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Self-direction, escape rooms and self-empowerment

By Tom Mustroph

The inclusive ensemble Meine Damen und Herren breaks new ground in equal collective work. Cultural journalist Tom Mustroph in conversation with the winners of the Tabori Prize 2022.

Meine Damen und Herren is a permanent group of 14 professional actors, with and without so-called psychological disorders, and a four-person management team. The ensemble works at the Hamburg-based workshops of employment agency alsterarbeit gGmbH. Meine Damen und Herren develops one or more productions each year. The home venue has been Kampnagel for ten years. Individual performers also appear as guests at other venues. The performer Melanie Lux, as well as Martina Vermaaten and Christoph Grothaus from the management team, participated in this interview conducted via zoom.

Scene from "The Ball": A step-like stage situation with a centered footbridge projecting forward. The stage is bathed in fog and pink light. The performers of Meine Damen and Herren sit and stand on the catwalk and steps in colorful costumes, dresses and wigs. © Christian Martin

You recently premiered your new production Der Ball - 5 Befreiungen und 50 Neuanfänge (The Ball - 5 Liberations and 50 New Beginnings). You didn’t use your usual structure for the staging. One part took place in VR spaces — partly live, partly recorded — another part live and analogue. How did it happen exactly and how did the idea for it come about?

Melanie Lux: At first, our piece was called Das Wunschschloss (The Wishing Castle). As we were working, we came across information about how we could do this with films. Then we decided to do it a bit like in videos, i.e. with Escape Rooms. We then divided into groups and collected ideas. One part became a film and we performed other parts live.

Melanie Lux, what was it like for you and your colleagues to work with VR, that is, with all this technical complexity?

Melanie Lux: I had a lot of fun with the film. It was sometimes very difficult to agree on the ideas so that we all got something out of it.

What do you mean by that?

Melanie Lux: Before the film was made, we had to have a solid script and the ideas all had to be fixed. And that wasn't so easy to agree on. During the shooting itself, we had a lot of fun together.

Christoph Grothaus: Perhaps I could add that each room directed together and made suggestions for costumes and the set. You could always get advice from the rehearsal management team and also from the dramaturgy team.

That sounds like a very complex structure: There was a team for equipment, a team for dramaturgy, a team for music, a team for rehearsal management, a team for organization, a team for public relations and a team for technology, then there was also a team for each room? And all of them were together in this constellation for the entire rehearsal period?

Christoph Grothaus: At least for the first part, the digital part. All of us were able to choose two jobs. Which wasn't so easy for those of us from the management team. I had to think carefully about the areas I would hand over that I was also supervising.

And so what did you hand over?

Christoph Grothaus: Rehearsal management, for example.

And which second departments did you go for?

Christoph Grothaus: Dramaturgy and Music.

Melanie and Martina, which two departments did you go for?

Melanie Lux: I was on the dramaturgy and the set design teams.

Martina Vermaaten: I went for dramaturgy and rehearsal direction. Because none of us had directed, we asked external artists to do it. In the beginning, as Melanie said, we had workshops, for example with Sybille Peters and Esther Pilkington from geheimagentur, who made suggestions about the format. Then we had a workshop with Claude Jansen on the subject: how could both we and the ideas work together? Another workshop was with Turbo Pascal on collective working, pitfalls and opportunities.

The model as a whole sounds very appealing on the one hand, but also quite exhausting on the other. Did it hold promise for the future?

Martina Vermaaten: I think it's a good way to go. It became clear that the groups should be smaller. A collective of 18 people is too big. But we found things out in the process that were very valuable, both artistically and for the personal development of all participants.

For example?

Martina Vermaaten: That you will be heard. And that you have to want to do what you do. No one says: You have to want this. Instead, you ask yourself: what do I want? And everyone has the chance to contribute exactly that. And from that comes a shared joy.

Christoph Grothaus: This way of working is certainly time consuming. You talk a lot. But it is important to take the time. For me, it was sometimes difficult because I wanted to try things out practically. And instead, we ended up talking a lot. But we always found a way.

Melanie Lux: We had a lot of ideas. And it was very difficult to bring these ideas together so that everyone was happy with them. I already mentioned that earlier. It took us a lot of time. But we did it and it was worth it.

Scene from "World without us": A white stage floor on which a plunge pool stands. Above it hangs a person, suspended upside down by his feet, he has just been pulled out of the basin and is completely covered with black paint. A performer stands in front of it and watches the scenario. © Christian Martin

Meine Damen und Herren in der Preformance "Welt ohne uns"

How long have you all been with Meine Damen und Herren? And what originally attracted you to the group?

Melanie Lux: I joined in April 2017. I wanted to be an actress and write screenplays. Theater and film are just my thing. What particularly appeals to me about Meine Damen und Herren is that we all take part in making decisions. We can say what we think is a great idea and that we want to do as much of it as possible.

Martina Vermaaten: I joined in October 2003. And what appeals to me is simply the diversity of people.

Christoph: I have a state and municipal theater background and came to Station 17[1] more by accident....

...This was the band from which Meine Damen und Herren finally came about in the 1990s...

