Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Berlin Calling . . .

"Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin
Deswegen muss ich nächstens wieder hin.
Die Seligkeiten vergang’ner Zeiten
Sind alle noch in meinem kleinen Koffer drin."

"I still have a suitcase in Berlin
That's why I must go there again
The memories last, of days gone past,
In my suitcase are buried within"

After the cleanliness, orderliness, and all around wealth of Stuttgart, the overwhelming scale and dirtiness and graffiti of Berlin were really shocking to me upon my arrival--despite my having lived her for two years. Its incredible how quickly one city can impress itself upon you. Also incredible how different Berlin seems while in Stuttgart; the way people talk about it as 'the capitol" where all the famous people and artists and 'the scene' is. I suppose that's part of living in the provinces.

I had also forgotten what an unforgettable atmosphere Berlin has: a combination of ever-permeating dampness, smoke, sand, and the constantly changing sky. The Berliner Luft, the air in this city is another quality that is like no other place I've ever been. It has a distinct smell, sometimes swampy, sometimes smoky, sometimes just wet, often a combination of all three. The weather was typical upon arrival: cold, wet, and grey. After a few days it lightened up and the vast avenues and monumental scale of the architecture opened itself up again.

Some impressions from the last six days:

Staying with my Irish friend Moss in Kreuzberg, an area of the city I heretofore haven't known very well. Its lovely getting to know a new area:

Der Kaukausische Kreidekreis at the Berliner Ensemble: Brecht's play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, performed at the theater he founded in the fifties. Heralded as the premiere center of Brecht's work in the world, it has unfortunately become something of a museum. The piece was klunky, slow, and looked like it was staged in 1976. Claus Peymann, the artistic director of the theater is regarded politically as a socialist firebrand, and artistically as a conservative brontosaurus belonging to another time. Everyone is waiting for him to be shipped off after his contract ends in 2014, so that the BE can finally get back to making theatre that the Berliners and not just the tourists want to see.

The Weavers by Gerhart Hauptmann at the Deutsches Theater: directed by Michael Thalheimer, my personal hero and favorite director in the world, this piece about the weaver's revolution in the 1840's was another excellent example of Thalheimer's mastery of contemporizing classic pieces. It played on a giant staircase, an absurd exaggeration of the social ladder. The actors ran up and down this steep staircase the entire show, and their incredibly physical acting work as well as detailed gestures and exaggeration/repetition made this evening in the DT an absolute delight. Also, the piece is written in the Silesian dialect, an area of western Poland that used to belong to Germany, and the dialect has since died out. Its pretty incredible to hear the actors bring the dialect to life. Pictures here.

Herr Puntila & Sein Knecht Matti by Bertolt Brecht at Deutsches Theater: Another of Thalheimer's productions, this time a little-known piece by Brecht. It was again excellently done, with the repetition of gestures/scenes really pushing the limit of what's possible on stage. The speed at which the actors speak and the absolute minimalism & economy of design and staging were astounding. Pictures here.

Over the weekend I met up with Carlos & Stefan, two very good friends of mine from my tour guiding-days back in 2006. They are both doing very well and we had a great night out on the town.

And on Sunday I met up with the boys again, this time at the Brandenburg Gate, our old stomping grounds, to participate in a flash mob: the world's largest pillow fight:

Still have feathers all over my clothes, my coat, in my bag, probably in my stomach as well. So it goes. Totally worth it. Videos of the pillow fight, or Kissenschlacht, here.

In the midst of exploring new neighborhoods and meeting up with friends, also having meetings with some theaters. And I found out today that I received another grant from the Goethe Institute & Pro Helvetia (the swiss cultural foundation) to participate in a 2-week conference in Berlin in May as a part of the theatre festival here! So I'll be heading back this way before too long.

In the meantime here's a look at the short film I put together for our cabaret last Monday in Chicago, with some lovely views of Stuttgart and a little social commentary:

In Vino Veritas March 2011

Hoping this finds you likewise enjoying the moment,


Monday, March 14, 2011


"Wenn man nur wüsste, wie die Welt morgen aussehen wird? Unsere Gesellschaft is löchrig, die Seelen der Menschen zerissen. Aber was wir getan haben, haben wir für das Wohl unseres Landes getan. Man schickt uns aufs Schaffot; wir werden nicht stolpern."


