We’ve taken a slightly different approach with Peter’s latest blog posting, which is his outline for the next stage of the development of ENSEMBLE. Below, you can read Peter’s outline, followed by the email correspondence between Peter and Laura as they discuss it … and as Peter comes up with a new idea.
“If we can’t tell each other the truth in here…where else is there? The rehearsal room is where we come to practise being in a safer, better world.”
The play begins as the stage manager puts on the lights (or opens the stage blacks) in the rehearsal studio of a provincial theatre in a small city of the German Democratic Republic on the first working day in January 1990. The room is still decorated for the New Year Party. Tired streamers and empty bottles, full ashtrays and lost shoes… All these are cleared up by the stage manager in the course of the action. The play takes place in “real” time.
It was quite a party. Last year was the year the world changed and there were people who have worked in this room who were instrumental in that change. There were also people here who resisted that change, who supported the crumbling regime. It is a room full of ghosts and we hear some of their voices as the lights come on. And as the stage manager greets the artistic director as he has greeted her every morning for thirty years.
Clock at the Volksbühne, Berlin. Photo: LB.
As she prepares for her day, and is joined by her veteran dramaturg, it is quickly clear that although they are doing what they’ve always done, although the theatre, the ensemble, has always been its own little world, no one really knows what anything means anymore – it is not only in the outside world where everything has changed. No one knows the rules. No one knows how many of the actors will turn up for work. No one knows whether there will be any audience, no one knows what that audience will want. No one really knows what country that audience live in any more.
This is the time between things, between the Fall of the Wall and Reunification where for everyone nothing is known. For some that is exciting, for others, terrifying. For some hardy or reckless souls, this is a moment of opportunity, of re-invention, of the future suddenly becoming a place of possibility after so many years of stultification. For others, the future is a terrifying vacuum and the present full of fear and loss and guilt.
What matters in life? Taken from a wall display of comments at the Kleines Haus of the Staatsschauspiel Dresden. Photo: LB.
The questions for the director, the dramaturg, the two actors and the stage manager, the question is what is the theatre for? What do they programme? What do they rehearse? On this first day after the New Year, when they always discuss, as an ensemble, the next season, and what they should do next…the questions seem much bigger and much more difficult, much more fundamental. The temptation is to dodge the problems and rehearse the new verbatim material on the workings of the Stasi that has been proposed as the basis of a verbatim play.
They do start to rehearse that material but are interrupted by the return of a prodigal son, the Star, who left the East in the 70s after a period in prison. He used to work here with the director and the dramaturg. He is a hero to the young activist Actor and to the Stage Manager. But is he here to help? Or is he here to gloat? Is he here for revenge? He and the dramaturg in particular, are old foes. What agenda does he bring from the past? What news does he bring from the West?
He certainly makes their accustomed discussion more urgent. He points out that their ensemble has disintegrated and their funders, the government, are in humiliated disarray. He dismisses the dramaturg’s script as irrelevant…and ghosts of the past, of old wars, old suspicions and accusations rise up to the surface.
Inside the Volksbühne, Berlin. Photo: LB.
To be interupted by the younger generation who care much more about the future. The answer may be that they close the theatre…that it is so compromised by association with the regime who supported it that it is no longer relevant, that theatre should leave the building and hit the streets. This is the attitude of one of the two actors who have shown up. But not only philosophical questions about theatre practice are at stake. This is not just, as the dramaturg puts it, a re-working of Brecht’s Messingkauf Dialogues. What is at issue is deeply personal. The situation is further heightened by the Actress who confesses that she has been a Stasi informant…that for her, the only way into the theatre was by her atoning for the dissidence of her parents by co-operating with the authorities. She wants and needs them to carry on. The theatre is too important to her to lose. It is too important to be able to tell the truth somewhere in this wicked world. The fact that she has reported on them all, even her activist fiancee, makes the stakes here deeply personal.
And there is still the stage manager to hear from, a man from the working class that the state claimed to represent and that the theatre claimed to serve. What does he want now? What can he expect for himself and his family now that the cold winds of capitalism are blowing?
