Berlin, Film, Life in Berlin, theatre

Guest Post: Training day with the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, by Pat O´Day

Have you been seeing posters like this all over Berlin? Wondering what it’s all about? Guest-blogger Pat O´Day investigated…

nature theater of oklahoma posters

The New York-based experimental theatre company Nature Theater of Oklahoma is in Berlin for the Foreign Affairs Festival. The critics love them. I remember having seen one of their shows at a different festival some five years ago. It was the remake of a Rambo movie shot in the apartment of the sole actor, who played along on stage.

The origin of the company’s name comes from Kafka´s incomplete first novel Amerika, in which a company of the same name promises employment for everybody. Repeating this promise to the citizens of Berlin, anyone interested could come along for an interview at a set date. More than 120 people turned up.

While people waited to be interviewed, cameras swarmed around them and a cast member drew their portraits. She did not look at the drawings at any point during the process. Therefore, it was not surprising that some bore only a slight resemblance to their subjects, but rather turned out skewed and cross-eyed as if they had been inspired by Picasso´s Weeping Woman series.

Then we had some one-on-one time with a video camera. It was not quite Andy Warhol´s fifteen minutes of fame. We had four minutes and twelve seconds to spontaneously answer questions about ourselves and what we thought the company could do for Berlin. It almost felt like a regular job interview.

I received an email the next day, inviting me to return to the venue an hour later. The organisers must have just told everybody who went through the process to come back. They could not possibly have found the time to watch all those casting videos, which will also provide footage for upcoming art projects.

During their time in Berlin, the company are staging shows almost every night, most of which are based on almost 16 hours of a cast member’s phone conversation recordings. As well as this, they are putting on two marathon events of up to fifteen hours, during which food prepared by the crew will be served, creating a completely new stage production, and making a feature-length film from scratch in a matter of weeks. Tickets have already been sold for both events. Other projects comprise a remake of Warhol´s unwatchable eight-hour slow motion documentary Empire as an animation film, and a collective diary on the whole creative process of the Berlin stint.

Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the married couple who run The Nature Theater of Oklahoma © Nature Theater of Oklahoma
Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the married couple who run the company © Nature Theater of Oklahoma

The organisers, dependent on the support of volunteers who can commit to several hours each day, admitted being scared of not achieving everything in time. It’s not just skills-based tasks on offer, like video-editing, providing backing vocals and setting up podcasts in the theatre foyer. According to the company, seemingly mundane tasks such as food-shopping, greeting people and ushering could be turned into art just by having somebody record these activities.

For the first day of serious work, we set out to make a music video clip featuring all volunteers, which was to be an integral part of the film. There were about forty to fifty of us. Most volunteers were in their 20s and 30s, with a fair share of internationals and people with backgrounds in the performing arts – and a female preponderance. Some volunteers looked as if they had just fallen out of their beds. The female director probably did not want to create this impression by keeping her curlers in till midday in order to maintain her somewhat weird hairstyle.

Warm up exercises began in the courtyard of the theatre. It was still a bit chilly, but when people started doing jumping jacks, they took off extra layers of clothing. The warm up culminated in dancing along to a piece of choreography intended for the video clip. It had everybody moving in sync like gingerbread men, wiggling bottoms while getting down and up again, pumping the air, hopping while turning, and pretending to be cheeky chickens stepping out of water. People took it seriously though, and tried to follow the lead as best as possible while leaving enough space for the cameras.

Next, the director tried to figure out how to shoot the whole seven minute clip without any cuts. He experimented with ways of getting people to move behind his (this time imaginary) camera as soon as they had passed so that he could find and record them in different places again.  It was more about moving the crowd and dividing flows of people than guiding people individually. Personally, I found it rather tedious to pace up and down the courtyard dozens of times. Some people developed individual mannerisms and personal routines, which the director neither encouraged nor sanctioned. Perhaps it was still too early for him to be concerned about these minor aspects.

After a short break we practiced the dance we had tried during the warm up. This time it was more serious. In harmony with company policy, a different person, who normally acts as production manager, took the lead. He was not yet familiar with the moves though. So he taught and learned the choreography at the same time.  Some exceptional female volunteers, who had managed to remember the routine from the warm up, were able to correct him. These ladies were also eager to discuss specific details and suggest changes. Unused to this kind of activity, I was happy to just follow along. New difficulties surfaced when the choreography, which for whatever reason we had first practiced to a waltz, was carried out to the original quadruple time song. Again, the ladies mentioned above knew how to adjust. For my own part, I was not too disappointed when this activity finally stopped.

During the break, some people were picked to help set up a vegetarian buffet for everybody. While waiting, we all received free T-shirts with the company logo. Individuals with specific skills, like video editing, were singled out to have their tasks set out. Others used the break to practice the group choreography and take notes. I left.

