i've been seeing some more of the theatre running at the theatre, two productions that are continuing from last year. the german state theatres run repertory in a totally different way than in canada, so productions can run for years and years so long as the intendant (basically artistic director) still thinks they are important and they keep selling tickets. for instance, the deutsches theater production of emilia galotti (directed by michael thalheimer) that came for a short stint in stratford last fall was actually directed and rehearsed in 2001, and was still running at the deutsches theater back in june when i was here. the theatres here are bigger, have more money and more storage space, as well as enough personnel to facilitate the stage changes night to night. theatres will often have as many as 20 or 30 productions in their repertory.
as all the state theatres here take a two month break for the summer (basically early july to early september), here in stuttgart they are basically spending the next month getting all their 'wiederaufnahme" (taken-on-again) productions back up and running. with two months off, it means the directors have to come back for a day, rehearse the show one day, and then it's back in the pot. here it looks like the process will happen slowly over the next two months (lösch's hamlet, which johanna said was pretty mindblowing, will not be running until november).
it is pretty f--ked when you think that most of these actors have about ten shows in their heads at a time. and the stagings are generally a little more out there (i'm being tactful there—they are about ten times as challenging to perform than most canadian theatre), so these actors aren't just expected to do the obvious and illustrate a text, but they have to remember a whole bunch of shifting attitudes and arguments that tend to work counter to the text. good thing the pay is better here.
so what i've seen from the wiederaufnahme repertoire:
STALKER. directed by hasko weber, who is the intendant here. it's based on the tarkovsky film of the same name. i have to say i don't know much about tarkovsky, but from what jörg's wife told me, he was pretty nuts. he didn't make a ton of films, but all of them were fairly densely philosophical and stalker was the most intense of them. it's loosely based on a novel called "roadside picnic" by the strugatsky brothers. really loosely. in fact all it has in common with the film is the word stalker and this idea of a room. it took five years for tarkovsky and the strugatskys to adapt the novel, and then three years to film everything (the material used for the film was from the third filming session, after one location got lost halfway through filming and the second set of footage was damaged). tarkovsky was also extremely interested in aristotelian unity of action, time, and place.
this room is maybe the site of a meteor strike or an alien landing, and is basically unreachable without the guide, or stalker. it has the capability to grant the visitor's greatest wish. which results, obviously, in a hell of a philosophical / moral / ethical dilemma. without going too far in terms of plot details (they basically want to go to the room, get to the room, then leave the room), i found myself wondering more than anything what the value is in translating a film to stage. especially when said film was already adapted from a book. the production was unsatisfying, maybe because it lacked humour and action to me, but also because i felt the entire time that it would make a better movie (this is before i knew that it was one). it's hard to create an impression of desperation and claustrophobia when you use a vast and largely empty stage. the text wasn't the screenplay, it was collaged together with heiner müller and biblical text, among other things, all around the subject of wish-fulfillment and the dream world, but it still didn't grab me. also, to be fair, my german is not yet good enough to grasp a really serious philosophical debate.
but this "leave it on film" thing is the biggest thing i took away from it. jörg's wife said she enjoyed the production but that the film was very close to her heart and couldn't really be topped. actually she said her connection to it borders on something religious. it must be a good film. tarkovsky himself was also an opera director, as i have since learned. so ostensibly the possibility always existed for it to be something theatrical and not cinematic. this is a really important problem for me, what with us all living in an age of digitalized media that is fairly universally accessible, and me having chosen theatre of all the possible media of expression available. it's not possible to mass-distribute, isn't very current as a means of communication, and generally its popularity is waning among our generation. so basically i'm painting in a cave. which begs that awful question—why bother?
well, obviously i'm drawn to a lot of things about it—the shared experience of being in the same room as the artists as it the art is created, the ability to create and destroy illusions, theatre's ability to be self-reflexive and communicate directly, the fact that it is spontaneous and uncertain, and that no two performances are ever quite the same, and an intrinsically spiritual or mystical connection that joins everyone in the room when it's at its best. but i am absolutely adamant, especially in an age where theatre isn't exactly viewed as something relevant, that theatre needs to be THEATRE. in that a piece of theatre must express something that can't be expressed through another medium, and that the theatre-creator must be exploiting that medium to the limits of its communicative potential. i guess in germany the issue is less pressing, because theatre is more alive and valued here as culture, but in canada, where every show mounted (that isn't some insipid sh-t like dirty dancing or we will rock you) has to fight for its very survival, it's extremely important to me that theatre need to be theatre, and only in that way can we affirm its value.
the second show, TRILOGIE DES WIEDERSEHENS, was directed by someone i know nothing about, a woman named frederike heller. the text was botho strauß' breakout success, written in 1977. strauß has worked with the likes of peter stein at the famous schaubühne in west berlin (the only one of the five berlin state theatres in the western half).
i'll admit straight up, a good chunk of the text was lost on me. i can order beer and look for apartments and do my day-to-day living and conversing in german, but as the best writing often relies on clever word-play, it can sometimes be lost on me, and that german directors tend to work against the obvious in the text, it's easy to get mixed up. i also have a lot of difficulty operating washing machines in german. but household appliances give me trouble in my native tongue too.
the play, as far as i understood, as about an artist preparing an exhibit of paintings in a provincial west german town, in his newly developed style of "capitalist realism" (remember gorki's socialist realism and the soviet art program—). there are fourteen characters onstage, to varying degrees engaged in the arts community, either as creators (actors, painters, etc) or consumers. the exhibit is clearly something controversial, and the community ends up in a bit of an uproar. further details went over my head.
