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In the neighborhood

By Sebastian Köthe

What does it mean to dare to do something new as a theater collective? What does it mean when a neighborhood commits itself to improving its dilapidated infrastructure? What happens when the two overlap? Sebastian Köthe in conversation with Gob Squad about Mehringplatz and the theater.

"Where do we shop?"

A huge poster in front of a desolate, empty building.

Even though I live a few streets away, this used to be my local Edeka supermarket. Many people – including me – develop an intimate relationship with their supermarket. During the coronavirus pandemic, I was both depressed and somehow euphoric in the queue that reached all the way to the square. During half-time, you quickly ran in to buy some potato chips and a Coke. The sales clerk who was working there (very briefly), always said "meters" instead of "euros": "That's seven meters fifty."

This Edeka is now closed, despite having been the only major supermarket within a one-kilometer radius for the 6,000 people who live on Mehringplatz, in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. The recently founded "Revolutionary Residents' Council" (RAR) has put up the poster above the former supermarket. Another reads: "Who will repair the elevator?" The elevators in the high-rise buildings on the square regularly break down and are sometimes not repaired for months. Another poster reads: "When will youth work be funded?" It hangs on the building of the "Kreuzberger Musikalische Aktion," where young people are provided with rehearsal rooms for their bands. The building is "dilapidated and partly in danger of collapsing", but is going to have to wait another 10 years before it is renovated.

At Mehringplatz, you are constantly made aware of the urban planning malice of the present. In the streets leading toward Besselpark or Mendelssohn-Platz, luxury apartments have been built at lightning speed in recent years. For example, the so-called "Metropolenhaus," whose maisonette apartments sold instantly with the slogan "Participate in the Intercultural Mosaic." Despite this call for participation, I have never seen any posters saying that the elevators are broken or the rents are too high – after all these were apartments to buy not rent. Meanwhile, Mehringplatz has been a huge construction site for 12 years, the visible result of which seems to be disproportionately meagre, comprising of two elevators, the dismantling and reassembly of the Victoria statue, and some greenery.

Johanna Freiburg from Gob Squad tells me that her group is currently working at, about, and with Mehringplatz. I've seen several plays by the German-British theater collective at the Volksbühne and HAU Hebbel am Ufer. Most recently "Are You With Us," described as "half group therapy, half performance nightmare". In it, they reflected on how they could continue as a collective after 30 years of working together – and why. How do you surprise an audience that already knows you so well? When one can already read all about their own history and working methods (writing process, improvisation, mediality ...) in detailed FAQs on their own website? Is it still possible to find new processes and a new audience under these conditions?

I quickly realize that Gob Squad are in the middle of an artistic transformation process – right in the middle of Mehringplatz. Most recently, it was the coronavirus pandemic that prompted them to engage with specific, local places. To this end, they are building on the work of Stella Konstantinou from "HAU to connect," HAU's outreach program, and drawing inspiration from the British theater groups Common Wealth and Duckie. Among other things, they are known for the inclusion of diverse audiences on stage and in the auditorium. Common Wealth are experts in making people from the margins of society the protagonists of their experimental theater works and at the same time winning them over as an audience. These include groups as diverse as Muslim boxers, steel workers, lovers of converted cars, and victims of domestic violence. At the invitation of Common Wealth, Duckie produced a play in Cardiff for which tickets could only be purchased by those who brought a senior citizen with them to the theater – because they were the actual target audience, but often did not or could not go to the theater due to old-age poverty and loneliness.

So far, as Freiburg explains, Gob Squad have worked to break down the barriers between people by creating fleeting moments and spontaneous encounters with passers-by and audience members. Although they repeatedly allowed the theater to collide with the urban space, the audience remained relatively homogeneous. Common Wealth and Duckie's process, however, is not to approach the audience from the point of view of advertising or the finished play, but to integrate them into the creative process.

Instead of spontaneously involving passers-by, Gob Squad are now experimenting with entering into binding relationships and sharing the co-authorship. The artists share more of their time, resources and agency with the participants, who now have more opportunities to bring their communities into the theater in which they themselves have become protagonists. Such shifts are intended to avoid an othering: whereby the participants not only act under the potential pressure of a spontaneous encounter, but can decide more reflectively what they want to share and present and how. By no longer playing in front of an audience of (only) strangers, but also for their communities. However, they are often prevented from coming to the theater due to a lack of money or official regulations that limit the issuing of discounted tickets or free tickets. This is why inclusive theater is always a question of political will and not just artistic aesthetics and working methods.

For Gob Squad, the rehearsal rooms and venues of the HAU seemed just a stone's throw away from Mehringplatz. "Since we started working there ourselves, we realize how far away the HAU feels, what a dividing line Stresemannstraße is." Many people there "don't even know that the HAU exists or what's behind it". From the inside, Mehringplatz seems "like a closed-off world".

It is only when you spend more time in places like Mehringplatz that you realize how "intrusive" it is to impose themes and narratives on them from the outside instead of developing them from within the place itself. Gob Squad see themselves as guests at Mehringplatz and visit its diverse choirs, for example, who rehearse there in a small space – some sing self-penned lyrics to sheet music, others eat, drink and dance together, while others share memories and stories through music. "If you just move around the square, you don't notice a lot of things," says Freiburg. In an upcoming production, Gob Squad want to show how much "positive power, energy and love the people in the neighborhood have for each other".

For Gob Squad, the new way of working has also been associated with worries. "Of course, we have expertise, a formula for success. Why shouldn't that be good anymore?" This was how some of the long-standing production sites felt and they did not see the need for such self-reflection. In the end, the open-ended process funding was the ideal impetus to review their own production conventions and think outside the box. Although the freedom of such an open process is also irritating: "We had promised ourselves that it would be open-ended. But we very quickly thought: 'Ah, now we know what it's about and what the play will look like! We had to learn to restrain ourselves in order to remain open." This openness is an ethical moment in the development process, because Gob Squad "don't want to be like someone who asks a counterpart questions but then gives the answer themselves".

It seems that the Gob Squad FAQs will soon be expanded to include a few more questions.

And perhaps a meter-long poster will soon be hanging at the HAU:

"Where are the free tickets for our neighborhood?"

In the summer of 2023, in 64 Bundesweiten Artist Labs, independent artist groups explored the relationship with the audience in post-pandemic times. Our editor Elisabeth Wellershaus and a team of guest authors observed them at work.

Dr. Sebastian Köthe is a research associate focusing on the area of aesthetics at the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste.