Friday, January 11, 2019

Theatre and Power in Europe: or, whatever happened to the Volksbühne?

Back in May, I was invited to present a paper at a conference in London called Systemic Crisis in European Theatre. My paper about the occupation of the Volksbühne theatre in Berlin in November 2017, a 6-day event where circumstances and people came together to reclaim the 'People's Theatre'.

The occupation is significant on a number of levels, occurring at a time in history when the neoliberal project in Berlin accelerates out-of-control, with 20%-per-year rent increases and tepid gestures from government to regulate (the so called mietpreisbremse, or 'rent handbrake') on one level, and influxes of people to Berlin looking to escape their own crippling capitalist systems - or military conflicts in its name - on the other. The 'slogan' of the occupation, a parody of the previous artistic director Frank Castorf's own parody slogans draped over the theatre's prominent facade - 'Doch, Kunst!' (translated to 'Art After All' but perhaps better translated to something like 'Art? Hell Yes!') - attempts to reclaim the role of art in this context, washed away in a tide of profit-making and exploitation.

On this level, the events around the Volksbühne have a symbolic resonance. In 2016, Chris Dercon, former director of the Tate Modern in London, was appointed the new Artistic Director, taking over from the directorship of the Marx-minded Castorf (whose directorship has now reached mythical status, if it had not before). The appointment was controversial from the beginning: Dercon had never directed a show, and was never previously an artistic director of a theatre, and was apparently employed over dinner with Berlin's Mayor, Michael Müller. That alone would be enough. But the early warning signs were that the Volksbühne was set for a complete overhaul - from the old, worker-built repertory theatre, known for being a hallmark of East German culture pre-90's and a key component of post-socialist socialism after that, the new language was about 'artist hybridisation', attracting a tourist audience, branching out into dance and visual art, and event-based programming. Of course, this had many workers of the theatre, some of whom had been there for eons, fearing for their jobs. Who needs a set-builder when your theatre is only ever hosting touring performances? What's the role of an in-house dramaturg in a place that's no longer producing any actual drama? So that in June, a year after the appointment was announced, an open letter emerged, signed by approximately 3/4 of the entire staff, seeking to bring attention to the proposed changes, and their seemingly inevitable job losses.

The appointment can be seen as an attempt to impose the worst principles of curation - now pervasive in the West's customisable lifestyles - onto the theatre, replacing the routine of show-making and building a loyal audience (and public) with a stream of events that can be marketed to different sections of the community. As the occupation points out, this fits neatly into the logic of neoliberalism that causes rent rises and destroys the fabric of communities, especially those most vulnerable. Its tactic is to sew instability among an already-precarious cultural scene, so that efficiency drives and sell-offs go unnoticed.

All of this is justifiable, rational, and evidence-based argument. But it doesn't stop people believing what they want to believe.

4 weeks before my paper, I found out that Chris Dercon was scheduled to be a keynote speaker at the Systemic Crisis in European Theatre conference. 1 week before, I found out that he had resigned. On the day of the conference itself, it emerged that he would be present anyway, and nobly fulfill his commitment that evening.

Under such shifting sands, it was difficult to articulate a meaningful position. But the situation seemed all the more difficult by the distinctly pro-Dercon crowd, who murmured in approval at his platitudes and watched in awe as he danced around awkward subjects in the fireside chat of the evening. So it was I found myself a voice strangely isolated in opposition, among a crowd with perhaps very different interests of career-protection and advancement.

The conference itself was a relatively bleak affair, with speakers organised under provocative headings like 'Anti-institutional', 'Post-Soviet', and my own 'Occupations', without ever actually seeming to deliver on the promise of these discussions. My take-away was that dialogues around the concept of 'crisis', particularly in a European context, often serves as a paradoxical reinforcement of power it pretends to threaten. Of course, this depends on what is discussed: there are genuine crises afoot which demand attention. But in this case, it seemed an inauthentic gesture towards articulating crisis, which rather perpetuated its own new ones (for example, on the level of representation, as such a subject seems to attract only white speakers for some reason).  It's too connected with the cultural protectionism of the right wing, containing a hidden message of a tradition under attack - for which Dercon, as a white, Belgian silver fox, becomes an ironic figurehead.

Theatre is in crisis in Europe, but it's more like one where its founding principles demand radical rediscovery. In a time where the conception of 'public' is perpetually eroded by individualism and identity politics, theatre serves as one potential site for the negotiation of collective and common identities, with shared public interests, organised perhaps around the reforming of the state but free from its control. It seems primarily a problem of governance. Have we lost the capacity to conceive of governance meaningfully, to imagine representation as someone other than our own gender, class, race, and even ideology?

