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Towards a Performance Ethics of Cohabitation?

The modes of universalization that contest those regimes of power most effectively are the ones that simultaneously expose the “inassimilable” as the precondition of a current mode of universalization and demand a dissolution and reformulation of the process of universalization in the name of the inassimilable. The point is not to convert the inassimilable into the assimilable, but to challenge those regimes that require assimilation to their own norms. Only when those norms break apart does universalization have a chance to renew itself within a radically democratic project. — Judith Butler, Parting Ways (2012)

A Series of Qualifications

The performance ensemble discussed here is one with which I am intimately and emotionally involved; I am a cofounder, director, and performer with the group. I am also writing as an outsider—an American living and working in Berlin—one who is relatively new to the particular contours, challenges, inclusions, and exclusions that shape the history of “Turkish-German” relations and the “integration” of other minority populations in Berlin. I have done my best to achieve a degree of self-reflexivity by speaking with others who witnessed the event. At present, however, I have had limited interaction with members of the mainly Muslim communities (noting the universalizing problematics of the term “community”) that were offended by the performance I describe. The situation I depict was filled with very high levels of emotion from participants on all “sides,” and this essay has served, in part, as a way of coming to terms with my experience as a performer in and cocreator of the piece. This reflection is also only the beginning of a longer-term engagement (both a follow-up performance piece and perhaps a larger research project) with the many questions posed here.

“The Golden Age, It’s Gonna Be Great”

Cast of UtopiaTM performing in Görlitzer Park.
Photo by Lisa Merk & Mark von Wardenburg.

On Sunday afternoon, August 19, 2012, the ensemble of Shakespeare im Park Berlin presented the final showing (concluding a monthlong run) of its new, site-specific performance piece in Berlin’s Görlitzer Park. UtopiaTM: Where All Is True moved through the park and made use of its varied topography and structures as sites for interrelated “scenes” to unfold: carnival games, workers’ protests, execution dirges, PowerPoint presentations, synthpop fight songs, urban gardening, fashion shows, golden latrines, tire swing torture, Dada literature lessons, and jazz hands, of course. Shakespeare im Park Berlin understands itself to be working in the tradition of Joe Papp’s “public” theatre, situating performance in urban space, and playing free of charge to a diverse public. The ensemble brings Papp’s concept to Berlin, with a different aesthetic and political orientation, a different approach to live performance and to textual (re)production. The original pieces are collaboratively written/devised for Görlitzer Park, which itself serves as both a site of and character in performance. There is no stage, no overnight camping for tickets—no tickets at all. Rather, the performances blur boundaries between park space and play space, and work to rethink these dynamic spaces as simultaneous sites of multilingual performance, (post)dramatic (ir)reverence, and “public” art.

On August 19, the underlying terms, assumptions, dynamics, and politics of this so-called “public” were called into question in a most dramatic fashion. Midway through the performance, the Shakespeare im Park ensemble found itself in the midst of a very divided public indeed. A portion of the sizable audience, followed along, participated in, and seemed to enjoy or at least engage with the performance as it moved through the park. Another portion of the audience, many of whom were children and adolescents, made it quite clear that they were more than displeased with what they were seeing and hearing. During the second half of the performance, the ensemble’s performers were spit on by members of the audience; groups of spectators blatantly disrupted and screamed over/at scenes; and in the final moments of the piece—a giant, ironic musical number fittingly titled “The Golden Age”—audience members threw food, sand, soccer balls, and stones at the performers.

Another portion of the audience, many of whom were children and adolescents, made it quite clear that they were more than displeased with what they were seeing and hearing.


A cast member wearing a bridal veil interacts with an audience member.
Photo by Lisa Merk & Mark von Wardenburg.

The weekend of August 18 and 19 was already a highly charged one, especially in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, home to a large percentage of the city’s Muslim population. Sunday marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan and the start of the Eid-ul-Fitr festivities to officially break a month of fasting. The holiday consists of different rituals in different countries, but amidst Berlin’s (and Kreuzberg’s) predominantly Turkish Muslims, the Şeker Bayramı or Sugar Festival, is a day filled with celebration, an abundance of sweet foods and candy, and for many, time spent outside grilling in Görlitzer Park. Just one day earlier, on the final day of Ramadan, the extremely right-wing group, pro-Deutschland, staged an anti-Islam protest in front of a mosque in Berlin’s Wedding district. Brandishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and signs that read, “Islam does not belong in Germany.” Members of pro-Deutschland followed up the Saturday protest with a march through Kreuzberg on Sunday. Around 5 p.m., Shakespeare im Park (with a sizable audience in tow) arrived as planned in an area of the Görlitzer Park densely populated with Muslim families and proceeded with their performance of UtopiaTM. While the ensemble had already performed the piece ten times in this same space to mostly receptive audiences, on this day, the highly politicized and sometimes explicit performance both provoked and absorbed an incredible amount of negative energy.

