Tag Archives: ethics

What kind of theatre criticism do we need?

In my informal research on critical thinking on theatre criticism, I have come across an open discussion about theatre criticism held in 2009 in Zagreb, Croatia. Here are a couple of interesting quotes from this discussion, translated into English by yours truly (with the Croatian original, transcribed by yours truly as well).

This is a lateral reaction to the (ongoingly unconstructive) discussion about the critical ethics of Alison Croggon on Cameron Woodhead’s blog. I am not interested in participating in flame wars, but the question of theatre ethics is an interesting, and important one: in particular the questions of the legitimacy of a critic and a criticism; of bias resulting from personal and professional connections (and resulting mutual obligations, however unconscious); and of criticism as an ethical act.

As a preamble, the most interesting quote (for me, personally) about the ethics of theatre criticism in Australia is almost a side remark that John Bailey made in the introduction to his blog, A CAPITAL IDEA – which perhaps says something about the state of the critical debate in Australia:

Disclaimer: This site will be riddled with conflicts of interest which will only sometimes be mentioned. This is because I have PERSONALLY MET and even spoken with hundreds of the many thousands of artists working in Australia today. Just yesterday one came into my shop and bought some rainbow coloured kneepads. A few hours later another came in and bought a nice red jumper. Also, I was once walking home when a really good director pulled up next to me and gave me a lift. It turns out that I used to play SPORTS with his girlfriend, who was driving. I also went to uni with a lot of very talented artists who are now achieving the national and sometimes international recognition they deserve. About a year ago I saw Barry Dickins in the street and said hello and he invited me in for a cup of tea and a crumpet. I had an unexpected dance-off with a FAIRLY FAMOUS WRITER ages ago which ended when she threatened me with a pot of water from the stove. And so forth. Such conflicts of interest can be understood by another name – “HAVING ANY INVOLVEMENT WITH THE ARTS IN MELBOURNE” – and are quite unavoidable. But I like to believe that a certain amount of professionalism and even-handednes will also be on display here.

The following quotes come from Nataša Govedić, possibly the most prominent contemporary theatre critic in Croatia. Govedić writes long-form criticism for Novi list, a highly regarded newspaper published from Rijeka, but increasingly distributed nationally. She is also a theatre scholar, and one of the editors (and one of the theatre critics) of Zarez, the most prominent cultural magazine in Croatia.

I have a lot of professional and personal respect for Nataša Govedić, whose scholarly work has focused on ethics, in performance and performance-making, as well as in theatre writing, writing on theatre, and scholarly writing. I have interviewed her for my thesis, own a book of her essays on performance ethics, and have met her in person – all to my great delight.

Govedić opened the conversation with two statements that I will certainly return to in the future: first quoting Oscar Wilde “It is Criticism, again, that, by concentration, makes culture possible”; and then by stating “Theatre criticism is an art that will exist if it creates the conditions for its own existence.”

I think that the critic is a performer. In other words, the critic performs a few times a week in the daily newspaper, and performs in front of the wide audience of such a newspaper. S/he performs in front of actors, in front of directors. The manner of this performance is very important. So, in terms of performativity, values, argumentation, the encounter between the critic and the creative teams is much more frequent than my personal encounter, as a critic, with individual performers of state theatres. Certain actors may perform four times a year, or even less, and I perform three times a week. And if I am on the public stage three times a week, then people will get to know me. And, in that sense, the critic is undoubtedly NOT outside the process of performance/performativity. And thus s/he is absolutely not PR – I would thus never call myself PR, quite the opposite. The longer I am implicated in this process of performance/performativity, the less it seems to me that my role is to inform the public about what was technically going on [on stage, in the theatre].

If we talk about what criticism might be, it could be, in different senses of the term, a cooperation, centred around this joint, co-creating work. Because the most interesting artsts are themselves terribly self-critical, demolishingly self-critical. They cannot form a single sentence about themselves that isn’t self-denial. Just like critics are certainly to some extent people who create. I therefore don’t see at all why we should insist on such a strong division.

The other thing – I don’t see why we would limit the responsibility of critics to the newspapers, or only to ourselves. There are professional organisations alright, e.g. the Croatian Journalist Association or the Croatian Association of Critics and Theatre Scholars, who do nothing – who meet twice a year, only formally, and I don’t see them contribute to the public dialogue, to the creation of a public, to the creation of context, I haven’t seen them accept the position of a performer. I think that the performer’s position is the most humble, and the most radical, and don’t know why critics should shy away from it. On the contrary, I think s/he should be conscious of it. I think that the critic-as-a-simple-observer has never existed. The critic is always biased, has always held values to some extent, has held an ideology, if you prefer – not just the ideology of the newspaper s/he works for – and there doesn’t exist, nor has ever existed, a neutral critic. Therefore, it is then only fair to honestly admit which values we uphold, and why we believe in certain processes, and why we participate in them. Of course, this doesn’t mean to propagate them.

[The question was: “What kind of criticism, or what kind of critic, do we need? What gives legitimacy to a critic?” The journalist offered a personal view: “For me, it must come from the critic’s work.”]

There is an entire category of scientific evaluation called peer review. When experts evaluate the works of other experts. This often escalates into full-blown wars: there are often deep disagreements about one and the same text, work – and it is often completely impossible to reach a consensus, on any level, on what should be fixed or changed in a text. So clearly, the point of criticism is not in all of us agreeing on how a staged work could be improved. The idea of criticism implies the cultivation of difference among critics, and those critics then having a certain credibility – or not, as the case may be. But they have a certain predictability, that definitely. And it makes them serve as a kind of orientation point, and of course such orientation points should be as many, and as diverse, as possible.

In these discussions about whether criticism should be written by people who clearly have no argument to make, who opt for impressionist reviews – impressionist in the sense of writing down [only] their impressions – I also think that kind of criticism does a lot of damage. But I don’t think it should be censored, because there is a place for such criticism, too. I think what qualifies a critic is first the professional qualification – in the sense that the person needs to know and understand the artform [‘poznavati profesiju’ in original: my translation is arguable]. On the other hand, there is the qualification of seeing… The very fact of sitting in a theatre, day after day, and watching shows is a form of labour, labour which definitely leaves a mark. A critic that gets that kind of education, seriously and with dedication, and then stays to talk to people after the show…

It took me a long time to even accept this idea, that it’s important to talk a lot with people. Now I think it’s as important as to write about theatre. When I started to write criticism, 10 years ago, I was strongly convinced that I have to write, and that I must not talk with the artists, that that’s taboo – because the moment we talk someone is already trying to persuade me. Now I think exactly the opposite, I think one must hear all the arguments and only then have a think about it all. Not so that I can be manipulated, but to reduce to minimum my own manipulation with that visit, that single visit, which was surely not enough to encompass the entire production. It’s rude to claim that one attendance of a show could possibly encompass the extreme complexity of its process. Theatre performances really are different from one night to the other, and the more often we can return to a production, the more ethical we are in that sense.

The entire discussion (for that lone 8-or-so million people who speak Croatian) can be viewed here.

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shopping for experience (reviewed: a whole bunch of relational/immersive/participatory theatre, including London’s LIFT and BAC’s One-on-One Festival; Rimini Protokoll, Dries Verhoeven)

Life Streaming, Dries Verhoeven. Photo: Maarten van Haaff.

IMMERSIVE, RELATIONAL, PARTICIPATORY, SITE-SPECIFIC… WHATEVER TERM YOU PREFER (AND I PREFER ‘RELATIONAL’, AS THIS IS PRIMARILY A THEATRE OF SOCIAL AND SPATIAL RELATIONS), THIS FORM DOMINATED THE LONDON SUMMER OF 2010. BATTERSEA ARTS CENTRE (BAC) PRESENTED AN ENTIRE FESTIVAL OF ONE-ON-ONE WORKS, WITH OVER THIRTY ONE-MAN-(OR WOMAN)-SHOWS CRAMMED INTO THE OLD BATTERSEA TOWN HALL IN SOUTH LONDON. THE MORE CENTRALLY LOCATED LIFT (LONDON INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF THEATRE) DEDICATED THE LION’S SHARE OF ITS PROGRAM TO EVENTS THAT COULD JUST AS EASILY HAVE BEEN TERMED MASS GAMING, COLLECTIVE SKYPING OR SCAVENGER HUNTS.

