Peter ArnottThis project, Who’s Watching Who, is something of a test case. What is being tested is the idea of extending the reach and impact of academic research by involving a non-academic with access to a non- academic audience.

That is, it is involving me. Exactly HOW it is involving me is taking me a little by surprise.

A year ago, when we first talked about this project, Laura Bradley and I, we thought along rather more expected lines: that I would use her research as the basis of a new play. I would construct a piece of fiction based on her “truth”. So far so normal.

But then we began our project “for real”, and the “engagement “ I began to have with Laura’s existing and “hot off the press” research material, particularly in the forms of original documents she collected and (with others) translated, and in the forms of the interviews she conducted with theatre practitioners and others in Berlin and elsewhere this winter, began to challenge my pre-conceptions of the process of our engagement and I needed to allow the realities of that process to overcome my pre-conceived ideas about what the “product” would be. Quotation marks, as you can see, began sprouting all over the landscape.

I want to approach what has been going on in my mind and on my laptop from two angles.

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Seats at the Berliner Ensemble.

First, there was the “problem” that had been there all along. Laura’s research is into a time period that is dead and gone and into a culture which demands explanation to a general audience who don’t have immediate access to the cultural memory of that time and place. The research question of the entire project, indeed, could be “Why should they care?” In more immediate, practical terms, would actors and theatre companies be in any way interested in anecdotes of Fear and Misery in the German Democratic Republic?

The conventional answer to this question might be, tentatively : “Well, if you come up with interesting characters and put them in an interesting situation, then actors and producers and, ultimately, audiences, might well respond to them. People liked “The Lives of Others” didn’t they?”

While this is of course, true, it did seem rather to ask me to take a somewhat predatory attitude to Laura’s research. To treat the material as just that…stuff to be used to decorate a story.

And I think I’ve come up with a way to do something like that. And to look at ideas for an educational theatre project.

But then I heard those voices. Or rather, as I was unwell and couldn’t make it to Berlin before Christmas…I read the transcripts of interviews with Manfred Karge, Klaus Dieter Kirst, Maik Hamburger and others…and I wondered whether the inherent drama, the action-in-itself of these people being asked to look back at their careers in the GDR 25 years and more ago, whether this looking back was not in itself an important part of the story I might want to tell.

Laura’s boBradley book cover - underpinning researchok, Conflict and Cooperation: GDR Theatre Censorship, 1961-1989 is a nuanced, case study based “revisionist” account of the practice and meaning of theatre censorship in the GDR. Basically, she is adding a human dimension and a time dimension to the phenomenon. Her thesis, if you like, is a revisiting of the cold war paradigm of “the expressive artist and the silencing state” and positing it rather as an ongoing relationship and series of negotiations between the artists and their state supporters/censors – one governed by the contingencies of making a living, sustaining a career and protecting the ongoing work of theatre companies and their employees. In short, Laura is interested in the “normality” of making theatre in the GDR, as well as the moments of crisis. The conclusion one gets as a reader is that the very particular circumstances of theatre making in a divided German culture distinguished the personal situations of theatre practitioners (and managers and supervisors) from even other situations in the “Soviet Bloc” countries. But that there are points of comparison to be made even with the state supported (and regulated) theatres of the West.

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Brecht statue by Fritz Cremer.

(Now personally, I find this extremely interesting in any terms, being a theatre practitioner with an enthusiasm for German theatre. Indeed I might be described as a devotee of Bertolt Brecht as well as a bit of a fan boy for the work of playwrights and directors like Kroetz and Handke and Weiss and Muller and Karge and Fassbinder to name but six. It is debatable whether my being a fan actually rather mitigates against my being a dispassionate “user” of this research for story telling purposes. What is saving me from the fate of being a half assed academic is that my thoughts are about audiences as well as about the powers and strategies that govern my own creative practice and as well as my own historical and philosophical interests in the lost era of “actually existing socialism.”)