In what follows, I argue that this very challenging and complex situation raises questions about the politics and the very possibilities of site-specific, community, and public performance; it is a situation that forces a (re)consideration of performance’s role in exposing the challenges and limits of cultural tolerance, an unwieldy, and universalizing, discourse of multiculturalism, and a public or community sphere conceived in merely secular terms. Also, as a theatremaker still very much committed to public performance in the communities in which I work, I hope this reflection will also serve as a starting point to elicit suggestions and critique about how this situation could/should affect the kind of work we do and how we do it.

“Though No Man Has Any Thing, Every Man is Rich”

One great irony of August 19 is that UtopiaTM found itself—in performance—enmeshed in and confronted by the very quagmires it set out to explore—through performance. In 1516, Thomas More—English humanist and trusted advisor to Henry VIII—dared to think, to dream, and to design from scratch a new, a “better” (albeit a fictional) world. He wrote of a far off society in which private property did not exist, a society committed to, for the most part, fundamental equality and tolerance. More’s revolutionary Utopia quickly emerged as one of the most important pieces of political literature of its time. Twenty years later, however, in the midst of Europe’s Reformation, More’s relations with the VIIIth soured, and he was executed as a most ungracious traitor—and a most “visionary” Catholic martyr. Seventy years after that, William Shakespeare (and a few collaborators) looked back on More, on Henry, on Catherine of Aragon, on the (in)famous Cardinal Wolsey and composed two collaboratively-written plays from the perspective of Elizabeth’s new (Protestant) world order, her Golden Age: The Book of Sir Thomas More and Henry VIII, or All is True.

UtopiaTM: Where All Is True takes these three texts as source material for a new performance that begins with a somewhat paradoxical question: What might it mean to pitch that idea of a different world, to sell it, to market it, then to run it through the meat grinder of political reality? In other words, what would it mean to adopt More’s fictional proposals as programmatic solutions to the social strife of the present moment? Or finally, how might one concretely site the “no place” of More’s Utopia? In UtopiaTM, More, himself, is given just that opportunity:

Banish these plagues, Sire. Restrain those engrossings of the rich. Leave fewer occasions to idleness; let agriculture be set up again. Let the manufacture of commodities be regulated, so there may be work found for those companies of idle people whom want forces to be thieves. In short, a social experiment in which we institute one principle above all others: abolish all things private. […] Where no man has any property, all men zealously pursue the good of the public.

The performance proceeds, then, with More’s “social experiment.” He institutes a six-hour workday for all. He builds public gardens and open food stores. He eliminates competition, money, jewelry, and private property. In fact, he does away with privacy writ large: private meetings are not permitted; private spaces are made communal; formerly private pleasures (eating, urinating, itching, scratching, rubbing, defecating, and fornicating) are brought out into the public. As the piece continues, More’s rules (all taken from Utopia itself) for a “free” public realm become more and more stringent, univocal, and ultimately oppressive. In one of its valences, then, UtopiaTM explores the very fraught nature of a uniform public that works to accommodate (without assimilating) the fundamental particularity and uniqueness inherent to that public.

To complicate matters, More’s public is by no means a merely secular public. In fact, one of the performance’s central tasks is to explore the highly tenuous role religion plays in the construction of More’s new world. On the one hand, Utopia—in its pursuit of absolute equality—insists on fundamental religious tolerance. On the other, More—the great humanist—is (in)famous for his brutal, verbal attacks on Martin Luther, his fanatical burning of (suspected) heretics at the stake, and his own martyrdom in the face of Henry’s burgeoning Reformation (all of which get ample “stage” time). UtopiaTM thus performs some of the challenges of speaking of a public interest, a public good, a public space. For More, a pursuit of these publics does not only entail a (violent) intolerance for the so-called greedy adherents to “all things private”; a pursuit of these publics also exposes ways in which secular and religious logics are intertwined in complex (and sometimes explosive) ways.