At the Barbican, during the same period, You Me Bum Bum Train entered history as their fastest-selling show ever: part theatre, part Thank God You’re Here, it turned each audience member into the protagonist, made to improvise their way through a series of dramatic situations in front of the supporting cast of 200. With so much emphasis on you, the spectator, forgive me if the rest of this article privileges the second-person singular.

one-on-one festival


An immersive event in its own right, One-On-One Festival was possibly its own greatest achievement. The least one could sign up for was a marvellously organised afternoon of mingling through a building crammed with secret one-man wonders, appointment card in hand. The atmosphere was surprisingly welcoming, even festive: performers and spectators crossing paths in the same courtyard and café, recommendations exchanged, friendships commenced, queues spontaneously forming outside the rooms with hidden gems on the strength of on-the-spot word of mouth. Repeatedly diving into a 2-or-3-minute intensely collaborative performance, being in turns swung and shaken, kissed and sung to, frightened or intellectually challenged, by the end of the day one had no personal boundaries left to speak of.

Despite being cumulatively great, One-On-One also demonstrated how quickly an emergent genre can settle on a limited range of solutions. One kind seemed tailored to break through fears of intimacy: Abigail Conway’s On Dancefloors invites you to dance; Emma Benson sings a song with you in Me You Now. Most radically, Adrian Howells gives you a bath in The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding, while Ansuman Biswas’s more open-ended 2 FREE offers the possibility of engaging with a naked, blindfolded man. However trivial they may sound conceptually, these were some of the most powerful performances in the festival, spoken about in hushed, almost spiritual tones. You found yourself entering these rooms with the same mixture of compulsion and terror with which you might climb into a roller-coaster (and they certainly act as a kind of psycho-social one, including the lag with which you process the experience afterwards). But if theatre is ever genuinely life-changing, it is in the strangely liberating afterglow that follows consensual nudity.

Another, quieter type of performance centred on material reality, and the tactile dimension of the experience generated, not so much inter-personal intimacy as greater understanding of how the world works. Barnaby Stone’s A Little Bit of a Beautiful Thing is a story of a wooden beam, a finely polished slice of which you will receive at the end. In Ray Lee’s Electric, your body becomes a conductor. Another focused on creating a first-person narrative, employing cascades of clever sensory illusions: for the 10 minutes of Just For a Moment, by Three Blind Mice, you have a drink at a pub, lie on the beach, dance Macarena in the world’s most terrible discotheque, witness a fight and have to be walked out of the pub at the end of the night, despite being blindfolded in a single room. Stan’s Café use mirrors, projection, costumes and clever framing to generate a 240-second film noir before your very eyes, with you as the chief villain, in It’s Your Film. While these works were longer, more carefully shaped and satisfied some of that need for dramatic spectacle that drives people into theatres on perfectly lovely summer days, their beauty again seemed to derive chiefly from the promise of intimacy, of being made-to-measure and the soporific pleasures of being touched, rather than from well-executed tricks.

The most accomplished works brought together the cerebral and the felt, offering an encounter while questioning its limitations. Sarah Johns’ Below plays with your perceptions: dragged into a dark room, her performance catches you before you can make sense of where you are. Facing a mirror and a singing girl, your focus shifts abruptly from one detail to another, resulting in a series of mesmerising, well-defined impressions, as if in a film. And of course, towering above the rest, is Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy of brief, but flawless works that boldly question the gullibility of the audience.

As Peggy Phelan writes, theatre has always been a meeting place, always offering the promise of a communion, an exchange—even across the proscenium arch. The relationship between audience and performer is, in her words, “the always already unequal encounter [that] nonetheless summons the hope of reciprocity and equality” (Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, 1993). Relational performance is the inevitable end-product of this quest. Yet in it, intimacy emerges not only as a tool and a goal, but as a major concern: can we have it, how, by what means and why do we desire it in the first place? A number of works at BAC traded on the false promise of quick intimacy, and most fell short: after all, the obvious difficulties of building a rapport with the actor in five tightly scripted minutes cannot be overcome just by holding hands. Ontroerend Goed’s Smile Off Your Face, Internal and A Game of You capitalise on this disingenuousness. Internal, in particular, set up as a speed-dating session followed by a sweetly cruel group debrief, builds the illusion of a budding attraction only to break your heart (comparing notes with other viewers is soul-crushing). Yet, for all its oversharing, Internal provides a dose of needed realism in a universe made of caresses. It stands as a reminder that there is no such thing as conveyor-belt romance, no intimacy on a mass scale, and that audiences often give their hearts away too easily.

Best Before, Rimini Protokoll. Photo courtesy: the artists.

lift 2010

The polar opposite of the high-concept One-On-One, LIFT 2010 was a festival with an identity crisis. Rubbing shoulders were weekend events for kids, formalist community theatre and the occasional think piece. Yet here, too, the most interesting works were from the relational family.

Rimini Protokoll’s Best Before is a computer game for the whole audience. Represented by a globular multi-coloured blip, for two hours you live as a proud citizen of Bestland, making personal choices (tertiary education? children? buy a house? own a gun? try heroin?) and participating in collective decision-making (legalise drugs or guns? form an army? welcome immigrants? equal capabilities or a diverse population?). As the game progresses, you reap the fruits of some decisions and suffer the limitations of others, while your range of choices progressively narrows as you age. It is a game of consequences, but also of chance—some blips are randomly wiped out by epidemics and war while, ultimately, the whole population dies of old age. I found the end unexpectedly poignant, realising that there was no final payoff for all my prudent life choices (I had grown old with a big family and plenty of real estate). I suspect the experience varies according to your age and life experience, but also audience demographics.

Bookmarking the game is Rimini Protokoll’s trademark presence of non-performers, or rather ‘reality experts’—in this case, the game designer, a game tester, a lobbyist and a traffic flagger whom the other three would have passed by on their way to work. Their guidance and stories serve both to contextualise gaming in the real world, to relate Bestland to the political choices that Vancouver has faced, and to reconnect our personal choices to non-virtual consequences. The tension between the two aspects of Best Before, which never quite connect, is a productive one, even though I found the four Canadians’ lives infinitely more intriguing than my avatar’s cyber-shenanigans.

The real treat of the festival was Dries Verhoeven’s Life Streaming. The concept is minimal: in a makeshift internet café, each audience member conducts their own video chat with a young person in Sri Lanka. In the interstices of the poetic, but tightly orchestrated structure, filled with pre-prepared text and film and guiding us through such topics as the tsunami, loss and grief, my interlocutor and I manage to insert a real conversation about life, healthcare, the scent of the sea and lying in bed with total strangers. The work keeps the question of its own intent open, incorporating sensorial stimuli to create an exuberant experience not unlike a perfect holiday in South-East Asia, while at the same time allowing for an unusual degree of self-propelling interaction. Consequently, you come away with a real connection to a human being—if you so wish. Like Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy, Life Streaming raises big questions about art, reality and intimacy, but lets you choose your own answers.

to shop or not?


Elinor Fuchs argues that relational theatre is the last step in theatre’s commodification: after the ice-cream in the interval, now we can get ice-cream during the performance. Indeed she terms it “shopping theatre” (The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater After Modernism, Indiana University Press, 1996) as it can so closely resemble a walk through a department store. It allows us to buy a reproduction of an experience that could not be bought otherwise. The physical set up, finally, is remarkably similar to a brothel—the room, the queue, the illusion of unique relationship.

However, I am not sure I entirely agree. At its worst, relational theatre combines the direst aspects of amusement parks and popular psychology, perhaps. But at its best, it incorporates the most conceptually interesting aspects of drama therapy, while allowing us to see our own experience through a critical prism. It highlights the qualities of everyday life, in all its mundane materiality, without distortion, in ways naturalistic theatre has consistently failed to achieve. Finally, the illusion of intimacy, of giving, which has existed for as long as theatre, can now be scrutinised in genuinely interesting ways. Relational theatre allows the exploration of the encounter between the artist and the spectator, an encounter that may be obviously staged, but is also more frank about its limitations. Once there are really only the two of you, the artifice becomes first disappointing, then bearable and finally, perhaps, genuinely empowering.

One-On-One Festival, Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), July 6-18, London; LIFT 2010: Rimini Protokoll, Best Before, created by Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, dramaturg Tim Carlson, game design Brady Marks, video design Candelario Andrade, set design Andreas Kahre, sound design Stegan Smulovitz, with Duff Armour, Brady Marks, Ellen Schultz, Bob Williams/Arjan Dhupia, June 30-July 3, Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA); Life Streaming, director Dries Verhoeven, dramaturg Nienke Scholts, technical production Joffrey Kranen, Silk BV, National Theatre, June 23-July 4, LIFT Festival, London, June 23-July 13

First published in RealTime, issue #99, Oct-Nov 2010, pg. 10.

