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GoetheInstitute

02/05/2006

20 kilos of drama

Theatre is what the Dutch doctors order but Wladimir Kaminer found that reading plays en masse demands nerves of steel.

The Berliner Theatertreffen festival runs from 5-21 May. The "Stückemarkt" section presents contemporary drama and offers six playwrights selected by the Stückemarkt jury the chance to be discovered for the theatre via staged readings. This year 557 scripts were submitted from 26 countries. Wladimir Kaminer is on the jury and has read the lot of them.

I was once sitting in an ICE train from Stuttgart to Berlin, which had got stuck in the spring snow at a small station along the way. The train was already 55 minutes late – two trains had been cancelled before it. The train was jammed full of sleeping and howling babies, German soldiers in uniform, travelling pensioners and beer-guzzling beards. On the snow-covered platform many more people were waiting in snow-covered coats for hopelessly delayed trains. Hessen suddenly looked like Russia, only that the weather conditions were not described as winter but as "snow chaos". The anxious conductress was issuing warnings to the passengers over the loudspeaker every five minutes, to be friendly to one another, to have pity on the passengers of trains that had been cancelled and who were therefore now in our train, and to take our luggage off the seats. I was the only person in the carriage who was happy about the delay: I still had thirty-five theatre plays to read before we reached Berlin. My luggage – 20 kilos of dramas – were spread over two seats in two piles: "German-language" and "international". No one dared sit on them. Plays do not make ideal reading material for travelling thanks to a pronounced dearth of adventure and witty observation. You need nerves of steel to read just one in its entirety. Theatre plays generally consist of nothing but dialogues which drag on over several pages and often make no sense. "Margot: Pull! Pull! Heinz: Yes yes. Margot: Pull! Moritz: Die! (orgasm). Death. Heinz: Good. Margot: Thanks. Heinz: That's alright. Margot: Good. Yes. How are you?" And so on and so forth. Of course these conversations eventually develop into a plot and sometimes even interesting stories, but it takes a while.

Every time Heinz and Moritz got too much for me, I would move into the smoking section to clear my head. There I found people who were having conversations that seemed identical to the plays I was reading. In these phases of nascent doubt, I asked myself who or what on earth had landed me in the Theatertreffen festival's "Stückemarkt" (play market section) jury. I thought my job would be to judge the Russian contributions and otherwise smile affably in the jury photos. The rest would be taken care of by the other jurors, a highly professional group of people whose lives revolved around the theatre: dramatic advisers, directors, playwrights.

I'd seriously underestimated the whole undertaking. Most of all, I'd underestimated my fellow countrymen. Russian writers, it seems, write plays every day before breakfast and at every other opportunity as well. A little altercation in the tram? Battabing – it's a play! The title: "A man sees red." An unhappy relationship? Two plays for the theatre and one for the radio to boot. And I underestimated the German writers. A total of 557 plays were submitted to the "Stückemarkt" section. And it was our job to pluck out six pearls from this theatrical sea. Each of us emerged with a list of favourites we felt demanded to be discussed at length. Not a single play got more that three (out of a possible five) jury votes. This dissension was certainly a characteristic of our jury as a whole. What's more, in the final round, each of us read very personal things into the same material. I found that most of the plays reminded me of a classic and recurring nightmare I have in which close acquaintances of mine in a familiar setting do mad things and don't bother to explain their behaviour. The plays covered virtually all society's phobias and fears: fear of death, of terrorism, unemployment, devastation, failure... And there seemed to be a conspicuous number of plays involving children. Children searching for their parents, children dying from a terrible virus, children running amok, children no one wants, children over forty. The competition entrants were bent on bringing to the stage everything you'd never want to experience.

The only thing that became very clear from all this reading was that theatre as a genre is still very close to the people. In spite of sustained efforts to establish it as an elitist art form, the stage continues to be perceived by writers as a place where mass-dementia and hysteria can run riot. It's not a coincidence that doctors in the Netherlands prescribe play acting to their patients – it's good for the nerves and helps combat stress and depression. In every Dutch clinic worth its salt there is a stage and experienced therapists as directors. This is the stuff of dreams for German depressives. In Berlin, and this I know first hand, they might be allowed to play the drums in a special room for therapeutic reasons, if they're lucky.

But then theatre starts early in Germany. Already in kindergarten, they organise productions on a regular basis. A stage is built and each child is given a pair of rabbit ears and has its face painted, then the show begins. The teacher plays guitar and all the children try to hide behind one another. The parents applaud and call out: "Don't be scared, come to the front!", to their own little rabbits of course. Then things continue in school with Shakespeare and Kleist. The children have to learn strange if not incomprehensible passages by heart and recite them at a previously arranged point in time. Thus children here are turned into limelight hogs at a tender age. When they grow up, they turn into actors and directors – or they write plays and send them to the Stückemarkt.

So after four hours of discussion we had arrived at six completely insane plays and drank a glass of champagne. Followed by beer, schnapps, wine and cognac – there was not even consensus among the jury in our choice of drinks. I am very happy that we managed to succeed. In passing, I should mention that I once played in German theatre myself. Since this fits the subject mater and there is still space on this page, I will go into a little more detail. When I left frosty Moscow in 1990 for this theatre Mecca, I was immediately allocated a job at the theatre by the employment office in the Prenzlauer Berg district of East Berlin. In the West, I should add, people believed that the theatre was the best thing, or rather the only good thing about the GDR. Which is why so many theatre projects received generous state funding. Every bar had its imposing, moustachioed theatre maker with pipe and whiskey glass, handing out government employment programme positions. And so I became a member of a very talented off-theatre group. I seem to remember they did dance and movement theatre but it definitely involved a bit of talking and plenty of pyrotechnics. At our first premiere in Berlin we immediately set fire to an empty house – and for that we received the much-coveted "Independent Theatre Prize".

We mostly played in the Kulturbrauerei, but also in public locations like under the Gleim Bridge, at the edge of Teutoberger Platz, in the middle of market places, in front of town halls and department stores – or just like that, on the street, and we always had big audiences. Nowhere else had I experienced a people so interested in theatre. At these open-air performances I, with the rather clumsy German I spoke at the time, was allowed to play the devil in a modern French drama. In black clothes, with a mask over my face and a burning torch in my hand, I ran around the square revealing my inner self. The friendly audience followed my performance, and my inability to speak properly seemed to go unnoticed. It was movement theatre after all. Sometimes our performances would last for several hours – without a break. The people never went home. "Go hang yourselves!" they'd shout instead, or "Get a job, you idiots!" and "Children, children!" All this acting steeled my nerves. It was the first step in my professional career.

*

Wladimir Kaminer is one of Germany's most popular young writers. He has recently published his fifth book, Die Reise nach Trulala (The Journey to La-la-land). Kaminer was born in the former Soviet Union in 1967, and emigrated to East Germany in 1990. He lives in Berlin with his wife and two children. (Read some of his writing here)

The article originally appeared in the Theatretreffen programme brochure and was also published in die Tageszeitung on 25 April, 2006.

Translation: lp

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