Görlitzer Park: “The Only Commonwealth Truly Worthy of that Name”

Shakespeare im Park works to be respectful of Görlitzer Park’s larger (and diverse) ecosystem of activity. While UtopiaTM most certainly—and consciously—engaged highly politicized themes in a highly politicized space, prior to August 19, I had also not fully understood the ensemble to be a potential source of heated artistic antagonism. Since Shakespeare im Park moves across the park as a central part of its concept, the ensemble has made it an element of their practice to spend significant time before (and during) each performance talking to all park-goers sitting in or near spaces where performances are planned. While it is a constant challenge with large audiences following along, the ensemble works to be a part of the park’s ongoing activities, and not to impose itself on those who have come for a different reason. Other than a few isolated (and drunken) instances, park-goers in the past have been more than gracious. Many, who have not explicitly come to the park to see a show, decide to follow along with the performance—for one scene or its entirety. Others decide to go about their days as if the performance was not taking place. A number of park regulars have also become generous supporters of the ensemble in a number of capacities.

The events of August 19 helped me to consider a number of critical—and problematic—blind spots inherent to both the ensemble’s performance and “community” relations practices. These events revealed the challenges of assuming a particular set of values to be universal, and the dangers of failing to consider—and sometimes blatantly ignoring—other (often competing) values, prevalent amidst a large part of the ensemble’s public. In the planning phases of the performance, for instance, we assumed a particular standard of what kind of content is permissible in “public” space; we also assumed a particular standard that all public space is shared space, free and open to be used by all, no matter what. The ensemble devised the piece and selected its performance spaces in the park, abiding by a particular “aesthetic” logic: what will best serve the piece? The ensemble did not make it a priority, however, in their construction of the piece, to consider just how inaccessible (even alienating) it could be to certain contingents of its public. The ensemble this year consisted of mostly white and, I believe, mostly nonreligious performers. The bilingual piece was performed in English and German (with no Turkish). And though the ensemble was diligent in its preshow ritual of talking to all park-goers explaining that the performance would be coming through, we did not initially address the fact that certain content might be—or at least seem—controversial. Rather, we (perhaps arrogantly) assumed that anyone who did not want to watch or partake would respect our assumed—and universalizing—understanding of the public nature of the space. Members of the ensemble, equipped with candy for children in the park, greeted families, wished them a happy Sugar Festival, and hoped the final performance would proceed as it had on the previous days. (In retrospect, I am very conflicted by our decision to distribute candy to children as part of a preshow ritual. One the one hand, it was a well-intentioned attempt to engage a “community” [of children] with whom, up to that point, we had mostly positive interactions. On the other hand, the decision also represents a very problematic display of [white, secular] ignorance—even arrogance—about the religious importance of the Sugar Festival to the Muslim community. It was, in certain ways, a condescending gesture that attempted to excuse the potentially inflammatory “content” of the performance, in exchange for a cursory albeit genuinely friendly gesture.)

The Golden Age: Redux

The second half of UtopiaTM charts the gradual breakdown of More’s system—and of More himself—as his rules and provisions become obsessive and unlivable, and as Henry’s Reformation proceeds. After a first tour through More’s “social experiment”—which culminates in a stylized (and at times explicit) performance of those most “public” pleasures mentioned above—the performers gather for a large banquet, which goes horribly awry (within the loose narrative of the performance that is). A central character from the first half of the performance (played by a man) has been strategically refunctioned as Anne Boleyn in drag and planted to push Henry’s hand in his ascendance as head of the Church of England. Anne is delivered in a cake and proceeds to court Henry through a brief burlesque-esque review followed by a round of synthpop Renaissance dancing. It is during this part of the performance that the division between More’s own values of universal equality and his strong religious values becomes explosive. And the staging choices for these scenes were devised to highlight and to provoke reflection on that division.

Two performers embrace each other outside.
Photo by Lisa Merk & Mark von Wardenburg.

