"Theater is not an instruction manual"

By Annette Stiekele

Rimini Protokoll presented the production "Konferenz der Abwesenden" at the B.A.L.L. at Kampnagel. Annette Stiekele spoke to Daniel Wetzel, who, together with Stefan Kaegi and Helgard Haug, has been inviting audiences to exciting theatrical experiments for the last 20 years.

Mr. Wetzel, together with Stefan Kaegi and Helgard Haug, you have been running a unique writer's theater for 20 years. You have brought amateurs to the stage instead of actors and coined the term "experts from everyday life". You have developed your plays based on documentary research. What interests you about this form of theater today?

Daniel Wetzel: We want to extend the process of discovery that characterizes our performances on stage. The phase of bourgeois theater is only a brief moment in history, if you look back across time. It used to be much more participatory when performed in marketplaces. We didn't actually want to make theater, but performance. But then we realized that above all we wanted to tell other people's stories. And that the stage can be a place where many things can be addressed for many people.

You have always had close ties with the visual arts. How did this connection come about?

We noticed that the decisive and radical processes that have taken place over the last 30 years were above all in the visual arts. The whole experience with performance came from the visual arts. And also in our first works we created something unlike what was being produced in the theater world, which at the time was still often dominated by toxic, male would-be dictators. In the art world, there was the laughing John Cage, the strict Marina Abramović and the experimental Chris Burden.

You delve into current social debates on the basis of documentary research. How would you describe your relationship with the audience?

Yes, a large part of our work consists of researching, meeting people, listening to them and later writing with some of them. First, we research the "what", then we want to share what seems important to us, then it's about the "how". And at some point, whatever has come together to form a play is smarter than our own thoughts on the subject.

In the "Konferenz der Abwesenden", people from the audience spontaneously take on the identity of conference participants with the help of texts and announcements via headphones. This actually takes your concept to the extreme. From the lawyer of a Srebrenica perpetrator to a refugee woman stuck on a Greek island, people are introduced. These are very specific biographies. What considerations about the idea of identity are behind them?

This work is actually completely acyclical to some social discourses. Because the play is precisely about the fact that marginalized people need a voice, that they should be heard – and in a way that doesn't stigmatize them as a minority again. In this case, society is understood as a construct in which we are all minorities. On the performance evenings, I can only look at who I am becoming – listen to who is speaking through me. I first have to learn whose voice I am expressing. I do not act as a representative. I represent someone, but that's not necessarily meant politically. It's more like slipping in and out, testing things. The play is organized in such a way that if an audience doesn't want to participate, there are different scenarios – up to and including discontinuing. These are democratic processes.

Is this a sociological project, a kind of urban anthropology? And do you want to motivate people to take action?

If we wanted to do that, then we would have lost our way. Theater is not an instruction manual. Rather, it's a good way of getting people to look at themselves. We asked ourselves long before COVID: How can our theater respond to the need for decarbonization? What would it be like if no one traveled? If we only sent out tutorials. If we converted travel and transportation costs into hotel costs for people who then rehearsed the play. Theater is a political space, but not a space for politics.

There is a sofa, an armchair and a coffee table on a stage. Behind them are a bookshelf and several large houseplants. A projection screen can be recognized in the background. © Festival El Aleph Teatro UNAM

Does your audience change greatly depending on the content? Do certain people come to see specific topics or are they interested in the style?

We often work with people who normally have nothing to do with theater. This has broadened the spectrum. I think we could still be much more proactive. We are certainly operating in a bubble. But theaters should always be places of celebration. More accessible.

How do you engage with different audiences? What experience have you gained in different contexts?

I can say that, especially in Germany, there is a very open-minded audience aged 70 plus who have experienced the whole redefinition of culture as a driver of participation and education. We've also had really good experiences with young people who are now in their early 20s. But of course, there are also sometimes difficult experiences where audience members make racist comments, for example. We then talk to them. I think the theaters should be accountable for how much they and the artists have thought about who they are working for.

Do you find it easier to attract diverse audiences because you operate beyond frontal theater and also the bourgeois arena?

We could do a lot more and would like to, but we're not the public relations people. We always have several plays in progress at once. I'm currently doing a play in Berlin-Marzahn. There are hostels for people without homes in the immediate vicinity. They're not interested in theater right now; they have existential needs. Theaters have two responsibilities. They have to reflect on who they invite, but they also have to defend themselves against the fact that politicians increasingly think they have to co-curate. The experimental space of theater is becoming narrower.

The Rimini Protokoll Theater is already a lab in itself. For what, actually?

For social perception – and for fun. It's about the fun of being "in-between." In other words, a movement that leads away from the self, into the unknown or the supposedly known.

During the pandemic, some artists had an unusually large amount of money at their disposal. There were the many NEUSTART KULTUR grants. At the same time, the connection to the audience was lost. How difficult is it now to win the audience back?

I believe that the Fonds Darstellende Künste and the Hauptstadtkulturfonds have good ideas. A lot of people are suckling on the same mother like newborns. And that’s also thanks to the initiatives to promote projects in rural areas. But many more people should be given the opportunity to participate in the process of cultural production. They should feel invited not just to come, but to be there, to take part, to have conversations, to make their farm available for a concert. Then something happens socially between people who are otherwise afraid of each other. The institutions invest in structures or create jobs. I think we need to invest much more in society.

Where do you see the future of the independent theater scene?

There was a time when venues were founded, spaces were simply created and then people could come. We have always tried to change spaces so that other and new people could come. That was the approach we took at the Stadttheater. A lot has happened over the last 20 years. Sometimes there are the more experimental forms in the municipal theater and the more conservative ones on independent stages. New audiences are created by redefining theaters.

Annette Stiekele has been working as a cultural journalist in Hamburg for 20 years, focusing on dance, theater and art. She works as an editor and author for the Hamburger Abendblatt, the trade magazine Tanz, dpa, NDR and Art-Magazin, among others. She has been a member of the jury for the Hamburg District Culture Prize and the dance theater jury of the Hamburg Department of Culture for several years.