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17/12/2007

I have to let it out!

The celebrated German theatre collective Rimini Protokoll gives centre stage to "experts on everyday life". Eva Behrendt met three of its unsuspecting stars.

In the last couple of years they have started appearing in Rimini Protokoll productions: people like you and me, without theatrical training or acting ambitions, with more or less interesting jobs and more or less ordinary backgrounds, people with hobbies, with illnesses. Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel have pointed out to theatre critics that "experts" is a better term to describe these "amateurs," and not only because "amateur" signifies deficiency while "expert" signifies competence.



















Sven-Joachim Otto in "Wallenstein".
All photos © Rimini Protokoll



In Rimini Protokoll's "Wallenstein. A Democratic Production," Sven-Joachim Otto stood on stage as an expert on existential or at least life-changing experiences. Or, better said, on the "Wallenstein" moment, which the then 34-year-old CDU politician experienced on September 17, 2004. That was the day when what had been a meteoric political career of a man who at the tender age of 29 ran for mayor of Mannheim and lost by a hair's breadth, came to a dramatic halt. His Christian Democratic Party did not select him to be treasurer as expected, and made a public demonstration of his failure. This betrayal was, says Otto, "the loneliest moment you can experience as a politician." In the production, which is loosely based on "Wallenstein," and in which the life stories of experts replace Schiller's characters, Otto's rise and fall tale fits perfectly to "Wallenstein's Death."

Few stories have engaged the audience or attracted as much media attention as Sven Otto's Wallenstein; in Theater Heute's annual critic's poll Otto even received two votes for "Best New Actor." Despite his desk-job waistline and head-boy appeal, Otto developed the ambivalent charm of a seasoned confession maker. With the eloquence of an experieced orator and the inner sympathies generated by the remembrance of past dishonour, Otto has affected both left and right-leaning audiences - and also aroused suspicions that he had donned the cloak of self-critical candour as a political move. "Interestingly, those who are furthest away from me politically were also the most enthusiastic," observed the ex-politician. "In the red-red-green world of Berlin, for example, I am a complete misfit. And when I don't fit people's picture of a typical CDU politician, of course they warm to me all the more. Had I called for 'camera surveillance to be stepped up so that people can feel safe on the streets again,' they would soon stop sympathising with me." Perhaps what makes Otto's performance so moving is that he finds it highly cathartic to tell his story. He is not the least bit embarrassed to reenact the betrayal in the theatre night after night: "I still find it liberating to be able to talk openly about it. In general, I find it easier to deal with difficult life-experiences by talking them through. I have to let it out! That's my technique."










A call-centre guide in "Call Cutta"

Priyanka Nandy is 23, lives with her parents and is now working on her Master's in English Literature at the Jadavpur University in Calcutta. Through European glasses, she is the epitome of a self-confindent post-colonial girl: in her free time she reads and blogs, or chats with her friends - most of whom, she says, she has never met. Any existential turning points Nandy might have faced in her life do not inform her role in Rimini Protokoll's German-Indian walking tour "Call Cutta." Other compencies are needed there: "My only two talents are that I like to listen to people and I'm a real chatterbox myself. I also love to think up stories. "Call Cutta" has combined these three things very nicely. So you could say, yes, that the Riminis have somehow used my 'expertise.'"

Unlike Sven-Joachim Otto, she did not appear on stage. Her task, like that of her fellow call-centre workers in Calcutta was to guide theatre-goers through Berlin's Kreuzberg district with the aide of a mobile phone and an elaborate timetable, while alluding to secretive stories about the freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose and maintaining all the while friendly and cheerful, even flirtatious conversation. This was no problem for Priyanka, but an "unbelievable creative high. Each time it was an improvised theatrical performance for me, but also a cultural exchange with people who would ask me every conceivable question about Bollywood, my education, the typical marrying age for Indian women, and how arranged marriages work. In return they told me extremely private things that they would normally keep to themselves. It was very touching how much some people trusted me."