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Degrees of risk (Reviewed: Fragment31’s Irony is Not Enough; Jochen Roller & Saar Magal’s Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do)

Leisa Shelton in Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve, Fragment31. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

THE LAST TWO PERFORMANCES IN THE ARTS HOUSE FUTURE TENSE SEASON, BY MELBOURNE’S FRAGMENT31 AND THE GERMAN-ISRAELI TEAM JOCHEN ROLLER AND SAAR MAGAL, SHARE DOUBLE FOCI: IRONY AND TRAUMA.

Fragment31’s Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve performance is a theatrical rendition of Anne Carson’s poem of the same title, which turns the poet into a third-person Deneuve, and narrates her infatuation with a female student through the doubly ironic prism of cinema and classical references. What would Socrates say, she wonders, her words laced with mature, weary detachment. Deneuve, the cinematic Barbie doll, effortlessly blank, is inserted in the place of a complex self. (In >A href=”http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2006/dec/30/film”>The Guardian, December 30, 2006, Germaine Greer remarked that so devoid of personality have Deneuve’s roles been, that she cannot recall a single line any of her characters ever uttered.)

Fragment31 play with the representation of the fractured desiring self by simulating film. Shelton/Carson/Deneuve walks to the Metro; receives a phone call in her office; waits in a hotel room. Each scene is sculpted in filmic detail, each physically and narratively disconnected from the other, each floating as an island of naturalistic imagery in the mangle of props and wires of the Meat Market stage space. Sound, light, set, actors and musician, and designers, onstage too, come together in fitful fragments—the coalescing of the desiring, decentred self into one sharpened and fuelled by love. Even the narrator, Carson/Deneuve, is played by two actors: Leisa Shelton for body, Luke Mullins for voice. It is an attempt to discipline desire with a muffle of irony, dissimulation. But irony is not enough to stop infatuation; self-knowledge does not mandate control. Desire shows through. The poem crackles; the stage version, murkier and not as focused, less so.

Jochen Roller, Saar Magal, Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do. Photo: Friedemann Simon.

If in the first work irony is employed as the girdle of trauma, to keep the fractured self in one piece, in the next work irony is a safe, fenced pathway to the exploration of trauma. Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do is Israeli choreographer Saar Magal’s answer to a question: whether to make a work about the Holocaust with friend German Jochen Roller or, rather, not about the Holocaust at all, but third generation Israelis and Germans.

It opens with a discussion over the order of epithets—which layer of identity comes first? They agree: German Jew, black Jewish German, even gay German black Jew; but, says Magal, “we’re not going to talk about Palestine.” Magal and Roller change clothes, from the yellow of the Star of David to the brown of the SS uniform, and back. They play Holocaust testimonies on tape. They enact a series of iconic WWII photos: Magal collapsing into Roller’s arms, Roller shooting Magal, vice versa. Magal says, “This man stole a book from a Tel Aviv bookshop!” And Roller recites, “I don’t remember. Everyone was doing it. I was simply there.”

We are asked to take our shoes off, walk, sit and, later, to get up. We don’t understand. “Aufstehen!” shouts Roller. Some of us are randomly marked out, and one person pulled out of the crowd, to dance briefly with Magal, and then sent back. The show creates small moments of terror: we are dislodged from our audience complacency, but nothing bad ever happens, because it’s not that kind of show.

Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do is a catalogue of images enacted, repeated, but only as traces. It assumes a traumatised audience, for which every hint will be a trigger of memory. But, remarkably, it is a work that refuses to create false memories. It tests recognition; it has exactly as much content as the audience brings to it. It is up to each person to see genocide in the stage imagery, hear the Nuremberg Trials in the dialogue. The piece gently probes. How much do we still remember? What does it mean to us? What does it do to us?

In Australia (as opposed to Germany or Israel), the answer is not much. There were some walk-outs, which I cannot imagine happening at a Holocaust tear-jerker (for reasons of decorum). But for those to whom it meant something, Magal and Roller created a tasteful, careful little memorial space, in which a past event was reconnected to the present, and the relationship between the two weighed up.

One could say that the risks in Basically… never felt sufficiently dangerous, the stakes never high enough to justify the pussyfooting (one German critic called it “politically correct”). The love woes of Deneuve/Carson are saturated with much greater danger, despite the ironic title. However, Basically… uses irony differently, as a way of coming closer to something unspeakable, rather than pulling away from it. If traumatic desire is a sore one still wants to pick, the Holocaust is a trauma of a completely other kind, one to tiptoe around carefully, holding hands.

Fragment31, Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve, creators, performers Luke Mullins, Leisa Shelton, music Jethro Woodward, set Anna Cordingly, lighting Jen Hector; Nov 16-20; Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do, creators, performers Jochen Roller, Saar Magal, lighting Marek Lamprecht, soundtrack Paul Ratzel; Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, Nov 24-27, 2010

First published in RealTime, issue #101, Feb-March 2011, pg. 38.

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incendiary performance: christoph schlingensief (Interview: Anna Teresa Scheer)

ART WITHOUT BORDERS, EDITED BY TARA FORREST AND ANNA TERESA SCHEER, RECENTLY PUBLISHED BY INTELLECT, IS THE FIRST MONOGRAPH ON CHRISTOPH SCHLINGENSIEF, THE GERMAN THEATRE AND FILM ARTIST WHO DIED IN JULY 2010. IT IS THE FIRST ENGLISH LANGUAGE RESOURCE ON THE MAN CONSIDERED TO BE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT 20TH CENTURY ARTISTS OF THE GERMAN SPEAKING WORLD, BUT ALSO THE FIRST ACADEMIC STUDY OF A VERY PROVOCATIVE OEUVRE. I SPOKE IN MELBOURNE WITH ANNA TERESA SCHEER ABOUT THE ARTIST AND THE BOOK.

First things first: Schlingensief is almost entirely unknown in Australia.

In 2008, when I returned to Australia, I realised Schlingensief’s work was among that which had really impressed me during my 14 years in Germany—especially when I realised how apolitical Australian art had become in the Howard years. For example, there was no attempt to test the sedition laws. People seemed afraid of losing the support of the funding bodies. Schlingensief, by contrast, had gone out on a limb time after time, in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. He was arrested twice and wasn’t bothered about the consequences.

In Germany, I was used to him being a household name—an unusual position for a theatre artist. It became especially apparent to me that his work needed to be written up when I began my postgraduate studies. He’s not mentioned in any of the ample literature that was coming out on politics and performance. American and British perspectives dominate the field, and still focus on people like Augusto Boal. Even Baz Kershaw, in The Radical in Performance, still talks about The Living Theatre and the Welfare State International from the 1960s.

After nearly 30 years of work, not much has been published on Schlingensief. Of course, there were articles in German papers and magazines, but that’s not the same as a scholarly, referenceable book. His work wasn’t considered serious—which didn’t detract from its power, from it being always sold out at the Volksbuehne in Berlin. The writing that did get published was primarily from his own collaborators. I was interested in how other people thought about the work, how it could be understood. In this book, we move from Adorno to Brecht to Goffman, looking for interpretive context.

We know Schlingensief as a theatre-maker, but his theatre career was an accident. He was an underground filmmaker when Matthias Lilienthal invited him to work in the re-established Volksebuehne in former East Berlin.

An incredibly smart move for Lilienthal, to pick up on a man who says his films were only ever going to be shown in cellar cinemas. Schligensief was invited after making the third film in his German trilogy, Terror 2000: Intensive Station Germany, which lampoons Germany’s memorial culture—politicians laying wreaths at every opportunity, the Gladbecker hostage disaster, the plight of the asylum seekers—piling up a lot of stuff together using very unaesthetic, trashy means. The film was called sexist, racist, every negative epithet you can imagine. And he was invited by Lilienthal to retort to critiques in a stage production.

I am intrigued by Rocky Dutschke ‘68 (1996), an early theatre work in which he tried to confront the Left’s nostalgia for the 60s and uncritical emulation of kinds of protest that are now futile.

It tried to re-create the 60s: Schlingensief in a Dutschke wig inciting people to go into the theatre, then out again for a protest, a love-in in the theatre…It inquired into the leftist mythology of Rudi Dutschke [assassinated leader of the West German student movement in the 1960s], seriously asking: is anything like this still possible, or are we all postmodern super-cynics and resistance no longer imaginable?

He really targeted the Left’s idealism: ‘We’ll still find the working class, who will revolt and take over.’ He wasn’t interested in that sentiment. You could absolutely not describe him as a leftist in those terms. He was an anarchic spirit, whose line was one of inquiry.

In your book cinematographer Sandra Umathum reflects very personally on what it meant to experience Rocky Dutschke ‘68.

