Stories about Self
Margarita Zieda, Theatre Critic
Is it, or is it not conceitedness, narcissism and a projection of ego when in contemporary theatre actors and directors choose their own selves to be the subject matter of the discussion? Questions such as this were to be read in several reviews with regard to the theatre festival Berlin Theatertreffen. The authors of the said articles, all as one, insisted that none of the above-mentioned is applicable to any particular theatre performance - moreover, owing to the personal engagement in the stories, extraordinarily emotionally affecting works of art had been created.
Scene from Volker Losch's performance Marat, What Happened to our Revolution? Publicity photo
Performance critics don't usually pose these sorts of questions, neither to themselves nor to others; theatre critics, however, do. Possibly because standing on stage and daring to tell the audience about yourself had, for some time, been nearly non-existent in theatre practice. Social issues - yes, existential issues - yes, personal issues - no. And yet again, the use of an artist's personal experience in the creation of a work of art has always been taken for granted, but conversation was expected to take place by means of more or less detached characters. Through others.

The festival Theatertreffen Berlin is where the ten most notable theatrical performances staged in German-speaking countries - Germany, Austria and Switzerland - are brought together annually. This region has long been known for the strongest direction-based theatre in the world. The goal of the festival is not to summarise the latest tendencies in theatre, rather it aims to show the most powerful works created during the season. At least the jury, consisting of seven critics who watch theatre performances throughout the season, con-sistently emphasise that they are in favour of diversity in theatre. Whether it may be labelled a tendency or not, yet while watching this selection of theatre performances from the 2008/2009 season, one could scarcely fail to miss the return of authenticity in present-day theatre. With stories about what is happening and has happened within the artist internally. With the substitution of characters by living persons, whose personal experience - in terms of content - is equal to any imaginary character created by a writer, yet at the same time is from real life. With the introducton of actual figures and private addresses in a political performance.

The piece Marat, was ist aus unserer Revolution geworden? (‘Marat, What Happened to our Revolution?') by the Hamburg Deutsches Schauspielhaus was one of the last season's scandals. A choir of unemployed persons in the performance is not made up of actors, but of the poorest inhabitants of Hamburg, beneficiaries of the Hartz IV unemployment benefit. At the end of the play they read out names and surnames of the wealthiest residents of Hamburg, along with a description of their assets (amounting to millions and billions) and their private home addresses - exactly where they can be found.

In a German television broadcast members of the audience were interviewed about the performance. One woman was crying - because of the deep sense of unfairness provoked by the mass of facts and human misery that literally poured into the auditorium from the authentic choir, and the way it related to her own life. Some of the wealthiest burghers of Hamburg submitted a protest, seeking a ban on the disclosure of information that, according to law, any member of the public is entitled to have access to. One of the performances was not brought to Berlin precisely because this would have meant sacrificing its authenticity. Christoph Marthaler's dedication to the ancient, historic Hotel ‘Waldhaus', which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, remained in the mountains of Switzerland, far away from any motorways, in a place called Sils-Maria. Friedrich Nietzsche had rented a room in the area and Marcel Proust had wandered in the meadows nearby, meanwhile some of the greatest minds of the era - Albert Einstein and Theodor Adorno - had breakfasted in the hotel. Is it possible to "transport" all this to Berlin? Marthaler plainly answered that it isn't. So instead of ten noteworthy plays, only nine were presented to the audience this year.

The new documentary theatre
The powerful return of authenticity to European theatre of today began with the search for a new level of truth by Rimini Protokoll, a group of directors from Germany and Switzerland. Instead of actors they put specialists on the stage, people from real life with a wide experience of the particular topic under discussion, and who were ready to chat with their contemporaries both as professionals and on a human level. Reality was described by means of this very same reality, whereby people related, concretely and in detail, what they do, in addition looking into their innermost selves and sharing their feelings, thoughts and points of view. A strange thing occurred: the reality on stage was neither dull nor boring, but took on completely surreal features. That which takes place in reality is truly astonishing. And it becomes even more astonishing with the comprehension that what is heard is not a figment of the artist's imagination, but is actually happening.

