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And Then the Hat Goes Round

By Georg Kasch

Culture despite the Crisis (Episode 3): With a documentary film, the buehnendautenheims follow in the footsteps of their “The Great World Theater” tour from West to East.

Theater is a fleeting affair. Little remains – sometimes reviews, photos, but above all the memory of it. In the case of such an extraordinary theater project as "The Great Theater of the World" by the ensemble buehnendautenheims, this is particularly regrettable. For here, the focus was not only on the staging of Calderón's Corpus Christi play: the journey was the destination. In 2019, the two dozen actors and musicians set out to travel across Germany with their production, from Dautenheim in Rhineland-Palatinate to Berlin. They covered about 40 kilometers each day then, in the evenings, they played in marketplaces, in front of churches and castles. Their stage was made of two open, wooden carts hitched together, pulled by an old tractor. Average speed: nine kilometers per hour.

The buehnendautenheims are rather unique. Every summer, they bring together artists from major cities with local actors, craftsmen and technicians to transform well-known and lesser-known pieces of world literature into theater. Here, professionals and amateurs work together as equals to perform Kleist's "Amphitryon", Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" or Pirandello's "The Giants of the Mountain" at locations specially prepared for the productions; barns, a vineyard, a circus wagon. "These are materials that work in this environment. They resonate here," Annette Storr says, explaining the selection. This is because they are immediately accessible to an audience in the countryside, or because they fit into the landscape.

© buehnendautenheims

The director and theater scholar has led the buehnendautenheims since 2008 and, since 2013, she has done so together with double bassist and composer Clara Gervais. From its theater, in a barn, the ensemble has repeatedly conquered new locations in the village which is now a 500-inhabitant district of the city of Alzey, but which has retained its rural character. Storr believes that the productions appeal to people from the cultural scene as much as to local people. "They have to be readable on two levels."

In 2017, Storr staged Calderón's "The Great Theater of the World". The baroque Corpus Christi play from 1655 recounts human life as a play in which each role – the king, wisdom, beauty, the rich man, the peasant, the poor man, a child who died unbaptized – represents a particular aspect of life. The characters receive what they need to play their role from the master of the game (i.e. God), in order to prove themselves as human beings. They are supported and admonished by the law of mercy. The stage is a world with a gate for the entrance and a gate for the exit – life is in between. Who will act well, who will miss the mark?

"The play was written for the peasants," Storr says. "The peasants and poverty have the most verses." In addition, Calderón used imagery that tied directly to rural life. Storr staged the Corpus Christi play as it was when it was written, on a mobile stage made of two carts harnessed together. The cart had iron-shod wooden wheels. In 2018, the ensemble (partly with a new cast) went on a first tour with carriages drawn by carthorses as far as nearby Mainz, and in 2019, finally, on a journey across Germany.

The idea was to bring culture from the countryside to the city (and not the other way around, as is so often the case), in 17 stops from Dautenheim to Berlin, crossing six German states in both the West and East. The speed of the old tractor set the pace. The actors either sat on the wagons or walked alongside. A stop was made every 40 kilometers, in Trebur and Frankfurt am Main as well as in Ziegelroda and Halle an der Saale. Every evening they played in a different public square. Afterwards, the hat went around.

This is how it must have looked almost 400 years ago, when acting troupes performed Calderón's plays in Spain. At that time, the carts were pulled by oxen; the costumes may also have looked somewhat different, the music may also have sounded different to Clara Gervais’ world theater music for string trio and local wind groups. The music assigns motifs from a collection of songs from the Spanish Renaissance to all the characters. But the basic idea was a similar one: to bring a story along for the people out there to mull over. "People are happy to be taken seriously!" says Storr.

In the case of the buehnendautenheims' journey, something else came into play: the connection between country and city in a Germany in which the two habitats are increasingly perceived as opposites. Also the connection between East and West, which seem to be becoming increasingly alien to each other, too. What was important were the encounters, the conversations, the immediate reactions to what was shown. "In one place we had a flat tire," Storr recounts. "That's where we met people from the former LPG, who helped us. We performed scenes from the play for the two families afterward." Sometimes after the performances, the local volunteer fire department would start up a barbecue; often local brass bands would play along.

After the performances, people began to relate. "Because the play touched them," Storr says. Their lives are also about the changing face of agriculture; about huge corn fields that grow only for biogas and are owned by large investors. About destroyed cooperatives, crumbling cohesion. The longing for intact, meaningful structures.

The film, which is now being made from the 150 hours of footage shot back then thanks to #TakeAction funding, is also trying to tell the story of how much the theater people learned and experienced along the way. Only a few minutes of this footage made it into an impressionistic video diary on YouTube. Now Johannes Karl, who played the countryman, and Dominik Hallerbach, who accompanied the journey as a filmmaker and once had to stand in as the king, are editing the files into an approximately 75-minute documentary. Together, they spent four weeks sifting through the footage. "The main character is the troupe itself," Karl says of the film, "the historical traveling stage." The goal is to make the experience of the journey and the locations comprehensible, to let participants and passers-by have their say. "We want to show a panorama of Germany in 2019," says Karl. The theater experience itself will play more of a background role.

And then? We go on tour again. This time with an old fire truck, which will be converted into a mobile cinema with a screen. Once again, the route will start in Dautenheim, where the film will premiere on August 14, 2021, going on to Berlin. Again there will be encounters, conversations, discussions. And, of course, the chance to get an impression of a unique theater project whose ephemerality is now being translated into film images. And, who knows, perhaps others will follow in their shoes.

In the series "Kunst trotz(t) Krise" (Art in spite of the Crisis), cultural journalists Elena Philipp and Georg Kasch take a look behind the scenes of funded projects on behalf of the Fonds Darstellende Künste. What is the impact of the Fund's #TakeThat funding as part of the NEUSTART KULTUR program of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media?