The difficulty of writing about Schligensief’s work is that it was different every night. He throws dramaturgy overboard, gets rid of previously made agreements with the actors; he will on the spur of the moment upturn the whole thing. Key sections may remain—or maybe not! Schlingensief’s theatre work was not fuelled by a great love of theatre, of wanting to follow in Brecht or Grotowski’s footsteps. He was experimenting with theatre like a child with plasticine. What can you do with this? He was interested in the way theatre was never finished, but happened anew each night.

Rocky Dutschke ‘68 was the first performance in which Schlingensief used non-professional performers, a practice he continued throughout his career: people with disabilities, the homeless. In Hamlet in 2001 he conscripted a bunch of reformed neo-Nazi youths. He was not interested in the ‘show me your wounds’ approach in which we turn up to be compassionate. The audience is not allowed complacency.

He was not doing it to elevate the status of a minority, but to get to the core of societal problems—and not in a linear or simple, causal way. People forget how turbulent Germany was in the 90s. Moving the capital back to Berlin, the ‘media chancellor’ Gerhard Schroeder, then the bombing of Belgrade, the first time German troops were employed since WWII. Germany was outraged: this happened under a red-green government! Then the ongoing reunification debate: will we become the great nation of fascists again? All these things swirling around, as if in a washing-machine. And that is how these productions looked: like questions, with actors representing contemporary politicians, with references to the Nazi past…but always as this “past that will not pass.”

Was he an heir of Brecht in that sense?

Yes—the audience had to sit there and critically engage with their own society and socio-political problems, because he wasn’t telling them what to think.

PASSION IMPOSSIBLE, 1997

Passion Impossible was an inquiry into the city of Hamburg. Schlingensief was invited to create a work at the Deutsches Schau-spielhaus in Hamburg, Germany’s largest theatre [whose production Pornography was presented at Melbourne Interntional Arts Festival in 2010].

At that time, Hamburg station, which sits opposite the theatre, was literally a camp for the homeless and drug users. To get to the theatre, you had to step over their bodies. Schlingensief was essentially a moralist and found this situation unbearable. He first suggested to the administration they tear down the facade of the theatre and turn around the seats, to face the theatre across the road, the theatre of misery. The theatre rejected the proposal ‘for technical problems.’ Instead, they agreed to sponsor a benefit gala, to raise money for a mission.

The seven-day event Schlingensief staged was a mission in the former police station down the road and a series of mass events in public space. You had him standing outside the theatre in a policeman’s jacket with a megaphone, encouraging the theatre patrons to “come away from this ugly bunker! There’s nothing in here for you!” Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he would encourage people, having bought their ticket, to leave the building and come to the mission, which was a real mission—with beds and a soup kitchen. Here they had an open mike, a small stage and people could speak about whatever they wanted. He had an accordion player, the Salvation Army band, people singing songs…All sorts of little moments of what could be called entertainment.

Was this real or just a provocation?

It wasn’t clearly outlined. The theatre had publicised the event. The audience would buy tickets, then walk 200 metres up the road to the mission. You were paying to be involved with the people you would normally completely ignore, would never encounter in your daily life, or could have easily dealt with for free!

Participating in it was a provocation to oneself. Some of the stories of the homeless people were just awful. Early on, at the benefit gala, Schlingensief appeared with a decrepit battery chicken, and asked: “I want to see how much money can be raised to save the neck of this chicken!” People in the audience started protesting but he said, “We eat these chickens every day. What do you care about its life? I want to know how far people will go. We’re all addicted” — addicted to one’s own sense of doing good, of being a good citizen. We responded to the phone call, turned up at the benefit gala, did our little bit, even if otherwise we don’t really care. But now we’re really worried about the chicken!

But the main provocation was to the Lord Mayor by getting the citizens to eventually march up to the Town Hall, asking for the mission to continue. It became permanent.

I found Passion Impossible fascinating because it took it right out onto the streets. It is not dissimilar to Augusto Boal’s invisible theatre. There was a lot of media around. Questions were asked: Is he serious? Is this a charity campaign? Is it performance? Of course, it was all these things. And it evolved into an actual campaign, which he couldn’t have planned in the beginning. The work really asks: can art do something that politics can’t, create impetus for change? It questions our idea that artists can at best be pranksters. This is very different from watching The Chaser boys having a good time.

PLEASE LOVE AUSTRIA, 2000

I remember the reverberations from Please Love Austria (2000) as it made news throughout Europe that summer. There were riots!

2000 was the year when the liberal Austrian government became the only one since WWII to form a coalition with a far-right populist party, FPÖ, led by Jörg Haider. Sanctions were imposed on Austria. All of Europe was aware of Haider’s anti-immigrant campaigns.

Schlingensief was invited to create a work for the Vienna Festival. It was planned that shipping containers would be placed in the centre of town, on the Opera Square. These containers would be the living quarters for 12 asylum seekers for a period of seven days. Inside were webcams streaming to a website and Austrian citizens were encouraged to vote out their least favourite inhabitant, who would be taken to the border and deported. The winner would get 35,000 schillings and the possibility of becoming an Austrian resident by marriage. It followed the Big Brother format, which had just appeared.

It was only when Schlingensief, opening the show, revealed a large banner on the container, which said “Foreigners Out.” that it stopped being a game, or even funny. This is a well-known right-wing slogan: “Germany for Germans, Foreigners Out.” Jaws dropped. It attracted growing attention. People were coming through town for the festival and Schlingensief was there with a megaphone, exhorting tourists to take photos: “This is the future of Europe, this is Austria, send this to your friends at home, dear Japanese, dear Americans!” Austrians were shocked: “Besmirching our country!” Schlingensief kept publicly inviting Jörg Haider to meet with the asylum seekers—involving him in the performance, in absentia. The national boulevard press, the Kronen-Zeitung, were writing every day: “This Schlingensief clown is costing you money, dear readers.” Schlingensief retorted that they were just writing the program notes to his event.

The Left were campaigning against Jörg Haider. They saw the “Foreigners Out” banner simply as a provocation, accusing Schlingensief of misusing asylum seekers for his project. They marched around the container, demanding that he set those inside free, showing mind-boggling naivety — these were real asylum seekers, all with cases pending.

In the end they stormed the container.

Jumped on the roof, destroyed the banner, demanded a meeting. The asylum seekers had to be evacuated. The protesters then realised these were real asylum seekers and had to question their own activities. When they finally left, Schlingensief raised the ante by putting up an SS slogan that had been used by an FPÖ member: “Loyalty is our Honour.”

In that moment, it was as if Schlingensief reminded everyone that we were watching an art performance and that the real issue was only being represented. It questioned the efficacy of removing a symbol as a political action.

The Left-Right binary looked pathetic. The Right couldn’t take down the sign and government officials taking down an artwork would look pretty stupid. On the other hand, leftist protesters, making insane demands, weren’t effective either. Set the asylum seekers free — for what? Where?

The show wasn’t so much about the asylum seekers. Austria was televised around the world—the theatre was the Austrians, watching each other perform. Whatever happened, Schlingensief incorporated it into the work. That was the fun aspect of it. He didn’t have to rise to the bait or argue that this was a serious piece of political art. He would say: “I’m just repeating what Haider has been saying.”

Kerstin Grassmann, "Kandy" Mamounata Guira, Amando Komi in Christoph Schlingensief's award winning 2010 work Via Intolleranza. Photo: Aino Laberenz.

Slavoj Žižek calls this “radical overidentification”— an artistic position where you critique by overstating, by taking a claim to its absolute extreme to reveal its ugly possibilities.

Please Love Austria was a perfect example — the asylum seekers being forced to learn German, do callisthenics… It’s not as if Austria changed when the project left. That didn’t see the end of the coalition. But it showed how art can be directly involved in events of the day, in a very radical way.

In the book you point out the connection between Schlingensief’s work and the neo-avant-garde of the 1950s. You write about “an art practice that emerges from the social sphere—and that develops out of the active, creative participation of the viewer.”

The comparison with happenings is not wrong — everyday life, spontaneity, experiments. Schlingensief didn’t start something with a blueprint of how it should end, but set it in motion like a wind-up toy, to see where it goes. In Germany he is often considered the inheritor of the legacy of Joseph Beuys. Beuys’ discussions, definitions, ideas—of social sculpture, of an expanded form of art — Schligensief co-opted for his own ideas on an expanded form of theatre. Getting rid of the fourth wall, people leaving the theatre for the streets. That became really clear in 1998, when he ran his own political party in the German election.

Christoph Schlingensief (right), Chance 2000—Vote for Yourself (1998). Photo © Aino Laberenz.