The idea - of gathering stories for the stage from real people - was further developed by the Latvian director Alvis Hermanis together with actors of the New Riga Theatre, in performances presented in Latvia and Germany, namely, Latviešu stāsti (‘Latvian Stories'), Latviešu mīlestība (‘Latvian Love'), Ķelnes stāsti (‘Cologne Affairs') and Vectēvs (‘Grandfather').

These artistic explorations were awarded the Europe Prize for New Theatrical Realities, in reverse chronological order - first of all to the Latvian artists, followed by the trio of German and Swiss directors.

Church of fear
The German event artist, theatre, film and opera director Christoph Schlingensief has almost always featured in his own works. He has directed the course of events, and drawn people from the audience into interaction and conversation, thus making the work evolve in previously unplanned and unpredictable directions. Even in the case of the provocative Vienna Container that was placed in the city centre, bearing a sign Ausländer raus! (‘Foreigners Out!'), and housing immigrants that Austrians could actually force to leave by vote, Schlingensief himself went out to discuss the absence of xenophobia in Austria with the enraged crowd of Austrian citizens aggressively expressing their convictions. If you undertake to make these kinds of works, you should be prepared to put yourself at risk, being ready for everything, even that fact that you could be killed. This was Schlingensief's comment about the work at the time. In going out to meet the people in the streets, Schlingensief was campaigning for justice in a public space, describing himself as the last great moralist. His works do not speak about himself, even when he is part of them, rather they are about what is taking place in the common space.

Central to the performance of Eine Kirche der Angst vor dem Fremden in mir (‘Church of Fear') is the artist, on an extraordinarily personal level. Schlingensief speaks about the developments taking place in his consciousness whilst creating a grand Fluxus Oratorio at the Ruhr Triennale. This is a festival, held in a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site - disused factories and halls - in the Ruhr area, where people the Germans call "exceptional artists" (Ausnahmekünstler) are invited to create works of art. They are invited to interact with the impulses emanating from industrial premises which have now become silent.

Scene from Christoph Schlingensief's performance Church of Fear. Publicity photo
Christoph Schlingensief filled this abandoned space with the pro-cesses taking place in his consciousness. The work came into existance just over half a year after Schlingensief found out that he has lung cancer. At the moment the artist lives with the one lung, not knowing how much longer he has left to live. Schlingensief had built a copy of a church similar to the one he had attended in childhood at Oberhausen, a church where
he had taken part in and had help prepare for Catholic services. The audiences at Schlingensief's performances sat on church pews and participated in an event for which the motto was: "Those who reveal the wounds will be healed. Those who hide them will not be healed", the words of German artist Joseph Beuys. On moving the performance to the Berliner Fest-spiele theatre, Schlingensief built a church on the stage, complete with the audience. An iron curtain was lowered behind their backs, thus closing the rest of the hall from the conversation entirely.

The performance begins with Schlingensief's words recorded in the moments of fear and desperation he experienced while at hospital. He tries to find out when the disease started, its causes, he weeps. Schlingensief feels offended by the injustice that he has suffered "at the age of only 47". He is afraid. This message permeates the whole performance like an unchanging argument against that alien thing that is lodged inside him. The conversation is not directed towards liber-ation, rather it is a projection of pulsating consciousness. The motto of Berlin Theatertreffen this year was "Here and now". Schlingensief's work is absolutely oriented to what is happening here and now - inside him, to him. Entries from a diary about the illness are read by two legendary German actresses: the genius Angela Winkler, who is also one of the "exceptional artists", and Margit Carstensen, the protagonist in many Fassbinder's movies. They read from the Bible, as well as the words of the German dramatist Heiner Müller and the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin.

