I meet up with Dr Adam Czirak at the Freie Universität’s Theatre Studies Institute in southwest Berlin to talk about the role of performance art in theatre, amongst other things. He’s a theatre scholar just back from a month in Cambodia where he retreated to make some progress with his new book. His current research explores how artists have responded to oppressive regimes in the mid-to-late twentieth century. An unsettling parallel with this populist shift we’re encountering in Europe and America right now.
Adam originally comes from Hungary and is all too aware of how oppressive regimes can rise almost surreptitiously. Only a week before we meet, Hungary’s increasingly autocratic leader, Viktor Orbàn, has just won another term of office…
“My current research is on the politics of melancholia in Eastern European theatre and performance art in the thirty years prior to the fall of the Soviet bloc [1960-1989]” says Adam, “It’s fascinating to see the similarities in the motifs developed by artists across the different isolated regimes, a universality in their response to oppression despite the communication vacuum that surrounded them. I’ve found more than 30 sleeping performances. Another 40 artists performed in silence. Still more left the cities, aiming to build studios in nature. It’s a very ambiguous gesture – withdrawal and yet showing the withdrawal at the same time. All of them using it in a very political way, to protest, to try to break down barriers.”
“In the UK, you mean dramatic art when you refer to theatre,” continues Adam, “Here in Germany, we use the term ‘theater’ to include a broader range of activity including performance art. There’s a lot of scope for cross-fertilisation.” As part of his Eastern European project, Adam built a network of undergraduates and PhD students working on Eastern European performance art and realised an exhibition, Left Performance Histories, at the nGbK arts society in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. nGbK is an interesting model for using art to connect the local population to each other by offering an opportunity to be together, to include people on the periphery, to encourage action, both artistic and political. As well as creating art, members determine the gallery programme and work together to build events around issues of local concern or interest at a grassroots level. Often, they turn things on their heads, looking for new perspectives. At the time of writing, they’re running Floating Utopias, an exhibition celebrating inflatables and the surprisingly high incidence of their use in political protests. And next, reviving a previous theme from the 1970s, they’re exploring the idea of a city designed by kids…
Adam again: “My teaching work includes theatre theoretics, aesthetics and history. Particularly the 19th and 20th centuries and Romanticism – I wrote my PhD on ‘Gazings: Visual connections on seeing and being seen in theatre’.” Which interestingly links back to the Eastern European performance art we started with. “I’m also exploring why the study of text-dramaturgy in European theatre has become so marginal in recent times. In the ongoing paradigm of post-dramatic theatre, we’ve focussed on all these other dramaturgies of music, movement, light design, etc and the text has become a bit lost. I’m interested to see how you can bring text into this multi-sensorial environment so I’m looking at how theatre groups like Nature Theatre Oklahoma, Forced Entertainment and many Eastern European theatre practitioners develop texts collectively and how they use them. It is interesting especially from a political point of view: in whose name, whose voice, are performers speaking?”
So, part of developing a new approach is to bring in different perspectives to navigate with. Where’s theatre need to go next? “Ultimately, we need to pursue originality, moving away from these dominating aesthetics, risking new ways of dramaturgy, design, acting, but also paying attention to text,” replies Adam. “Back in the ‘80s, Robert Wilson and others wanted to move on from the purely literary, to push the boundaries. They collected material from the street, from everyday life, everywhere, often developing the production text in rehearsals as they went along. Much of the work has become about collective writing and there’s also a lot of improvisation. This strategy is apparent in different contexts from independent groups like She She Pop, to established directors like Rene Pollesch and even Frank Castorf. So, when Gob Squad or She She Pop are working together, they set a topic and off they go. Director Milo Rau just now came out with a manifesto at Belgium’s NT Gent, in which he claims that reciting pre-existing texts should not account for more than 20% of the whole performance; the text should be developed mainly during the rehearsal. That helps to find a contemporary connection to our everyday lives to give another meaning to a historical text.”
So how do we connect all this with a wider society, to reach more people? “Hungary has always had a big theatre audience. An audience drawn from across all levels of society,” says Adam. “People went, partly as a function of the Soviet occupation, but they’re still going now. As a child I was every weekend in the theatre. So perhaps a way to de-homogenise our audiences is to address issues of interest to a wider audience base. We’re doing this a bit here in Germany – I can see some attempts to mix the base.”
And within theatre itself? How can people at the periphery engage with theatre, both creatively and as a means of getting their points of view heard? “I think theatre here has a very important role in this because it can react so quickly,” says Adam, “but it’s important that it’s not just the director with all the power. You need to see that people are working together, like Yael Ronen’s projects at Gorki (Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater). This seems like a good compromise and it’s much more culturally interesting.” [Director] Ronen works with casts drawn from different communities and, mainly using stories drawn from personal experience, they devise the work together. This inherently mixes the cultures, blending different perspectives. There’s also the Exil Ensemble, a company of theatre practitioners from other countries, currently led by Syrian writer/director, Ayham Majid Agha, who make their own work under Gorki’s Studio R banner.
Another group at the periphery are people with disabilities. There are two building-based companies in Berlin, Theater Thikwa and Ramba Zamba, both with full programmes and established audiences, but still somewhat separate from the mainstream. Adam was involved in the editorial process of Disabled Theater (Umathum & Wihstutz), a fascinating book exploring the hugely successful, and controversial show of the same name by French choreographer Jérôme Bel and Zürich’s Theater HORA. “I think it’s important to avoid trying to compete with ‘normal’ theatre,” says Adam, “the point is to dramatize an alternative perspective of the world, and this difference should be at the centre of the work. That really adds something. The Jérôme Bel piece achieved that. There’s also a grassroots group in Berlin’s Wedding district, Theater Kalibani. They do more performance art – very real and fresh. Perhaps these new perspectives are more important than pursuing the illusion of the perfect play.”
Homepage : Floating Utopias (nGbK). Photo © Julia Grime
Main photo : Latvian noticeboard. Photo © Julia Grime