This January, I went to Berlin for three weeks with a group of eight Korean students, all majors of German Language and Literature at Ewha Womans University. The goal of this three week “Overseas Education Program” (해외교수인솔프로그램) is to learn German at a winter school of Humboldt University and to explore what the city has to offer culturally, particularly in the field of theatre. Under the title “Berlin, City of Theatres”, I had prepared a program of seven theatre visits, a special lecture, a guided tour, and a drama workshop. While I was excited to see what’s happening on Berlin stages myself (I haven’t really had the chance to see theatre in Germany for almost a decade as I usually visit during summer when theatres take a break), I was even more looking forward to introduce the Berlin theatre scene to my students, hoping to spark their interest in everything performative. I have twittered using the hashtag #BerlinTheatreSchedule, first on the challenges and problems I faced making online reservations for a group of nine, followed by live reactions to the performances we saw. Here, in a series of blog posts, I expand on these notes, both as a “memory protocol” of our experiences in Berlin and as a help for future excursions.
The first week was about getting to know Berlin. Having arrived on Sunday night, the first day was Monday, January 6. After the official start of the Winter School, we took a stroll around Humboldt University, had lunch in the crowded mensa, and got everyone a working cell phone. Wednesday, January 8, was dedicated to the basics: We met at Friedrichstraße, walked across Museum Island through the Hackescher Markt neighborhood, then by bus (line 100, of course) towards Brandenburger Tor, and finished with the Holocaust Memorial, which is even more uncanny after early nightfall. Some students also took a tour to the Bundestag, the German parliament.
Theatre began on Friday, with 100% Berlin Reloaded by Rimini Protokoll, a collective that had just turned twenty years old. I had seen some of their earlier works back then (inc. Black Tie on overseas adoption from Korea), but had missed most of their recent productions. The “100% City”-format dates to the production 100% Berlin (2008), which was conceived for the 100th anniversary of Hebbel Theater and has since then been adapted in over thirty cities around the world. Rimini Protokoll also came to South Korea in 2014 and produced 100% Gwangju as part of the pre-opening program of the theatre of Asia Culture Center (국립아시아문화전당), a full video is available on the production’s website. On the global scope of the “100% City”-format and the “serial nostalgia” it evokes, see also Douglas Eacho’s 2018 paper (Theatre Research International 43.2).
Now the show is back in Berlin where it all started. Like twelve years ago, the cast consists of 100 Berliners who statistically represent the city, according to five criteria (age, gender, occupation, nationality, neighborhood), and perform answers to dozens of questions, touching all kinds of life realities. The answers are staged in various ways, beginning with simple hand signs or groupings, later people reply anonymously (with flashlights in the dark) or form ‘family pictures’ around a given statement (e.g. “I have enacted violence against others.”), there are questions from the audience and questions to the audience, and a moment to take a picture (“Who wants to take a picture of us?”). In some acts, Di Grine Kuzine (“a Berlin-based, klezmer-rooted, Balkan brass band”) provides some rhythm to the choreography of everyday life in Berlin. In a stunning scene, everyone re-enacts (in pantomime) a typical day, one hour after the other. The final series of questions (“Who thinks he/she won’t be alive in twelve/twenty-four/thirty-six etc. years?”) leads to a full stage and draws the performance to its conclusion.
The makers call this format a “statistical chain-reaction” (e.g. in the introduction to the 2008 production 100% Berlin), because the one hundred citizens are cast through a system of recommendations. One by one, they’re all connected, as indicated in the little book that (instead of a regular program brochure) allows everyone to present her/himself on one page. In the very first scene, everyone passes by on the revolving stage of Hebbel Theater (which inspired the original production) and has the chance to introduce him/herself to the audience. Most persons also show a mascot or some other object for easy identification later on, such as a red gown, a football, or a trolley. When all turn into a large crowd, filling the stage, moving around, regrouping according to the questions, they don’t turn into an anonymous collective. The top-mounted camera that shows their movements from a bird’s-eye view suggests an anthill, small dots on a complex chart.
But actually – and that’s a big part of the fun – everyone remains, more or less, individual and recognizable. Familiar faces pop up in different constellations, one can follow a single person or several (with one’s eyes, of course) through the ways they make. The moving image that emerges and transforms live on stage, a bit like “Where’s Wally”-books, is interactive in the sense that I can – and have to – choose on who or what to focus or look for. All in all, a great start to three weeks in a great city.