So what remained at the end of the day? Or rather, who would have profited and who would have loathed it? The experience certainly would have been a nightmare for anybody suffering from camera shyness. Conversely, it would have been perfect for somebody in need of a watertight alibi with cameras constantly pointed at them.

But what did it mean? On the surface it was an unusual day in the sun. We could do callisthenic exercises and recharge our batteries with free healthy food in friendly company. Although the organizers applied a non-authoritarian leadership style, they did not provide space for differing views. It was not about the volunteers rising to stardom or expressing individual creativity in the artistic process. Nor was there too much of an intellectual challenge, unless you find it in sorting out your dancing steps.

And then I have also been taught that there is no such thing as a free lunch, which may also be true for free T-shirts. I wonder how and where the recorded material will turn up. Most of all, I wonder how this atmosphere of creative chaos can give rise to anything worth watching in such a comparatively short period of time, that both critics and audiences might appreciate.  Maybe this is reason enough to monitor the projects’ progress and see where everybody’s enthusiasm originates from and whether it is justified.

For more, check out the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma Facebook Page or read this recent Guardian review.

The Great Nature Theater of Oklahoma is calling you! – A Movie is being screened on Thursday 11th July 2013 at HAU 1, Stresemannstr. 29, 10963 Berlin.

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Berlin, Life in Berlin, Literature, theatre

Every Man Dies Alone at the Maxim Gorki Theatre

You would think that a play based on what Primo Levi called “the greatest book about German resistance to the Nazis” (Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, or Jeder stirbt für sich allein) staged at a reputable theatre (Maxim Gorki in Berlin Mitte) would be watchable, if not enjoyable. Not so.

Director Jorinde Dröse has managed to turn an evocative, insightful work into a meaningless farce. The only emotion the play managed to stir was cringe-making dread, akin to something you’d expect to feel whilst watching a particularly bad village panto. This was not the fault of the actors, who, bless them, were trying hard, but the production.

The play lacked focus, attempting to recite the novel’s various story-threads and introducing new characters right up until the end whilst refusing to commit to what should have been the central story – that of the distribution of cards denouncing Hitler by Otto and Anna Quangel. In a recent interview with ExBerliner Magazine, the director said, “I thought the final part of the book, the part where the Quangels are waiting for their inevitable execution in prison, is very long and depressing, so we decided to leave this final part out.” Herein lies the problem – apart reflecting her general idiocy (a play about fascism should not be depressing?) – the comment demonstrates the director’s fear that audience, akin to a kindergarten class, would get bored at the least hint of serious focus. The result is a continuous assault of noise and activity, meaning nothing.

Problems of unity and consistency stretched to tone (the play did not know whether it was a farce or a tragedy), to the question of whether this was a dramatisation or re-enactment of a novel (characters mostly acted out scenes, but whenever the novel seemed too hard to dramatise, they simply read passages out, referring to themselves or other characters in the third person, the curious result of which reminded me of an unartful version of The Guardian’s Digested Read), and style (Frau Rosenthal throws herself out of the window in some weird-dancey sequence, and – I kid you not – characters express their love for each other by singing renditions Damien Rice’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.)

Even the subtitles in English were bad – they were by no means complete and either ran ahead or lagged behind the lines being said on stage – how hard is it to organise accurate subtitles?! The stage design, consisting of a sloping floor which characters were perpetually sliding down, could have been interesting, but since everything else was so dire I found it hard to give a shit.

Which brings me to the question – why is theatre in Berlin so bad? I’ve been here for well over two years now, and every single play I‘ve seen (with perhaps the exception of Hamlet at the Schaubühne) has been terrible. Indeed, I witnessed the worst play of my life in this city – Frank Castorf’s Nach Moskau! Nach Moskau! (again, based on the works of Chekhov no less, at Berlin’s famous Volksbühne). That play was so bad that after over two excruciating hours, with no clue as to whether the pretentious shit of a director would honour his audience with a break, I had to walk out mid-act – the only time I have ever done this. Sitting in the bar opposite trying to recover my senses, I saw that there was indeed an intermission about half an hour later; hoards of people dashed to the nearest U-Bahn station…the theatre must have been half empty for the second half. Seriously, they could use that play as a modern torture technique…

I love German books, films and music, but theatre is one of two things that the British do better than the Germans (the other is television – and I would go so far to say that British theatre is the best in the world.) I’ve heard that a fundamental difference between the two countries is that the director carries more weight than the writer in Germany, but surely this cannot account for the creation of such trash.

Maybe the clue to the answer lies in Dröse’s interview, in which she says that to direct in Berlin “you have to be more radical in your work.” This seems to be the problem; a director’s main concern should be the story. He or she should be concerned with a work’s themes, its characters and their journeys, but in attempting to be radical, Berlin directors are only succeeding in producing radically bad plays.

Jeder stirbt für sich allein is on at the Maxim Gorki Theater, Am Festungsgraben 2, Mitte, S+U-Bhf Friedrichstr.