So what can the reminiscences of theatre practitioners of that lost world say to an audience now? What points of connection will an audience find? What is the point of any story from another time or place? What do the remembered experiences of living in a surveillance state say to us now? What can we recognise in our experience of the world now in the recollected experience of the world then?

I’ve made the decision to eliminate myself as the middle man and ask the audience directly. That is, I have decided that the way forward with this project, not pre-judging what any other outcomes may prove to be in the course of time, is to put a piece of verbatim theatre text together consisting of the interviews that Laura did, and quotations from primary contemporary sources. And that all this should be informed by the other text which I came across more or less randomly as I read around the periphery of the topic.

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Vaclav Havel  Jiří Jiroutek, 2006.

What I came across that has most radically transformed my understanding of the period under study, and what a new approach to understanding that period might say to us in our new “dark times” is an essay written by Vaclav Havel in 1979 : “The power of the powerless”. I’ll write specifically about this remarkable piece of work in another blog, but for the moment, let me just say that if there is one piece of work to read that gives real felt insight into “post-totalitarian society” – that is into the post 1968 world of the Soviet Bloc, it’s this. Now, I can already hear the academic objections that the situation in the fraternal neighbours of Communist Czechoslovakia and the Democratic German Republic were very different in very many ways, and of course this is true, but at this distance of time, Havel’s insights, and their relevance for the modern world, overwhelm the objections of strict relevance…particularly if one thinks about how verbatim theatre actually works.

And this is on the basis not of narrative sequence, but of juxtaposition…what Eisenstein called montage. You put thing A and thing B beside each other on the same space or screen at the same time…and neither element loses its own distinct identity…rather, what happens is that the audience create thing C…which is their perceived connection between the two elements…and it is between a succession of “thing C” of unspoken and necessarily unarticulated connections that a narrative structure emerges. It is dialectics in action, which has its own attractions when Marxist praxis is one of the things on the table.

The key idea that Havel articulates as being behind the activities of Charter 77 and of the Czech Underground (some of whom I have met since in various bars in central Europe) is the existential challenge to a system based on living a lie – what he calls, “living in truth”

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Plaque commemorating protest by actors in Dresden in 1989.

Living in Truth is what the stories told in Laura’s research and in the memories and observations of the interviewees might well take as their unifying theme. How do you live well, morally, truthfully, in ANY society…let alone under the particular circumstances in which they found themselves in the GDR. How do I, or we or anyone else, “live in truth” in the here and now where, for example, a single economic orthodoxy is held to be universally and self-evidently true under all circumstances, or where religious faith is associated with a terroristic rejection of that truth, and is a much greater existential challenge to “the way things are” than it is a military one. Where that existential challenge has prompted a response of total surveillance and suspending of the legal rights of enemies in defence of freedom , of our way of life”

And I began to think that simply allowing these voices to speak for themselves, simply presenting them, but mediated through Havel’s ideas might not speak to our experience as well as testify truthfully to theirs.

And in this way, I would no longer be looking to simply exploit the research as window dressing for the “real” human story, rather, I’d be paying tribute to its testimony, and allowing the audience to make the connections that form the “human interest”. At the same time, we could consider this project and its relationship between the academic and non-academic worlds in an unexpected and provocative way, without prejudging or precluding any further “use” that my colleagues in the theatre world and I might want to make of it.

And, in terms of the research question which my practice is designed to address, to ask whether the extension of the “reach” of academic research does not necessarily mean a change to its nature. Whether there is a phenomenological demand on the research content concomitant with that “stretch” of its use. Whether the reflex towards “extending the audience” might not simply be a way of cementing the social worth of research itself in the wider funding context but might also offer interesting re-interpretations of its own nature, of how research“lives in truth” as it were. Whether a dialogue between researcher and playwright can also become a dialogue between the immediate constituencies of academia and theatre making and thereby offers essentially unpredictable challenges to the meaning of that research within those constituencies and beyond them.

But only if we allow the material to speak for itself, and to provide a mediated public space in which it can do just that. This is now the purpose of this project, for me, at this juncture in its development.

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