however, this was definitely THEATRE. the artist was also somehow the director of the show, for at least the first two parts of the trilogy announcing the scene titles (rather, picture titles) and orchestrating the set. in this staging, the community themselves became the works of art, polaroids capturing the bourgeois society at their ugliest. the polaroids littered the stage, crowding the actors in their space. each picture was introduced to the audience and for as long as the game was within the artist's control, the scenes ended with the pictures that came out of them being revealed.
what really got me about the production was the beautiful arc of it—it set up a dramaturgical form that ended up being compromised by the stories development, never stayed on the same note. the game was wrestled from the artist/director's control and the objects became the subjects. as the exhibit and the models took control of the piece, all hell broke loose, the lighting grid was lowered onto the stage, the live musician walked out, and then at the end of the piece when i had given up understanding the story, except that the artist cheated on his girlfriend with one of the bourgeois women, a giant chaotic fight broke loose, as the polaroids got hung as an exhibit, everyone arguing and brawling with one another, a table full of champagne appearing, everyone getting drunk, the woman who had puked near the beginning got hammered again and flipped the table on the stage, people taking their clothes off and making out with everyone except who they should, someone standing up and announcing they were moving to canada in the midst of all this and a big eulogistic speech on the beauty of canada, and then the artist wandering upstage to get naked and paint himself red and green and in the very end walking down and centre with a sign over himself saying "where there's a picture there's a hole in reality".
start with rules, challenge them, destroy them, invent new ones, and end where you never meant to go. beautiful structure. something i learned from johanna and take very seriously. playing on one note is boring and formalistic. being formalist is not the problem, it's staying formalist. there's no danger, surprise, or suspense if the control of the game isn't wrestled away. and i walked out with this giant grin on my face at the sheer beautiful ugliness of the chaos (i love nothing more than a play that ends with all hell breaking loose, and this was really beautifully done), and waited in the lobby, totally curious to hear the audience reaction. the patrons of the staatstheater are about the usual stratford demographic, old people by and large, with the occasional theatre student in the mix, but mostly bourgeois and conservative-looking. i know that had something like that happened in canada, there would have been walkouts and refunds and a whole pile of offended and distraught old ladies. so i wanted to eavesdrop.
i was blown away—they didn't all love it, definitely not, but the reactions were critically engaged. some old lady even said it was yeah ok fine but a little boring. an old lady finding a naked dude painted green with an artistic statement over his dick ok but boring. huh. the thing is—innovation and experimentation are to be expected in this theatre culture. maybe it's been done i suppose, i mean what's a german play without a naked person or three, but that the tolerance and willingness to discuss instead of simply marching off with a neo-protestant kind of prudishness and deeply offended bourgeois sensibility—i mean, this is maybe the most capitalist city in all of germany and the audience is exactly the demographic being lampooned and challenged onstage—and they more than happily keep coming and buying tickets. not only that, they are all at least marginally aware of the aesthetic theory that goes into the choices and try to understand the particular modes of expression chosen by the director and actors because it's a cultural responsibility almost—hard to imagine.
my parents are extremely supportive of me and my work, and they usually have a night during the runs of my shows where they invite all their friends to come and watch—the support is extremely generous and usually they have a lot of fun and are extremely tolerant of whatever theatrical experimentation i'm trying to do, but the number of people who flat-out don't understand even the story is pretty funny to me. because it's me, their friend's kid, they're very polite, and will even tolerate sitting on milk crates and being told by an actress dressed as a crackwhore that she'll "suck their cock for five bucks" who then sticks her first in her mouth and falls over—but as far as they understand, that's not what theatre's about. that's me dicking around and being provocative. i don't mean to knock them—i really am so incredibly grateful for the support and interest, and actually those are my favourite nights because i'm playing to an audience that is more or less blind to the aesthetic theories i'm playing with—they are pure spectators and react with all the surprise i could hope for—it's just such a different culture here. these old bourgeois ladies here would probably think the crackwhore was old news (so 1970s). it's hard to articulate, it's just such an incredibly different way of consuming theatre here.
that, and the theatres are (currently at least) well-enough funded that they can take artistic risks and not go out of business. because the funding is there, artistic experimentation is not only possible, it's the norm, and the audience has to be on their toes—theatre here has the freedom to challenge and interrogate the audience because the financial concerns are smaller, and so theatre can actually take its proper place as a forum for challenging norms, instead of being dictated by the consumer market to give the audience what it wants. so long as theatre has to rely so heavily on the capitalist economy and notions of supply and demand, it remains a buyer's market, and not a seller's market. the artistic prerogative is killed by popular demand, rather than being a critic of the establishment the artist is bound to propagate these norms, and provide safe, morally acceptable, and comfortable perspectives.
actually it all comes from the damn puritans who first settled the new world and thought that things like theatre and dancing were the devil's work and from the very moment of the new world's founding theatre was marginalized instead recognized as a culturally valuable forum to discuss and challenge the accepted ideologies. theatre has always lived off patronage and not consumerism, and here patronage was undertaken by the nobility and aristocracy—the government itself. in canada and the u.s. the rich ruling class spend their patronage money on things like hospitals and musuems, which are inarguably important, but do not foster voices of dissent. we have not yet stepped into an age in canada where we are ready to challenge our establishment because we're just so damn proud of having a culture at all and would rather celebrate than interrogate it.
i would take it to some inspiring conclusion and offer a solution if i could, but that requires a orchestrating a culture shift beyond my control. all i can say is—