Bulgarian lorry drivers in "Cargo Sofia"


After Ventizslaw Borissov applied as a driver for the Goethe-Institute Sofia, he never thought he would have to do anything in Stefan Kaegis's mobile theatre project "Cargo Sofia" besides driving a lorry. He only understood that he had in fact been cast in the leading role shortly before the premiere in Basel: "Surprise! I was really scared and didn't think I could do it at first. But because I like new adventures, and since my job is usually very routine, I decided to give it a try." But the 53-year old Bulgarian was not the only one to be taken by surpise. Despite clear statements by the director, many an "expert" failed to realise until much later that they would be standing on stage - simply because they couldn't imagine a theatre without actors. Since June 2006 Borissov has been touring European cities that he would have otherwise known only from motorway exit signs. Instead of cargo, there are 45 audience members in the reconstructed freight space, to whom Borissov and his colleague, Nedjalko Nedjalkov, show the respective cities from the perspective of an East European driver - a city tour via arterial roads, parking lots and warehouses. As in his performance, when talking about his expertise Borissov uses no more words than necessary: "I know what a good driver has to know. I know the streets, I know Europe and even other countries beyond it, and I tell of the experiences that I've had there."














The converted lorry auditorium used in "Cargo Sofia"


"He's such a good actor!" This is the dubious compliment that many of the Rimini experts receive about themselves or their colleagues. Dubious, because the enthusiastic audience assumes that the actors are playing roles and not themselves. A misunderstanding, because the experts, who introduce themselves on stage in everyday clothes using their real names are there to say: We are not performing theatre. We are just us.

Academics and critics have coined the term "theatrical readymades" to describe the Rimini Protokoll performers. Certainly the theatre situation creates a extra-everyday setting for the players and exposes them to the eyes of the audience. In order that readymades remain readymades, the direction has to step in and stage them as such: "When I raised my voice, Daniel Wetzel immediately imitated me and said that under no circumstances should I be so theatrical. We were protected from ourselves in a way while. It was always on the verge of become unintentionally funny!" Sven Otto remembers. A further safety measure is the script, which serves not only as the basis of the text, but also as time schedule and memory aid. At the same time, the script should not be memorized: "The stability of the piece lies in its instability. It shouldn't be a playback performance. We have to continually remember ourselves anew," Otto explains. In other words: on stage the experts ideally stay themselves, in a state of concentration, free of stage-fright, and without looking rehearsed.

You get a sense of how fragile this idea of character is when talking to the experts. Priyanka Nandy had lots of fun reinventing herself with her telephone theatre. When asked whether she feels like an actress, she responds: "Absolutely! But it hasn't given me airs and graces." She then adds, "When we got the script, I felt that anyone with an Indian voice could have taken on this role. But even in the first telephone conversations I created this person who's like me in every respect, just a little more interesting. It all started with the part in the script, which says that my grandfather was an adventurer and freedom fighter. Then I began to invent more stories. Some were based on the truth, but the most interesting I just thought up spontaneously as the conversation unfolded." The playful ease with which the English student slipped into a virtual identity also has to do with the invisibility of the telephone guides in "Call Cutta." This invisibility also affects the audience-walkers, who could never be sure about who exactly was navigating them through the suddenly mystical-seeming surroundings south of Potsdamer Platz, nor if they were actually on the phone with someone in India (although the time-delay in the phone conversations seemed to suggest it). The invisibility of the conversation partners made two things surprisingly easy: one was relentless honesty, the other playful dissimulation. This invisible-cloak principle works so well that many tour participants forget themselves in the game. In any case Priyanka Nandy observes that her telephone partners are astoundingly willing to follow her sometimes absurd instructions: "Typical German theatergoers are very - sporting. They will do embarrassing things, like shouting in public, just because I told them it was part of the show. Some were hesitant, some laughed, but they did it all the same!"

