Our New Life Must be Different from this Life, These Times. A World Must be Held Up Against the World.

Our new Life must be different from this Life, these Times. [1] A World must be held up against the World. [2]


GDR, 1977. Life mapped out in advance: mother crèche nurse, grandparents farmers, vacancy on the paternal side, crèche, nursery, first day of school, ten years of polytechnical education at the Friedrich Engels School, Young Pioneer – blue scarf, Thälmann Pioneer – red scarf. This premapped life is going to run its course in a town in Mecklenburg, probably as a worker rather than a farmer, no chance of university. That will be Schwerin, the capital of County Schwerin, in the German, in the democratic, in the German Democratic Republic.

GDR, 1989. Sudden halt, life-changing. Twelve wrong years? Everything and everyone a question mark. Frozen exodus. People seem turned to stone. Surrounded by waste disposal units for their previous life, irrevocable. Exodus for the whole country, for simplicity’s sake the whole population attends the departure. A country and its identity are repatriated.

FRG, 1998. »Acting is action.« Prof. Veronika Drogi, seminar in Basics and Improvisation, first semester in Stage Directing, Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts, Berlin.

»The first form of action is thought.« Me. Today.


The way I see it, theater is everyday life. Acting – a concept flogged beyond recognition. »He is a good actor.« The cliché is almost unbearable. If someone plays one of those psychopathic, inscrutable specimens of humanity so common in world literature, is it right to say: »He is acting it well?« Wouldn’t it be more interesting to see the figure as repulsive, dangerous, scary, given that the actor »plays so well?« Would people even be allowed to see the play if it was well acted? Probably not.

The basic covenant in cinema and television seems to be clearly defined: the bigger the transformation (even if the actor can still be recognized), the bigger – quite rightly! – the horror/pleasure. Just two examples: anyone who saw Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs will probably recall one of the most inscrutable characters in cinema history. Unpleasant, unscrupulous, perfidious. Christoph Waltz as the SS officer Hans Landa in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is a sadistic Nazi to the marrow. So maximum identification with the role from the actor as the supreme requirement of the director, the actor, and the audience.

Not in the theater. Identification has been frowned upon there ever since Bertolt Brecht. But how must people who do not have daily dealings with the medium of theater respond to an acting technique that aims not at identification, but at a refracted depiction of character or even of character psychology?

Let’s try and imagine it:

Take a person, gender category irrelevant. Normal job, whatever that means. Day-to-day routine, nine to five, orderly social milieu. This person, plus friends and family, is interested in the arts but not madly. How does a »normal« non-initiate of the theater decide what to go and see? The author, by dint of his profession, is totally random about going to the theater. Unlike choosing a television program or cinema screening from schedules that are available around the clock, a trip to the theater needs planning. Usually a companion can be found from the familiar social environment. So that makes two people planning the trip to the theater. The author has no idea how those two made their decision about what to see. Together they seek out the play and the date, organize tickets. On the day of the event: theater! They hand in their coats at the cloakroom, buy a program, make some small talk, take their seats when the gong goes. The doors close. Silence descends. The lights go down in the auditorium.

And then? Often – too often? – the day-to-day theatrical madness begins. There is something quite manic about the way theater people – ever willing to renounce their status – remind spectators that all this is only theater! »We are just messing about really,« they constantly seem to proclaim from the stage. Whenever the plot and the constellation of characters are about to soar away, the players discard their masks, ad lib, throw in an aside, or for good measure curse themselves or the audience, and all this to make sure that everyone, but everyone in the audience remembers that they are in fact sitting in a theater and none of this should be taken seriously. No illusions, please, and no compelling plots, is the call from the stage. Anything else would be unmodern. The actors step out of their roles, inject commentary and irony, observe the part and the play from outside and so on. This is only play-acting – a show. The main thing is that nobody should believe the performance.

And then? Often – too often? – the day-to-day theatrical madness begins.

But just in case some poor soul still risks falling prey to an illusion, the theater (and amazingly only in Germany) has, with the aid of theater scholars, come up with a new raison d’être in recent years: post-drama! A.k.a. destroying illusions. Or to put it positively: they want to protect their spectators from finding the characters they are watching believable. So if the audience gets the idea that one of these two lovers who call themselves Romeo and Juliet are really so desperate as to find his/her life meaningless upon learning that the other had supposedly killed him/herself, and should anything like empathy start to ripple around the auditorium, theater people evidently suspect anyone who believes what the people up on stage claim to be thinking, feeling, and hoping of exhibiting a mental disorder.