"If we only knew how the world would look tomorrow? Our society is penetrated, the people's souls are torn. But what we have done, we did for the good of our country. They can send us to the scaffold; we will not stumble."


We've done it! The show is open, the Premiere was celebrated, the reviews are in . . . but nothing comes without a price as they say. This last week was one of the most turbulent tech weeks I've ever been through. It began last Monday with our first dress rehearsal, called the Hauptprobe 1, or HP1 for short. Since so many actors had been sick the week before, this was really the first time that the entire company was together with lights, costumes, set and such.

The theater's artistic leadership sat down with Nuran after the run, while the actors got out of costume and the rest of us waited in the foyer. After about twenty minutes, the actors came out and joined us. After another twenty minutes, we all ordered a beer. And once an hour had gone by, everyone started to get nervous about what was coming. Finally, about seventy minutes after the show ended, the artistic director and chief dramaturg left the theater. Nuran followed a few minutes later and we all convened in the club, where we were going to receive notes.

Needless to say, when the director gets an hour + worth of notes from the producer, things are not in good shape. He said we would start the following morning by going through all of the Dantonists scenes and completely re-imagining them.

This obviously came as a blow to the actors who had been trying to make sense out of the media collage and the hyper-contemporary setting their 18th century characters had found themselves in.

Tuesday was probably the longest day of rehearsal we had had so far. We reworked every scene and then worked it again. By the end of it a lot of progress had been made. But whether or not that made the story any less convoluted . . .

Wednesday! HP2. Our second dress rehearsal was slated for that evening, and it was open to the public. My friend Julian & Sigrun, as well as Janne, Lars and their daughter were all coming from Tübingen to check the show out. The house was half full, (a solid 200 people), which made quite a difference for the actors of course.

Unfortunately, actors cannot save a piece of theatre through their own energy. I met up with Julian & Sigrun afterward. They found a lot of the visual images on stage very strong, but generally had a hard time making sense out of the production. It was great to see them, and after saying goodbye, I headed with the rest of the team to the club to hear the critique from Nuran.

The critique that night was certainly the low point of the production. It started out with Nuran disappointed with the performance as a whole, then moved on to individual notes for actors, which were retorted and then became personal attacks between actor-actor, actor-director, director-everyone else, actor-everyone else; and it only went downhill from there.

Rarely have I seen an ensemble so completely downtrodden. Andreas and I finished the evening off with a beer or three, in order to banish the bad karma from the room.

The next morning, we all showed up for rehearsal, tentative about what the day would bring. But the main players seemed to have cooled off over night, no more shouting match. The tension however was thick enough to wade through. Everyone remained professional and made it through the day. The Generalprobe that night, our final dress, was consistent if not exactly breathtaking. No critique afterward.

We met up on Friday at noon for a quick two=hour rehearsal to go over notes from the night before. Already you could tell that the Premiere energy was permeating the room. Everyone was in a great mood and joking with one another. The rehearsal did not really amount to much (I don't think anything actually changed) but it was good to get everyone in the room together before the big night.

6:30 pm: the halls and dressing rooms and backstage were a-flurry with smiles and hugs and Toi Toi Toi's and cards and well wishes. Its a tradition here in Germany that every member of the production, from the stage manager to the artistic director to the interns must say "Toi Toi Toi" to every other member of the production while hugging them, in order to ensure good luck. The energy that this simple gesture creates in the theatre is astronomical. After a half hour of hugging and Toi Toi Toi-ing fifty other people, the whole room is ready to burst with excitement . . .

And the show went very well:

A sold-out house and a home crowd, with lots of friends and loved-ones coming in from all over the country to check it out. The party afterwards went long into the night and all the pent-up energy from the rocky week of tech was vented in the streets and clubs of Stuttgart.