...Exactly. I worked there in the music department at Barner 16[2]. We also did musical theater. I joined Meine Damen und Herren in 2012. What interests me is our capacity for authorship, that is, our ensemble members are not only on stage as performers of other people's content, but they tell their own stories. And that was a very good way to go during the pandemic, because we were able to work from our home offices. We sat at the computer, wrote, talked about concepts and that way we had another collaborative option other than rehearsing daily on a rehearsal stage.

So the pandemic and distanced communication via screens led to a kind of self-empowerment?

Melanie Lux: Yes, that's more or less how it was, also with the screens, because we were in the lockdown. You could say that we benefited a lot from the lockdown.

Martina Vermaaten: But it should also be said that it actually started much earlier, the actors saying, we want to make our own things. That's when we developed the self-directed format. The idea was that everyone could choose a theme, work it out and try it out together with other performers.

Christoph Grothaus: A trigger was a situation at the premiere in 2012, when two of our performers approached Amelie Deuflhard, the artistic director of Kampnagel, and asked if they could also do a piece. Amelie didn't know the answer. It was an embarrassing moment, but it was actually the impetus for the path we are taking now.

And would Amelie have an answer to such a question now?

Christoph Grothaus: Yes, I’m sure she would.

How important is Kampnagel for you as a performance venue?

Christoph Grothaus: Very important. We've been doing one production a year there for years and also have close contact with Kampnagel in the way pieces are conceived.

Martina Vermaaten: And we also have a good relationship with the other artists who perform there. When we come to Kampnagel for the final rehearsals, it’s like a new reality, because we leave our everyday working spaces behind.

Christoph Grothaus: However, we also come up against limits with Kampnagel because they only do one production a year, but we have decided we prefer working in small groups. Many of our ensemble also like to work with guests. That leads to the fact that last year, for example, only five of us appeared in a production at Kampnagel. And for the remaining nine people, we had to find other productions. Of course, that also depends on funding. We can only submit one application per year to the Kulturbehörde Hamburg (Hamburg Ministry of Culture) and also to the Fonds Darstellende Künste. That's why we look for other ways and carry out a lot of collaborations, with independent artists, but also with other theaters.

Martina Vermaaten: A performer just did a residency at Theater an der Parkaue.

Christoph Grothaus: And one at the Theater der Jungen Welt in Leipzig. Two also played in a production at the Junges Schauspielhaus Hamburg.

Does that mean that players in your ensemble are in demand as guest performers at other venues and are welcomed?

Martina Vermaaten: Yes. We are also very happy about that, but sometimes it makes it more time-consuming organizationally. Because a companion and assistance for the person are always needed, and we don't necessarily always have additional personnel capacity. But we make up for that with passion.

What is your standing in the independent performing arts in Hamburg? Are you considered to be colleagues or something more exotic?

Christoph Grothaus: Well, many colleagues come to our premieres, to watch the plays.

Martina Vermaaten: I think that many people are looking for closeness. And we also seek closeness through various connections. And I think that collaboration as a whole is always very respectful and equal.

Melanie Lux: At Kampnagel, I think they really thawed out as the premiere approached. We grew together really well. We also noticed how successful we had become again. Even at the dress rehearsal there were a lot of spectators.

Christoph Grothaus: Overall, there has been a change in the scene. When we started out, we were the ones trying to make contact. Now it's the other way around, with many colleagues asking if they can do a production with us, or individuals asking to be in productions.

Martina Vermaaten: There is one point that I still find important: In this so-called double structure, on the one hand as a workshop for people with disabilities and on the other hand the promotion of independent groups through production funding, we need continuous funding for both the development of artistic formats and working methods and for the creation of networks.

Christoph Grothaus: But there is actually no example of this anywhere in Germany, unlike in other countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium or England.

Who can change that?

Martina Vermaaten: The people in charge of funding German culture?

Christoph Grothaus: Yes. And of course the relevant federal states.

What does the Tabori Prize mean to you?

Melanie Lux: Wow. I am so happy!

Christoph Grothaus: We were totally blown away.

Martina Vermaaten: I think it sends out a fantastic message.

What might it mean for the future?

Melanie Lux: It can change a whole lot. People are much more aware of us now. And it also shows what great actors we are, even with a handicap. And maybe more and more people will approach us.

Christoph Grothaus: I think we are just at the beginning of a structural change where we have to think again carefully: is this the right form, or do we have to do it differently? And a prize like this helps tremendously to change things and get things moving.

What might the possibilities be?

Christoph Grothaus: That the actors might appear in many more contexts, could also be seen at city and state theaters

Martina Vermaaten: And in their own way, with their own authorship. The prize could be effective for that too.

Christoph Grothaus: In principle, this is a topic that doesn’t only concern people with disabilities. Because a considerable part of society is not present on stage at all. And we see ourselves as pioneers in this area, throughout Europe too.

[1] Editor's note: The members of the inclusive band Station 17 founded their own theater group called Station17Theater in 1995. In 2005, the group renamed itself Meine Damen und Herren.

[2] Editor's note: barner 16 is alsterarbeit's inclusive network for professional cultural productions. People with and without disabilities work in various artistic fields such as music, film and video, theater, dance and performance, and visual arts.