Theatre as Assembly. Spheres of Radical Imagination and Pragmatic Utopias

by Florian Malzacher

In: A Live Gathering: Performance and politics in contemporary Europe. Eds. Ana Vujanovic with Livia Piazza. Berlin: b_books, 2019. 178-199.

It is a moment of truth when theatre director Milo Rau is called onto stage on the third day of his General Assembly at Schaubühne Berlin.1 Sixty delegates from all over the world have gathered ‘to debate on where we stand as a global community and what needs to be done – socially,’2 with the aim to create a Charter for the 21st Century – till one of them, a German-Turkish Erdogan supporter, outright denies the Armenian genocide. Emotions run high; the game has reached its limit. Some participants demand the speaker be expelled, others argue that a true democratic discussion has to endure such opinions. Finally, Milo Rau decides to throw out the delinquent – just to call him back in a little later after further discussion.

This episode towards the end of an equally artistically and politically ambitious endeavour reveals much more than only the classic democratic conflicts around the limits of freedom of speech. Suddenly the thin line becomes tangible that marks the proximity as well as the distance between theatre and politics. A line that can be crossed, hidden, played with or be made porous – but not ignored. It is this at times almost invisible gap that for me marks the most productive challenge in recent years in the performing arts. The renewed interest in theatre as public sphere has shed light on the specific potential of performing arts as a medium whose unique selling point is the creation of temporary communities defined by time, space and a changing set of theatrical rules. Such a theatre not only mirrors society but offers possibilities of trying out and challenging social and political procedures, of analysing, performing, enacting, testing or even inventing concrete aspects of society.

The assembly – in the way Occupy Wall Street for example used this term – is a core feature of an activism influenced by the traditions of Anarchism. It marks a zone of gathering, of building community, of making decisions – and by this, of experimenting with the way democracy can function. This very well relates to many aspects of what theatre as assembly – a theatre that puts its focus on creating public spheres – is trying to achieve. But 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. At the same time, these assemblies are of a performative nature – and of a physical one, as Judith Butler points out in her speech at Occupy Wall Street (2011):

  1. Milo Rau, General Assembly, live performance at Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz Berlin, November 3-5, 2017.
  2. “General Assembly”, November 2017,

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’.3

Theatre as assembly might sympathise strongly with these ideas, but I would argue that at the end it has an essentially different take. Theatre’s 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. Just not all theatre admits it – or even tries to make consistent use of it. The ways theatre is conceived as a public space that gives room for radical imagination as well as pragmatic utopias are manifold and not seldom contradictory in their aesthetical as well as their political positions. But what unites them is the aim to expand the field of theatre, to push its very means and possibilities, to find ways of engaging with the social and political issues of our time and by this also giving inspiration to activism and political thinking beyond the artistic realm.

Dutch theatre director Lotte van den Berg’s ongoing project (since 2014) Building Conversation aims at reducing theatre to its core. For her, theatre is first and foremost a place of communication, of meeting each other, a sphere where conflicts can be shown and experienced. An agreement to communicate by obeying a set of rules that might be very different at each occasion.

So Building Conversation is indeed just this: talking with each other. Inspired by communication techniques from all over the world, models and frames for dialogues are developed. There are no actors, no audience. Just the invitation to participate in a conversation without words, inspired by Inuit assemblies, or alternating between reflection, retreat and dialogue, following a method invented by Jesuits. Another conversation happens completely without a moderator, topic or goal – a method developed by quantum physicist David Bohm, exploring the patterns of our collective thinking. Building Conversation is directly influenced by Belgium political philosopher Chantal Mouffe and her concept of ‘agonistic pluralism’, and one of the talks is devoted to her theory. What makes these conversations theatre is their very framing as theatre, which enables us to engage and keep an analytic distance at the same time. Sometimes it just needs very few but precise decisions, gestures, rules to mark the space of art and opening up a wide field of experience.

  1. Judith Butler, speech at Occupy Wall Street at Washington Square Park, October 2013, Youtube video, 4:58, (last accessed May 24, 2019). In her new book Towards a Theory of Performative Assembly Butler further explains the theatric al and performative dimension of assemblies in popular movements, of course without claiming that the assembly itself is theatre.