatre.

Enjoy Racism and £¥€$ / When Theatre Feels More like a Game to be Played

Whereas Gob Squad creates its material by having its guest actors play a kind of game in rehearsal to find the material they’ll present in front of an audience, other pieces in the festival explore the concept of power by putting the audience through a game or experiment. Enjoy Racism, by the Swiss directing duo Thom Truong, separates audience members into two rooms based on their eye color. I was in the blue-eyed group.

Enjoy Racism is as much about the choices the artists have made as it is about the choices the audience makes during the show. Mind you, this piece is not exactly a fun game to be played. According to its creators, the play would be a failure if it didn’t in some way receive pushback from the audience. There are no dissolved power structures here, but rather power structures made painfully visible and turned on the audience for our own improvement.

Audience watches a videographer film a performer onstage

Tom Truong's Enjoy Racism. Photo by Linda Pollari.

At some point, the MC discovers a brown-eyed woman has accidentally been admitted to the blue-eyed room and has to go back to the brown-eyed room. Laughing nervously, she gathers her things and is escorted back. The most interesting moment of the evening occurred when another audience member implored the exiting brown-eyed woman to smuggle champagne and food to the brown room. It was surprising to see how quickly we as an audience began to play along with a corrosive power dynamic.

Eventually, the brown-eyed people are invited into the room under the instruction that they would be verbally abused, shouted at, and ordered around by the MC. As they enter, balloons drop, confetti blasts, and the brown-eyed are ushered into the center while the blues sit in a semi-circle around them. The MC brings out a bowl of water to remove her whiteface. She takes off her wig and asks the brown-eyed and the blue-eyed to switch places. After we switch, she begins to sternly order us to sit still and not move. If anyone moves, they are singled out. Eventually, the MC focuses on a single young woman in the audience who won’t stop looking at her. We are told we are being made to feel powerless, and that we should be able to follow directions and listen to her for twenty minutes. She tells the young woman that she is making the piece about her. It seems obvious that this much is true. After all, the audience has come to see this piece performed by this woman, and if there is any objection to her instructions, it is abundantly clear that we are free to leave.

Truong creates a clear dichotomy in Enjoy Racism. You can either give agency to the performer, or you can take the spotlight and shine it on yourself. I was told by one of the creators that this was the first time they had performed the piece where a “rebellion” hadn’t occurred—where the brown-eyed hadn’t tried to invade the blue room. Essentially, the premise asks a predominantly white European audience whether they can tolerate giving their power, agency, and privilege to a person of color they have paid tickets to see. According to the artists, they usually can’t.

I found this piece particularly compelling. I was interested in how the audience seemed to express shock or be appalled at the MC’s provocations that the brown-eyed people in the other room were lesser than. However, as time went on, the piece chilled for me. It became clear that the actors created a narrow window for the audience to engage the piece. If the audience acquiesced throughout, as our group mostly did, there would be no provocation. A piece like this essentially traps the audience by subtly giving them the microphone to perform their own politics. A more successful piece would create space for the audience’s “performance” to become so glaringly uncomfortable that other audience members would intervene on behalf of the performers.

Another piece in the festival that pushed the audience to extremes was the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed’s £¥€$. £¥€$, or Lies, uses the audience to recreate a global financial meltdown. Rather than finding your seat once you enter the theatre, you are guided to one of eight card tables in a stylish casino. Every audience member faces out from the center of the room towards a croupier, who instructs you in the rules of the game. Each table represents a piece of land (named after the first player to arrive at the table, ours was West Will), and every player a bank. The croupier provides each audience member with a set of dice and explains that each successful roll will grant their bank more money. As the game heats up, riskier strategies are introduced, the music that once faintly played overhead turns to heart-pumping electronic music, and we are occasionally told over loudspeaker the state of the current global marketplace as well as the degrees to which our collective body heat has increased temperature in the room.

actor holding a playing card

 Ontroerend Goed's £¥€$. Photo by Thomas Dhanens.

The croupier acts as a cool-headed anchor in an electrifying show. We are encouraged to believe that somehow we may beat the other tables to have the highest credit rating available, and to get to that point we are encouraged to buy government bonds. However, as the croupiers begin trading their government bonds with other tables, there is desperation in their voices. We are told some fast facts about other countries having to default on their government bonds and high flying strategies about how we could play to get our money back. What started as a game quickly turns to theatre as the room erupts with croupiers frantically hawking government bonds for lower and lower rates.

A more successful piece would create space for the audience’s “performance” to become so glaringly uncomfortable that other audience members would intervene on behalf of the performers.

You learn about yourself playing games with friends, and you learn even more playing games with strangers. I was the only American at the table, and I was painfully conscious of my own country’s complicity in the financial crisis being poetically evoked by the play. All the same, I still badly wanted to win, despite the fact that I didn’t know what winning exactly meant. This seems to be the point of the shrewd dramaturgy of £¥€$, which does nothing to stand in the way of an audience member ratcheting up their own excitement. I found myself constantly switching between two modes: the contemplative theatre viewer and the gung-ho Vegas gambler. At this gambling table I was loud, excitable, and competitive; all stereotypes I hold of the “classic” American, who in my mind is the kind of person behind the institutions that wreak havoc on the rest of the world. £¥€$ cleverly casts its audience members as being representatives of major institutions. In doing so, it exposes not only how ridiculous the systems of global banking can be, but also humanizes the experts who call the shots. 

My self-discoveries at the croupier table were very much public. Like in Enjoy Racism, there was no “audience” for me to disappear into. And yet, unlike Enjoy Racism, I felt like any ugliness I revealed of myself was wholly my own. I was completely implicated without feeling as though the performers were guiding me towards a conclusion of their own. Others at the table clearly didn’t share my gusto with the dice. They were uninterested in the cheap thrills of the game and were there to see a show. But, walking out of the theatre, I felt as much a part of the show as the croupiers and the set design.

Politik im Freien Theater: Arts as a Constitutional Requirement

I have a hard time imagining a more salient combination of forces to make the Politik im Freien Theater Festival so powerful, progressive, and welcoming. It strikes me as a uniquely German endeavor that a constitutional requirement to educate people on democratic values could result in such powerful, engaging, and popular art. I am curious to see if Germany’s state theatres will continue to adopt the progressive mantle of the BPB and Lilienthal, or if they will satisfy their audiences by contenting them with the familiar. It is worth noting that Lilienthal’s innovations have cost him his job at his state theatre—the politicians of Munich have declined to renew his contract, which ends in 2020.

I started my journey to Europe enthralled with its state theatres. Their luxurious funding, glamorous ensembles, and innovative directors have produced work that has always filled me with wonder, inspiration, and envy. Yet the more I come to experience the other side of German theatre, I see how its scrappy genre-bending approach mirrors some of the best of what I love about American theatre: an emphasis on collectives and performance artists in the face of established, sometimes regressive, big theatres.

In a medium that feels generally outmoded, elitist, colonial, and fraught with scandal, it is heartening to see brave theatremakers leaning into the act of theatre to shine light on these problems. It is heartening still to see a government with such a firm funding structure to give them voice.

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