Inside the Volksbühne. Photo: LB.
These are the characters for a “real-time” fictional play about theatre and the world, and what are the rights and obligations of making theatre in the the world as the world changes. This is the second theatrical experiment I want to undertake as part of this project of “dramatizing” Laura Bradley’s research and is based on character ideas developed in the first, “verbatim” stage of “Ensemble.”
The intention is that this new play will form the basis for the Festival Fringe Event in August and that an amalgam of this script and the earlier verbatim script will make up the final version to be toured in the autumn.
Email from Laura to Peter, Friday 29 May 2015, 19:16
Thanks for this – great to see it taking shape!
The setting and situation sound as if they have lots of potential. I can see the end-of-the-party working really well – it reminds me of a really great production (which I never saw) in Lille of Brecht’s The Mother in 1979. I like the idea of hearing the voices of past theatre practitioners at the start of the play too, and also the way you set up the conflict between the characters – so much potential there!
I have some nice snippets of notes on performances in Dresden in autumn 89 / Jan 1990, showing the sense of disillusionment when suddenly the audiences ebbed away and even keen theatregoers hadn’t the time or money to think about theatre. So I can dig those out for you. A couple of them are on the Twitter feed already.
The part I think we’ll need to think carefully about is the verbatim material, and how this would work. I have two main thoughts about this so far but would really like to have a chat with you about it.
I wonder if you might actually have more creative freedom if you used the verbatim material as inspiration to create fictional verbatim material, so that none of the documents related directly to real-life people, but the theatre practitioners in the play treated them as if they did. The fictional verbatim texts could mimic the register of official documents, the speech patterns, etc, and might even use some unidentifiable, unattributed quotes. That would mean that the treatment of the material couldn’t be read as a judgement on the real people we interviewed, and it would give you the freedom to invent the documents that best suit what you want to do.
The other thing I wondered was whether the characters could work with material relating to theatre censorship, rather than just the Stasi or the Stasi prison – so that it fits the brief of the AHRC commission (which was to focus on theatre censorship). Maybe the theatre practitioners could be digging up material relating to their old theatre manager, who made lots of tricky productions possible and is seen as a bit of a hero, only then to find out that he informed for the Stasi in his youth. Or maybe they look into a censorship scandal that left a deep scar on the theatre – maybe involving some of them too – and are amazed to find out how inaccurate the Stasi reports are, and how divided opinion in the authorities was? Or maybe a playwright has just discovered that the success he’s most proud of was actually engineered by the Stasi to keep him on side. I think this might offer more scope for working with the research that went into the book itself, and bringing out the theme of censorship. And there might be more scope for finding things that surprise people and don’t confirm the view that they have of the GDR as just a Stasi state / a system in which people were either victims or perpetrators. It would also fit nicely with what GDR theatre practitioners were doing around this time – putting on readings of banned/secret texts, and looking into their ensembles’ past.
If we do use actual verbatim material in the final version, then I think I’d want to tread carefully and make sure we’d thought through the implications – so to think about the reactions at Oran Mor and how we’d protect the people we interviewed from a similar response. I’d also need to update the case to the Ethics Committee here, so that we got ethical approval for what you’re planning next, and make sure that we have informed consent from the people we interviewed to use it for that purpose in your next draft.
I think it’s a great idea to use the outline as the basis for the next blog post, if we can clarify how we’re dealing with the verbatim material first. Perhaps we could update that part of it once we’ve had a chance to either chat in person or think it through further by email, so that the blog takes account of the issues we’ve been grappling with?
I’d be happy to chat on the phone on Monday or on Tuesday am – would either of those work for you?
Have a good weekend
‘Never again 13 August 1961! We should have started much EARLIER. 28 years ago.’ Photographer: unknown.
Email from Peter to Laura, Saturday 30 May 2015, 11:52
I think probably for a final script I wouldn’t use any of the interviewees as verbatim material…I can use, I think, the dramaturg character as being someone who has had access to other more general stuff…so that the verbatim play our characters are considering comes exclusively from archives…but I would make a plea for using the interview stuff from the prison and the archives too…which I think is less problematic because our people were talking as public historians, as it were, rather than as private individuals.