On August 19, it was also these scenes that exposed the dissonances—or “inassimilable” differences—between the ensemble’s agenda for the performance and the varying (religious) values of its diverse public. We were well aware that portions of our audience share very strong homophobic sentiments and have strong views about exposed bodies and sexual content in public. We remained committed, however, to exploring the space as one where this kind of expression should be permitted (especially since we understood it as essential to the performance itself). After the performance on August 18, a member of the ensemble reported that she heard certain audience members complaining that they were upset by the scene. But it was on August 19 that these “inassimilable” differences erupted in hostility. During the banquet two young men sat very close to the scene, spitting at the performers, and sneering loudly in Anne’s direction: “Do you know how disgusting you look?” It was only in this moment that I noticed just how divided the entire scene felt between a (mostly) seated audience that engaged with the performance as it unfolded, and another audience (mostly) standing around, leering uncomfortably, nervously even, and talking very loud (even screaming at times) over the performers. As the scene continued, a young woman approached another ensemble member and asked: “Is this against Islam? People are saying that this is against Islam; that you are doing this to mock our religion and our feast.”

And by the time the ensemble gathered on the giant slide (see photo) for More’s execution and an ironic celebration of “The Golden Age,” the situation had devolved into a chaotic scene of mixed and complex emotions, and differing agendas.

While members of the ensemble continued talking with park-goers and picnickers as the performance continued, trying to quell these false rumors and to explain more about the content of the performance, the tension continued to mount—especially among young people in the Park. And by the time the ensemble gathered on the giant slide (see photo) for More’s execution and an ironic celebration of “The Golden Age,” the situation had devolved into a chaotic scene of mixed and complex emotions, and differing agendas. There was a large group of children—ranging between four and fifteen years old—running up and down the slide, jumping in front of performers, and screaming. Some of these children were familiar with the performance and had shared some very nice moments with the ensemble during the rehearsal period; perhaps they had returned for another celebratory moment, though this time the atmosphere had quite a different timbre. Other children were very angry, and some quite aggressive. The performers, who did not know quite how to respond, tried to make their way through the planned performance on behalf of the other portion of their public who was watching with anticipation. As the ensemble attempted to perform the final musical number, some of the angry children began hurling sand, stones, corncobs, and soccer balls into the scene. A gentleman approached another ensemble member and exclaimed: “You have to respect our religion. You can't do a performance like this on our Sugar Festival. Especially not with actors getting half-naked and men kissing men.” Fortunately, in the midst of the chaos, no children or performers were physically injured.

(Many) Lingering Questions

A rear view of the audience at UtopiaTM.
Photo by Lisa Merk & Mark von Wardenburg.

My purpose here is not to form—or elicit—judgments about the behavior of anyone involved in the events of August 19. The situation was highly uncomfortable and highly complicated, and things could/should have been handled differently from all “sides.” The incident revealed some very real problems lurking beneath a totalizing panacea of multicultural harmony: it revealed a sustained and willing ignorance—by all parties involved—of certain life choices and value systems; and it revealed the difficulty of figuring out how those systems could/should interrelate. The incident also raises a series of very practical questions about the kinds of and varying responsibilities a performance (and its ensemble) has to its public. Does a performance ensemble that plays in public space have a responsibility to acknowledge (and engage) the values of a portion of its public, even if some of those values are not easily compatible with certain values assumed by that ensemble? If so, what do those operations of “engagement” look like? How are they performed? Should the values of different contingents of the public determine the content of a performance piece? Should the values of different contingents of the public determine where that ensemble chooses to perform? How does an ensemble committed to freedom of (public) (artistic) expression honor that expression without being disrespectful? In the case of UtopiaTM specifically: Should we have considered a different day for the finale? Should we have considered using other spaces in the park, even if we found the spaces we did choose to be most aesthetically interesting? Should a consideration of the performance’s public have provoked a (re)consideration of engaging such themes in Görlitzer Park—especially on this holiday/holy-day? I do not yet have answers to these very challenging questions. But for me, the questions themselves reveal just how important performance itself is as a “public,” collective practice for exploring—as hard as it might be—the “ethics” of our varied, potentially antagonistic, albeit always interdependent cohabitations.

