Post-Heimat : a meeting

The way forward for German refugee theatre

What happens when we leave the black box?

In recent times, German theatre has made a remarkable contribution to the debate around migration and open borders, welcoming the million-plus refugees who arrived in the summer of 2015, with open-armed practical help, working to connect them with local communities and playing a key role in easing their acceptance into German society. A lot of the theatrical work created presented stories of the exile experience – the war, the journeys, the bureaucracy, the hopes and fears, the process of settling into new lives – offering audiences insights and an opportunity to understand. But after three years, it’s time to move on, to a “post-migrant” theatre addressing those universal human concerns that theatre is built upon, rather than just continuing with the testimony. Reflecting the new diversity of current German society from new perspectives, both cultural and experiential.

In the past year, the welcome has started to give way to backlash in some parts of Germany with concerns being raised around German identity – “Heimat” – and the borders being tightened again, a trend that’s been growing across Europe. Despite this, the ongoing movement of people and the need to cross borders is likely to continue, whether because of local wars or global climate change or even because some people want to move around, to try living somewhere else. Far from shutting down, the social debate around migration and borders needs to expand, along with our thinking.

This issue has latterly dropped out of many mainstream theatre programmes, but across Germany, there are a number of companies, some long-established, with a specific focus on developing and presenting work by people from different cultures. Overall the scene has been somewhat fragmented, even vulnerable, and this is where the Post-Heimat Meeting comes in.

An initiative of a Munich City theatre, Münchner Kammerspiele, and Ruhrorter, a small independent company making site-specific work with refugees in the post-industrial Ruhr landscape, the aim is to create a network, bringing the companies together to learn from each other and seeking a comprehensive way forward. The name, post-Heimat, derives from a desire to move beyond ‘integration,’ (a notion of homogenising everyone into a specific idea of German identity), to embracing a diverse society that celebrates difference.

Artboard 7

I went along to Encounter#1 in Munich. Running over three days, it kicked off with an introduction by the six key companies – see separate article. This was followed by a work meeting, split into two groups, one focussing on Aesthetic Practice, the other on Cultural Policy and Funding, a symposium with academics and practitioners, also open to the public, and a ‘mobile’ performance of the first production of Münchner Kammerspiele’s mixed Syrian and German company, the Open Borders Ensemble.

Jonas Tinius, an anthropologist from Berlin’s Humboldt University who also works with Ruhrorter, opened proceedings. “We want to share successes and challenges,” he said. “The funding streams people have found, what aesthetic practices they’re using, how they’re dealing with bringing culture and language together, ensuring that all parties have an equal voice. We want to create a network, a sustainable conversation, maybe even a mini-manifesto.” And as the six companies made their presentations, a fascinating and inspiring picture began to emerge, along with a realisation that this proposed network should be crossing borders far beyond Germany. The work ranged across generations, across cultures, across aesthetics. Committed and ambitious. An ambition challenged by issues of language and cultural translation and by resources and funding, but undimmed for all that.

 Next day, we broke into groups to debate Aesthetics and Funding. There were various practical issues around operation and sustainability, many of which could start to be addressed through this consultative approach and strategic partnerships. As ever, funding was a problem, particularly as without regular revenue funding, the continuity that is so vital for ensuring the trust of participants is threatened. There were organisational issues – many participants have other commitments so individual productions can take a year or more to fruition. Everybody agreed that diversity should apply at every level, not just on and around the stage but from administrative and aesthetic decision-making to festival juries too, but the practicalities of this are complex. So much of the funding currently goes to people organising “the other” rather than “the other” directly. Operationally, much of the work is produced under the umbrellas of established theatres because they have the local understanding, the resources. And however well-intentioned, this must beg a question: where is the power? Whose voice is speaking?

And in a truly intercultural group, it’s not just about developing training and familiarisation programmes but also about finding a common set of criteria for aesthetic and organisational quality and process in looking for new perspectives. Ultimately don’t we need to find a new idea of what theatre should be, a new aesthetic?