The evening is enveloped with images. An image of the little boy Christoph, taken by his father at the seaside 42 years ago. Having turned his back to the photographer, he gazes at the waves and the sea as a woman emerges out of it. A movie still of a slowly rotting rabbit appears, the same that was used in a performance of Parsifal created for Bayreuth. This performance, which included voodoo rites that at the time shocked genuine Wagnerians, was deemed a cult performance by New York Times. Schlingensief is convinced that it was at Bayreuth that the sickness wormed its way into him, while he was grappling with Wagner's challenge - the opera-testament Parsifal. At the core of the performance space there is a giant X-ray of Schlingensief's lungs, of which only half is left over. The time for life is running out.

A gospel choir and the Pope, dressed in gold and played by a dwarf, enter the room. Schlingensief himself dispenses Holy Communion like Christ. But the Christian perspective is not the only aspect present in this work. Even more so, if it were analysed from this point of view this work could be described as heretical. This isn't Schlingensief's intention. In his consciousness and here in this space there is room for different convictions, also as regards the issue: what happens after death? Film stills taken by Schlingensief several years ago in Nepal show the farewells to the departed - who are to be burnt.

In a TV broadcast Deutschland, deine Künstler (‘Your artist, Germany') about Christoph Schlingensief created by the German broad-casting channel DasErste this year, Schlingensief said that he doesn't know what awaits him after death. He's not likely to sit on the edge of a cloud, and most probably there won't be a happy reunion and the hugging of deceased friends, either. In Schlingensief's performance religions overlap one another, and none of them intersect or become dominant. The human road to the unknown is a series of possibilities, of various probabilities. Not knowing. The performance is not structured into a system; it is an outburst of independent images, thoughts and symbols, an outpouring of despair and a search for salvation. Images and different religions float around in the story, knocking at the door of consciousness. Schlingensief has always considered that there is a place in life for the imperfect, unfinished, incomplete and unresolved statement. His works have always burst beyond the boundaries of genres and forms of art. Schlingensief uses the most diverse means of expression, considering as the most important their ability to express, to speak. There's a German term Trauerfeier, which can be literally translated as "festivity of sorrow" - when living people gather together to remember the departed through memories, thoughts and dedications. Christoph Schlingensief sets up this Trauerfeier for himself, commemorating himself, his works and impression of life. The grand, emotionally potent liturgy turns into a celebration of life, both at a universal level, out-growing the personal story, as well as specifically. Schlingensief is one of the most vivid contemporaries - remembrance of his life provokes the audience to recall the presence of his art in life spent together. His ability to distort reality and question "the order of things" established by humans, his willingness to address people directly and make them think and respond, directly as humans, not as "spectators of art". Schlingensief does not ask himself whether death can be overcome by art. He just does it. As one of Schlingensief's artistic predecessors said: Fluxus is an open door.

Alle Toten fliegen hoch (‘All the Dead Fly Up')
Thus asserts the German actor Joachim Meyerhoff, who gave this title to his autobiographical narrative staged at the Vienna Burgtheater. Subsequent to his brilliant performance of Hamlet in Schauspielhaus Zürich last year and recognised as "Actor of the Year" by critics in a survey conducted by the magazine ‘Theater heute' in the preceding year, Meyerhoff takes a seat facing the audience in order to tell about himself and what he has experienced in life. He begins with the events of early childhood.

In comparison to Schlingensief's work, saturated with Catholic splendour, this performance takes place in almost extreme ascetism. The actor, dressed in casual, everyday clothes, sits in an armchair holding in his hands a pile of papers covered in writing. A pullover is being rotated in a glass case close beside him. Later in the story it will turn out to be the pullover of his late brother. It's memories that are rotating in the closed, transparent box. Now and again projections of images appear behind him, showing the actor in real life, photographs taken during his school years, of his relatives and other people.

In an interview with the newspaper Die Zeit Meyerhoff said that he began speaking and thinking about the deceased on stage because he sorely misses them. They have been dear and significant people, and by remembering and attempting detailed portrayals of them he keeps them alive. Meyerhoff's story takes up five hours. In this performance, similarly as in the theatre of Alvis Hermanis, the documentary prototype is played by an actor, yet he takes it a step further by creating the story about himself, as opposed to a story about someone he has met. His own experience is being presented, not somebody else's. His own memories are being investigated. Here, however, as the artist has acknowledged, there are boundaries and walls impossible to cross. And in order to link the memories present in his mind as fragments, the actor has begun to invent events, thus creating a kind of spring board for getting to the next set of memories.