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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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Dear Scott, Polly, Terence, CSM, Lydia, and Michael,

Thank you for your comments. There is much to say here, and I couldn’t hope – at this moment at least – to respond to all that has been raised so far. A few things do occur to me now, which I hope provide some form of response, but will hopefully continue the conversation. I’d like to focus on Michael’s post. Michael, thank you for the link to the conversation with and about Cornerstone. I am very familiar with their work and read through the transcript with interest. I do want to say, though, that built into your post (and into that particular conversation) there seems to be an implicit (assumed) answer to a number of the questions I am trying to explore in this piece, which I do not think are so easy to answer (hence the piece itself). It seems Lydia is responding to this in part. The piece is attempting to think through a complex situation that I think – and continue to think – raises very complex questions about the processes of making public art (in and beyond Berlin), the kinds and degrees of responsibilities we have to our varied publics and to ourselves, and the ways in which performance exposes some of the challenges of coming up with concrete – potentially universalizing – answers to some of these questions. The piece also calls into question some of the prevailing notions some artists tend to have about what it means to make “community” performance – and some of the values [CSM: noting also the many challenges raised in invoking a word like "value"] assumed in some of the methodologies used in making that kind of performance. To be more concrete, I am talking about the language of “bringing together,” and of “coming together” – a sort of, for lack of a better word, “harmonious” language – that is at the heart of that particular Cornerstone transcript for instance. If one assumes this kind of “harmony” to be the goal and guiding principle of all “community” art practice, then I can understand why my recounting of this challenging situation could be “troubling.” I do wonder, however, and I think this is some of what Terence is getting at in his post, if that kind of “harmonious” methodology of making “community” performance – and also a certain kind of “harmonious” multiculturalism writ large – also brings along with it its own set of inclusions and exclusions, its own set of boundary making, its own set of “values,” which could be totalizing, or universalizing in their own right. Is it possible, that as much as we want to romanticize “community,” “community” itself has its own set of boundaries, problems, series of “inassimilable” differences that can get glossed over? [I am reminded here of Miranda Joseph’s very helpful book "Against the Romance of Community," which always makes me think/blink twice before easily invoking “community,” in reference to performance or in other situations. And yet, writing this piece, I also noticed just how difficult it is to speak about groups of people without reifying the very totalizing logics I want to challenge when I ask these questions about “community.”] So with this in mind, I think one of the things the piece tries to ask is: are we bound to making public art that is – again for lack of a better word – “harmonious,” making work that is all about “bringing together”? [I am not suggesting that this is always what Cornerstone does, but it seemed to me front and center at key moments in that transcript.] I wonder then, what it would mean to make work that is less about “bringing together,” and more about the very challenges of doing that, and foregrounding what I’ll call a productive “antagonism.” By “antagonism” I do not mean disrespect or violence against another; I mean making work which allows even creates space for respectful and non-violent (and perhaps inassimilable) difference. [Sorry for another book reference here, but I think that Shannon Jackson’s new book "Social Works" does a great job sketching out what could be (and has been) meant by “antagonism” in similar art contexts.] So I am asking if there is some value in this productive, artistic “antagonism”? Is there value in making work that exposes the cracks in this “bringing together” discourse, that pokes at a kind of neat and tidiness, and thematizes just how messy – and dangerously universalizing it could be – to speak about shoulds and should-nots when it is not clear at all that there is any agreement about how we determine those shoulds and should-nots. So Michael, when I ask “should we have considered…”, I am not suggesting that we did not “consider,” “think about,” “anticipate,” and “look at with rigor.” We most certainly did. What remains a challenge for me – and this is why I think the situation presents questions that require discussion that goes far beyond yes or no answers – is coming to terms with the underlying conditions and assumptions that shape (as CSM puts it) the “ostensibly disparate notions of public” encountering the work we make, and then understanding how those “disparate notions” shape the ways we understand shoulds and should-nots.

thanks for the thoughtful response to my too swift and not deeply thoughtful comment. It has helped me articulate what i responded to in the original post. Theatre and performance work that self defines as community based or engaged sometimes aims at the bringing together, or harmonious impulse you speak to. But much of it does not. Much of it focuses on interrogation,much of it explores the messiness of building bridges (and the assumptions that go along with knowing where bridges are needed or even desired), much of it seeks to make space for antagonism and imaginative action to live in a simultaneity that both reflects on and investigates the inevitable collisions that occur when difference shares space and story.