Whatever resistance is put forward, there is strong evidence that the Volksbühne is all but destroyed. Audiences are down, the theatre is now in a perpetual state of temporary artistic directorship with no new appointment made, and, like police waiting for the right time to evict the occupiers, the city seems content just to wait for it to fully collapse. The key survival tool of neoliberalism, to feed off these stalemates, is in full swing. In this sense, Dercon is little more than a puppet employed to initiate system shock, designed to ram through drastic change, so that the next, 'sensible', appointment can be made.

Endnote: The aesthetic arguments from 2 representatives of the Volksbühne occupation, Sarah Waterfeld and Anna-Sophie Friedmann, can be found in this beautifully-translated interview on Textzurkunst here (or in German if you prefer here).

Friday, November 23, 2018

Baltic Circle Theatre Festival in Arterritory

My write-up of the Baltic Circle Theatre festival, which was 13th-17th of November in Helsinki, is up over at Arterritory and details a few of the shows that I saw. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture a lot of the program for logistical reasons, leaving me with a slightly skewed version of events.

Still, it was interesting to revisit the festival after 10 years and notice some significant changes.


Saturday, November 17, 2018

All the Sex I Ever Had

It's possible that sex and I aren't best mates. I kind of view the subject with some awkwardness, a degree of suspicion, and occasional periods of unbridled enthusiasm. That doesn't make me weird - after all, attitudes and feelings about sex don't just come from within ourselves, but from our environment, and sex appeared in the environment of my childhood years in rural Australia mostly as a weapon in the fight for dominance in schools, sporting arenas, and other competitive situations. Forgive me if I remain more than a little scarred from that.

So to this day I appreciate when someone can give honest information about the topic, because for me just about the only source outside the family was the book Where Did I Come From? (surely a bible of sorts for many kids of rural Australia) which at least explains basic heterosexual biology and potential outcomes when bodies are arranged in certain formations. Another manual was John Marsden's Secret Men's Business, which explains things that are otherwise only referred to in the schoolyard through innuendo or hinted at in certain TV sitcoms. In both cases, what I appreciated was the directness, which, though it seems simple, may actually be difficult or embarrassing to achieve.

All the Sex I Ever Had is 6 seniors sitting at a desk and talking directly to the audience about their sex histories. Beginning at the birth of the eldest (for us in the Espoon kaupunginteatteri in Espoo, Helsinki, it was 1932), the history is chronologically recited as experiences happen. After the eldest, the other 5 slowly enter the picture, often following the first in their (fairly diverse) life experiences. Our actors (selected from the local population, I assume with diversity, excitement, and dramatic weight of their narratives in mind) masturbate, fall in love, break up, marry, and just fuck their way through kitchen tables, hotel rooms, nightclubs, family holidays, and boats. Every 10 years, the readers are interrupted by a dance-break with the cheesiest music that can be found in that period, which also plays gently in the background (as kind of a 'smoother') as they relate their stories.

Photo: Singapore Arts Festival performance of All the Sex I Ever Had

From the opening pledge which the audience takes not to reveal any of the information outside the theatre, there's immediately a sense of stripping back a lot of these covers, and attempting to directly address the audience in a type of communication that isn't possible outside the theatre. This creates some interesting moments, and when the mics are given to the audience, and it's our turn to answer the questions (which range from the innocent 'did anyone ever play doctors and nurses' to the more real-world 'did anyone sleep with a married person?').

Friday, November 16, 2018

Baltic Circle, Helsinki

My small northern tour continues with Baltic Circle, an international theatre festival I haven't visited for 10 years. Much seems to have changed - the intimate, inner-city feeling of the festival has been replaced with a hub of the post-industrial circus venue Cirko, and much of the venues have moved to the edges of the city, presumably in response to a combination of arts funding cuts and gentrification.

I'm pretty tired, to be honest, from writing, but I'll try to force out of a couple of reviews in the next few days.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Невесомость

Sometimes I just enjoy shows without really knowing why. Partly it's a matter of choice. But there's also definitely an element of mystery to it. I must get some kind of strange pleasure from non-conformity in audiences. I have a small bug inside be that jumps around the trap of consensus, looking for a way out.

The last point is, I think, a feature of any worthwhile critic. Whilst you should be able to understand how a text is likely to be read by the dominant cultural forces, you should also understand the possibilities that alternate readings might bring. I don't mean just subject positions, or identities, (although those are important, too) but radical readings that open up new possibilities for art - sometimes even totally against the intention of the artist. I'm an advocate for this because I think it is one of the key things that criticism can contribute to artistic discourse, and because it makes criticism an imaginative and generative autonomous practice - not just a reflector of what is already clear to everyone anyway.