The performance consists of several parts, each a separate story. The first part is titled ‘America', where Meyerhoff talks about his experiences during an exchange programme visit to the USA in his school years, where he stayed with a very religious family in the town of Laramie. Here he attends confidence-building training based on the endurance of humiliation, there is a weird journey together with his trainer to a remote prison, where he is addressed by a prisoner sentenced to death, and subsequently - back in Europe - a flood of letters. Until such time as the prisoner pen-friend is pardoned and arrives in Germany, taking Meyerhoff's mother and the entire family by surprise at the dinner table.

Meyerhoff possesses a wonderful sense of humour and openness towards the oddest manifestations of human behaviour, whether it may be provincial USA or the psychiatric clinic where the actor's father worked and the family lived, or a visit to the home of his grandparents, where alcohol set the daily schedule: mornings began with champagne at nine o'clock and evenings concluded with the weight of red wine, allowing the elevator to transport oneself up to the top floor of the house well after midnight. Meyerhoff does not judge people and the course of their actions by any kind of yardstick - neither in the light of morality, nor any European, health or conduct norms. Meyerhoff merely describes what happened in the smallest detail, using his outstanding talent as storyteller.

One member of the jury wrote in the festival catalogue that Meyerhoff's memories have nothing at all to do with the post-war situation or events of 1968, there is no mention of common sociopolitical experience, he simply takes the liberty to tell very personal stories which strike an unusually deep emotional chord with the audience. On reading German reviews one is left with the feeling that it requires bravery to chat personally, intimately and deeply humanly on the largest stage of Europe - the Vienna Burgtheater is one of the highest rungs in an actor's or a director's career. The artist also must be a renowned figure. Joachim Meyerhoff is such a person - one of the most striking representatives of contemporary dramatic art.

The new humanity was brought to European theatre by the Russian theatre artist Yevgeni Grishkovetz and his stage stories. It was a radically different note that appeared in the tone of conversation - a quietened and deeply personal level of conversation, rejecting any claims to talk about issues that are important for society, instead offering to relate something about life, for example, one's own life. How much in the stories was authentic experience, and how much of the writer's fantasy and talent is not known - as with Meyerhoff's tales - but all this meant that the stage was enriched with events and things that otherwise would have been considered irrelevant, namely, socially insignificant private matters. But from the simplicity of intonation of Grishkovetz's stories emanated a kind of fullness of being and affirmation regarding the simple things in life, which only Jean Renoir in his time managed to attain in his film masterpiece ‘Le déjeuner sur l'herbe'.

For some ten Yevgeni Grishkovetz was invited as guest to just about every theatre festival of the world. He was never awarded the Europe Prize for New Theatre Realities. Even today, when thinking, talking and wondering about "private entrances" in the world of theatre, nobody in Western Europe refers to him. Possibly because Grishkovetz is usually classed as an exponent of the Russian-Jewish storyteller tradition, and that's the area where he is successfully left and forgotten. Yet he is the person who opened the door to the latest dramatic space, paving the way for other artists - Rimini Protokoll, Alvis Hermanis and the New Riga Theatre, along with Joachim Meyerhoff and Vienna Burgtheater, which is one of the toughest bastions of theatre in Europe. Each in their own way, the artists pursued the exploration of reality, putting a socalled ordinary person on stage and making them tell their own story. This kind of theatre may be classed as the new theatre documentary. Characteristics of the new authenticity could be examined. But a new humanity can also be discerned in contemporary theatre, with the person on stage at the same eyelevel as the audience. And, as the feedback from the audience and critics affirms, there is a deep and genuine demand from people today for uncomplicated, human com-munication that has not been overly intellectualised, excessively politicized or vulgarised.

/Translator into English: Jānis Aniņš/

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