I think the characters can explore the very issues we’re dealing with in terms of ethics…what I like about this fictional set up is that it gives me/us lots of flexibility…they are considering what we are considering…the historical and the personal, the “behind the scenes” theatrical world and the “audience”/”public” realm and all the interfaces between.
Happy to talk it all through. I’ll be at home on Monday if you want to ring…
Best to you
Freedom – Perestroika. The East Side Gallery, Berlin. Photo: LB.
Email from Laura to Peter, Monday 1 June 2015, 11:33
Thanks very much for this. I can see the distinction you’re making between the interviews with the theatre practitioners and those with the Stasi archivist and prison guide – that makes a lot of sense. It’s trickier with the theatre practitioners as they would always stay identifiable as individuals even if we tried to anonymise them, due to the film we’re making. I think if we were to focus on their testimony, it would be interesting to intercut their memories with evidence from the files about how the authorities saw them then, indicating ways in which the interviewees actually downplay the political significance of their actions in the GDR – but that would be a completely different kind of project, and I think it would only work if we were able to work with them and the material so that they were fully involved in the development process … which we can’t!
Memorial to Wolfgang Langhoff outside the Deutsches Theater, Berlin. Photo: LB.
We’ll need to think about how the material from the archives could be used, as that is also related to real historical individuals. I have seen theatres in Germany incorporate archive material from the GDR into productions, so there are precedents for this, although it’s usually the case that theatres are looking into their own history, so there’s a sense that they have some ownership over the material. The archive legislation would allow us to quote material by ‘figures from contemporary history’ and by people who held office in the GDR and were writing in their official capacity. We can also include material relating to people who have been dead for at least 30 years (which would actually allow us to use some material from censorship cases in the 1960s, e.g. relating to Wolfgang Langhoff and Worries and Power). We’d need to anonymise the rest of the sources, but there would be scope for doing this, given the number of theatre practitioners in the GDR. I did actually anonymise the sources that needed to be anonymised before I gave them to you.
We’ll be taking some artistic licence by incorporating archive material into the play, as it took time for people to start accessing the material in state and Party archives after the Wall came down. I’ve had a look at some articles on censorship published in the main GDR/ex-GDR theatre journal, Theater der Zeit, in 1990-91 and they rely on material from the Academy of Arts, newspapers, and interviews with theatre practitioners, rather than the sorts of government/Party papers that we have access to now. I think the first attempt to access these papers on theatre was in 1991. But the resonance of the Jan. 1990 setting is just so strong that I think it makes sense to take some artistic licence – and then for me to explain the approach in a programme note.
The issue with the Stasi prison material may come down to how significant a role it plays in the overall piece – I think it will be important for it not to be the main point of contrast/comparison to the theatre practitioners’ experiences, as it might make it hard to show the nuances. I think it’ll also be important to have a variety of voices speak through the archive material, so that it shows the complexity and doesn’t just (or mainly) represent the voices of hardliners like Hager and Verner. But I do like your idea of having the theatre practitioners discuss the ethics, as that’s a really good way of framing the material and reflecting on the sensitivities, and on what they feel they should be showing on stage.
This was partly to help me think through the issues – I will give you a ring this afternoon, also to update you on Susan’s plans for the film. She has booked the post-production in already!
All the best,
‘We need to dismantle lots of walls.’ The East Side Gallery, Berlin. Photo: LB.
Email from Laura to Peter, Monday 1 June, 15:43
Good to chat on the phone just now. I’ll try to reconstruct the main threads of the conversation so that it will work as an email exchange for the website.
I think the first question was whether you had a sense of the sorts of verbatim archive material you want to use in the play, and what you want it to do.
