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”
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.
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.
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
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.