»I sit in front of my story, a story that doesn’t belong to me at all … « (Deadbird, 2015)
»Cable TV, Otto [clothing] catalog, rice pudding in plastic cups, the comfort of the new housing estates from the sixties, and of course the love and affection of my grandmother,« German writer and director Vanessa Emde tells the most beautiful memories of what she calls her »working-class childhood.« A childhood that was for her in one word: »ambivalent.« Born in 1981 in Düsseldorf, »somewhere between Rhenish gliterrati, carnival, and the endangered Ruhr region romance,« Vanessa was raised by her grandmother and mother, the most important people in her life and later on heroes of her theatre pieces. »Men were always there, but didn’t really belong there. On the other hand, I didn’t belong there anymore when men were there either.« Her mother’s relationship with Vanessa’s first stepfather was violent, and when she married again, Vanessa left home.
She was 14 at the time. Shaved head, skipping school, scrounging money for cigarettes and CDs in the old town of Düsseldorf. She was told to leave high school. However, in her next school, she graduated with the best grades. Still, her way back to high school was difficult due to her financial situation and working hours as she worked full time in a boutique. She was lucky, as she says, that she always had good mentors who believed in her. One of her teachers helped her obtain financial support. So she quit her job at C&A and carried on with her education.
Berlin days: class consciousness & gender trouble
She moved to Berlin at the age of 21 to study gender studies and literature at the Humboldt University and the Free University of Berlin. From reading Butler, Foucault, and Haraway, she realized that »the woman« and »the man« possibly don’t exist like in the feminist magazine Emma her mother and grandmother used to read. »This caused my very own gender trouble,« she tells laughing.
Actively involved in the feminist political scene of Berlin Neukölln/Kreuzberg in the early 2000s – just before the Neukölln hype with its hipster hustle and bustle entered the scene – her attitude was critical towards the academic apparatus and its exclusive routines. But when she tried to overcome the academic boundaries herself, the circumstances could be twisted ironically as she tells in an anecdote:
»I organized an academic conference on gender and wanted to include non-academic queer organizations such as a radical queer wagenplace in Berlin. I introduced the project to them thinking that this was an incredibly great idea, but was completely laughed at by all those super cool queer-feminist activists from the group, claiming that I wanted to invite the queer-feminist practical people to cook food for the queer-feminist theorists … Out of an inferiority complex, I spoke in a pretty highbrow way so that they anticipated that I was this well educated rich kid. But I worked hard to be able to speak like this. After a few years at university, I was so used to hiding my working-class background.« This was the first time that she had to deal with class consciousness openly. She confronted the activists – »who probably had a middle-class background and rent contracts,« she says bemused – with their own exclusivity and was respected.
»The urge to express myself brought theater to me.«
Vanessa’s biography reads in parts like those of prominent working-class children, who are cited by the German feuilletons in an actual debate about equal opportunities in Germany. Famous figures such as the Green Party politician Cem Özdemir or Martin Roth from Stuttgart, who is now the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, talk about their struggles with class-related stereotypes, about the necessity of having mentors and working hard whilst always being confronted with fears of failure. »I always thought I had to be the best,« Vanessa also points out, and explains her experiences with the literary and theater business: »There needs to be some entry criteria to be part of the cultural scene. But those who can be part of it may not feel the necessity to write about certain social injustices and cultural exclusion, and that waters down literature. But on the other hand, do I have to have experienced what I write about? This is also a weird expectation for authors. It reduces the figure of the author ad absurdum.«
After she dropped out of university – again due to financial issues as well as being tired of the purely theoretical work – she heard about the Academy for Performing Arts in Ludwigsburg through a friend. She applied and was accepted: »I never had a relationship with theater. I never went to the theater often, but was influenced more by the TV programs at home. But the urge to express myself brought theater to me.«
»If it is only about you, it is irrelevant; if it is only about the world, it is boring. But if it is about you in relation to the world, it is important!«, Vanessa says, citing Simon Stevens, another great mentor in her life, whom she met at l’Obrador d’estiu at Sala Beckett, Barcelona, a theater festival where she was invited as an author to take part in a workshop.
Deadbird: fairytale & autobiography
As an author she writes in a relationship of tension between her and the world. »I was always in search of the balance between my anger towards social structures and the hope of being able to influence them,« as she explains. In fighting the latent and persistent feeling of being controlled by others, writing meant self-reassurance and freedom: »I guess I always wrote when I wanted to remember who I was – or rather – who I wanted to be in contrast to what I had made myself into or felt I had been made into. Writing was and still is empowerment for me. It is a way of naming the power structures in society and helps me at the same time not to feel like the victim of these.« Again, she was confronted with institutional routines: »›Theater is not therapy,‹ was often said during my studies as a director. I could never understand this. Art should not be self-awareness? Art should not be a medicine?«
Vanessa’s works are decidedly autobiographic. For her biggest and probably most important work so far, Deadbird, she interviewed her mother and her grandmother and created a new genre: the »docu-fairy tale.« In a dense poetic web of original statements, which are worked almost literally into the text in contrast to artificial fairy tale-like parts, Vanessa tells the story of her family from the Second World War until today. From the story of the grandmother and mother, the story of the daughter in her thirties emerges, who appears as the fairy tale figure Little Red Riding Hood. An early version of the play (On Dead Birds) was premiered in 2012 in Ludwigsburg and was performed by the Körber studio for young directors at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg, in the same year. The piece was celebrated by the feuilletons, playwrights, and editors for its surprising and powerful language and the author’s sovereignty in examining West German history, but most of all because of her courage in entering into her very own biography, without ever falling into the rhetoric of misery. In its subjectivity, her sense of humor and the ability to step in and outside of her own story enabled her to keep the unsentimental poetic distance of a keen spectator – a »rebellion against the privileged discourses of sensitivity,« Vanessa adds.