One of the issues connected to this was what the characters’ play would actually focus on. You mentioned in the outline that it would focus on the workings of the Stasi, but how would that sit with the AHRC commission, which was to look at theatre censorship? Can the focus of the characters’ play shift so that it looks at questions of censorship and artistic production, and the Stasi is one element in this? Do you have a sense of how much material you might include on the Stasi prison?
Another issue was which archive sources you would actually be quoting from – how to incorporate a variety of voices, without exposing testimony on private individuals (rather than regime figures) to public view. Could we restrict the authentic verbatim material to leading regime figures, and then use the full range of other testimony to inspire the creation of fictional archive sources – sources which the characters in the play treat as real, but which don’t actually relate to real theatre productions or people?
Something else we talked about ages ago was why you decided not to write the fictional scenes based on Brecht’s play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich – scenes exploring different situations and attitudes in a dictatorship. Could you explain why you’ve decided that isn’t the right approach for the characters’ play?
We’ve been talking a lot about the ethical issues connected to the project, about our responsibility to the people whose stories we’re telling, and also to the AHRC who is funding the project. How do you feel about this, especially when the project is about censorship?
All the best,
An allusion to ‘test the west’, an advertising slogan for West German cigarettes. The car’s number plate bears the date that the border was opened. Photo: LB.
Email from Peter to Laura, Monday 1 June 2015, 20:08
I’m replying tonight after a minor computing disaster which means I have to re-do tomorrow everything I did today…plus what i had to do tomorrow… Anyway…
I agree that the reminiscences of our interviewees exist theatrically and morally in a very different territory than does other archive material…and neither of them occupy the same kind of space as my fictionalised characters who have emerged from your research. A big part of the experiment, theatrically speaking, has been and remains the way that these different languages intersect … and it may be that the ethics of the editing process are more intricate than my initial ideas suggested.
I still think the interviews are dynamite material for actors to work with, by the way… I think it was the context in which their words were placed … that is their juxtaposition with the prison material … that took us into delicate territory.
I think if they were identified MORE specifically rather than less … and if their reminiscences sat by themselves, and not in possibly contentious juxtaposition to other material, they might work very well … just in different terms … no material is wasted. Likewise, the archive material and the prison and archive interviews are easily capable of their own dramatic life.
It’s just that now I am going to create something in a wholly different register, not repudiating what has been done, but adding to the assortment of stuff we can throw up in the air in August to see where it lands.
I have to tell you too that I have absolutely no regrets about what we did in April. I remain convinced that those who objected that the juxtaposition of theatrical anecdote with prison vans was tendentious were utterly wrong to interpret that as our intention … any more than is channel hopping between Channel Four news reporting on drowning refugees and the Big Bang Theory on E4 plus One….the coexistence of the terrible and the frivolous is our condition…and the apparently frivolous is no less human and no less the result of hard work than is the searing TV report … context is everything…
As it was in the GDR…
Anyway, I don’t want to fight old fights… (well I do … but I want to do more than that) and I think that what we’ve learned is a greater respect, perhaps for nuance, and that you can’t predict or control an audience’s perceptions. And weren’t there lots of cases in the GDR when an event on stage acquired a political resonance from its context that was entirely dependent on the time and place?
By the way, the same truth means that the characters can TALK about moments like that (like the GDR audience response to the hole in the wall in Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example) but we can never recreate that experience for a contemporary audience.
Oddly … the debate about what our intentions were in the after-show discussion after the reading … were as close to that conflict as I want to get … both in terms of my feeling I had misjudged the audience (or some of the audience) completely and being told, in the context of a project inspired by censorship … that I shouldn’t say the kind of thing I was thought to have said.
