Peter Arnott 2I am reviewing transcripts and translations of interviews my colleague Laura Bradley conducted before Christmas in Germany, and other than the envy and frustration of illness having prevented my being there, I am enormously grateful for the insights and testimony of Klaus Dieter Kirst from the Staatsschauspiel Dresden, Maik Hamburger from Berlin’s Deutsches Theater and Jessica Alcazar from the Stasi prison in Hohenschönhausen. Each is lucid and provocative. Each one of them is full of surprises, and as I’ve said before, surprise is a key principle of dramaturgy for me.

Kirst (see right), for example, talks about the particular diplomatic skills of artistic director Gerhard Wolfram and the paternalism he encouraged in party officials, the protection to be found in accepting the patronage and “guidance” of the powers that be, the privileges and pressures, that is, of running the Staatsschauspiel in Dresden as the Gorbachev era destabilised and encouraged the “loyal opposition” of many theatre people who felt personally invested in the aspirations of the “actually existing socialism” as it was called.

JESSICA STASI PRISON IN CELLThe apparent paradox is that the more specific one understands the situation in the GDR to have been, the more “local” its conditions, the more significant it seems. Vaclav Havel’s writings do give you what does seem to have been a general truth about the “East” – that it was recognition of reality that was the deepest thought-crime – and it was the flattering of the dreams of aging dictators that was the best route to success, but the particular conditions of particular times that Jessica Alcazar (see left) talks about on her “guided tour” of the Stasi’s prison … are most eloquent in their specificities of self-deception and terror.


Particularly hilarious, for example, is her story about the vans the Stasi used for covert arrests (see right). These were designed as grocery or fishmongers’ vehicles…and were besieged by people on the streets where they were parked who were wondering when the shops were going to get supplies in. One imagines being a prisoner listening while a secret policeman explains to an outraged Hausfrau that he is fresh out of mackerel.

Stasi corridorAnd this brings me back round to the dilemma I have about this project. How can I improve on the stories these voices tell. Reading these verbatim scripts I can absolutely see a way of making a piece of verbatim theatre…alternating theatrical anecdote with descriptions of jail cells, placing a letter from a director looking to work in the West beside a description of the ransom system that was used to raise state finance (knowing that the West German government would buy political prisoners…apparently the going rate by the end was 42000 Euro), I do think to myself “how can I improve on that”?

Of course, there are one or two ideas for scenes I get from these anecdotes…but if this project is about anything, for me, it is about going past the obvious, looking for the unexpected in the Cold War narrative.

So, final decisions about form seem premature to me. This project feels like I have to start with accumulation and edge gingerly towards a comprehensive final form. This is going to make everyone nervous, very much including me. But it feels like the best way to proceed.

That is, to prepare, for the first public workshops in April, a verbatim text taken from many sources…people talking about the past in the GDR. (It is, after all, now a generation ago). Second, I am thinking of some sub-Brechtian short play ideas…each one illustrating a surprising facet of life in the GDR as lived by citizens in and out of trouble, conscious and unconscious at the same time (in a very German way) of something being rotten in the state of Ulbricht.

And finally…finally…my own response…which I want NOT to plan or predict. Something very much of the present, in the present, for the present. It may be a play set in the dog days between the fall of the wall and the end of the state…a play set in a rehearsal room of a municipal theatre somewhere in the GDR in early 1990…but in a sense, I want to clear the decks of the Lives of Others, the Voices of Others…first! I want to orchestrate their testimony of the past before I testify for the present for myself.

This will be a process. And I’m fine with that. Part of the purpose of this research is to find out how best an artist can serve research…but it is also about research serving the artist. And not all lines, as one can tell from the stories I’m hearing, are straight.

1 Comment » for Food for thought: groceries, the Stasi, and verbatim theatre
  1. laurabradley says:

    Extracts, photos and stills from the interviews will follow soon, and our team of translators are at work translating more of the interviews from our trip for Peter to use – so watch this space!

    The GDR government used the foreign currency from the trade in prisoners to buy food and consumer goods for the GDR. The first credit note was actually used to buy oranges – ironic given that the vans used to transport Stasi prisoners were sometimes disguised to look as if they were selling fruit..

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