FAILED BERLIN MANIFESTO #6.3
[this post originally appeared on buddies in bad times' blog here.]
i want so badly for this to be a manifesto. i want so badly to be the one to finally answer to our big crippling question. i want to offer a strategic plan, a series of tasks we can systematically complete to solve the problem, but that’s not what i’ve got. sitting here drinking some witches’ brew that susie made to stave off my impending cold, i’ve got a lot of questions.
susie fournier and i landed in berlin a couple weeks ago to work on the upcoming installments of LULU: v3 & v4. i’m not sure when exactly we decided—i think it was on a late-night drive from toronto to stratford or maybe it was the other direction—but here we are. we’re living & making in a little art gallery in neukölln with walls covered in post-it notes and orange wigs. threw together some grants and other fundraising and got ourselves over here.
on one of the blurry first days here we biked across the city to schaubühne—the big west german theatre that’s run by ostermeier (for reference, he’s the guy who directed the original enemy of the people that’s running over at tarragon right now). we were trying to see his hamlet, a production that’s been running in rep since 2008 and has toured around the world.
the show is sold out for all its october dates. so is ostermeier’s richard iii. we got there at 5.00 for a 7.30 show to find 5 people already lined up to go on the waiting list for unclaimed tickets at 6.30. by the time they started handing out numbers, there were 32 groups on the list. the lobby was packed with a crowd that was largely under 40, and people with extra tickets were flipping them for a profit. luckily, we were fourth on the waiting list and got in.
ostermeier’s a bit of an exception. he’s one of the more mainstream directors in the city, this production’s had a huge touring life, and the schaubühne is around a 500-seat theatre—big but not huge. the schaubühne was also one of the first theatres here to offer english surtitles for most performances.
but we went to see an uncle vanya a few nights later, a production with far less buzz to its name, at a theatre less well-known to the english speaking tourists—and the story was the same. sold right out. we managed to snag a pair of tickets by lurking around the entrance, but there were many who got turned away.
even a few nights later we went to an indie venue to see a performance-art-cum-text-experiment version of 4.48 psychosis. we got there 10 minutes early and could barely squeeze through the packed venue to get to the bathrooms. i watched the whole thing standing stock-still on the concrete floor. 2 inches forward and i’d be stepping on someone’s hand, breathe too deep and my lower ribs would press into the woman behind me, standing on tip-toe to see over my shoulder.
almost every other show we’ve seen has been the same. every time i come here, it’s astonishing, heartening, and at the same time totally discouraging. the idea of people lining up noisily, jostling in a line-up to snag seats for a THEATRE SHOW. for many theatre shows around the city. where are these people in canada?
the question is a bit simplistic, i know. there’s a lot of factors involved in why one culture might think of theatre as a necessary, exciting, energetic, rewarding way to engage with the ideas of their artists, who perform the function of critical interrogation of their culture’s values; and why another culture might feel that theatre is either:
a) a dated and bourgeois social activity;
b) an obligation you have to fulfill because your friend was involved in glue-gunning something to something and didn’t even get paid and please won’t you come that night isn’t selling well;
or c) something you’ll show up to because this is, after all, the community you work in and if we artists don’t support each other there won’t be anyone in the audience at all.
some of the reasons germans (and many european cultures) engage so differently with theatre are factors we can’t do much in canada to change at this point: nearly 300 years of audience development, a value system heavily impacted by enlightenment thought (which included an emphasis on patronage of the arts), a national identity that was critically informed in the romantic era by the work of some of the country’s most prominent theatre writers (goethe schiller kleist etc.). these are things we can’t change. time’s not on our side.
beyond that, there’s germany’s history of ruling structures that overtly* suppressed dissenting thought in media and art. the byproduct is a society that has become more literate in reading symbols and coded messaging in art. not being able to come out and say how fucked the system was on TV or in the newspaper meant that people were ready to read a lot more into timely productions of the bald soprano, danton’s death, or everyone’s perennial favourite metaphor for standing up to whatever’s wrong today, antigone.