It is interesting how this project starts as a research into one paradigm of the sayable and the unsayable…and then in execution takes into other territory which requires negotiation. In a very different context from the surveillance society of the GDR … but with our own … what’s the best word? …. etiquette … we need to negotiate within parameters that fits no more neatly into “free expression” vs “censorship” than did, on the surface, the regime of policed art in the theatre of the GDR. (Where one of the things it was most important to censor was the very fact of censorship.) We have ethical standards to do with representation of individuals as opposed the imperative to represent the state in a relentlessly positive light…We deal with the state too, of course, because we too are publically funded and therefore are held accountable to the state … but for us accountability is couched in terms of money rather than ideology. The model we work with is contractual … we are obliged to deliver what we say we will deliver … while in the former East Germany the imperative was more moralistic … the theatre has the specific role of encouraging the audience to go out and work for socialism, while we in the spheres of both academia and the subsidised arts live rather uneasily within a paradigm of “public service” that is itself deeply conflicted and subject to successive waves of bureaucratic fashion. We all have to justify ourselves. We all have to negotiate with funders and audiences and ideology.
(You can see that for me the project has enormous contemporary resonance.)
I take all your suggestions on board, with regard to a focus on particular issues of censorship, but I have to tell you, the characters are going to lead me where they’re going to go. Writing a character-led play is not just an intellectual exercise. Intention only gets you so far. Contracts and artistic freedom mix just as uneasily as do art and the demands of the state (with financial rather than judicial consequences!). I intend to dramatise a moment in time … I think we’ve found the right one, the one that will speak to us most directly, but it is the dilemmas and questions that occur to me in the here and now that are going to dominate what I do, and will certainly, no matter WHAT I do, determine the audience responses we get in August at the next public stage. If we’ve learned anything through this process so far, it is the same lesson that the authorities in the GDR finally learned…or that overwhelmed them. You can’t stop history, you can’t kill ideas, and you can’t control audiences.
I’m afraid you’re going to have to let me come up with what I come up with. And I can predict it in general outline, as I have in the document I just sent … but I can’t and won’t be more specific. Research I think has to inspire art that is something very different from itself, not merely a translation into a different mode of presentation … and subjectivity and accident, despite our contractual model, are part of the deal…
Forgive the rant … but thinking through the issues is what we’re doing right the way through this project, and I actually find it rather thrilling that what we’re doing isn’t just ABOUT the issues of the sayable and the unsayable … it is itself part of that debate … that the process is the product … to risk another cliché.
Looking forward rather nervously to the next bit…as I’m sure are you…because if I can’t really predict it, it must be REALLY scary for you…
Twilight of the Gods. The East Side Gallery, Berlin. Photo: LB.
Email from Peter to Laura, Tuesday 2 June 2015, 08:52
Here’s a thought. I think the creative role that you can best fulfill for the facilitation of the script right now … is to imagine yourself in the position of the dramaturg of an East German Theatre for whom the task is to dig out material from previously hidden sources … maybe using the fact that you had good relationships with GDR officials who themselves were queasy about the machine they were part of … and that you heroically have found and selected these random and interesting bits of “truth” … from the local Stasi, from the theatre’s correspondence..and “as the accident wills” stuff that is evocative, interesting … SUBJECTIVELY … that is, this dramaturg feels empowered, as a researcher, to bring stuff to the artists that is just quirky… nice…
So … that’s what the dramaturg has done … but they’ve also found out some stuff about their colleagues that they didn’t want to know and don’t know if they should tell them…
It would be great if we treated the stuff you’ve sent me so far and what you might choose to send me over the next month as a kind of acting, imaginative exercise.
Then, like dramaturgs, you hand it over to the “arty” types … who ignore it, get it wrong, misread it, get upset … you know, like arty types do…
As for me, I just need to allow myself the creative freedom for each of the characters to breathe… What your research and our conversations have given me is a journey for each character through a difficult morning in the rehearsal room … but until they start actually doing things and saying things to each other, changing each other… I find it really hard to predict any more precisely than you do … oddly … my relationship to the characters is not that of a puppet master… in fact, the way I want to write this piece, the roles are rather reversed … they are going to take me where they are going to take me … and it’s a bit scary, as I said last night…
And that “scare” is partly where there is a danger of crossed wires between us. I’m not directly comparing the situation … but our relationship to each other is not un-analogous to any artistic/funded partnership in any social set up … this being the nub of the exercise, it seems to me … that we can understand THEIR situation THROUGH ours … and vice versa… You are thinking about your funders … and you are transmitting your concern about those funders to me… (and of course, your funders are also, less directly, MY funders … we both have very real irons in a very real fire)
And, like with the manager of an East German Theatre who is responsible to the state … the funders .. to the artists and to the audience… and to themselves … you are in a complex little web…
Where I am demanding that you trust me … and the whole set-up tells you that you can’t … and where we are documenting everything… putting everything out there…
(Which, again, the funders want … but what degree of controversy do they REALLY want… they want a public display of happy unity of purpose towards a shared goal that no one has any doubts about… sound familiar?)