When I finally made it out of bed Saturday afternoon sometime, I was greeted by a grey and rainy sky, and of course the distressing news about Japan. I quickly contacted my cousin Nick, who lives in Tokyo, and who was shaken but not hurt by the earthquake. I headed into the city center, and upon my arrival found a huge demonstration, 60,000 strong, against Nuclear Power Reactors in Germany. The demonstration had been planned months in advance, but could not have found a more appropriate Saturday on which to take to the streets. With the nuclear scare at Fukishima, the politicians in Europe are now talking about the complete abandonment of nuclear power. We'll see where it leads.

One of my favorite moments from the protest was the eight foot tall Mr. Burns puppet, corrupt capitalist and nuclear power lover par excellence:

Another small victory was my ability to finally understand some Schwäbisch. I saw this sign:

Which eight weeks ago would have been completely unintelligible for me. I would have thought it was Dutch. Proper Hochdeutsch would read: "Nicht bloss schwätzen, abschalten." "Don't just blab about it, turn it off (the reactors)". Folks, we've come a long way. :)

That night I was laying down around seven o'clock, watching youtube videos in my room. I had just gone grocery shopping and was looking forward to a relaxing evening at home, still recovering from the night, and the week before. At 7:16 my cell phone rang, it was Janek, the assistant director. He asked if I happened to be in the city somewhere, not far from the theater. No, I replied, I'm at home. Why? He went on to say that one of the supernumeraries, the actors who play the camera team in the show, had not shown up. Could I possibly come and take his place? The show starts in fourteen minutes.

So I threw on some black clothing, hailed a cab and in twenty five minutes, was on stage at the Staatstheater Stuttgart, performing as the cableman for the video team. Since I had been running the camera throughout rehearsal up until the last week or so, I knew all of the scenes and positions, and it was no problem. So it was that two hours later I found myself bowing on stage with the other actors after having successfully made it through. Just goes to show, it really ain't over till its' over.

And it ain't over yet! On Wednesday I travel to Berlin, to see old friends and lots of new theatre.

Ridiculously Excited,


"If you can't please everyone with your deeds and art, please just a few; there is no virtue in pleasing the crowd."

-Friedrich Schiller

Sunday, March 6, 2011


"Die Elenden welche mich anklagen mögen hier erscheinen, und ich werde sie mit Schande bedecken. Von einem Revolutionär wie ich darf man keine kalte Verteidigung erwarten. Männer meines Schlages sind in Revolutionen unschätzbar, auf ihrer Stirne schwebt das Genie der Freiheit . . .meine Stimme war der Orkan!!!!"


"Should the wretches that accuse me appear, I'll disgrace them. From a revolutionary like me you can expect no calm defense. Men like me are invaluable in a revolution, the genius of freedom hangs upon my brow . . . my voice was the hurricane!!!

(Rehearsal pic published in the Staatstheater Journal this month)

Tech week in Stuttgart got off to a lurching start, as Mike, one of the eight actors was sick for the first two days. When you are producing a play with two very close-knit groups (the Dantonists and the Robespierre-folks) struggling against one another, and 25% of one of those groups is missing, it makes it awfully difficult to move forward. So it was with fits and starts that we plowed ahead into the technical rehearsals, which of course are overloaded by the confounding amount of technical gadgetry that is going into this production. Taking into account the two flatscreens, the two projection screens, the three projectors and four live cameras on stage, not to mention the countless microphones and cables, its a wonder anything works at all. Adding on the multiple pre-recorded clips that we've been splicing together over the last few weeks, and it came as no surprise that the first two days of tech were an utter train wreck.

As if that was not enough, Nuran decided we needed to film one more segment to complete the news-reel portion of the evening. This consisted of a pseudo-terrorist training video that he wanted to shoot in a natural environment, as if the revolting masses were gathering themselves outside the city. And so I found myself on Thursday afternoon in a very official looking white mercedes van:

. . . stuffed with prop weapons, ski masks and trench coats (not to mention a dozen actors and a ridiculously over-excited director) towards the forest on the edge of Stuttgart where we would spend the next two hours filming our pseudo-terrorist training video for the play.