CHANCE 2000—VOTE FOR YOURSELF, 1998

It started off with an event at the Volksbuehne. Schlingensief had a circus performance set up in a tent—the “electoral circus.” But at the same time, he started his own media campaign on national television about Chance 2000 – Vote For Yourself (1998). He was encouraging the disabled and the unemployed to run as political candidates. “None of these people in the Bundestag represent you. The idea that you will be represented by someone else your whole life is ridiculous—you have to prove you exist. Get involved in starting your own campaign.”

He toured Germany in a bus, campaigning non-stop. It wasn’t a completely serious attempt to form a political party. He would say, “Unlike all other politicians running in this election, the only promise I am going to make is that everyone will be bitterly disappointed.” Then he decided that the people who joined the party were too boring, left it and set up the Schlingensief Party. He wouldn’t let those he rejected into his new tent, but after two days they reunited. A very clever German reviewer commented that Schlingensief gave us a short run-through of democracy in a week. Parties, factions, reuniting, splitting up, another leader emerging, and all happening with such a turbulent tempo!

Germany was baffled: vote for yourself? Is he lampooning the election? The party got 30,000 votes. But the idea wasn’t that they would take over the Bundestag, but rather “prove you exist.” In this world, where the only voices we hear are those of rich politicians, who are these faceless unemployed people, apparently numbering six million? He was demanding you make yourselves visible in a world that’s trying to erase you.

There was a lovely offshoot action of Chance 2000. Schlingensief announced that the six million unemployed would join him to jump into a lake, Wolfgangsee, where Helmut Kohl’s villa is, to raise the water level, flood Kohl out and give him cold feet. The police were sent to the village, all sorts of preparations were in place. Schlingensief turned out with about 300 people. But Kohl ‘participated,’ against his will, in a performance. It doesn’t really matter if it did or didn’t happen. People saw the clips, it was national news that there hadn’t been 6 million people, only 300.

Schlingensief really understood the sound-byte world we’re living in—he created a mythology around the work, pretending things would go further than they actually could, and were bigger than they actually were.

How did Schlingensief’s work fit into the German theatre context? I remember when Denise Varney [Theatre Studies, University of Melbourne] showed a clip from Please Love Austria in class there was incredible consternation about whether such an action was legal or not. In Germany, Schlingensief reached the status of a star. He directed an opera for the Bayreuth Wagner festival. He was not living in a live art ghetto, the way one would expect here.

Events such as the one he staged in the election campaign of 1998 made him nationally prominent, while internationally it was Please Love Austria. He became the biggest name in art in Germany. After years of people saying it wasn’t real theatre, the fact that he wasn’t going away and was finally invited to direct Parsifal at the shrine of Wagner in Bayreuth, meant that he was finally accepted. On the other hand, he never became an intendant of a theatre — people didn’t trust him on that level. But after he contracted cancer, when he was only 47, he released a book—his cancer diary, titled Heaven Can’t Be More Beautiful Than Here — and it became a bestseller.

SHOCKED PATIENTS

He started a website, Shocked Patients (www.geschockte-patienten.org). The first thing he found out as a cancer patient is that you lose all autonomy. People start shoving tubes into you, no one talks to you, they talk over you. You are again erased. He created a forum for people diagnosed with terminal diseases, cancer and ALS [amyotropic lateral sclerosis] to write about their experiences, to have their own voice.

He had previously created a performance called Art and Vegetables (2004) at the Volksbuehne, in which, centrestage, was a woman with ALS, in bed, able to write messages by blinking at a computer screen. The woman, Angela Jansen, was quoted in the program, saying, “I’ve got everything I need, it’s just that I can’t move.” He used that as a reference to German society of the time. The woman now became the forum moderator.

It’s not as if he avoided scandal, he sought the media, did things knowing they would provoke a reaction—saying unkind things about Lady Di, for example. But there is also his metaphorical language: “Jump into the lake and give Kohl cold feet,” or relating physical sickness to a social sickness and lethargy.

One of the reasons it’s hard to talk about Schlingensief’s work is because he covers so many forms: happening, performance, theatre, film, activism, politics. It’s hard to sum up his work. One motif is, perhaps, visibility, the other is putting himself in his work. And particularly interesting to me, in these times of complete social inertia — I’m thinking Australia now — is his idea of movement, getting out of torpor and lethargy. He often took to the streets with groups of people. “Move! It doesn’t matter where we’re going. I don’t even need a plan.” No need for direction – you just move. “We’ll figure it out as we go.”

Tara Forrest and Anna Teresa Scheer eds, Art Without Borders, Intellect Books, 2010; www.intellectbooks.co.uk

First published in RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 24-25.

Note: I am particularly proud of this article, which is, to my knowledge, the first mention of Christoph Schlingensief in the Australian media, arts or otherwise. Schlingensief is without a doubt one of the most important theatre artists of the 20th century, and the publication of Scheer’s book was an important occasion, not just in Australia, but worldwide.

Anna Teresa was a fantastic interlocutor. I cut my questions down to the bare minimum, giving most of the space to her, to describe the importance and social impact of Schlingensief’s work. Even so, the article ran at twice the word-length commissioned.

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RW: The Trial, sociologically

What is it?
Franz Kafka’s well-known novel of the trial of Jozef K. by an organisation he doesn’t know, for a crime he is not aware of, in a stage adaptation by Louise Fox. Directed by Matthew Lutton, the next wunderkind on the block: Lutton has directed a number of things in Perth, as the artistic director of his company, ThinIce, as a mainstay in the Perth Festival, has been regularly working in Sydney (including directing The Duel, based on Dostoyevsky, and The Mystery of the Genesis for STC in 2009), but has so far worked in Melbourne only once, in 2008, when he directed Tartuffe for the Malthouse, as a last-minute replacement for Michael Kantor. By and large, The Trial is his Melbourne debut.

Is it good?
Yes, very much so. I am tempted to call it a very Sydney kind of quality, but I won’t, lest it puts Melburnians off. It’s an exuberant, highly energetic production, which marries a great text (Fox’s adaptation is snappy, clear and often hilarious, without any lapses into unwarranted, un-Kafkan lyricism) with a great young team. The cast is excellent: Ewen Leslie’s abilities are not particularly stretched by the demands of his character, but Hamish Michael, Rita Kalnejais and in particular Belinda McClory (whom we don’t see in Melbourne often enough!) clearly revel in the chance to play a large number of roles, often within the same scene. It’s a very playful production, one that has more ideas than form or concept, but most of the time it’s an absolute joy to behold. In Melbourne, we often get bogged down in a terrible literal sourness: we like to condemn shows on ‘unevenness’, which often means an excess of ideas. Sydney is more forgiving of that, and also less interested in all those evenly boring productions that Melbourne abounds with at certain times of the year. I do recommend it, highly.

What does it do?
It amps Kafka up into a whirlwind of sexed-up, clamouring absurdity. Much of this effect is achieved through reduction: the novel is condensed into an intervalless 2-hour, single-set, rotating-box farce of a sort, in which seven actors embody a swirling panoply of characters. The uncertain paranoia of The Trial is given a perfect theatrical embodiment: recycling sets and actors is enough of a theatrical convention that the constant repetition of place and person strikes the audience as eerie and claustrophobic, but also, somehow, understandable. As the set is repeatedly stripped of stage props to reveal only more (bare-backed) set, it embodies without comment a conspiracy theory that both is and isn’t correct. After all, seeing through the illusion of reason rarely provides any consolation to Kafka’s characters.

More theoretically, please.
At times, this production is more hysterical than tragicomic, which leads me to believe that Lutton is not as familiar with his source material as one would wish. Franz Kafka’s world, immensely coherent across his oeuvre, is a world of mad bureaucracies. Long before Max Weber defined bureaucracy in sociology, Kafka’s protagonists were trapped in worlds run by nameless and faceless organisations, in which the person delivering the death verdict or the execution was merely following the orders of some distant superior, worlds in which the cogs turned seemingly by themselves, with no decision-making ever taking place, and no way to interfere.

A bank clerk in the Austria-Hungary, one of the earliest bureaucratised empires, Kafka knew the logic of this system well: in a bureaucracy, there is no discretionary power, no personal responsibility, and no accountability. While his work was often understood as a premonition of the industrialised execution of Jews in the Third Reich, and of the Soviet terror, it is just as applicable as an allegory of those capitalist sagas in which one wrestles with customer service, welfare agencies, call centres in India, or tries to extract personal responsibility from a corporation after an industrial catastrophe.