Where you have a decision to make now whether you put this exchange of ideas on a website … where you have to decide whether the intemperate blog I might write in a moment of frustration (and those ALWAYS happen… there are always days where, having written fifty-odd plays, I am wholly convinced I am quite incapable of writing another one, an undirected anger flies all over the place) is something you want to publish.
Now, from my point of view, I say “great … let it all hang out there … let’s fight on camera! ” but … hey … I’m not you. I have my own version of reality.
This is precisely what I want to dramatise for our characters … versions of reality … all of which are valid and complex and understandable … but which clash… which contradict … and the contradiction between them, unresolved onstage … is the space for thought that the audience, unpredictably, occupy.
There are two stages to the writing of any play … and the great thing about this project is that we get to do them on film … and in sight of each other. The first stage is me being all the actors, on the stage, saying what it occurs to me to say … exploring all the possible actions of all the possible persons within the arena I’ve set up for them.
Statue of Brecht outside the Berliner Ensemble, by Fritz Cremer. Photo: LB.
The second stage, which we will actually DO in August … is for me to step OFF the stage into the audience … and watch what I’ve got. This, in this instance, will be the verbatim material (including archives and interviews) plus whatever I and the characters come up with in the meantime (this, in real life as opposed to contracts with funders, is going to go right down to the wire, by the way … we are not going to know exactly what we and the audience for the discussion are going to get before they get it…
Then, having thrown everything into the room … we pick up the pieces and make a tourable wee script out of them … which we try to get interest in from producers… suck it and see….
This is how the rest of the project maps out for me … and it’s thrilling to do it all in the open like this … it’s channelling the spirit of Brecht in the best possible way… (my thoughts, like E. German Theatre are haunted by his ghost)…
But if we’re going to be as open as I want us to be… then that demands things from all of us who are involved in this. We are leaving ourselves exposed to the winds of accident that blow … and we have to know we’re all in it together… and that no one has an umbrella…
I’d better leave this before my letter gets even longer or my metaphor more tortured…
I think these two letters might go on the blog. It doesn’t matter about paying for them…thinking it through is its own reward.
Before I disappear into the room….
Email from Laura to Peter, Tuesday 2 June, 13:06
Thanks very much for both these emails – lots to digest and I will definitely be putting them up on the website! I’ll reply properly when I have a bit more time (meetings galore today).
I’ve been putting together the poster for the Fringe reading, and it is looking good! Will forward it when I have the final version.
No man’s land. The East Side Gallery, Berlin. Photo: LB.
Email from Laura to Peter, Wednesday 3 June, 18:41
I’ve finally handed my last batch of exam marking over to the office, so now I have the chance to engage with your last two emails! When we were designing the project last year (I guess it’s actually 18 months ago now), we thought it would throw up lots of interesting issues, and we haven’t been disappointed! Susan will be rubbing her hands with glee for the film.
I was interested that you stressed that you didn’t regret anything about the version we performed at Oran Mor – interested because I don’t necessarily think you should have any regrets. After all, the point was to experiment and to put material before the audience, and see how they reacted.
I wasn’t under the impression that anyone in the audience thought that the intention had been to use the prison testimony to undermine aspects of the theatre practitioners’ testimony. I can see why the juxtapositions had this effect for some spectators, though. I understand why you see the sets of testimony as separate, but juxtaposing one piece of testimony with another on stage may unintentionally invite spectators to compare and judge them in relation to each other – to create a synthesis out of a dialectical clash. The choice of contrasts may already imply a judgement, even unintentionally, and so I do feel a responsibility in terms of what we choose to juxtapose and how, especially when that testimony is provided by – or relates to – real people.