(The cast as 'terrorists' and Nuran playing the role of the reporter)

For the occasion, Andreas had created a sign with the words "Brigade LEF" (Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, natsch) especially for the video. We all had a blast running through the forest acting like a terror group. Though its a wonder the police weren't called, since we were sharing the forest with joggers, and riders on horseback. Ah well, I suppose we gave the Stuttgarters something to talk about.

Outside of regular rehearsals this week we also had lighting focus rehearsals, where I was needed as a warm body to stand under the lights and make sure everything looked right. I was of course only too happy to help, and was delighted to meet Hannah, a lovely woman in her early seventies who was working as a Beleuchtungsstatist. This word can loosely be translated as a "Lighting Extra", or someone who gets paid a small fee to come and stand around on stage in place of the actors during the lighting rehearsal or focus. I asked Hannah if she had done this before and she responded with a laugh saying she had been an extra at the Staatstheater since she was a little girl. She had never acted herself, but had often participated as a supernumerary or extra or chorus memeber whenever the theatre needed her. She went on to say she had worked at a bank for forty years and was now retired. And her entire life she had always been peripherally involved in the theater. She complained a bit about how they did not really want her on stage any more, that they opted for younger, blonder, better looking extras/chorus members these days. But that did not seem to bother Hannah. At the end of the day, she said, "Theaterluft ist Theaterluft." Theatre air is theatre air, i.e. the atmosphere in the theatre is enough. Its really humbling to think that the job we work at every day is so exciting for other people that they would spend their free time as a 'lighting extra' just to be around the theatre and its atmosphere. And that people like Hannah have been happy to be a part of things, however minimally, for her entire life. The magic of theatre indeed.

On Saturday we had our First Tech, which here is called the AMA (Alles mit Allem, or everything at once), in which we had costumes, makeup, and all technical elements for the first time. As expected, it was a train wreck, but just the right type of train wreck since we really needed to see all of this stuff on stage together. Hasko Weber, the Intendant (Artistc Director) of the theater and the dramaturgical staff were there as well as many other staff members, and it was exciting to share our work with the rest of the theater for the first time. Of course, the artistic staff had plenty of notes for Nuran after the run, and he in turn had plenty for us as well, which was all to be expected.

Saturday evening, Andreas and I went to check out a puppet theater festival that was going on across town. There we saw a piece called "Congo, My Body" which was a mixture of tanztheater and puppet/figure theater from the Congo. I had picked the piece out because it sounded like my kind of action. We arrived, and as soon as the piece began I quickly established that all of the text was in French, without translation. But while I may not have picked up all of the nuances of the story, the storytelling was certainly clear enough. The three actors used a combination of singing (chanting/Congolese music), movement and hand puppets to tell the story of the civil war in their country. The physical control of the actors as well as the images they were able to create with their bodies and the dozen puppets on stage was incredible.

Afterward Andreas (who speaks French) leaned over to me and said: "So, you didn't understand a word did you?" He was right. But I could confidently say I understood the piece. That's what I call good theatre.

And so the week came to an end. Today was spent in the movies, taking a break from the theatre. I saw a documentary called "The Green Wave", about the protests in Iran in 2009. It was created using live interviews, and cell-phone video footage from the uprising (no other media was allowed) as well as eye-witness accounts. Everything else was filled in with hand-drawn likenesses of the individuals who took part. Its a really powerful technique, filling in the details with comic-book-esque sequences where there was no actual video. The protests of course ended badly for the people. But the film, with its Ralph Bakshi-style animation and first-hand look at the events certainly gives one a stronger perspective of what's going on in the country. Highly recommended!

Also highly recommended is a monologue from Danton's Death. This one's for you ladies: Marion's monologue, act 1 scene 5. Its widely regarded here in Germany as one of the best audition pieces for women in the classical canon. Pretty much unheard of on our side of the pond, which means it would be a great one to check out. Marion talks about her journey from innocence to sexual awakening. Great stuff.

We are steeling ourselves for the final push to the Premiere on Friday!



"A poet's work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep."

-Salman Rushdie