Sven-Joachim Otto also has the sense of filling out a character in a play. "One the one hand I was Wallenstein, on the other Sven Otto, telling a real story. And then I slipped into the role that I had in Mannheim. Because you have many roles in your life, like when you change jobs, which I have recently done. When for the final production of Wallenstein I slip into my old role as CDU chairman and mayoral candidate, it is like reflecting on the past, attempting to understand myself in my former function and role." Since time goes on and people change, the theatrical productions of the Rimini Protokoll are "fragile formations, that cannot be repeated indefinitely, for the simple fact that people get older, or even sick. When someone leaves, the piece dies. That has always been our fear."

"It was a great surprise for all of us, that someone from the theatre would be interested in the life of a lorry driver," says Vento Borissov. "Initially we thought that there would be no audience for the piece. It was even more of a surprise that so many people turned up every time. In Denmark we couldn't take all the people in one trip." How is it that the Rimini Protokoll can take supposedly unspectacular aspects of everyday life and tease out something spectacular? Sven Otto believes it has to do with the directors' attitudes: "They have curiosity. They are on the search for the causes and developments that take place behind reality. Their approach is not smart-ass or patronizing, but heuristic. They don't provide answers, they ask questions. They gradually feel their way towards certain things through each individual charater that they bring onto the stage. The directors' own lives and opinions are totally inconsequential."

And not only for the audience that consists mostly of the educated middle-classes who would normally only see a Bulgarian lorry driver in the theatre if another middle-class intellectual had thought him up. Sven Otto raves: "Working with Rimini Protokoll was a totally new experience for me, especially in this group of totally different people. I would probably have never met any of these people had it not been for the theatre." Working with Rimini Protokoll seems to be a positive experience for most people involved because it enables far more exchange and contact across social borders than conventional actor/director theatre. Certainly it is no accident that it is theatre intellectuals who find this observation so remarkable.

And indeed the social palette covered by the Rimini cast is substantial. Rimini theatre almost always includes a cross-section of academics and manual labourers, the unemployed and the top earners, young and old, theatre fans and people who have never entered a theatre in their lives, the healthy and the handicapped. For Sven Otto, who now works at a large auditing firm in Düsseldorf, "To take these people and unify them, to form a whole, is a huge accomplishment. It has a lot to do with the personalities of Helgard and Daniel, who are able to turn on the sweet-talk or be real slave drivers if they have to. They have very finely tuned antennae. This is something they share with all successful people in our service economy. Having an instinctive feel for psychology is becoming increasingly important." None of those interviewed felt in any way that they had been "put on display;" everyone expressed how seriously they felt they had been taken.

By allowing everyone to stand on stage as themselves and contribute something of substance as an expert, the Rimini Project takes on the character of a social experiment, a social utopia, a theatre in which every individual is interesting and valuable in their own way. And because the Rimini concept relies on a communicative rather than artificial notion of language, the productions can be realised all over the world, and even simultaneously in two cities as spatially and culturally distant as Calcutta and Berlin. All you need is enough curiosity about people and material. And it is a material detail that also makes the ensemble experience positive for most. Unlike their professional colleagues, Rimini actors receive the same wages, no matter whether their parts are large or small. "Everyone in equal in the theatre situation," says Christian Democrat Otto.

And even if none of those interviewed actually went as far as to say that Rimini Protokoll had changed their life – it would be a bit too much to ask - the theatre group has certainly had a positive if not euphoric influence on the lives of its experts. Vento Borissov is happy that as long as he is touring with "Cargo Sofia" he has a chance to get to know cities that he would otherwise only know from their nearest motorway service station. Priyanka Nandy has sworn to keep her eye on the clock when chatting with people in the future (this is something she learned from working with Rimini Protokoll). And Sven Otto says that his encounters with people from different backgrounds, such as pacifist Vietnam veterans, have deeply influenced him: "I even share their opininons on the war in Iraq now." Most of all though, they all go to the theatre when Rimini Protokoll puts on a new production.


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This article originially appeared in Theater Heute magazine on November 11, 2007.

Eva Behrendt is a freelance editor for Theater Heute. A longer version of her article was also published in a
 book about Rimini Protokoll "Experten des Alltags:Das Theater von Rimini Protokoll" (Alexander Verlag, 2007)

Translation: Michael Roberts
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