(*i say “overtly” because it’s not as though we’ve never seen the suppression of controversial works and cultural institutions through the withholding of government funding. but the consequences are somewhat less severe—i.e. don’t involve jail time—and the policy less programmatic. and fuck it, we’ve got a new government anyhow.)
so we’re a little behind, yes. and it’s useless to stew over historical factors we can’t change. and anyway much though a neo-stalinist regime seizing control of our media might make us more inclined to read our politics in our art, i don’t wish that on our country even if it might be “good” for the vitality of our cultural institutions in the long run. and my more pessimistic side isn’t sure canadian passivity isn’t so predominant that we’d simply accept the defunding of the cbc and the end of mail delivery until we felt sure that everyone else was flocking to the polls to vote the same way as us.
every time i come to germany i go through this. i see the vigour of the artistic community and it inspires me—i’m filled with hope that the canadian arts scene might be able to position itself in such a way as to inspire an appetite for the arts in the canadian population. that one day our theatre lobbies could be filled with people waiting to take a number for unclaimed tickets. but the cycle is becoming exhausting.
since we got here susie and i have been listing all the things they seem to be doing right. the smaller things that could actually be transposed to canada, things that artists and institutions can do without requiring massive restructuring of our funding systems that might effect some useful change on a grassroots level.
most of the examples involve trust, risk, and daring.
- trust the breadth of the conversation and don’t feel like you have to appeal to every single potential audience member. don’t feel like you have to solve the whole play. in a healthy scene, every production is one of many. trying to contain every aspect or perspective will either overload or wash out what you’ve made. there will be another hamlet, another bald soprano. what is this one about? on the flip side, we need to stop expecting every production we see to encapsulate every thematic aspect of the text. what is the conversation being engaged with in this production?
- dare to support young artists. the big theatres are always complaining that the young audiences just don’t come. i had a showing of a work-in-progress in the spring that was gratifyingly well-attended—an AD of one of the major companies was there and the next day had his head of outreach call me to ask me to extend a ticket deal to my audience base. how do you get the young audiences out? program works by people who are speaking to them.
- risk leaving space for the audience to interpret symbols. many of our new-play development practices seem hell-bent on eradicating mystery, ambiguity, and confusion from our work—god forbid our audience be allowed to interpret meaning based on their own context, mood, and emotional patterns. allow the audience space to meet the images you present halfway—and if they create a different meaning, all the better.
- dare to challenge the audience to engage with complex ideas. don’t affirm the same perspectives and ideas we’re all reading on our lefty queer feminist facebook feeds. it’s much easier to stay home and read facebook if i’m not going to be offered anything new. theatre has the advantage of discourse, dialogue, and dialectics—and we go to see a clash between perspectives. antigone only works when we can understand kreon’s need to negotiate an end to a civil war. if it’s just about a young woman standing up the the patriarchy, there’s all kinds of upworthy links that contain the words “my jaw dropped” that can give you heart-warming stories about standing up for what you believe in.
- dare to allow live performance to be volatile. risk getting bruised. have faith that what you’re performing might be powerful enough for the audience that it’s worth the extraordinary risk rider. dare to speak right to the audience and be surprised by how that might change the evening.
- trust that the text is good enough to sustain image, symbol, metaphor, and design, and that these can be elements of narrative. dare to play against literalism. demand that texts exists as dynamic, nebulous things, blueprints for performances and not literary artifacts. risk letting a director, designer, and actors fill in gaps of meaning.
- dare to set the action on top of history, instead of in a kitchen. demand that an audience meet you in the universal rather than the particular. instead of the tyranny of inclusivity, seek expansivity. trust that the audience might get it.
- dare to stop begging people to come to the theatre, and instead make theatre that people should want to come to. right down to the graphic design here, the theatre presents itself differently. it looks cool. it looks like something you should want to do on a saturday night.
