Hello from Berlin.
This week provided the opportunity for two very different kinds of theater-going experiences:
Verrücktes Blut became a national (and quickly an international) sensation when it premiered at Ballhaus Naunynstraße in 2010. Verrücktes Blut was the first play – yes the first play ever – by an artist of color to be invited to the Berlin Theatertreffen, the annual showcase of the so-called best plays in Germany. Ballhaus Naunynstraße was also the first theater company in Germany (and perhaps worldwide) to call itself a “post-migrant theater,” a space committed explicitly to showing (and interrogating) the histories, perspectives, and collective memories of individuals and communities with migration backgrounds and to exploring the challenges and potentialities of cultural interconnectedness. In the U.S., cross- or inter-cultural performance has a much longer tradition and has generated a very rich discourse. In the German theater, however, the conversations are much more nascent – and in many ways, they were catalyzed by Verrücktes Blut. (For more details on the post-migrant theater discussion, have a look at Matthew Cornish's piece for N+1 Online.)
In Verrücktes Blut, a German teacher finds herself in a most unusual position. While trying unsuccessfully to make the plays of Friedrich Schiller – a clichéd staple of the traditional German educational model – more accessible to her undisciplined students with migration backgrounds, a gun falls out of a student’s backpack – reinforcing yet another cliché – and into her hands. What unfolds then is a unique sort of hostage situation: at gunpoint, the teacher violently forces her students to internalize and to enact the enlightenment ideals (and their inherent contradictions) contained within Schiller’s texts.
By staging a most explosive collision of clichés, the play is working, it seems to me, to make plain and simultaneously – and necessarily – deconstruct the ongoing confrontations between so-called “German society” and those "Others" with immigrant and post-immigrant perspectives, thus making “room” at the theater for the “whole city” – “that includes everyone who has arrived in the city in the last few decades, whether in search of asylum, whether in exile, whether they be immigrants or simply people who grew up in Berlin.” Due to the show’s popularity and the importance of Ballhaus Naunynstraße’s mission, Shermin Langhoff, the then artistic director, was invited to take over the much larger and state-run Maxim Gorki Theater in 2012. She brought many of her Naunynstraße colleagues with her to the new space – making Gorki the most diverse theater in Germany – and has kept Verrücktes Blut as a constant in the repertoire (though I didn't have an opportunity to see it until this week). In many ways, Langhoff’s restructuring of the Gorki Theater is a necessary and welcome coup within the German theater landscape – the New York Times recently profiled Langhoff as “leading an immigrant vanguard in Berlin.” And while there is a very very long way to go, I take Langhoff at her word when she explains that Verrücktes Blut and her entire Gorki project are “attempting to achieve a greater complexity of perception.”
I was amazed to find that the entire production of Verrücktes Blut can be seen in HD here (though unfortunately without subtitles):
Over the course of the evening, Portuguese performance artist Tiago Rodrigues makes clear that he will teach a poem to 10 people culled from the audience. These 10 people have never seen the performance before, and they have no idea which text they will be learning by heart in front of the rest of the audience. While working with the new chorus of performers, Rodrigues presents an interwoven matrix of anecdotes about his relationship with his soon-to-be-blind grandmother and of stories about writers, critics, and characters from books that are, somehow, connected both to his grandma Candida and himself. As each new verse is taught to – and subsequently memorized by – the group of 10, improbable connections emerge between Rodrigues’ stories until the mystery behind the choice of poem comes to light. Rodrigues’ piece is a moving – heartfelt – exploration of memory, nostalgia, the importance of transmission, and even poetic resistance.
Here is a short trailer of the performance:
And more importantly, here is the poem in question. Do you recognize it?
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus'd to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor'd and sorrows end.
Oh, how I wish I could see and hear:
Yee New Yorkers, please go in my stead if you can.
For the last few years, I have been co-curating (with Shane Boyle and Matthew Cornish) a working group of performance scholars and artists who gather to discuss and debate the continued relevance (or not) of “postdramatic theater.” Postdramatic Theater, also the title of performance theorist Hans-Thies Lehmann’s influential book, is a notion/concept that works/helps to categorize and develop new ways of talking about the heterogeneous and insistently interdisciplinary styles, genres, and interventions that have come to constitute so-called “contemporary performance” since the late 1960s (mainly in the U.S. and Europe). In many ways, Postdramatic Theater is a very useful, theoretically complex, and also highly readable companion to understand the development of and relations between work as diverse as: Heiner Müller, The Wooster Group, Jan Fabre, Forced Entertainment, Young Jean Lee, She She Pop, Rimini Protokoll, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Gob Squad, andcompany&Co, and many many more. Since its publication in German in 1999 and in English in 2006, Postdramatic Theater has also inspired/provoked a great deal of discussion: for example, I recently contributed to a volume titled Postdramatic Theatre and the Political, which, on the whole, attempted to question the political stakes of the postdramatic itself and of the performance work that has come to be classified as such. While the contributions to the book stake out a broad range of positions, my essay suggests that the politics of the postdramatic are deeply embedded in and indeed indebted to a long history of discussions about the politics of performance that stretch back to Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno and extend through more contemporary discussions by theorists like Jacques Rancière, Shannon Jackson, Nicholas Ridout, and Joe Kelleher.
The working group meets at the annual conference of the American Theater Studies Association (ASTR). While I am not sure that I will be able to join the live conversation this year (thank you Skype), the group will examine the limits of the postdramatic and question the stakes for contemporary performance (in both practice and theory) if one were to look beyond the postdramatic. Here is how we describe the goals of the discussion to come:
In addition to its explanatory possibilities, what are the blind spots and biases of postdramatic theatre? And what do other frameworks or lenses for studying/making contemporary performance provide that the postdramatic does not? We invite artists and scholars to submit contributions/provocations that raise questions within or across the categories of politics, philosophy, and history. Hans-Thies Lehmann and other theorists often reduce the politics of postdramatic theatre to an “interruption” of the political itself. But what practices and perspectives does such a position preclude? In what ways have austerity and the recent surge in social movements globally informed the political orientation of experimental performance? How does the notion of the “postdramatic” provide opportunities for philosophical reflection? What are the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of postdramatic theatre, and how do they inform what practices we consider to be postdramatic? How and why did the postdramatic become useful for describing contemporary performance? What lenses did it overtake or lead us to underemphasize?
This past week, Matt, Shane, and I had the thrilling opportunity to read through and discuss the many proposals we received, and to extend invitations to an exciting array of international thinkers and makers asking very diverse and probing questions. I very much look forward to reading the longer essays/contributions later this summer and to continuing our collective efforts to probe the generative possibilities (and the limitations) of postdramatic performance.
And with that, sending very best wishes across the ocean and beyond.