November 17, 2007

What's Up Weekly (El Paso, Texas) November 14, 2007

'Start Up'
German theater at the Ramblin Gallery

By Marina Monsisvais

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but here goes: What do you get when you fill a green bus with 15 freethinking, artistic, sensitive German individuals?

Answer: A cultural experiment on wheels known as "Start Up," a multimedia play about a group of idealistic Germans who move to the United States to "sell" German culture to Americans. Thing is, the (real-life) troupe behind the play is an actual busload of Germans traveling the States to create demand for new German theater – thereby "selling" German culture to Americans.

They're taking on 24 cities in seven weeks. So far they've performed in a hangar in Birmingham, Ala., fairgrounds in Paris, Texas, and a community theater in Kentucky. El Pasoans will get to see them – for one night only – on Thursday at the more-than-intimate Ramblin Gallery.

Plus, there's a multimedia twist to the black comedy: A (real-life) video team is filming tour footage, to be incorporated as background and stage design for the play, which centers on three Germans starting up a theatrical business in America.

"We're looking to have a cultural exchange," said Dagmar Domros, co-producer and school bus road warrior, on the phone from somewhere in the American South. "We spent the past couple of days in New Orleans. For everyone it was a big experience to hear from people aside from the media coverage we had in Germany. But to hear people, to hear their stories — for them it was sort of a sign that we decided to perform there. They were happy that we came."

Some might say jumping into a bus to spread new German theater to Middle America is a naïve thing to do. Even the play, penned by leading German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig, acknowledges such. When the protagonists are met with adversity (a.k.a. "capitalist American spirit"), one character, Ike, suggests that a video store would be more profitable, because the market on high-art culture isn't exactly booming.

So does Domros think this project is naïve?

"Yes and no. It's definitely crazy," said Domros who admits that this is an ambitious project. Scheduling meals and hotel stays alone are a constant logistical nightmare, he says, and Hollywood salaries are nowhere in sight, but there's something to be said for embarking on a project that they all believe in.

"We're leaving a little trace behind, and we're having actual exchanges. A lot of people like it, and it opens up a dialogue where we openly exchange ideas and viewpoints," Domros said.

The parallels between art and reality don't stop at the plot. No two performances of "Start Up" are alike. The production continually morphs thanks to an in-house Austrian video crew, which documents and adds new material as the production moves from city to city. And as "Start Up" films itself, there is an actual German Public television crew documenting the entire project.

"They're not traveling on the bus, but every now and again, one of them will hop on to film for their project," Domros said.

"Start Up" is a production of German Theater Abroad (GTA), a company that began 11 years ago with the mission to bring German plays to the United States. The company set up shop in New York City and decided to take their shows on the road three years ago to bring new German theater to the rest of us. El Paso's Fourth Wall Theatre Productions is helping bring the play to the Ramblin.

Other cities on the current tour include Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Oklahoma City, Austin, Las Vegas and Nashville, Tenn.

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