Dramaturgies of care and insecurity: The story of Rimini Protokoll

by Florian Malzacher

In: Experts of the Everyday. The Theatre of Rimini Protokoll. Eds. Miriam Dreysse & Florian Malzacher. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2008. 14-43.

A man comes on stage and shows some slides of chickens. He talks about deep litter systems, key issues of feeding, pest control, slaughter. The audience is baffled or amused, three or four are angered. After an hour of slides it is time for questions: questions about poultry farming and questions about representation in theatre. But does the man on the rehearsal stage of the Giessen Institute for Applied Theatre Studies actually know that everybody here expected something completely different – a real performance but not a real person? And is the audience really sure that Herr Heller is real – an expert in poultry farming and not acting?

Peter Heller spricht über Geflügelhaltung (Peter Heller talks about Poultry Farming) from 1997 is a candidate for the prototypical origin of Rimini Protokoll’s theatre. The idea arose in a student bar in Giessen, around a large table, over beer and schnitzel. Stefan Kaegi, who had just recently arrived in this small town in Hessen from the F+F art school in Zurich, had a real poultry farmer up his sleeve already. He had actually come for just half a year to see whether there was anything to learn at the institute, founded by Andrzej Wirth in 1982. The conservative paper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung later described it as “the greatest source of calamity for German theatre” because this was where, amongst others, René Pollesch, She She Pop, Showcase Beat Le Mot and (some members of) Gob Squad emerged to challenge or undermine conventional state-supported theatre. The Institute for Applied Theatre Studies was, and in this respect still remains, the only German-speaking university department to combine theatre theory and practice and above all to dedicate itself to the production of contemporary and experimental theatre forms.

In this context Peter Heller was a quickly produced experiment, a theatrical game designed to irritate those who, through their studies, were constantly having to deal with the irritation of theatre. A theatrical readymade. For Stefan Kaegi and Bernd Ernst (who came to Giessen in the same year as Kaegi), it was the first in a series of inquiries into how powerful the black box is as a representation machine and how far whatever you place in it automatically becomes theatre. But also how the view of the black box is changed through that which is placed in it.

After Peter Heller, Bernd Ernst and Stefan Kaegi staged productions featuring a pedigree Great Dane and a neurotic ufologist followed. In 1999 they named themselves Hygiene Heute (Hygiene Today – in opposition to dusty old German theatre), producing their first full-length show Training 747 for the Staatstheater Darmstadt’s Cutting Edge Festival. The piece was an intricate and playful story about mysterious parallels between two legendary aeroplane landings: the crash landing of Joseph Beuys’s bomber in the 2nd World War and amateur pilot Mathias Rust’s landing near Moscow’s Red Square. At that point their interest in theatrical readymades had already been replaced by the desire to create complex theatrical events.

There are other precedents for Rimini’s origins however. Fellow Giessen students Marcus Droß, Helgard Haug und Daniel Wetzel had been developing performances since 1995 under the name Ungunstraum – Alles zu seiner Zeit (Unfavourable Space – Everything in its Time). These performances worked above all on discarding or explicitly revealing theatrical mechanisms. In doing so, they also repeatedly put non-professionals on stage as “experts” for particular functions.

The three found each other in the context of a scenic project set by the composer and director Heiner Goebbels who was guest professor at the Institute at the time. The basis for the students’ project was Kafka’s story fragment The Great Wall of China and so the 1st Stage of Ungunstraum led us on an imaginary journey from Giessen to Peking. The group subsequently called almost all their series of related performances and installations at the time stages (Etappen). There was no recognisable narrative – actually almost nothing recognisable at all. Factual train connections to the Great Wall replaced Kafka’s text. The performers too disappeared in an installation made from steamed-up panes that could be written and projected on, as well as all kinds of sound and technical equipment. The performer-self (to say nothing of the actor-self) was regarded very critically. “Something had driven us onto the stage but then we hid ourselves the whole time we were there.” (Haug)

The name Ungunstraum came from a brochure about China that highlighted the “difficulty of transporting people and goods in a country with extremely unfavourable spaces (Ungunsträume)”. Droß, Haug und Wetzel wanted their ‘unfavourable spaces’ to demonstrate precisely where for them, infrastructure appeared to overwhelm form and content more than in other art forms: in the theatre. They were suspicious of technical perfection. Their task as performers was to operate and serve the light and sound equipment placed in full view on the stage and not to play themselves. The more polished and carefully built the settings became, the more their own appearance on stage was mistrusted. They wanted to be “professional dilettantes”, – following the only half-ironic maxim: “rehearsing is for cowards”.

The trap of representation (and that was essentially the whole of the German theatre landscape) was to be avoided at any price, and was considered at Giessen, more than anywhere else, the primary cause of all theatrical ills. Everything pleasing, everything that could be accused of trying “to give an audience what it wanted”, everything that concerned “purely visual effects and surface, that was to do with conventional dramaturgy stood under the general charge of non-thinking” (Wetzel).