On the aesthetic and practical level, there were concerns about communication, particularly around translation. “Think about the power that the translator has over the non-Arabic speaking audience – what if it’s wrong? said one participant. Language alone is difficult enough to deal with, especially in an aesthetic environment, but what about the semi-unconscious understanding that comes from being part of a culture? It becomes very difficult to communicate everything effectively. And then there’s the audiences – they’re a vital part of any theatre piece. How to we get them to engage? And how can we work with the communities that are hostile to diversity, some of whom feel ignored themselves?

Symposium : Witnessing Transitions. Photo © Julia Grime

As we tussled with these issues, we headed into the symposium. Split into two sections – Witnessing Transitions and Possible Futures – we heard academics and practitioners: “When independent theatre’s really good, it creates new formats.” They talked about the notion of visibility – “most European theatres are effectively private spaces because you can do what you like on the stage with a complicit audience, so it all stays within the bubble. But what happens when you leave the black box? To regain theatre’s importance in our society, we must paradoxically leave the theatre itself.” In Germany, the involvement of theatre in social cohesion moved on apace with the Integration Act of 2005. Cultural participation became a buzzword but it mostly remained about being audience rather than maker and the same applies to diversity. “The theatres have been bringing in immigrants and calling it ‘diverse’ for years but until we hand over the control, it isn’t. We need diversity at every level.” And that’s where we’re at now. A clear recurring theme.

“It’s vital that we give the audience something to really reflect upon.” Theatre is the most functional and playful laboratory that we have for trying out what can happen in society at large. But we need to update it – we need a radical shift in our understanding of creative process, as well as how we communicate it. The art of translation, reinforcing the words with movement, the way we create the best space for the work to be presented.” We need new perspectives borne out of a deeper understanding of each other. Even something as obvious as a reverse approach – “how about some Arabic-West translation for a change?”

Chatting in the breaks, we found ourselves revisiting some of the dilemmas raised. Arguably there are contradictions in seeking diverse societies at the same time as preserving national boundaries, in addressing global issues from a local perspective, and these can’t be easily resolved. “I don’t want globalisation,” somebody said. “We need difference. We must maintain our own culture and national identity whilst also being open to others. Otherwise we’ll all end up homogenised.” But then we also want the borders to be open? How do we make that work?

That evening, we headed off across the city to the performance. Away from the theatre and its conventions of formality, we settled down in front of a ‘pop-up’ mobile stage outside a community centre for the Open Border Ensemble’s first production, Miunikh-Damaskus. Joined at one point by three curious passing children who unceremoniously plonked themselves down at the front, we watched a piece of collective writing, exploring how everyday cultural differences between the two cities highlight similarities, our core humanity – whether through falling in love, or discovering beer, heading off to a party. To quote the blurb: “The memories of two cities and their presence merge into a possibly limitless city. Wait a minute, where are we? Munich or Damascus?”

Munich-Damaskus Open Border Ensemble
Miunikh-Damaskus. Photo © Gabriela Neeb

To find new perspectives, we need to shift ourselves. Existing convention restrains the possibilities so we must let go, be more open, exchange not just ideas but process too. Take a leaf out of Theater an der Ruhr’s book – Germany goes to the Iran, Iran comes to Germany. Let’s explore how theatre works elsewhere – look to learn from the way Syria does theatre – sure it’s a different society but how do audiences gather there? Ensure true collective working. Perhaps we need to redefine roles – directors? Create new ones. We don’t just need translators – we need cultural mediators who are equally empowered within the creative team so ensure that the creative process can develop around this core communication. We need a shift in aesthetics. To bring in other artforms – music, dance – and invite them to the next meeting. And we need to think about the motivation for the audience to attend too – they should want to come, to find out, to understand, not just to be supportive or because we’re diverse.

Perhaps, above all, it comes down to solidarity. Working to find a new way forward – for theatre, for society, for all our futures. But always, together.

Photo credits
Homepage   : Publicity material.
Main photo :  Miunikh-Damaskus – Open Borders Ensemble. Photo © Gabriela Neeb.
(Photos courtesy of Münchner Kammerspiele)

25-27 May 2018  :  Münchner Kammerspiele, Munich

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