I think your idea of having the characters discuss and argue over the juxtapositions will make a major difference, though. It frames the juxtapositions as sensitive and open to different interpretations, and it makes the play ethically aware in a way that should be fascinating. That seems a really productive result of the experiment.
And yes, context is hugely important too. One point I wish I’d anticipated, or thought about, is that an English accent has different cultural connotations in Glasgow compared to East Berlin. In East Berlin, it would have signified cosmopolitanism, being cultured, the values of humanism – especially when that English accent and language had been learned in exile during the Second World War, by someone whose family had fled the Third Reich. The accent played differently in Glasgow, especially because it contrasted with the Scottish accents of the other characters, including the Researcher (and let’s face it, my accent is as English as they come).
Script development workshop. From left: Nicola McCartney, Rebecca Elise, Mark McDonnell, Janette Foggo, Peter Arnott, and George Docherty.
Why didn’t I anticipate this? I think partly because the accent was used as a solution to a practical problem – how to differentiate between the two characters that the actor was playing – and partly because of the dynamics of the situation in the rehearsal room. We’d set ourselves quite a tall order, trying out a brand new script and performing it on the second evening of the workshop to an audience of up to 120 people. For me it was fascinating to watch the script come alive, to see how our first audience – the actors – reacted, and especially to see how you listened to the feedback and the rhythms of the text, went away and produced a completely new beginning and a new ending overnight. Looking back on it now, the theatrical aspect dominated during the workshop over the aspects we’ve been discussing since, and I’ve found the post-show reflection and exchange of ideas really worthwhile. I guess we’ll have different, equally legitimate perspectives on the balance between the Darwinian needs of the play (to borrow your phrasing) and the responsibilities that you mentioned, to the funding body, the people we interviewed, and so on. That’s not to say that we don’t each recognise that both of these elements are important, but that we’re coming at the issue from different perspectives, with different (or non-identical) interests. I hope that the tension between those perspectives proves productive!
Franziska Linkerhand, dir. Christoph Schrott, Mecklenburgisches Staatstheater Schwerin, 1978-9. Photo: Sigrid Meixner. AdK.
So we’re back now with the trust and responsibility you mentioned – two words that played an important part in GDR censorship discourse. You talked in your last email about finding similarities in the experience of artistic production in very different contexts, and I’ve often experienced sudden flashes of recognition on reading archive documents from the GDR – recognising patterns of behaviour in East German Party comrades that I’ve seen in University committee meetings. We’re all human. I guess the challenge is to balance that sense of similarity with the very real differences that you note in the two contexts. The potential consequences of speaking out of turn were just so much more severe in the GDR. If I feel that I can’t publish a comment on a University website, funded by the AHRC, then that comment could still be published on other platforms – whereas the state monopoly on theatre in the GDR meant that theatre practitioners could in theory be excluded from the entire theatre industry, or rendered unemployable for certain roles (e.g. directing), or find themselves placed under surveillance. There was even an employee at the Ministry for Culture who was sacked after he protested against the censorship of Franziska Linkerhand in 1979 – he told me that he wasn’t able to work anywhere in the culture industry, not even in a fairground. And I think that our contract with the AHRC actually still leaves a very broad remit for experimentation, even if it maybe doesn’t always feel that way to you!
I know you agreed earlier to having the outlines of the play published online – shall we do that now, to chart the evolution of the experiment? I think they’re a nice illustration of your point that outlines only get us so far … which I think everyone understands. It’s just the same with most research proposals, when you have to predict what you might find out as a result of research that you – and no one else – has ever done before! And the value of setting you loose on the material (if you don’t mind me putting it that way!) is that you’ll find interesting angles on it that we won’t have thought of, and ways of engaging with audiences.
