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09/05/2011

Lear goes She She Pop

Confronting generational conflict a la Lear, She She Pop puts their fathers on stage.

The Berlin Theatertreffen is the performance showcase of the German theatre scene. Ten productions selected by a jury of critics are being presented from May 6 to May 23, 2011.Still unusual for a festival, the Theatertreffen 2011 features dramas by Elfriede Jelinek and Kathrin Röggla and productions by Karin Beier and Karin Henkel and the performance group She She Pop. Almost a third of the invitations went to women in theatre. Further productions include stagings by Stefan Bachmann, Herbert Fritsch, Roger Vontobel, Stefan Pucher, Nurkan Erpulat, and also the final production by Christoph Schlingensief, "Via Intolleranza II".

The first time I saw a theatre piece by She She Pop, "Homestory" in 2002, I was plagued by lovesickness. Nothing helped counter these feelings of frustration more than seeing this piece. Seldom had I felt so well understood in all the woes of having to get through the day alone and constantly having to motivate myself to do something, just like the seven ladies in the She She Pop group and the sole male colleague incorporated into their female collective, Sebastian Bark.



Photos: Courtesy Berliner Festspiele, © Doro Tuch

I still can recall a scene, which was a wonderful exaggeration of the desire to crawl into a hole and of the search for protection against all the exertions of having to cultivate an image: As of today, announced performer Ilia Papatheodorou, "I don't want to have anymore, I just want to be."

She decided to assume the existence of a bedspread and subsequently entered into a monologue from beneath the bedcovers about her relief of not having to come up with an identity day after day.

At this point in time She She Pop was not exactly famous for pampering their audiences with sympathetic understanding. Just the opposite. Their tendency to be on the nasty side, torturing the audience a little through intense observation, judgment, and even punishment (such as being forced to put on an ass-shaped mask) played no small role in the reputation of the group, which was formed in the 1990s in the Department of Applied Drama at the University of Geissen.

Their performances were actually a little scary. All that hardball squaring of accounts with the voyeuristic position in which viewers can make themselves comfortable was one of the outstanding qualities of their evening performances of "Live" (as of 1999) and "Bad" (as of 2002).

"The fact that we work in a very confrontational, direct, and discursive way has something to do with our history as a women's collective," says Ilia Papatheodorou, who has come to the interview along with Mieke Matzke. It was the experience of the comparing gaze, of being judged and categorised as a woman and female artist in the context of a student project that provided the initial spark for the founding of She She Pop.

"Who is the best dancer, who is the funniest, who is the fattest, who is the most spontaneous - on the stage women are the subject of this voyeuristic gaze to a much greater extent than men. As a way of fighting back, we turned on the lights where the audience sits and returned the gaze." Particularly because She She Pop maintains a feminist perspective, it is all the more surprising that they have been invited to the Theatertreffen with a piece in which they appear on stage with their fathers and closely examine the contract between generations. Soon after its premiere in February 2010, "Testament - Belated Preparations for a New Generation Based on Lear" was invited for guest performances and to festivals. With increasing frequency the daughters had to call their fathers and schedule joint performances.



Does this success surprise She She Pop? Not really, says Mieke Matzke, because even when the piece was still in its conceptual phase they noticed the inherent power of the material as something many people could identify with. "People came to us from all sides with their father stories." But "Testament" also has developed into such an impressive work, because it conveys the problems experienced during rehearsals, doubts, and lack of understanding. The discussions during rehearsals between the daughters and fathers, which threatened to end the project, where recorded and are now replayed for the actors through headphones. The way the performers quietly repeat the words, either insisting on their initial point or distancing themselves from it in their observations, constitutes some of the most brilliant scenes of the piece. Thinking becomes audible, visible, palpable.

For the performers, opening themselves to their fathers' critique of their art was a major challenge. This was especially difficult, because these fathers were not conservative, authoritarian blockheads but rather educated middle class 68ers with high expectations regarding their children's capacity for emancipation and self-realisation.

As a viewer, one often has the sense that the fathers and daughters are actually much closer than they themselves think. But precisely because their conflicts are not negotiated in a clichee-like but instead detailed and very concrete manner, the honesty of the individual positions is moving.

The comparison of these autobiographical experiences with Shakespeare's "King Lear" - the story of the old king who can't get his act together in terms of handing over his power and wealth to his daughters - provides for tension. She She Pop uses this material to address many things that anyone with aging parents must face: Who will help, when they need support? How much of one's own life is one willing to invest in their care? How do siblings view the division of parental love and their parents' inheritance?

The calculations (what is an hour of parental love worth in euros?) and sample cases that She She Pop uses to explore these questions are amusing, on the one hand, especially because they are often presented in very dry style. On the other, they reveal the lack of existing language for addressing these questions without one party being hurt.



She She Pop's longstanding experience in creating simple but complex narrative images comes to their advantage in "Testament". In the beginning small video cameras are pointed at the fathers' faces, which are projected within three large picture frames - already establishing a style characteristic of regal representation. It is precisely here, later, where the children don cardboard crowns and put on the shirts of their fathers, who experienced taking them off as an act of humiliation.

At the end, the three picture frames present an almost baroque vanitas motif with tulips and apples, beneath which daughters, fathers, and one son lie on top of each other in layers - a confirmation of their connection above and beyond all discursive issues. It is also an anticipation of the mortality that unites them. This is She She Pop, and this is Shakespeare at its best.

Today, most members of the collective are close to 40 in age. Ilia Papatheodouro brought her baby son to the interview. Rehearsals now need to be coordinated with the care of seven young children.

The perplexity and despair of this dual role as mothers and artists fuelled much of the comedy in their "Seven Sisters" performance, which preceded "Testament" and raised feminist issues more explicitly than earlier pieces. "Now that we have our own families and have brought the conflicts with our own partners on board, the experience of fighting over who does what and when with the kids, plays a major role," says Ilia.

And Meike adds: "While we were rehearsing 'Seven Sisters', the discussion came up again: Where do we really stand? Can we really talk about having accomplished something, or achieved our goals? Or why do we get bogged down on so many levels, why are so many concealed?"

She She Pop never wanted to start their own theatre. They felt they were in good hands with their co-production partners, Kampnagel in Hamburg, the Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin, and the FFT Düsseldorf. Important to them in their process was being able to maintain autonomy over their collective and their projects.

"Because we held on to our feminist standpoint and the collective, we were often accused of being stuck in the 1970s," says Mieke Matzke, "but today there is a renewed focus on and political interest in these concepts, also in terms of their utopian potential. Working in a collective also means creating a different kind of obligation to one another, which goes beyond networking."

Apropos utopia, in "Seven Sisters" three of the small, preschool children appear in a projection as if they had been playing in a back room of the theatre the whole time. At the end they are given the task of developing a utopia. "If someone asks you where you are going, say 'to Moscow, to Moscow,' instructs Sebastian Bark, packing them into anoraks and sending them out onto the street in the dark of night.

On the one hand, this is a quote from Chekhov's "Three Sisters", to which the production continuously refers in exploring the question of the right way to live. On the other hand, the image of little children on the street at night pointedly conveys the contemporary fear of having no more utopias, of being utterly unable to paint a positive picture of the future. And also the fear of exposing one's children to terrible uncertainty.

Actually, major drama - but packed into such a small picture, as if this pounding concern needs to be forcibly kept down to size, if we are to keep functioning. And ultimately the art of She She Pop lies in this ability to specifically nail down vague thinking.


*

This article was originally published in the Tageszeitung on 29 April, 2011.

Katrin Bettina Müller is the performing arts critic for the Tageszeitung.

Translation: ls

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