Bureaucracy is the basic form in which production takes place today – of goods, services, and governance. Kafka’s genius was in recognising and giving a literary life to the moral catastrophe that this state of affairs is. If nobody can be held responsible for anything, not even for violence, then tragedy cannot exist, because tragedy hinges on personal choice. What remains is a sort of tragicomedy, only partially legible to its protagonists: things happen that are sometimes terrible, sometimes fortunate, often simply funny. The difference between opaque and clear vanishes: to see through the conspiracy of the trial is no more meaningful than seeing through the conspiracy of the outsourced call centre: the reason why it exists is not the reason why it makes us suffer. The ultimate revelation is as banal as the exposed plywood set. We exit the realm of the tragic, and enter the statistic, the merely quantifiable, the heartlessly rational.

Kafka’s works are often phantasmagoric in a way which is deeply un-lyrical: his sentences are short, his words simple, his eye unsentimental. Yet by the end of this production, Jozef K. is sobbing hysterically, his death accompanied by a violent stage rotation and deeply distressed music, which leads me to believe that this crucial quality of Kafka’s work was completely missed by Lutton. In the end of the novel, remember, Jozef K. not only accepts his execution, but is embarrassed for not having the strength to perform his own execution. The very last sentence of the novel reads: “It was as if the shame of it would outlive him.” Why is this important? Because the former solution is easy; the latter more difficult. It is gratifying and safe to read the gulag in The Trial – a prophesy of evils we recognise as such, committed by people other than us, whom history has already condemned.

Kundera has repeatedly argued that Jozef K., right from the beginning of the novel, acts like a guilty man – which is to say, a man who internalises his accusation. To stage him as a heroic rebel is to miss the Kafkan subtlety altogether: Jozef K. is not so much a brave fighter for justice, as one who goes through the motions, deeply unsure of his own innocence when faced with the external consensus. This is the universal condition of the man before the Law; only action heroes and psychotics can disregard the Law completely (and there may be a psychotic lurking inside every action hero, if we are to trust Alan Moore). Jozef K is a man who believes in the world that executes him. This is the complication that makes Kafka a great writer. (It also makes me wonder how much more exciting Leslie’s performance could have been, had he had the freedom to play a morally torn man, rather than just a romantic misfit of sorts.)

However, Lutton abundantly makes up for this slightness of reading by the sheer exuberance of this production. It may be a work built on sheer instinct, but Lutton’s instincts are often spot on. Hyperbolic exaggeration (somewhat naively) restores some of the crucial elements often forgotten in the conventional interpretations of Kafka. For example, artist Titorelli’s CHECK young admirers, played by the entire male and female cast, are literally crawling into his studio through every door on stage, scratching the walls and cat-calling. This gesture befits the material perfectly: many gloomy interpreters of Kafka completely fail to notice the humour permeating his work, humour part-Jewish and part-Czech, absurd (but not clownish), black (but not bleak), and not so much self-deprecating as self-deriding. Lutton’s Trial has plenty of humour, of the best kind. The production is also brimming with a ridiculous eroticism: there are whippings and undergarments and sexy nurses everywhere. The usual reduction of Kafka to an ascetic priest-like creature is completely absent.

However, this re-interpretation opens up questions it doesn’t answer. It faithfully keeps the priest’s story of a man wishing to gain entry to the law (known as the ‘Before the Law’ parable, and the single most famous part of The Trial). However, not only does the parable sit awkwardly within the performance, suddenly shifting the register from grotesquely humorous to mystically simple. It also sits awkwardly within the novel itself. Why? Because it isn’t necessarily meant to be there. Max Brod, Kafka’s friend who posthumously compiled The Trial from the fragments of Kafka’s writings, was the person who made that decision. Brod, while a dear friend, was also the most famous misinterpreter of Franz Kafka, assigning him the status of saint, infamously purging his biography of evidence of brothel-attendance, and providing us with the first accounts of Franz as a spiritual, almost religious writer (Walter Benjamin would dismiss Brod’s interpretation as kitsch). “Before the Law” was the only part of The Trial to be published during Kafka’s life, as a separate short story. As such, it is a perfect little gem of brutal absurdism. As a penultimate chapter to a complex novel, it swings its overall tone strongly, perhaps too strongly, towards the mystic. It’s often taken to contain the essence of The Trial, but that probably has a lot to do with its crisp, succint tightness – as befits a short story. Lutton’s production, which greatly avoids the perfunctory mysticism, clearly doesn’t do it consciously enough to recognise these contradictions. (I will point out here that Cameron Woodhead, in his review in The Age, very predictably fails to understand the complexity of the issue, bemoaning the farce and praising the parable. As if seriousness, as opposed to humour, denotes Art.)

Conclusion?
This lack of understanding is enough to bar The Trial from being called a masterpiece. It’s a youthful work, its flaws gaping open. However, as a young director’s work, it is among the best and most promising Melbourne has seen in a while. It shows a remarkable new talent, and a great theatrical instinct, in Matthew Lutton. It is also an absolute joy to attend: funny, crafty, and almost impeccably executed. Most importantly, as Alison Croggon picked up, there is an honest truth in this project, which alone makes it worth seeing. With no holding back, the artistic team has clearly catapulted itself right in the centre of a text and a problematic they may not quite have a grip on, but were determined to tackle with all their capacity. This refusal to play it safe is too rarely seen to be missed.

The Trial. Adapted by Louise Fox from the novel by Franz Kafka, directed by Matthew Lutton. Set designer Claude Marcos, costume design by Alice Babidge, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composer Ash Gibson Greig, sound design by Kelly Ryall. With John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalnejais, Ewen Leslie, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael and Igor Sas. Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until September 4. Sydney Theatre Company, September 9 – October 16.

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Changing the Face of Australian Theatre

Changing The Face Of Australian Theatre

By Jana Perkovic

Mainstream theatre companies aren’t working hard enough to engage with the diversity of contemporary Australia, writes Jana Perkovic

If any one issue has troubled Australian theatre of late, it has been that of diversity.

In a country that prides itself on egalitarian inclusivity, why do we see so few non-white faces on stage and behind the scenes? Why are there so few women directors? Why is our theatre by and about white, Anglo-Celtic men?

These questions routinely meet a series of standard answers. Indigenous theatre is thriving. Our arts centres bring in the Chinese Ballet and Greek rebetika. There are women aplenty in community theatre.

But by and large, these are exceptions to the rule.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s 2010 program promises to bring over entire productions from the US and the UK — but does not stage a single contemporary text of non-English origin. What does this imply about the state of our cultural diversity? A self-proclaimed “Australian Shakespeare” company, Bell Shakespeare, casts almost exclusively white actors. What does this say about what Australians should look like? To be fair, Bell Shakespeare’s 2010 season will feature Leah Purcell in King Lear — but here again is the danger of accepting the exception to the rule as a proof of revolution.

Mainstream theatre is nation-defining territory, and Australia’s mainstream theatres have been very good at excluding — together with any home-grown, “experimental” performance — any face, voice or attitude that strays from a very narrow understanding of what Australia is. If art provides a way to collectively imagine our world by telling stories about who we are, how we came to be this way and where we are heading, then onstage, “our” stories are still stories of mateship in the bush and middle-class white suburbia, the range of “our” characters reduced to the semi-articulate Aussie bloke (with the occasional girlfriend or wog neighbour thrown in). Think of the sugarcane cutters in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Don in Don’s Party and the Removalists, and the emotionally constipated Anglo families of Tom Holloway.

This tendency leaves a lot of people out of work. The scandal of the year arose over the lack of women directing main stage theatre and culminated with Melbourne University demanding that the Melbourne Theatre Company employ an equal opportunity officer.

Yet theatres aren’t your average workplaces and equal opportunity in art can be difficult to defend. Neil Armfield’s defence of the all-male directing season at Belvoir St Theatre? Predictable: they were chosen on merit only. Few self-respecting artists would attempt to argue that the arts ought not be a meritocracy, and talent, alas, has always been very unfairly distributed. What if our best directors really are all men?

The problem is more complex, aesthetically and historically. The worst thing we have inherited from British theatre is an extremely narrow view of what theatre should be — amplified, without a doubt, by a colonial fear of not getting it right. British and American theatre traditions, visually fairly dumb, have been clinging to naturalism — a 19th century style characterised by literal representation of realistic events on stage — and for many critics this remains the only right way to “do” theatre, even though the best contemporary Australian performance has outgrown this aesthetic.

In 2007, Lee Lewis opened the can of worms that is the lack of racial diversity in Australian theatre, advocating cross-racial casting of classics. If we assume that the actor transforms on stage, she asked, why do we only allow this power to the white actor? If blackface is a theatrical cliché, why should there be a problem with a black actor playing Hamlet?

