To date, the Exil Ensemble have presented 6 productions: Wonderland, a workshop based on Alice considering the social rules of this new homeland. Then, the acclaimed Winterreise working with Israeli director, Yael Ronen, exploring how to find a place in a new culture through the framework of a bus tour to key places around Germany, a key element actually being the unexpected experiences they found along the way. So historic Weimar becomes about the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp, beautiful Dresden is marred by PEGIDA (anti-refugee) demos and so on. Next, came an engrossing semi-immersive production about the Syrian war, Skelett eines Elefanten in der Wüste written and directed by Agha, followed by Die Hamletmaschine, Heiner Müller’s mash-up of Hamlet, intercut with Syrian war references from Agha, with the cast as clowns, directed by German director, Sebastian Nübling.
“There’s not one artistic line that we wanted to go down,” says Leonie, “Most recently the ensemble have worked with Christian Weise on Elizaveta Bam, a piece of absurdist theatre from Russian surrealist, Daniil Kharms. This was a huge challenge and the first show that was completely in German. They worked so hard on this production, bringing their own perspective to it and we were all blown away by their performances. It helped us to understand the text in a new way.”
“We try to tour our different productions,” Leonie continues, “partly to get the actors out of Berlin so they can discover other cities. When this project first started, we wanted to show the ensemble various parts of Germany, so we put them on a bus and the team created Winterreise from that experience. The production turns around the point of view – it doesn’t portray our view of our newly arrived colleagues, but explores how they experience and see the Germans. Now we’ve toured that show to each of the cities visited and more besides. This week some of the ensemble are returning from performing Skelett in Paris. But touring the pieces is also about showing other countries what’s possible. It’s a great way to reach a wider and very different audience. Audiences in other cities and countries react differently to the performances, because of their own experiences of this topic. This makes the whole experience richer and more varied for our ensemble as well.”
So, what’s worked best? Leonie ponders a moment. “It’s all been great,” she smiles, “the ensemble have done a lot of outreach work too, teaming up with the theatre’s pedagogic department (GorkiX) to work with schools and refugee groups. These workshops also offer positive role models to the kids – you know, ‘Look what we can do!’. That’s been brilliant. Tahera from the ensemble really connects with young workshop attendees and it has been great seeing how they change over the course of the workshop programme – opening up to her, building up self-confidence and dealing with their experiences. We also bring in other international artists to do workshops with the ensemble, which again lets them experience various perspectives. So maybe the best thing has been lots of small things coming together, to create a really impactful project.”
“Shermin coined the phrase, ‘post-migrant’ and that’s where it’s all going now,” she continues. “Of course it’s super-important to talk about the experiences and try to process them, but people here often forget that refugees are more than this. They’re defined by much more than a war that was put upon them. They’re a mum, a dad, a sister, an actor, a tennis player – they’re people. And it’s about triggering people’s emotions as fellow humans. For me personally, I don’t mind if audiences leave a production and say they didn’t like it, what is important is to make them think and feel and discuss something, and as long as that happens, I’m happy.”
So how about those audiences? Gorki’s seen a remarkable increase in audience over the past 2-3 years and they’re noticeably younger than in the other major Berlin theatres. Politicised young people – how has that happened? “Our diverse and politically challenging programming,” says Leonie immediately. “And the studio works so well – it’s where we dare things artistically. Young audiences especially like its flexibility, the way the stage layout changes all the time. The whole space is really informal, the bar’s friendly, we don’t care how you dress and we genuinely want to know what you think. Every month we have several audience talkback sessions and people hang around and talk, talk, talk! We create space for people to create their own opinions. We challenge them and demand their voice. And they feel accepted for who they are. We also create a lot of projects and activities like the Roma Biennale, programming that goes beyond theatre. Our brand stands for more than shows; it stands for challenging opinions and for inclusion – not just ethnic identity, sexuality, religion, but everything – Gorki’s about a lifestyle. And we let people in. Like this space we’re sitting in – it’s a public canteen and garden and people come to eat lunch here. It might be their first contact with the theatre and suddenly they might buy a ticket and get involved. That doesn’t happen at many other theatres.
“Shermin’s really good at seeing needs, identifying who we can target, who’s not represented already, ideas that people want to think about. It’s not just about ethnicity. And we don’t just want to speak to one part of the pie. We’re a repertory theatre – we have a responsibility that flows from our funding. Bringing people in from everywhere, anywhere – you offer their stories and the people will come.”