I do not think there are shoulds and should nots. I do think there is practice that sites expression as a creative force in the world and expression that can calcify division and negativity.And sometimes, we don't know what we're putting into the world, and we learn through encounter. I think putting artistic work into encounter with (diverse) place and people to understand how disparate notions of public shapes daily experience of being a public body carries with it a responsibility to identify intention, and a conscious, collaborative analysis of power and privilege.

I would offer you and your company the proposal that the very questions you are asking may be very well served by engagement and collaboration with diverse potential audiences not so you can get permission or make everything 'nice' for whoever may see it, but so you can have the great and potent experience of context and point of view conversations as you make your work. It may lead to exactly what you did in the way you did it. It may not. You may have done this, in fact. I believe that your inquiry into the condition of public space, and and an artist's relationship to it, wouldn't necessarily be weakened by that building of relationship, and i'd be excited to hear what discoveries might come about. Again, sorry for my quick jump before. Respectfully, Michael

I'd wish I had attended the final performance Utopia just to be more familiar with the context from which these transgressions arose. But having at least seen the play last summer I will comment anyway, mostly because I'm very interested in a number of the subjects at play here, especially multiculturalism and any of the theoretical or practical paths for moving beyond its more perfunctory limits.

Even though it must have been incredibly uncomfortable for all involved, I think it is crucial that the final performance elicited violent verbal and physical responses from people who found themselves unknowingly in the audience. That said, battering and abusing the cast can in no way be justified simply because some people in the vicinity of the performance, i.e. unintended audience members, found the piece or aspects of the performance offensive. While the performance did take place in the open public forum, I presume no one was forced to watch. This is crucial, for if a witting or unwitting spectator finds some thing or person grotesque, disrespectful, shameful, or in any other way offensive, then it remains his or her responsibility to look or move away, not for performers to continually assess and reassess an audience to adjust accordingly or for the entire show to be shut down. To illustrate: events, performances, and human behavior that I personally find disturbing occur all around me every day. Nevertheless, I do not presume that those events, performances, or behaviors should should be promptly concluded simply because I can't abide them. Such expectations belong, in my mind, to a bigot. As for the young children involved in the incident above, it is their parents' duty to make sure they are not bearing witness to something that the parents find in poor taste. This is crucial because it speaks to the wider social responsibility everyone must bear in open, multicultural societies -- both for allowing the actions of others even if they don't correspond to one's own values, but also for owning one's (re)actions or the responses of others in one's charge. I might find someone's hairdo in despicably poor taste, but that doesn't give me the right to sheer that person's hair on the spot -- or throw scissors at him. And if I did, I would have to own the results of my actions. I find it sad that children were allowed to leer and instigate. Where were the parents?

It is interesting that a play dealing with the limits of utopian values provoked and drew transgression into itself. In that sense, I'd call this unfortunate incident a success. For to my understanding, harmonious societies like those multiculturalism proposes need not work toward the total elimination of discord or disharmony. In my view, harmonious societies incorporate disharmony and allow a place for discord and to play itself out naturally. Did that happen here? Was the production able to absorb the negative energy, spin it, and continue? If that was the case, then I applaud the cast for being able to do so.

In retrospect, I think you already answered one of your main questions with regard to the final performance of the play coinciding with the Sugar Festival. In the future, considering the context in which potentially risqué material will play out would be socially responsible and culturally respectful, especially in open public spaces anyone can enter. But what is the limit to that, both in terms of staging a public performance, but more generally how we behave in the wider world we all must live in? How far do we have to go to make sure that no one will be offended by our actions? The cast and crew of Shakespeare im Park had as much right to Görlitzer Park as anyone else, and certainly as much right as those who were observing the Sugar Festival. No one can, or should, be charged with foreseeing every possible condition through which their actions might offend. Doing so would assume and presume a completely unattainable level of preparation and foresight. If we want to live in a human world, we cannot place inhuman expectations on ourselves or those with whom we propose to be engaged. Perhaps that is the universalism the performance of Utopia uncovered/discovered.

Hi B,

First I would say that (and I think this is something you already know) the very questions of what freedom and artistic expression are to the Shakespeare im Park group are intimately tied to the (secular) public sphere to which most of the performers belong. What an exciting opportunity to more fully examine these questions.
Lovingly, I would suggest that what a company truly dedicated to public work should strive for is to discover (in alliance) how form, content, engagement, and aesthetics are necessarily shifted when ostensibly disparate notions of public are addressed.