- risk failing at answers. risk failing at questions. risk failing at cohesion for the sake of trying something new. we saw a shakespeare last night that was totally bewildering that more or less botched the play and splattered the stage with imagistic nonsense, but it was still exciting, because it was clearly trying to pose a question in form and content and working hard at being something.
but even making this list is exhausting. this is my sixth time coming to berlin to work, and after two weeks the honeymoon and the hope start to dissolve. after all, our risk-aversion is often driven by the tenuous financial situation of the arts in canada. even if trudeau does double funding for the canada council, does that mean that any more people are going to fill the many empty seats in our theatres? and the theatres that are filling their seats are doing it by offering more of the same—and there’s enough of an appetite for that to fill the tarragon with middle-aged bourgeois women every night. so why repeat canadian stage’s recent trauma and risk alienating 30% of your subscriber base for the sake of pushing aesthetic boundaries? all of the theatres in toronto that are currently pushing boundaries are fighting to convince people that an unfamiliar experience is worth an investment of their time and money. we seem to crave certainty in canada.
and on top of that, there are a lot of artists risking and daring and once in a while they actually do manage to sell out their whole run. but there are a lot more exciting, daring, risky shows that struggle to fill their houses. and i don’t know that it’s a matter of looking cool. a few of our theatres have really great, edgy, exciting graphic design (buddies including, i would say), but it’s not making it a lot easier to fill the houses. remember canadian stage’s “theatre is krapp” campaign? i thought it was pretty clever—and a refreshing change from FOH managers coming out after performances to thank the subscribers and beg them to tell their friends—but it turned a lot of people off. it would have worked in germany. but somehow canadians aren’t ready to accept the theatre as something cool, vital, or socially essential, and they’d rather be thanked and praised for attending.
and the other side of the tremendous vitality of the german scene is that it becomes self-indulgent, solipsistic, and downright unrigorous—i suspect especially now, in a time of relative political and economic stability. “wanky” is a word that has come to mind a couple times. formal radicalism sometimes takes precedence over the basic act of theatrical communication. and sometimes it veers so far into the conceptual that it’s impossible to access the psychological motivations of the characters—actors begin to represent concepts rather than human beings. not to mention that the state theatre institutions here manifest a profound whiteness, eurocentricism, and hegemonic patriarchy, even in a multicultural centre like berlin. there’s a glaring dearth of women and people of colour on these stages, which seem mostly dedicated to building on the 300-year legacy of the german national identity*.
(*it’s worth noting that the maxim gorki theater is a bit of an exception—the new intendantin is a turkish woman who is trying to create a space for “post-migrant” work and has mandated that at least half the company not be of ethnically german origin.)
all this leaves me wishing i had a manifesto i could write, a set of mantras we could collectively adapt to make canadians want more innovation, more rigour, more social and political engagement from its art. something that could assert that art has a social function to provoke, interrogate, and unsettle, and that being provoked, interrogated, and unsettled can actually be pleasurable. but i’m not sure it doesn’t actually require a complete paradigm shift in terms of how we canadians view ourselves as a culture.
susie noted that germans seem to be much more prepared to use the theatre as a place to grapple with their shadow side. this is a culture that has been forced to publicly reckon with an dark history, alongside their legacy of progressive enlightenment values. this is a country that produced great prodigies and horrible tyrants. and they seem to use their stages as an indirect part of their democratic process—a place for entertainment, yes, but also a place to grapple with questions about the nature of power, freedom, and philosophical ideas. a place to ask what kind of society they are building and participating in.
these aren’t questions canadians as a whole seem interested in. we’ve had our evil geniuses and we’ve got our prodigies. we’ve produced philosophers, great artists, and tyrants, and we’ve committed genocides, but right now we’re all just so relieved that we managed to vote out harper that we’re more interested in congratulating ourselves at having ousted him, than asking what it says about us as a culture, that we are so abysmally unengaged in our own self-governance to have put up with him for a decade. we want to be affirmed once more as those nice guys who freed the dutch and act as polite interveners in the tyranny of others than examining the ways in which we tyrannize ourselves. we want to feel sure that we know right from wrong, rather than face our own capacity to abuse power, or remain passive in the face of obvious and rampant abuse. our voter turnout stats only reinforce this.
i’m not all that sure that a little more confidence in taking artistic risk, or some edgier graphic design really is the answer to invigorating our artistic scene. we don’t see the theatre as a place to grapple with questions of justice, we ask theatres to affirm the answers we already have, the ones that pop up day-in and day-out in the political vacuums of our facebook feeds. we know our values and don’t want them questioned, we want them manifested and fed back to us like sedatives. we want to celebrate our progressiveness, not have it undermined. maybe it actually would take an era of hard stalinism and losing a major world war for us to reckon with our shadow side on stage. because then, and perhaps only then, will we really need our theatres to innovate for us.