In the uproar that followed, many missed the subtler side of her argument: diverse casting has fared much better in those forms of theatre that embrace metaphor more openly. In this she counted opera and ballet but also contemporary non-Anglo theatre. The directors who have most consistently challenged whiteness on Australian main stages have been Benedict Andrews and Barrie Kosky (who cast Deborah Mailman as Cordelia in his King Lear for Bell Shakespeare) both of whose work betrays a suspiciously “continental” aesthetic. Their takes on Brechtian non-naturalism has consistently troubled our critics.

The best performances of 2009, in my opinion, were Cate Blanchett and Pamela Rabe as Richard II and III in Andrews’s vast, extraordinary The War of the Roses. The production shone a brilliant new light on a well-known text and revealed the interpretive range of these familiar actresses. The two women did not play men — not for a second were these drag performances — but embodied privilege and greed for power respectively. It was the boldest, finest, interpretation of Shakespeare Australia had seen in a long time.

As British critic Andrew Haydon has argued, the issue is not just about casting non-white, non-thin or non-male protagonists. Theatre creates meaning as much from the non-verbal signs it puts on stage as it does from the script. It does not need to be set around the block last Tuesday in order to be relevant to our lives.

On the theatre margins, companies like Back to Back, Rawcus and Restless — which work with people with physical and intellectual disabilities — play an important political role. Seeing these performers on stage, we become aware of the incredible beauty of bodies we normally consider unsightly. Such performances challenge our perception of who Australians may be, and what stories they may have to tell.

Yet aesthetically, their work is equally important. Back to Back is considered to be one of the finest theatre groups in this country — and this is doubtlessly a result of their innovative work methods. Their Food Court — an almost-wordless performance about bullying set to the music of The Necks — was among the most acclaimed theatre shows of 2008.

Because big theatres and big critics shun such experiments, they effectively nurture audiences who cannot read stage metaphor. Yet metaphor is not some avant-garde pretence but the basic building block of theatre.

Unlike film and television, which capture the world as it appears, theatre imaginatively creates its own reality. In this world, dying heroines find breath for entire arias, girls in white tutus play snowflakes and swans, and one woman’s existential despair is communicated by her burial waist-deep in earth. If we insist on theatre that amounts to live television in a classy setting, we betray our ignorance of the artform itself. Cordelia, after all, would have premiered as a man in a corset.

As long as we see the problem as one of loud minorities demanding political correctness, we fail to see that most of us, in fact, are excluded. After all, even though “arts arts” are patronised mainly by the white and the wealthy, it is the women, city dwellers and Australians of non-English-speaking background that research has identified as most appreciative of the arts. The same study shows that the elusive protagonist of Australian drama — country male, Australian-born of Australian-born parents — is the least likely demographic to think of arts as important in his life.

Lally Katz, who came to Australia from New Jersey with her parents when she was eight, writes plays immersed in whimsical surrealism. That she is not considered to be one of the most important Australian playwrights is a disgrace and it may be due to her gender, but it is certainly also related to her aesthetic. Yes, her Ern Malley mourns the fact that he doesn’t really exist, and her Canberra becomes an island with a volcano. Are these plays less Australian for their deviation from the suburban script?

As long as we keep thinking of Australian theatre as a narrow stream of tales about mateship and the outback, we restrict its capacity to help us imagine a shared present, let alone articulate an alternative future. For whatever reason, we are afraid to play.

Affirmative action is a good thing in principle, but the goal should not be simply to hire new hands to do old work. What we want, ultimately, is a greater range of perspectives and styles. We want new, imaginative universes in our stories so that we can understand better what this country is all about. We need diversity because we want innovation and excellence, not despite of it. We do our theatre no great service by protecting it from the best artists we have. Armed with an outdated and unimaginative idea of what theatre may represent, Australia, our main stage, remains as dull as dish water.

Originally published on 8 January 2010, on NewMatilda.com.

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Dear David Foster Wallace

“I’ve gotten convinced that there’s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn’t have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent like Leyner’s or serious talent like Daitch’s. Talent’s just an instrument. It’s like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn’t. I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that love can instead of the part that just wants to be loved. I know this doesn’t sound hip at all. I don’t know. But it seems like one of the things really great fiction-writers do–from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O’Connor, or like the Tolstoy of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” or the Pynchon of “Gravity’s Rainbow”–is “give” the reader something. The reader walks away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you really feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow.”

-DFW, from the “Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1993, Volume 13.2, found here

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Of dogs and people

On Mother’s Day, Maria Tumarkin wrote what I thought was a beautiful, heartfelt and effective plea for a less hysterical immigration policy, describing aptly what a horror it was not to be able to take care of your parents. It was published in The Age, SMH and on National Times.

The comments have since closed after reaching the count of 82, and they depict a truly frightful Australia. Even subtracting a large number that must have come from Andrew Bolt’s blog (he called her confused about who has actually done the abandoning), the sheer concentration of vitriol, xenophobia and selfishness shows a society that appears to have truly lost its moral compass. One person called it an expression of “a very australian thing: to put money ahead of not just compassion but human decency”, and I would love to defend my adopted country, but in the face of this it is very hard.I am writing about it not to add much commentary, but because we are living in truly frightening times if reactions like these are not worth dwelling upon, reactions I would call obscene.

Tumarkin’s biggest rhetorical mistake was to take for granted that family bonds matter:

“Kevin Rudd can argue that the family is ”the most critical social institution of all” but be blissfully unaffected when the institution of ”migrant” family is ripped to shreds by the children’s inability to take care of their parents – a sacred duty in most cultures, perhaps even in Australia’s.”

But the comments show another, very different place, in which people proudly boast of not giving two hoots about their own family, let alone someone else’s. It’s a collection of statements ranging from the garden-variety selfishness of my-problem-is-not-your-problem/why-should-the-taxpayer suffer (“old people are expensive, and living longer” and “I dont want your parents, I want my own kids”), to the proud assertions that other people don’t matter, not even when they’re one’s own family (from the highly privileged “[i] would not presume to impose my elderly parents on Australia. If I feel the urge to care for them, I’d go back to America to do so” and the “People who accept citizenship to Australia should be ready to accept to costs, and they should let their citizenships of their former countries of origin expire” to the curious “The relatives can visit and go back. My child was very scared from some of them dressed in a tribal wear on a few cases”). As summarized by one of the commentators:

“The ties to one’s parents are not sacred in Australian culture, nor is it dinned into our heads that children’s lives are predestined to be spent looking after them. Far from it. Perhaps people wanting to come here should think of that first. The friend mentioned here sounds like a case of the youngest daughter being expected to act as unpaid carer/companion for the parents – something that died out in Anglo-Celtic culture decades ago.”

If the picture of Australia presented on this website is anything to go by, then it is of a place in which the social contract holding people into something resembling a ‘society’ has truly fallen apart, and all we are is a bunch of small-minded, selfish individuals interacting with each other just to the bare minimum, through a shared legal system, taxes, traffic and supermarket inventories. No wonder it’s a country in which every moment of your everyday life in public is legislated – what guarantee is there that we would function on consensus and cooperation otherwise, by our own free will?

How different this is from a country like Croatia, in which the Constitution makes a note that “every member of the society must take care of the young, the elderly and the needy” – providing that fundamental benchmark against which certain behavior, such as not helping a person attacked on the street, can be judged morally wrong. The presence of such clauses in European legislation probably explains the fact that they are missing the entire complex of public risk and safety laws that plague Anglo-Celtic countries, with their ‘long-ago died-out’ social ties. If everyone is supposed to look after the children crossing roads, the ill, the pregnant, the elderly, because they too fulfill a role in the society, then the whole question of who is responsible if something bad happens to them becomes superfluous. If we have collective responsibilities, we also have collective faults and collective achievements. If we don’t, like we apparently don’t in Australia, then there is no collective fault for, say, Tampa or the Stolen Generation, and no collective achievement of, say, excellent public schooling or universal maternity leave.

We become just a lot of people who don’t like their neighbours, their relatives, their fellow citizens.

It is symptomatic that this article comes a mere week after Catherine Deveny’s column for The Age was replaced with Graham Reilly talking about the transcendent joy of owning a dog, a hobby which costs Australians about $25,000 per dog in total, the same newspaper recently reported. What makes that sum somehow understandable, rather than wasteful of our scarce resources (because of which we cannot take more useless people on board), is that the bill is footed privately. You can have meaningful relationships with whatever form of life, as long as you pay for it yourself, the moral of the story seems to be.

But if you are trying to include your family in this, sorry, you are just not being Anglo-Celtic enough.

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Bookmark: Marianne Van Kerkhoven

The image of the Berlin Wall comes from Dream of Harlequin, where is appears uncredited.