Any discussion of conflicting 'values' in my mind is a distraction and a very problematic lens through which to understand what unfolded. Frankly, i wonder how we could contextualize 'values' within a secular intellectual history.

In the end, I hope your questions serve as challenges for your company --challenges towards a more radical art practice. I can't wait to see what that looks like.

P.S. I would also challenge you to find a respondent from the/a Turkish community to engage with you here on this forum. I for one, am very interested to hear more about how the space (and other public spaces in Germany) has/have been historically used as a site of terror and marginalization by (for ex) conservative demonstrations, etc.

I'm a little disturbed by the tenor of both comments posted here, though I do not question their genuniness. Scott, like Polly, I am happy you wrote again, but I can't help feeling that if you had read the piece you would have noticed that it was not a production of Henry VIII under discussion. It always helps to read something and try to understand it before launching into a criticism. Brandon is clearly trained in the language of academia, but that does not dismiss some interesting cultural quandries he presents here. Anti-academia is just another form of prejudice, though one I understand, because it leaves many of us out. Michael, it's fairly clear, isn't it, really, what Brandon wants. He is relaying an experience that was pretty shattering for him, admitting to his own 'ignorance' but also interested in what might be learned and need addressing in the context of all our cultural expression. For example. does cultural sensitivity mean we bow to homophobia? I think the greatest mistake the troupe made was in not including Turkish into the mix. Because again, referring to Scott's unhappy comment, not understanding can lead to antagonism.

I don’t see clarity of expression and subtly of thought as mutually exclusive.

Sometimes the jargon of one’s discipline is a necessary tool (to be used sparingly and with skill). At other times, it’s a hindrance to effective communication. And I think this article – particularly in this forum - could benefit from less jargon and greater clarity. Holding this view does not make me anti-academic.

I stand by my original point that academic jargon often serves not to communicate an idea, but to demonstrate identification with a particular group.

You acknowledge as much when you write “anti-academia is just another form of prejudice, though one I understand, because it leaves many of us out.”

Yes, it does leave many people out (if by “it” you mean academia – your formulation is not clear). And that doesn’t strike me as a desirable goal for a blog designed to foster discussion in the theater community.

"I can't help feeling that if you had read the piece you would have noticed that it was not a production of Henry VIII under discussion. It always helps to read something and try to understand it before launching into a criticism."

Let me address this: I did indeed read the entire piece – very carefully. I was using Henry VIII (one of several texts used as source material for the piece) as a glib shorthand. I should have been clear that this was not simply a production of Henry VIII.

It’s a pedantic point which doesn't change the substance of my argument, and I’ll gladly concede it to you.

Scott, I agree with you completely. I have spent a great deal of energy trying to convince graduate students schooled in academic jargon that clarity is a value and that being understood is a worthy goal. I should say that my attempts at this met with varying success, Because the students are trained in their particular jargon and encouraged to use it. And, as you say, using it 'demonstrates their identification in a particular group', one in which they hope to find success. And if they don't use the jargon, well they risk exclusion. Or so they feel.

But Brandon is describing a very interesting first-hand experience, one which raises serious issues about cultural exchange. His piece, though, yes, framed in academic language, felt personally vulnerable and honest, and it got me thinking. For example, it made me think about the parallels with non-public space theatre experiences, where alternative values meet with another kind of antagonism--rejection, silencing. We live in an age of wildly, violently clashing values. Almost none of these are represented on our stages. Thus, many artists choose to move into public spheres, where, to their surprise, as in the case described here, they discover similar antagonism but of a direct nature (stones thrown, spitting). How do we move forward?

I have no ax to grind with Brandon or his article. My comments were directed to the editorial staff who could have helped shape the piece in a way that told his story in clear, compelling language.

I wrote this above: "I’m not asking for anyone’s voice to be silenced, just for some editorial direction. There is a potentially engaging story here about a confrontation between a theater troupe and a marginalized group of people with whom they are sharing space in a public park. Why bury the lede under mounds of academic jargon?"

Hi Brandon- thanks for the article. Honestly, I am a bit unsure how to respond. But i think you want response. Yes?

On the one hand, as someone who does lots of site-based, public and collaborative work in different communities, and as someone who has lived in Kreuzberg and engaged with members of the Muslim community there around artmaking, I find a lot of what you are describing and the questions you are asking yourself, honestly, troubling. On the other hand, i am not sure what sort of feedback you are looking for. I start with these two things you state-

"How does an ensemble committed to freedom of (public) (artistic) expression honor that expression without being disrespectful?"

