Theatre as Assembly

by Florian Malzacher

In: Why Theatre? Eds. Milo Rau / NTGent et al. Berlin: Verbrecher Verlag, 2020. 170-173.

“Close all theatres for one year, and then let’s see what we really need them for”: no wonder Heiner Müller’s provocation was trending during the time of Covid-19 lockdowns when venues and festivals were shut down – not for a full year, but at least for some weeks and months. But instead of fundamentally rethinking the own medium and its routines, there was a constant activity. Streamings and discussions, readings, lectures, Zoom-performances… Theatres were closed almost worldwide and there was more theatre available every day than anyone could possibly watch. The horror vacui was too strong. It prevented almost any silence, almost any taking time to re-evaluate our arts and our lives. As if we were afraid, the moment we’d stop, all would fall apart forever.

But within this never-ending talking and doing there was actually a hidden answer to Heiner Müller. While the phantom pain was growing, it became more and more apparent that all the screening and Zooming was not even close to the real thing. It was a permanent referring to something absent. To something that used to be there and hopefully would be there again soon. It only existed in this relationship.

If we stripped away everything that isn’t essential to theatre, what would be left? More than any other art form, theatre is a medium of assembly. A place to come together, to invent, try out, discuss. A medium of physical presence, an agonistic arena in which society can negotiate their conflicts and foster radical imagination.

Like activists’ assemblies, it marks a zone of gathering, of building community, of making decisions – and thus a zone of experimenting with the way democracy can function. A physical space, a space of bodies, like Judith Butler points out in her speech at Occupy Wall Street:

It matters that as bodies we arrive together in public. As bodies we suffer, we require food and shelter, and as bodies we require one another in dependency and desire. So this is a politics of the public body, the requirements of the body, its movement and its voice. […] We sit and stand and move as the popular will, the one that electoral politics has forgotten and abandoned. But we are here, time and again, persisting, imagining the phrase, ‘we the people’.

But still there is a crucial difference: the activist/anarchist assembly is generally considered a space of authentic negotiation, a space for trying to abolish established hierarchies, for not only trying out but living a different way of decision-making, usually based on the concept of consensus. While theatre as assembly might sympathise strongly with these ideas, I would argue that at the end it has an essentially different take. Theatre is not only a social but also always a self-reflexive practice, despite the fact that conventional approaches have been neglecting this. Theatre is a paradoxical machine that marks a sphere where things are real and not real at the same time and proposes situations and practices that are symbolic and actual at once. It does not enable an artificial outside of pure criticality, nor is it able to lure its audience into mere immersive identification. The social spheres, the assemblies it can create offer the possibility of partaking and at the same time watching oneself from the outside. Brecht’s alienation effect is not an invention; it is a discovery of what constitutes all theatre. It’s just that not all theatre admits it – or even tries to make consistent use of it.