PRESS

November 17, 2007

The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, New Mexico) November 16, 2007

Cultural Learnings of America

2007-11-16
By ROBERT NOTT

Start Up is a staged road journal about three Germans who travel across America in a bus looking for a place to start a theater company. Before locals in the know say, "Better skip Santa Fe," they should take note: Start Up, produced by German Theater Abroad, plays at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.

According to German Theater Abroad's artistic director, Ronald Marx, the show is a life-imitates-art saga in the sense that the company really is touring the country in a bus, stopping in 24 cities from New York to Los Angeles to present its story. Along the way, troupe members videotape their offstage encounters with real Americans, and some of this footage makes its way into the multimedia production. (You can also find clips of it on YouTube.)

Though Pasatiempo didn't get to read the script in advance, we called Marx in New Orleans, where he and his five-member ensemble were preparing for a show there, about halfway through the tour.

Pasatiempo: How do you describe Start Up?

Ronald Marx: The play deals with transatlantic issues. It's not a political play, but it contains political issues. It came organically out of GTA's mission. We started 11 years ago in New York, bringing contemporary German drama to the United States. We did a couple of festivals there -- some productions, staged readings -- and a few years ago I had this idea of going with a play through the heartland of America and getting in touch with the people here. We commissioned a playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig, to write the play for us. We bought an old school bus, got the cast together, and now we're on the road. The experience has been pretty amazing so far. The people we've met have been very open, but of course we don't know what to expect; every city responds to the play differently. We have a talk back after every show.

Pasa: Start Up sounds autobiographical.

Marx: Exactly! Roland and I talked about it, and he said in a way it should be about GTA. The play mirrors our trip, trying to find a space, trying to find an audience and get in touch with that audience and evoke a discussion about what this relationship between us is. ... Our cultures are so different. German traditions are not what American traditions are. We try, through comedy, in a very light manner, to put that in there, not to scare people away but to open up a discussion. And we in Germany, even if we haven't been in America, believe that we know America. Since [World War II] we've had all these movies from the states. So if we're in New Orleans, we think A Streetcar Named Desire, because everyone has seen that film.

Pasa: In viewing a snippet of the show on YouTube, I see you use film clips from American Westerns and emphasize the idea of pioneering. Is the Western as myth part of the play?

Marx: In the play it's about settlement. One of the characters, Kati, has a monologue: "In this country you have to take the initiative, you have to take action." Yesterday [in Baton Rouge, La.] someone in the audience said, "No wonder our president seems like a cowboy." There was no judgment passed on that. But that image of George Bush when he goes to a farm or his ranch -- that's what we get in Germany. If you go back not that long ago, people [in America] took the land, fought for the land, built a house, and settled down. The Western image has a lot to do with freedom; that's why the Western images are in there. But that's still our romantic idea about America -- a big country where people look for their piece of the American dream. In this country, when you have an idea, people are willing to help you to pull it through. In Germany it's a lot of "But." You have an idea, and they say, "But how are you going to get the money?" But Americans, in the 11 years of doing German theater here, never say "But." They say, "Great," and they help you do it.

Pasa: Your Web site, www.roadtheater.org, has updated postings on your trip. Has anything uncomfortable or shocking happened?

Marx: So far everything is going great. In Jackson, Mississippi, we were playing a conservative Christian college, and there was a wall of silence. That was the first time there was not one laugh during the whole show. The sound of silence, really. And there were a lot of young people there. I think they were intrigued, but they didn't know what to think about it. But when we were in Edmonton, Kentucky, a 1,200-soul town, farmers there, we had more of a reaction than in Jackson. So that was a shocking thing.

Pasa: And the site makes clear that things do go wrong, like when an actor skipped five pages of dialogue during one show.

Marx: We always do our best to do a great show, but of course things happen. I like when things go a little off. I'm not a Broadway person. The worst thing is like you have a record, and you put the needle down on the record and it plays and goes up again, and it's the same thing. I'm not interested in that as a director. I travel with the group, throw out new ideas, try to keep it alive. Plus, through traveling, they experience different things; it's like the characters traveling.

Pasa: One of your last stops will be at the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel at Death Valley Junction in California -- a ghost town.

Marx: Yes. We met Marta Becket in June. She's an artist in the true sense. She's doing what the characters in the show want to do: opening a theater in the middle of nowhere. She bought that ghost town and a small motel, and the community center became a theater, and she moved in. This lady is amazing. She's 84, still performing, still painting, and she just does it.

Pasa: Which leads to the question: in order to be a true artist, do you need to create without thinking of financial gain?

Marx: Yes, that's part of the characters' point of view. But they run into Ike, the landlord who wants them to open a video store instead, because that will make money. Germany has state-sponsored theater, but it's still hard to get money. I know a lot of my American friends and colleagues in New York work for free or do something in the commercial sector. But I think the real experience has to be completely free from commercial pressure, or otherwise you have to adjust to too many things -- like only pleasing an audience, which I don't mind -- but theater should open a dialogue, and I don't think you can do that with a Neil Simon play.

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