November 22, 2007

That Other Paper (Austin, Texas) November 20, 2007

Road Theater: German Theater Abroad
by Chad Hanna 20 Nov 2007

This past Tuesday, November 13, the German Theater Abroad troupe rolled into town to perform — for one night only — the play Start Up at the Vortex Theater. And I enjoyed it thoroughly — not just the play itself, but what German Theater Abroad does in general.

Started in 1996 in New York by Ronald Marx, German Theater Abroad stages productions both in America and Germany. With each project, GTA experiments with newer and more radical forms of theatrical presentation, though at their base they hold to three basic principals: GTA always produces plays by contemporary playwrights, the teams that produce and act in each project must be of various nationalities, and (in the tradition of Bertolt Brecht) conceptual innovations should act as a conduit to dialogue, obscuring the line between spectator and spectacle.

GTA’s current project Start Up spans across the US from New York to LA. In seven weeks the crew of 15 people plans to hit 24 cities in 16 different states. There are five actors (three Germans and two Americans), a director, an associate director, and a production crew that includes two Austrian video artists. Between 11 and 13 people ride in the bright green GTA bus, with the remainder driving ahead in a U-Haul full of equipment. Their rigorous tour schedule means that they put on a play every other night.

GTA commissioned German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig to write the play specifically for this project.

Schimmelpfennig is a hot playwright in Europe, though his name is only now starting to circulate here in America. After a long stint as a journalist in Istanbul (a place of particular interest to Germans, given the country’s sizable Turkish population), Schimmelpfennig returned to Munich, became involved in theater, and began to make his living as a freelance writer. After living in America for a year he returned to Germany, working in Hamburg and Berlin (where he currently resides), eventually receiving commissions from theaters across Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Obviously written with GTA’s threefold aesthetic in mind, Schimmelpfennig’s text is playful, fluid, and self-referential. And there are no artists more contemporary than the ones you can commission.

The play is complex to talk about (in a good way). So I want to say right up front that the actors — Lisa-Marie Janke (Kati), Nils Nellessen (Rob), Roland Sands (Ike), Nicolai Tegeler (Micha), and Myxolydia Tyler (Liz) — did a phenomenal job, especially when you consider the demands a production like this must put on actors. Performing an emotional play with such complicated staging and subject matter every other night must be exhausting. But they were spot on, well-spoken, and kept the audience thoroughly engaged — even during most meta-moments in the play.

As they travel across the country, GTA’s Austrian video artists have been filming various scenes in different cities, out on the streets with pedestrian actors accompanying their own. These scenes are projected onto a screen throughout the play, often to provide context. The film component is remixed whenever possible on the road, so the footage is always evolving. They also film live during the play. The effect is extremely entertaining — your role as spectator constantly shifts. You watch actors on a stage; you watch actors on a screen, filmed days or weeks ago; you watch actors on the screen, acting live offstage and on; at one point you even watch a lecture-style presentation on the history of world politics, aided by intense images on the screen.

Juxtaposed with all this live action and footage of the actors playing out Schimmelpfenning’s plot, we see panoramas of the wide open western landscape, clips from westerns, and segments of video in which we see the actors decked out in western garb wandering through an old west town, or the actors wandering through a modern day cityscape as a voice-over describes a frontier where food is scarce and survival questionable. There are even slow-motion clips from the movie Tremors, referenced several times in the play.

The conceptual video work and accompanying music were not written into the play, rather the directors and video artists conceived this aspect of the play masterfully — an extremely well-organized, well-timed production. Quintessential multimedia.

This show was the first outside performance staged by the group. We all sat in folding chairs, illuminated by the Christmas lights strung above our heads, looking at the stage where a threadbare couch stood with a large projector screen glowing blue beside it. To the left was a long table filled with mixing boards and several Macs.

Suddenly we hear the honking of a horn and someone shouting “Hallo, hallo!” on a bullhorn. Funky music came rushing out of the speakers near the stage and the bus drove right up into the courtyard through the gate, filled with all 15 actors and crew members. They spilled from the bus door and the crew manned their positions as the actors ran through the audience, handing out German flags and saying, “All right, this is going to be a good show! Thank you for coming to see the show!” And then they all disappeared backstage and the lights went down and the music faded out and we all sat there sort of shocked and then the play/visual-art experiment began.

The play centers around three Germans — Micha, Kati, and Rob — driving westward across America in a bus with the dream of starting a type of culture factory, providing Americans with cultural imports in the form of theater (a premise tangled up with the reality of what GTA is actually doing). The trio just needs a space to set up their theater.

