Almost Like a Teaching Play

A conversation with Daniel Wetzel/Rimini Protokoll
by Florian Malzacher & Daniel Wetzel

In: Intermedial Performance and Politics in the Public Sphere. Eds. Katia Arfara, Aneta Mancewicz, Ralf Remshardt. London: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2018. 191-208.

The theatre company Rimini Protokoll (Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, Daniel Wetzel) for many years was best known for bringing ‘real people’ to the stage and creating their very own, highly influential version of documentary theatre. In recent year another strand of their work has become more prominent: the use of existing cityscapes as material and protagonist as well as the creation of complex, half-virtual spaces. Often touching on political issues, the question remains whether their work could also become more directly engaged in concrete social causes of our time, Florian Malzacher, who collaborated as a dramaturge with Rimini Protokoll in their very first work, is a performing arts curator and writer, focusing in recent years on the relationship between art and politics. In referring to several recent examples of Rimini Protokoll’s work, Daniel Wetzel stresses the differences and similarities between art and politics in Rimini Protokoll’s practice referring to a variety of other artists’ work. A fundamental question that runs through the conversation is whether theatre could be more than merely a sphere of representation and critique; could it become an agonistic space to try out new and different forms of political procedures?

This text is based on a live conversation held in Berlin on 19 February 2015 and was later revised and updated via email.1

Levels of Participation

  1. Translated by Ralf Remshardt.

With the multitude of economic, political, and social crises in the world in recent years, there is a renewed focus on the relationship of art and artists to politics as well as a desire to define what a present-day political theatre could be or what the role is for artists in society. Your performative installation Situation Rooms (2013) revolves around the role of weapons in the world.2 Considering Rimini previous work, that seems like an unusually concrete political subject.

The path to Situation Rooms was initially via form rather than via content. We wanted to develop a certain model of theatre; the subject matter came into focus later on. The point of departure was our projects from previous years—different audio tours, later a video tour in Aberystwyth (Wales) titled Outdoors (2011)3 where you were guided through the city by films on an iPad. The video you see was filmed exactly where you are walking, that was the principle. The videographer is the story’s protagonist who talks to you and guides you and he meets others during the one shot shooting of thirteen episodes simultaneously. The point of departure for Situations Rooms was to reintroduce that principle to the theatre. And so we developed a set for Situation Rooms with seventeen spaces, which were created very realistically, and where every doorway would lead to a change of country or sometimes continent, certainly a change of ‘situation.’

  1. Premiered in 2013 at the Ruhrtriennale in Bochum, Situation Rooms is a multiplayer video-piece that gathers together twenty people from various continents whose biographies have been shaped by weapons.
  2. Thirteen videos guided spectators simultaneously along intersecting routes which they explored following the narrations of members of the Heart Song Choir. National Theater Wales, 2011.

The seventeen rooms in Situation Rooms represent distinct locations in different corners of the world. Additionally, one meets twenty-four different virtual protagonists who also represent larger groups (of weapon dealers, soldiers, victims, doctors, and so on) who sometimes clearly oppose each other. As often in your work, the question arises whether one should present ethically questionable positions without any comment, without offering an own position. In your live theatre works there is, I guess, quite a pragmatic reason for that: you can’t make people present themselves on stage in a way they don’t agree on. But in Situation Rooms the protagonists appear in films; so you actually easily could comment on them. Yet again, you juxtapose their positions uncommented.

Not without comment, but rather highly elaborated, developed, scripted, rehearsed, corrected, scored, and so on. Without comment would be if I invited someone to simply speak his mind and then used the result wholesale. That, too is a possibility of our theatre. In 100 Per Cent City, for instance, it is essential that we achieve a highly diverse spectrum of opinion in a given city, as spontaneously as possible.4 In Situation Rooms the aim is divergence and distance. In contrast to the ordinary theatre, no one says to your face, or to the audience, ‘I did so and so,’ or ‘I sell tanks.’ Instead, you are inserted into his perspective, he speaks directly into your ear, and in a certain sense you ‘see through his eyes.’ What matters is to create focus, to characterize the individual positions as sharply as possible. You rather have to be aware where the limits of tolerance are for the visitor who enters the situation. Because it’s a very immediate form of narrative, where you’re presented with very concrete, emotionally involved images, as if you could zap through the perspective of the most divert positions. A major effort of course was to talk to people from the armaments industry, but almost all of them demurred instantly. They showed zero interest in dialogue.

Still, I guess with the people that finally did collaborate it was easier to show things in the way you want than for example in a piece like Wallenstein (2005). In that performance a defeated and discredited former conservative mayoral candidate of the city of Mannheim stood on stage and talked about the end of his political career and of the people whom he considered traitors. You probably had to negotiate a lot and finally exclude a lot of material that you would have liked to show?5

On the contrary: we really had to put the brakes on the politician. And in both cases exclusion, reduction, focus is of high importance. The difference is rather that the films in Situation Rooms become documents in themselves. Situation Rooms is no play that you can direct; it is like one of those mechanical clocks with twenty figures on a medieval city hall, only that you don’t watch it on a tower, but you need twenty co-actors once you’ve hit ‘play.’ Because all audience members, as in a film shoot, move in analogy to the movements of the camera of the individual protagonists. There are two levels of participation—first, cooperation with the absent experts, and second, cooperation with other spectators whom one encounters ‘in the role’ of other episodes (Fig. 13.1).

  1. 100 Prozent Berlin. Eine statistische Kettenreaktion (100 Per Cent Berlin. A Statistical Chain Reaction, 2008): For this jubilee revue of the 100th anniversary of the Hebbel Theatre in October 2007, an inhabitant of Berlin proposes a participant from his circle of acquaintances, who in turn proposes the next one, until one hundred people are found who fit the pattern. In this casting chain reaction, the median statistical values concerning age, sex, nationality, place of residence, and civil status of the city of Berlin have to be adhered to. Thus, in February 2008, one hundred people could be seen on stage representing the statistical average of the population of Berlin. The show was later adapted for many other cities around the world.
  2. Wallenstein. Eine dokumentarische Inszenierung (Wallenstein. A Documentary Production, 2005): People from Mannheim and Weimar—two towns that had belonged to the opposing ideological blocks on each side of the iron curtain—stand on stage. Their biographies relate them to Schiller’s characters. His dramatic trilogy served as a template for organizing narrations and dialogues of these ‘experts’ for rise and fall in the political power game of strength, loyalty, and obedience and swift phases of political collapse.