The next day, Saturday, we met at Ku’damm, downtown of the old West-Berlin, where, theatre-wise, Thomas Ostermeyer, director of Schaubühne, rules since the early 2000s. Besides various Shakespeares and Ibsens, he also directed abgrund (abyss), a contemporary play by Maja Zade, which premiered a year ago. After a brief meet-up with a friend and colleague from Seoul, we went into the black box and took our seats. They were way back, but thanks to what seemed like a technical gimmick at first, we were as close to the actors as if we were next to them on stage.
The actors – playing two conventional cis couples plus two singles having a dinner party – had microphones attached to their face. These were connected to headphones that we, the spectators, were wearing. This was necessary, as the actors spoke in regular voice, without the projection typical of stage acting. They would have been almost inaudible (except, maybe, from the first rows) without the amplification. This technical set-up produced an intimacy I’ve rarely encountered in theatre. It was like a fabricated cocktail party effect, where you zoom in, so to speak, into conversations that otherwise get intermingled when everyone is speaking at the same time. Here, technicians provided the mixing that gave our ears focus, which I checked several times by taking of the headphones for a while – all I heard was an incomprehensible mumbling from stage. (This effect can be grasped, partly, in the video trailer that is available on Youtube.)
So much about the acoustic soundscape, which was, also, the most fascinating part of this evening. The plot – middle-class smalltalk disturbed only slightly by the violent death of a baby next door – was unremarkable but the actors’ dialogues where fun to listen to. In a way, it was an attempt at a psychological portrait, of a semi-creative, semi-alternative, well-saturated class of thirty-somethings some consider emblematic of Berlin (or at least Prenzlauer Berg, where I happen to stay this time). The program book features some related essays that provide a theoretical framework, stressing the social determination of human behavior. The texts range from sociologists like Simmel (on the functions of shared meals) and Bourdieu (on the distinctions the actors enact and display), or Yuval Noah Harari’s thoughts on the evolution of human conversation as a means to socialize, to the story of Kain and Abel from Genesis.
Apart from these underlying concepts, the play consists of much inside talk, some local references (Osloer Straße, Winsstraße, edeka and Rewe, Manufactum etc.), current discourse (refugees: “Flüchtlinge” or “Geflüchtete”, the most obvious one), all quite hard to grasp for non-locals. The English surtitles, projected into the set, otherwise would have been quite helpful for my students, but I think many details got lost (I tried to explain some of those I got afterwards). For details on the production and the director’s concept see Joseph Pearson’s essay “A Glittering Abyss” on Schaubühne’s blog.
It was a fun evening for myself, but as an introduction to Berlin and its theatre, Rimini Protokoll’s “sociological” approach last night was way more informative and entertaining, if not as profound and psychologically plausible. Still, a nice glimpse into the theatrical selves of my generation, maybe as not as interesting to my students, though, who still have some time left before turning thirty-something.
Taking a closer look at life in Berlin, both productions share an interest in the here and now. 100% Berlin Reloaded takes a more quantitative and documentary approach, abgrund is fictional and by putting the characters in an extreme (and likewise fictional?) situation stresses qualitative reactions on a smaller scale. Living means, as we learn day by day, to perform oneself – one’s class, gender, and citizenship, but also one’s emotions and interpersonal relations – in a specific environment, thus contributing to the Berlin we share, even if (in our case) it is only for three weeks.
— 10 & 11 Jan. 2020 (金 & 土)
- 100% Berlin Reloaded, concept, text & direction: Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, Daniel Wetzel (Rimini Protokoll), set: Mascha Mazur, Marc Jungreithmeier, research & dramaturgy: Cornelius Puschke, live music: Di Grine Kuzine, assistance direction: Lisa Homburger, production management: Juliane Männel, produced by Rimini Apparat in co-production with HAU Hebbel am Ufer Berlin, funded by Hauptstadtkulturfonds, HAU1, premiere on January 9, 2020, performance on January 10, 2020, 8–9.50pm. [Hebbel am Ufer], [Rimini Protokoll]
- abgrund, written by Maja Zade, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, set and costume design: Nina Wetzel, video: Sébastien Dupouey, music: Nils Ostendorf, sound design: Jochen Jezussek, dramaturgy: Maja Zade, lighting design: Erich Schneider, with: Christoph Gawenda, Moritz Gottwald, Jenny König, Laurenz Laufenberg, Isabelle Redfern, Alina Stiegler, and Tabea Fromholz / Lucy Kip / Nele Richter, Schaubühne, (world) premiere on April 2, 2019, performance on January 11, 2020 (Sat.), 8.30–10.30pm. [schaubühne]