Why have the theater and the people who make it apparently forgotten that there already is a basic covenant about communicating with the spectator? Why does the theater think it must keep refracting characters and plots? Is there any added value in this refraction? Or does it, in the end, literally foil the theater and its actors?

The Berlin dramaturge Bernd Stegemann writes: »For acting, the triumphal march of the performative brings complicated consequences. Bertolt Brecht is falsely credited with fathering this development. His point that an actor should show both a thing and himself was associated far too easily with the postmodernist demand to abolish representation. What is overlooked here, however, is that for Brecht the gap between the actor and the thing is political; it is the gap created by the actor, as someone rooted in our own times, showing us his view of how social alienation works by adopting an alienation technique. Once the universal blueprint that is socialism – and with it the critique of a society marked by alienation and inequality – is cast aside, then this same technique becomes a narcissistic celebration of the subject. […] Theatre investigates theatre and wields all those techniques of refusal and overload that characterise post-dramatic theatre. […] Speech on stage is no longer about characters acting in situations, but becomes instead a formal exercise. The acting does not create characters whose actions are presented as plausible and intelligible, but refers primarily to its own presence as it plays with itself. The postmodernist death of character is rigorously executed by dispensing with both the character in the drama and the actor’s dialectical lie.« [3]

But why is this death of the character, critically postulated by Stegemann, apparently accepted without a struggle? Why does the performative rob stage characters of their selves?

In fact, in the radical techniques of a Marina Abramović, to name but one, the performative is far removed from constantly refracting the art action, which remains recognisable as an art action and thus appears to be accepted all round as a basic communicative covenant. For example: in her performance The Artist is Present Abramović sat silently for a whole 721 hours facing visitor after visitor to her show at the MoMA in New York. And believe it or not, without constantly having to explain that this was an art action. Serious, meditative, never abandoning the character – which she plays naturally.

Theater, however, has to keep formulating its own raison d’être by seeking persistently to make theater visible as theater. That results in outlandish techniques that are so hard to grasp. Because in this construction the actor plays an actor playing a character played by an actor who is an actor and constantly interferes as such. The characters are not merely not safe from the actor groping towards them – nor are they safe from the actor playing the actor … Additional layers happily noted: originally ad-libbing meant improvising in character, or in other words, improvising based on a fabric of social roles. These days such excursions have scarcely anything to do with the character. Secondary literature is quoted, sometimes appropriately, sometimes associatively, to make it all sound nicely political. It only needs to have a tiny common denominator – if any at all – with the character and the plot. Like an improvising pianist who suddenly picks up a recorder. Or to put it in quote form: »If a trumpeter blew into a violin, his blowing would be practical …!« [4]

And so the theater loses its utopian reality. » […] Many directors are utterly uncharitable towards those who ought really to be assured of their affection, their admiring attention and their care: the poor and suffering, the social outsiders who are regarded as odd, mad, perverse or too stubborn,« [5] wrote the dramaturge Klaus Völker in a lecture for the Academy of Performing Arts. One might add: every inhabitant of this globe is odd, mad, perverse, or stubborn – or to put it positively: folks are queer, and hence worthy of our notice.



Theater is the place for actors / acting is action, action is THOUGHT / Stage direction: dissect human and political phenomena / as Uwe Johnson said, A WORLD MUST BE HELD UP AGAINST THE WORLD / Theater is observation / Stage direction: challenge the audience to observe / Observation requires willingness to bear pain / Theater MUST HURT / Audience expectations are an unknown factor / Theater must be political / Theater cannot be current affairs / THE DIRECTOR DISRUPTS THE ACTOR AND THE SPECTATOR / The director must push thought to the limit … must push the actor to the limit … must garner the actor’s support to push the spectator beyond that limit … must see what others do not see, cannot see, do not want to see / Art is always politics / Theater is UTOPIA / Theater is REALITY

  1. Jump Up Louis Fürnberg
  2. Jump Up Uwe Johnson
  3. Jump Up Bernd Stegemann: Nur noch Schau-spieler, in: ZEIT online, April 24, 2014.
  4. Jump Up Loriot: GEIGEN UND TROMPETEN, from the Deutsche Grammophon recording
  5. Jump Up Klaus Völker: ÄNDERE DIE WELT, NICHT DAS THEATER, lecture in March 2014, Akademie der Darstellenden Künste, quote taken from www.nachtkritik.de