So am I scared about where it might be heading next? Actually no, as long as the play engages with censorship and meets the ethical criteria, and I think you’ve found really interesting ways of doing that. And it’s been a treat to see you work so far, to see how the script has changed over the course of the development workshop, and how the ideas of what the play might be have developed over the project so far. So I’m curious about where the characters will take you, and you’ve really convinced me that the 1990 rehearsal room is the place to start that journey.
In terms of the archive material, I’m conscious of having sent a lot your way already (26,000 words of translated archive sources, plus all the articles, the book and interviews!). What’s been really helpful so far is when you’ve asked for material on specific things (how banal real-life problems are reflected in the material, or for material on the informant “Hölderlin”). Could you give me a nudge in the direction of the stories/personalities/situations that you want more on? Then I can start digging in the right places.
Another option might be if we were to get together in the next week or two in my office (where I have all the archive material), and bat ideas back and forth, then I can pull out the files and give you the gist of different sources. I can then translate the ones that whet your appetite. How does that sound?
All the best,
Email from Peter to Laura, Friday 5 June, 09:30
I think our playwright in the story had to leave after submitting a play about Oskar Brüsewitz…(I have resonances in mind with Peter Brook and “US”) ..the Lutheran Pastor who killed himself in 1976.
I think this play having become a hit in the West has always been impossible to perform in the East..and that the director and Dramaturg want to programme it in 1990….
Only the playwright, it turns out, doesn’t want them to…
Now…this pleases me enormously as the bone of old contention around which the drama can be focussed. There is, however, very little about said Oskar Brüsewitz in English…(this is the Wikipedia Page).
Would it be too onerous for you to follow a link or two and see if there is anything particularly juicy? Like the Neues Deutschland piece alluded to? And that you might translate wee bits for me?
Do feel free to put this on our website too if you think it appropriate…
Email from Laura to Peter, Friday 5 June 2015, 09:48
Oh, this is really interesting, Peter! Yes, I will do some digging & translating for you. The National Library has the issues of Neues Deutschland we need, so I’ll try to get those articles as soon as possible. And I have a feeling that there may be references to the case in some of my archive notes too.
Looking forward to this!
Email from Laura to Peter, Sunday 7 June 2015, 20:29
I’ve translated the Neues Deutschland article for you and will send it to you tomorrow after I’ve checked it through. I know you will find it useful! (Sorry, it’s rather mean to dangle it in front of you like this and then not attach it!).
I had some ideas about your play-within-a-play while walking back home just now. GDR theatre practitioners didn’t set out to create obviously oppositional plays, and they tended to see themselves as the better socialists, wanting to reform the state and not seeing the West as an alternative. Controversial plays tended either to be about ways of improving socialism (if they were set in the GDR), or they tended to be historical dramas that approached the present through allegory. So how might the Brüsewitz play have come to be written, and why mightn’t the playwright want his old colleagues to stage it? Is there a way of doing this that would ring true if real GDR theatre practitioners were to come to see your play?
What I wondered was: maybe the playwright had originally written a different play in 1976, that was in rehearsal when Brüsewitz died. Maybe it was a historical drama – perhaps about Luther nailing his theses to the door in Wittenberg (which was in the GDR!), and then saying ‘here I stand, I can do no other’ – that seemed totally innocuous until the news about Brüsewitz broke, and suddenly became horribly relevant. Maybe the playwright fought for the show to go on, but didn’t have enough support from his colleagues in the theatre… so left for the West, and wrote his play about the real Brüsewitz there. And now the theatre wants to stage this Brüsewitz play, when it let the authorities censor the Luther one earlier.
Another point I was wondering about: is your play-within-a-play going to be about Brüsewitz directly, or about a character inspired by him? If the former, what’s best practice in approaching a well-known real-life story like this, when the individual still has close surviving relatives? How have you approached this in the past? I’ve asked Nicola for her view on this too!
Email from Peter to Laura, Monday 8 June 2015, 14:58
They’re going to discuss the play…I don’t know whether or not there will be excerpts from it…But I shall think about your questions…
The former East German television tower, Berlin. Photo: LB.