At about the 10 minute mark, I began to really enjoy Невесомость (meaning 'weightlessness' in Russian), a collaboration between author Ruslan Stepanov, sound designer Artjom Astrov and lighting designer Oliver Kulpsoo. It would be difficult for me to pinpoint why. This might be a valid question from a neighbouring audience member, who sees only a set of repetitive etudes accompanied by occasional adjustments - fidgets almost - from the designers.

Photo: Lee Kelomees


Indeed, Stepanov states in his description that the show is about 'boredom'. From the beginning our attention span is played with, offering only a simple set of what could be warm-up exercises (descended from the artist's ballet training, I'm reliably told), a loop of which lasts for perhaps 6 minutes before being repeated. These exercises are undertaken by Stepanov himself, underneath a 'stadium roof' fluorescent lights, which intrude everywhere from the top down. Occasionally, Astrov interjects with sound, such as a low repetitive moan, or enters the stage to make sounds at a standing microphone. At one point, he exits the side door and plays music from behind like a disgruntled teen.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Workshop

Back in Tallinn again for the mini-festival Draamamaa, which showcases internationally-exportable Estonian work to international curators. I won't have much of a function here, as such events tend towards being anti-critical and are more about networking and connections (although in a recent article in Sirp, it's also claimed to be about külalislahkus, or hospitality). Nevertheless, perhaps criticism can still be some kind of conduit to... something... operating underneath, or alongside, such functions. Maybe this is even where it's the most important.

It's worth mentioning that my visit occors in the midst of the death of Estonia's contemporary theatre stalwart, the group NO99. Rocked by the sexual misconduct of its artistic director towards a younger actress, the group last Wednesday announced that it would not continue working. Such is the interest in theatre in Estonia that 9 out of the top 10 most-read articles of the national newspaper were dedicated to the ending of NO99. It ends 12 years of often seismic experimentation, with the group and its resources to splinter across different areas or Estonian and international cultural life. I'm happy to be catching the end of it.

Workshop

Anyone who has ever turned to YouTube in search of the answer to a household question will understand me well when I say: instructional videos are a new type of performance. No sooner has one innocently clicked around for how to change the back tyre on your 3-speed bike, or how to install a Bosch 3X-GT8 washing machine, than one is inevitably drowned in the dulcet tones of some well-meaning US Southerner or Northern-UK fellow (it always seems to be one of these two, although possibly that's just the things that I search for) offering his banal and pathetic - but so helpful! - step-by-step on the subject. To say it's a new genre of performance is probably an understatement: it's a cult of DIY that inserts performance into our most vulnerable situations, the questions we need to know but were always afraid to ask. Previously the realm of the mother or father, now this role is played by Bob from Kentucky, providing a safety net for our insecurities with his inoffensive and calming procedures.

It's a rich site of performance, and one milked earnestly by the performers of Workshop (actually 3 members/affiliates of NO99) - Mart Kangro, Juhan Ulfsak and Eero Epner in this situational performance. The audience enters the space and sits at a giant communal bench, covered in work-lamps. Eero Epner begins to meekly address us with the first of many instructions - a brief history of lamps in Estonian art, with the dialectical point: to look out for 'what is not in the image'. He is soon interrupted by Kangro, who offers a short lesson in how to correctly saw a piece of wood. Then it's Ulfsak's turn, and he instructs us in how to find the end of a roll of cellotape, and how to poke the key out of a doorlock from the other side. And so on, and so on, at times veering on the pointless, comic, or ridiculous (What do you do if there is no armrest on your chair? Position it close to the table, and lean your arm on it. Of course).

Photo: Veiko Tubin

These are all relatively mundane tasks. But slowly, as the dramaturgy unfolds, there's a kind of accumulation that creeps up - sometimes, instructions are connected to one another, sometimes they refer back to an earlier instruction, sometimes even repeating the instruction of another as though it was the first time. Death intervenes - and we are offered instructions on correct treatment of a body (played with some physical discomfort by Epner) and Ancient Egypt's development of a special sheet to protect the eyes from being pecked out.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Panel Discussion: Latvian Theatre Showcase

In early November I was invited to participate in the annual showcase for Latvian Theatre. The press conference included experts from Slovakia, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and... me. See below.

Video: Spelmenu Nackts
Featuring: Featuring Miriam Kičiňová (SK), Richard Pettifer (AUS/DE), Rūta Mažeikienė (LIT), Tatiana Zelmanova (BEL) and Evgeniya Shermeneva (LAT)