October 16, 2007

The Week in Germany October 12, 2007

The Week in Germany: Culture

October 12, 2007

On the Road: German Theater Abroad Brings Contemporary German Theater to a Town Near You

Look for this bus on highways in America, Photo, Jean Cook

In its production of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s new play “Start Up”, the New York theater collective German Theater Abroad is going to great lengths to show that it takes setting seriously. In October and November, an international cast and crew will hit the road in a lime green school bus with a dark comedy about the travails of a group of young Germans that hope to strike it rich selling German culture in “Anytown, USA”.

From Paris, Texas to Death Valley Junction, California, many of the towns on GTA’s upcoming tour are far off the beaten path for contemporary European theater – if such a path even exists beyond the five boroughs of GTA’s US home base.

Roland Schimmelpfennig is one of Germany's most produced contemporary playwrights , Photo: GTA

Founded by the New York-based German-American actor Ronald Marx 10 years ago to mount contemporary German plays in translation abroad, GTA earned major critical attention with last year’s “Stadttheater New York Festival.” Stadttheater transplanted the typical offerings of a German state-funded theater to New York for a month. “Start Up” will be GTA’s first national tour.

Casinos, airplane hangars and ghost towns

According to associate producer Daniel Brunet, the idea of hitting the road began as a rather modest experiment with a handful of venues before snowballing into a cross country tour.

“We thought we might be able to do eight cities at first,” explains Brunet, who moved to Berlin to pursue a directing career in 2001 on a Fulbright Grant. A five-week location-scouting odyssey with Marx and dramaturg Dagmar Domrös, however, netted the company shows in 24 venues ranging from an airplane hangar in Alabama to the Armagosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, California.

This real journey through an American landscape of ghost towns and roadside kitsch mirrors the onstage action and will figure large in the play through sketches shot by a team of videographers along the way.

Field of Dreams

The play itself is also a journey through the complex ways that Germans imagine America. For the hopeful entrepreneurs Rob, Micha and Kati, America is both a land of enormous material and psychic bounty and a lonely desert. On the one hand, it is a Styrofoam cornucopia of takeout food and high-calorie snacks and the perfect backdrop for a make-believe pioneer subplot (shot in hilarious costumes at a mock-up western village in northeastern Germany.) On the other hand, America is a dangerous and lonely place, where the failure to plan ahead puts one at the risk of starving between impossibly spaced gas stations and “certain practices” might land you in jail depending on what state you are in.

Of course, it does not help that the starving Germans’ business plan revolves around a particularly ethereal commodity – German theater. Their idea is to create a “cultural gas station”, an oasis where one can tank up the mind.

As it turns out, the market for the young Germans’ field of dreams in Anytown, USA might be smaller than anticipated. When their prospective landlord Ike expresses doubt about their business plan and suggests opening a video store instead, the earnest would-be importers are forced to examine whether they can reconcile their high ideals with peddling the classics of German cinema alongside American pop culture exports like Tremors and Pulp Fiction.

Schimmelpfennig’s script, which pokes as much fun at the naïve Germans as it does at America’s cultural exports, is pessimistic about the Germans’ prospects for taking German theater to market in the land of Hollywood and Broadway. GTA is forging ahead with pretty much the same plan anyway. After 10 years in the cultural import-export business, they know that there is more to it than money.

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