At the kitchen table
From listening to the original recordings of the interviews, one could think her playfulness and wittiness is something she learned from the protagonists of the stories themselves: her mother and grandmother. »Hello, my name is Hannelore, I am 73 years old, and I am looking for a man,« jokes Vanessa’s grandmother when asked to introduce herself at the start of the interview. The laughter which then follows is the sort that is often heard during talks at the kitchen table, creating a warm and familiar atmosphere – still the hard facts are never hidden: painful experiences, doubts, failures, the sometimes conflicting perspectives of the three women from three different generations. Deadbird is as much a story about her and her family’s life as it is about »the context, the world, in which the story wrote itself and was written,« as she explains, »a patriarchal, West German class society and – on a microcosmic level – a matrilineal family situation, in which neoliberal values are upheld, in which one believes that education will open all doors, and where domestic violence and social frustrations are met with escapism in the form of fairy tale books and Flashdance.«
In Deadbird, the mother is asked by the daughter to which social class she would count herself. »As working-class … but neat, not drunk,« she answers humorously. »Why are you writing a piece about us?« the mother asks in response. Driven by the frustration of often stereotypical female figures in theater plays and cliched milieu studies, Vanessa wanted to write other stories: »I felt like telling stories about people who, measured against our privileged standards, have no money and no education, but still are not stupid and are able to discuss general human issues, with the question of the art of living at the forefront. At home in the talks at the kitchen table, I have often heard such stories. They touched me, made me reflect, and of course be angry. They made me the person I am.« Those stories could be success stories as well, as she explains, even though they are not like Pretty Woman or Flashdance. She would rather tell stories of the sex worker, who stays the sex worker because he or she loves being a sex worker, but this does not mean everything should stay the same. Vanessa’s position as an author is never a cynical one. Ironic, affected, but also detached, she oscillates between documentary and fiction, the heavy and the light: »I have fun, and it torments me an awful lot to imagine that the guy at the bus stop who tried to steal my bag, or the cashier at Rewe who talks about her broken fingers, or my grandma who says that she has done everything wrong would be heroes of an ’80s disco song.«
The plight of the postmodern daughters: »We’re burning, yes, we’re burning out«
Deadbird deals with today’s disillusioned »Generation Y« – a generation of young women torn between personal fulfillment and motherhood presented with all the apparent possibilities of an allegedly multi-optional society attainable through hard work. The play tells of the plight of the »postmodern daughters,« quoting from the authors own dilemma: »We’re burning, yes, we’re burning out,« says the pregnant Little Red Riding Hood. She does not know whether she wants the child or not, or if she wants to be »competitive and flexible, radical and arbitrary.« She visits her grandmother and mother to return to her roots and to find answers. »She is in constant search for any kind of belonging, a place, her home. But she gets lost in her own story, which is inseparably interwoven with the story of her mother and grandmother,« explains Vanessa. After traveling through time – through the stories of her family – she arrives in the here and now, but she still cannot understand where that actually is.
The questions of the daughter in this piece about life, money, fame, love, career, children, luck are questions that Vanessa has had to deal with and is still dealing with, as well as questions about privilege: »How do I deal with my privilege? With the privilege of having a German passport, with the privilege of not being affected by racism, but instead benefiting from racist structures for example?«
She reworte and modified the play over several years, staging another version (O Mrtvých Ptácíc) in Prague at Theatre X10 in spring 2014 until she seemed to have found the right form – for now. She completed the work on the final version, Deadbird, in autumn 2015»I have the feeling that I chew my texts. It’s something oral. It always has to physically move me in a way.« As a fellow at Solitude in winter 2014, she also started working on the script of the text for a film production, which she would also be directing.
With all its open questions, unsolved conflicts, and undecidedness, Vanessa’s writing is nevertheless not characterized by hopelessness. Whenever the reader is immersed into the back and forth of choices – the dense and heavy texture, where the psychological, the psychoanalytical, the private, and the sociopolitical mix – they will immediately be relieved – not with any solution, but with the lightness and humorous and playful tone of her language. »The piece is a plea for empathy,« Vanessa says, »but without being sociopolitically blind. There are differences; they do play a role. And because of your privileges, you have responsibilities; you have to work for change.«
Text by Clara Herrmann