postcards from berlin #13 [tyranny & the theatrical contract]
DIE WIEDERVEREINIGUNG DER BEIDEN KOREAS (r. reese) @ berliner ensemble
i was excited for this one. i’d never seen reese’s directing, but i’ve been really interested to see what he does with the berliner ensemble. didn’t really know the script but i’m a sucker for a good title (reunification of the two koreas). so i was hopeful. reese cared enough about it enough to transfer it from frankfurt (where he used to be). instead intermission rolled around and i had that old stay-or-go debate.
show itself was fine. pretty innocuous overall. not a tangible political thread and the fragmentary dramaturgy didn’t give me a lot to hold onto in a bunch of naturalistic scenes about love.
they don’t give us intermissions here that often, so it’s rare that i find myself having the stay or go debate. leaving is harder without the intermission, resistance has to be active, you have to rebel against the shitty thing that’s making you miserable. leaving at intermission is more like not bothering to vote than defying the rule of law.
i wish i did it more. or even walked out. i’d spare myself some whining i think. but intermission ended and i slowly pushed myself complacently back up the stairs. to what—give the director, actors, playwright at chance to impress me, redeem the show? the generous side of me feels like everyone deserves a chance to turn a losing game around.
but walking out feels like a big statement. it’s hard to do, even when you’re really suffering. but i wonder if we made it easier for people to walk out, whether the boring shows would be less traumatizing. i wonder if it might make theatre artists feel less entitled to peoples’ patience?
i go back and forth on this. i’m thinking a lot about the theatrical contract lately—theatrical contract as a substitute for the social contract in that particular space, surrounding a particular event. we agree to turn off our phones, to try to be quiet, to pay a different kind of a attention, too allow the even to proceed as intended, even to try to support it in succeeding. we don’t want it to fail, not least of which because we bought tickets. i’m of two minds—on the one hand, i like that the theatre is a place where we unplug, offer active attention, and sit together in the dark; on the other, the “terms” of the contract can also be really alienating to audiences, they feel trapped, dominated, even oppressed. when the theatre demands a lot of behaviours and doesn’t offer a lot of pleasure the arrangement feels kind of stalinist. but get enough pleasure and almost anyone will give up their liberty. (maybe why so many of us put up with the rules of air travel these days).
i’m curious about how the dialogue around relaxed performances might be broadened around this. at the moment there’s a fairly moralistic tone to the conversation, around accessibility and inclusion, good points, but i feel like intoning morally around the theatre is killing it. i wonder if there’s a way to do double duty in relaxing theatrical events, simultaneously combatting some of theatre’s more able-ist tendencies and combatting some of theatre’s more off-puttingly despotic tendencies for the general population—and offering a broadly inclusive experience? the freedom i was offered for MOUNT OLYMPUS made me more willing to be guided toward the extraordinary.
but the execution requires more specificity than just well-intentioned thinking. there’s a range of neuro-atypicalities that aren’t all served by the same approach. how do you truly relax a performance, while retaining its transformative potential—for all audiences? anyone who’s worked at me knows that my main sound note is usually louder. i love blinding light cues and abrupt blackouts. i think they are part of how theatre can transport you outside yourself. and they also create barriers for many people.
it’s maybe a two part solution. a general relaxing of the rules around theatre (accessible ticket models, drinks in the theatre, exit and re-entry allowed, etc) to make people feel less tyrannized by the standard behaviours of theatre, and then targeted nights where specific accessibility strategies are implemented. we’re doing more of the latter part of this these days. here in berlin, where the conversation about access is a little less morally-volatile, some nights the surtitles are french, some nights they’re english (some nights at some theatres they’re arabic). but i don’t think it’s only the differently-abled who feel alienated from theatre spaces these days. i think it’s most people in canada.
for more on the show click here.