Freedom from what? For who? For you? In a space being 'used' by others in a community where they historically have little freedom in regard to space and place?

and then-

"In the case of UtopiaTMspecifically: Should we have considered a different day for the finale?"

yes. yes, you should have. Considered. Thought about. Looked at with rigor and consideration. Anticipated. But again, i don't know that you want the conversation that I feel like your question may lead to...so, what sort of conversation do you want in response to your post?

and finally, see this link for a read I believe you will find very compelling, given what you are thinking about-


Dear Howlround,

Last night I posted a comment on this article that went something like this:

“I was minding my own business, exposing the inassimilable as the precondition of a current mode of universalization and demand a dissolution and reformulation of the process of universalization in the name of the inassimilable, when I dozed off and hit my head on some universalizing problematics.”

At some point in the last twelve hours you removed that post.

I had originally composed a post expressing my concern that in recent months the articles on Howlround, (a website that started with such promise as a forum for grand and important discussions about theater) have been narrowing their focus to the point of irrelevance. So when this account of a German production of Henry VIII written in language only a tenure committee could love came across my feed reader, I felt I had to respond.

But rather than continue with that post, I figured, “Hey – we’re all theater artists here. We love using wit and irreverence to get our point across” and I posted the quote above.

My comment was pointed and it poked fun, but it was not a personal attack and it was not mean. It was satirical, and it used the author’s own words to make a point: The language and style of this article is designed to demonstrate the writer’s identification with a certain academic milieu, not to foster a vital discussion among people in the theater (as the current count of “0” comments a day after posting might also suggest).

I’m not asking for anyone’s voice to be silenced, just for some editorial direction. There is a potentially engaging story here about a confrontation between a theater troupe and a marginalized group of people with whom they are sharing space in a public park. Why bury the lede under mounds of academic jargon?

So that was the point of my original post (which I hope was a bit more concise and entertaining than this follow-up).

Can you give the Howlround community some sense of why my original post was removed? Can you give us a sense of who’s allowed to speak on this blog and how they are allowed to express themselves? Are we only allowed to respond to academic writing in kind? Or in the measured, uncontroversial tones of an administrator? Is there no place on a theater blog for a bit of freewheeling discussion and dissent?

(I have copied your comment policy below so that readers may make their own judgments about my original post.)


All comments on the site are moderated. Most comments will be posted if they are on topic and not mean, but moderating decisions is subjective. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers and generally cannot alter a comment once it is posted. Sometimes we will delete a mean posting, but not always. We have limited tolerance for personal attacks, incoherence, and shouting. You have a better chance of getting away with a controversial comment if you use your real name.

Hi Scott,

As the editor, I removed your post on the basis of "we have limited tolerance for personal attacks, incoherence, and shouting." I wasn't sure if this was an attack or not, but it was incoherent as a response to Brandon's post per my judgment that I take full responsibility for. This post that I'm responding to now, while critical is both coherent and provocative. The goal isn't to silence criticisms of HowlRound or disagreement with the articles we post, but it is to avoid exactly what we say in the comments policy. There is plenty of unmoderated discussion on the internet, and that's not what we're doing here.

I appreciate you following up for more clarity.

So my post lampooning the incoherence of the article’s language was itself removed for incoherence? That’s cool. I like irony as much as the next guy

Maybe I am misunderstanding what you are trying to do with HowlRound, but let me offer this observation: There was a time not so long ago when there was some great stuff coming through my HowlRound feed – writing and ideas that felt vital, provocative, and important (exhibit A: Dave Malloy's excellent article on the problem of rock musicals and the discussion it provoked).

But in recent months, I’ve missed that. It feels like the blog has narrowed its focus, and articles have taken on a more provincial, in-house, and academic tone (And the article above provides the latest example of that. When your opening gambit is a paragraph of impenetrable - some might argue nonsensical - Judith Butler prose, you’re alienating a large chunk of the already tiny audience of people who care passionately making new theater.)

I offer this as a challenge and as a plea for some editorial guidance (and perhaps with the wish that you had wielded your editorial scalpel on this article with the same enthusiasm with which you wielded it on my original comments).