If we define idealism as “acting on the basis of an unshakeable belief
in the possibility of a better life”, then we were the bearers of a
fervent idealism and great optimism. In its philosophical meaning,
idealism is a theory that holds first of all that reality is a product of
one’s consciousness, the ideas one has in one’s mind. But that was
not the theoretical foundation on which the movement of ’68 rested.
We drew support from the materialist philosophy of Marxism which
holds that the social being, the materiality of existence, in the final
analysis shapes man’s thoughts, emotions, mental processes. We
knew that people living in huts would inevitably think differently,
and see society differently, than people living in palaces. We were
aware that there were classes in society who had different needs and
concerns, and that this would inevitably lead to the emergence of
social struggles.

The achievements of the Enlightenment were not yet being questioned
at that time.We believed in the power of reason, in the power
of the word. We also believed in the power of progress, in hope, in
the possibility of improving the world. We were convinced that the
true nature of life in society was being hidden from view by an
ideological veil.We wanted to do what we could to remove that veil
from in front of others and ourselves, so that another perception of
the world could clear the way for another activity.

+++

And yet, despite our efforts and enthusiasm, the great revolution
did not occur; the world seemed amore difficult place to change than
we had anticipated. Our perception of the world started to sway, or
was it the world itself which was swaying?

In “Between Two Colmars”, an essay from his volume About Looking,
John Berger, the English author and art critic who resides in France,
describes two successive visits he made to the small French town of
Colmar (in Alsace) to see Grünewald’s famous Isenheim altarpiece:
first, in 1963, and then again ten years later, in 1973. In the space of
those ten years, the lives of many thousands of people would be
radically altered. In his essay, written in 1973, Berger observes that
for him, too, the years before 1968 were “a time of expectant hopes”
and that “hope” was “a marvellous focusing lens”. He attempts to
compare with great precision the impressions Grünewald’s altarpiecemade
on him at those two different moments. “I do not want to
suggest that I saw more in 1973 than in 1963,” he writes. “I saw
differently. That is all. The ten years do not necessarily mark a
progress; in many ways they represent defeat.” The difference in his
consecutive observations lies in the difference in his frame of mind
at the time of observing: hopeful in 1963, doubtful in 1973. “Hope”,
he wrote, ”attracts, radiates as a point, towhich one wants to be near,
from which one wants to measure. Doubt has no centre and is
ubiquitous.” I quote further: “It is a commonplace that the significance
of a work of art changes as it survives. Usually however, this
knowledge is used to distinguish between ‘them’ (in the past) and
‘us’ (now). There is a tendency to picture them and their reactions
to art as being embedded in history, and at the same time to credit
ourselves with an over-view, looking across from what we treat as
the summit of history. The surviving work of art then seems to confirm
our superior position. The aim of its survival was us. This is
illusion. There is no exemption from history. The first time I saw
Grünewald I was anxious to place it historically. In terms of
medieval religion, the plague,medicine, the Lazar house.Now I have
been forced to place myself historically. In the period of revolutionary
expectation, I saw a work of art which had survived as
evidence of the past’s despair; in a period which has to be endured,
I see the same work miraculously offering a narrow pass across
despair.”

+++
What impact does it have on us if, as Peter Sloterdijk put it, we have
to come to terms with the most important mental shift in Western
civilisation in the twentieth century; namely, the shift from the
primacy of the past to the primacy of the future. We draw up little
lists of important things that we want to take with us from that past;
we discuss the canon, cultural heritage, repertories, the final attainment
levels; we elect the most important Belgian or Fleming etc.
of all time. But none of this yields a real solution to the issue of how
to deal with the past. If you were taught in the seventies about the
importance of historical conscience as the means par excellence
with which to read the contemporary world, this is a development
that is very difficult to grasp.

The Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran defined utopia as
“the grotesque en rose”. “A monstrous fairyland” will replace the
image of the future, “a vision of irrevocable happiness, of a planned
paradise in which there is no room for chance and where the least
fancy comes across as heresy or provocation”. But Cioran added:
“You can repress everything in people except their need for an absolute”.
And he concluded: “No paradise is possible, except in the
innermost of our being and, as itwere, in the I of the I; and even then
it is necessary, in order to find it there, to have observed all paradises,
the bygone and the potential, to have hated or loved them with
the awkwardness of fanaticism, and then to have explored them and
rejected them with the skill of disappointment”.

The holistic vision of the world that, in the seventies already, we
nourished in theory, namely, the sense that everything was interconnected,
today seems to have become a reality. A single system
spans the entire world. Like time, space too seems to be compressed.
The internet, other real-time media, and tourism have made our
world smaller. We can, as it were, communicate with anyone around
the world as if they were our neighbours. The world is flowing into
our lives and our homes. When a tsunami hit a number of countries
around the Indian Ocean in late 2004 causing 300,000 victims, not
only was this event brought close to us through real-time footage,
but it also became clear how many Europeans spent their holidays
there, as if it were a destination in the south of France.

+++

Today, communication seems to occur more often through images,
without having recourse to words. Language, that old and slow
symbolic medium, has seen its status affected in both social and
theatrical communication. William Forsythe has devoted a
performance to this topic, Heterotopia, in which language acquires
a spatial dimension. Language has become an image, a square
peopled with characters, a Tower of Babel that has been flattened,
made horizontal. And all these characters, including the audience,
are following the inscription (but simultaneously the injunction)
that Peter Handke wrote at the beginning of his wordless play Die
Stunde dawir nichts von einanderwußten
(The Hour We Knew Nothing
of Each Other
): “Do not betray what you have seen. Remain in
the picture.” All letters of the alphabet are literally on stage, but no
matter what the performers do, these letters refuse to form words, to
create meaning. And yet, there is a constant communication on the
stage: with bodies, actions, movements, sounds, images. In Romeo
Castellucci’s Purgatorio, “the reading of text” is turned into an
image; this also occurs in Hooman Sharifi’s God Exists, the Mother
Is Present, But They No Longer Care
, in which, during the representation,
time is set aside for the audience to read the projected text.
In Castellucci’s play, the projected text includes descriptions of actions
that will occur on stage, or not. He is playing with time,
keeping us alert. The projected words make us pay attention.
What, in fact, is the relation between words and images?

+++

Every day in my work as a dramaturge, I observe how the naming of
things leads to a readjustment of the perception of those things, and
vice versa. In order to talk about new realities, a new vocabulary has
to be developed. To name, to try to describe reality seems to me to
be the first task that we have to take on in the face of the confusing
reality that surrounds us. In order to decipher the world, to be able
to narrate the world, we must indeed believe that it can be described.
Maybe that offers one possibility, an initial boost. In order to
understand something, we must be able to imagine it. For understanding
to be possible,word, image, thought and imagination must
come together.

-Marianne Van Kerkhoven, The Ongoing Moment. Reflections on image and society. Hosted on Sarma.be.

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Edu-factory

Global University Labour, Struggles and the Common within the Crisis

Giovedì, 11 Giugno  2009 – Università di Roma ‘La Sapienza’, Facoltà di Lettere

www.edu-factory.org

www.factoryofthecommon.org

www.busman.qmul.ac.uk/gl

www.uniriot.org

“As was the factory, so now is the university. Where once the factory was a paradigmatic site of struggle between workers and capitalists, so now the university is a key space of conflict, where the ownership of knowledge, the reproduction of the labour force, and the creation of social and cultural stratifications are all at stake.” A few years ago in its manifesto, the edu-factory collective underlined the productive and conflictive dimension of the contemporary university.

But in fact the university does not at all function like a factory, and we are not nostalgic for the struggles of the past. This statement was rather the indication of a political problem. If we begin with the incommensurable spatio-temporal differences between the actual functions of the university and those of the factory, what are the political stakes of their comparison? In other words: how can the problem of organization be rethought in the aftermath of the demise of its traditional forms such as the union and the political party?

Today the economic crisis has opened new spaces to rethink the function of the university and the production of knowledge itself on a global scale. In other words, we have the chance to rethink the rise of the global university, as well as its crisis. Within edu-factory, we refer to this as the double crisis. On the one hand it is an acceleration of the crisis specific to the university that marks its end, the inevitable result of its eroded epistemological status; on the other hand it is also the crisis of postfordist conditions of labor and value, many of which circulate through the university.

“We won’t pay for your crisis”: this was the slogan of Italian “Anomalous Wave”, that is, the refusal to pay the cost of economic crisis and the crisis of university itself. The slogan was translated in other struggles, in different forms but with a common goal. Starting from this point, we want to outline this double crisis from a global perspective. From India toBrazil, from US to Europe, we want to focus on different experiences to think about the production of a transnational common space of debate and action.

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