But it’s obvious that the trip has been ill-planned, a source of conflict manifested mainly in the character of Kati. When we join the trio, they are penniless — Kati is nowhere to be found, Rob is starving, and Micha has just met Ike, a Vietnam Vet and luckless property owner, willing to rent them a space for their as of yet unspecified import business.

Once Micha and Rob have signed the contract to rent the space, Kati shows up, exposing the German crew for what they really are: idealistic kids with a vague plan that will never work — starving kids with no money to rent anything, let alone put down a deposit of three month’s rent.

Ike takes the starving Rob and sultry Kati out to eat to try to convince them to start a video store in the space, leaving Micha behind. There had been a successful video store in the building until the owner had a heart attack while watching Tremors.

With Ike, Kati, and Rob offstage, Micha sets up a podium and takes out his notes and gives an historical lesson to the audience with the aid of images on the screen. He covers WWII starting with the battle of Normandy, goes on to talk about the divvying up of Europe, the division of Germany, the Marshall plan, the Cold War, 9/11 and the disillusionment resulting from America’s false information concerning WMAs. Just then Ike’s daughter Liz shows up and playfully seduces Micha and they go offstage for a romp.

Then on the screen we catch back up with Ike, Kati, and Rob — filming their live performance offstage, projecting it on the screen.

Though bighearted, Ike’s values are doggedly informed by American capitalism, a system that has alienated Ike in ways he doesn’t fully acknowledge, as he still seems to believe in the American dream. As he tries to convince the Germans to open a video store, we see Ike’s version of mythical America juxtaposed with that of the German’s version. American movies — specifically westerns — and the vast American landscape are the common subjects that enable the dialogue between different cultural perspectives and expose the inevitable cliches that accompany them.

Upon returning from their meal — almost catching Micha and Liz in flagrante — Ike has pretty much convinced Rob and Kati that starting a video store would be a good idea. Once this becomes fully evident to Micha, an argument ensues with everyone participating that neatly ties in the previous history lecture.

Liz is Ike’s American foil. She’s been to college — she’s young and, like Micha and Rob, idealistic. Liz believes supply dictates demand rather than the other way around. If you give people a video store, people will watch videos.

So the play becomes about not just the fate of the characters but the fate of the space they have rented. It will either be a theater or a video store. Both transmit culture, both are a record of human imagination, but video stores make money while theaters don’t. Theaters are about drama (as can be films) — imparting people with some kind of insight, while video stores are about renting things to people.

The main difference between a video store and a theater is what people on both sides of the transaction bring to the space and what they walk away with. Following the dramatic logic of the play, countries can be thought of as spaces, too — video stores or theaters. I’ll let you decide for yourself which one America is.

In the end, Kati stays behind to start a video store with Ike; Liz leaves with Rob and Micha to wander into the illusive west — a literal cultural exchange.

I see it like this:

Ike is used to dealing with the realities of the American capitalist system; his big dream has been to make it, and he’s done a good job despite this empty building he owns. So it’s fairly impossible for him to sell out, lending his character a complicated moral authority. Micha and Rob are operating under a misunderstanding of what is possible in America and what America actually is: They tend to substitute the mythic west for America as a whole — as long as we keep moving west we will eventually find a place to settle, though they are not totally unaware of the danger inherent to their situation. Kati originally shared Micha and Rob’s perspective, but quickly comes to realize the true realities of making a living in America, where so much pressure is put on the individual to fail or succeed, and ultimately sides with Ike — you have to get by even if it means doing things you don’t want to, even if it means giving up on dreams. Liz refracts Rob and Micha’s romanticized version of America through the lens of her naiveté — a naiveté nurtured by her father’s unwillingness to accept that the American dream is bankrupt. In America, if you want to be free you might have to starve for it; if you don’t want to starve, then you’ll have to compromise yourself to some extent to make money. The key is finding some kind of middle ground.

And yet the play ends on a beautifully hopeful note, and we’re convinced that everyone will make their way eventually.

At the end of the play Marx thanked the audience, saying that ours was the best audience they’d had on the tour so far. I caught up with Daniel Brunet, the play’s associate director, to ask if that was truly the case, or if Marx says that at every show. Daniel answered: “It’s the truth. You guys really got it. You know this is theater so there is obviously a listening thing that happens — and this show is a comedy, a farce — you guys laughed at all the jokes and were really responsive. All the audiences we’ve had have been lovely, however some towns aren’t theater towns. But Austin definitely is a theater town — the first one we’ve hit since leaving New York, really.”

Good to hear.

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