The Poetry of the Factual – Possibilities and Limits of Documentary Theater
When a year ago the University of Saarbrücken established a poetry lectureship for drama, it appointed as lecturers the research collective Rimini Protokoll. “Good choice”, one could say; after all, Helgard Haug, Daniel Wetzel and Stefan Kaegi are concerned with a poetry of the factual that includes all the stories written by life. On the other hand, however, the appointment seems like a programmatic statement against traditional narrative theater. Rimini Protokoll has consistently refused to enter into the drama of fictional stories. This refusal has placed the research and performance group at the heart of the question about what the diversity of forms in documentary theater developed in recent years can do – and what it cannot.
In the 1960s there were still individual authors such as Rolf Hochhuth and Peter Weiss who devoted themselves mainly to the documentary treatment of the Nazi crimes against humanity. Today we have to do with a group of theater-makers who produce documentary theater with very different means and deal freely with Peter Weiss’s dictum: “Documentary theater is a theater of reporting. It abstains from any invention, uses authentic material and presents this on the stage in modified form but with the content unchanged”.
Diversity of forms
Documentary theater, understood in the strict sense, can hardly diverge from its research material. This restriction lies in the nature of its method. If the documentarist works with interviews, he has, like the journalist, obligations to his interview partner. He is not allowed to supplement with fictions what seems to him to be lacking. On the other hand, he must constantly re-think the form in which he presents his material so as to engage the interest of the audience.
This will have been one of the reasons that the German-language documentary theater of recent years has produced a great diversity of forms. There have been, for instance, straight readings such as Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind) performed in 2008 at the Stuttgart Staatsschauspiel. Here Hans-Werner Kroesinger, one of the most important exponents of contemporary documentary theater, turned the tables in an act of irony and used Karl Kraus’s realistic-sounding doomsday drama as documentary material.
In 2011 Kroesinger took his Karlsruhe production of Die Stadt der Gerechten (City of the Righteous) in a very different direction. He carried off the spectators into the city and to places where he could negotiate the theme of “righteousness”, and even allowed himself a fictional scene with the landing of an asylum seeker at the Karlsruhe Rhine harbor. In contrast to such documentations diffused through the city, there are stage performances such as She She Pop’s Testament. When in early 2010 the Berlin performers confronted their fathers’ generation by bringing their own fathers onto the stage of the Berlin theater Hebbel am Ufer, we could have assumed that standing before us were “experts on everyday life” such as Rimini Protokoll assembles for their performances. But the impression would have been mistaken. She She Pop’s fathers were, if anything, experts on themselves.
If we look more closely at this diversity of forms, we see that each performance develops the formal resources it needs in order to convey its contents. In Testament, for example, She She Pop awakens interest gently by comparatively poetic means. The Zurich group International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM) takes a different path with its Hate Radio and completely relies on the authenticity of pure information in its reenactment of an abysmal historical event.
The IIPM faithfully reconstructed broadcasts of the most popular Rwandan radio station Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines, which in 1994 openly called for the genocide of the Tutsi minority. What happened in Rwanda takes place like a second reality on stage: a pop radio station supplies the propaganda for genocide. IIPM, unlike Rimini Protokoll, does not work with experts on everyday life who play themselves. They work with actors and have performed their reenactment, among other places, where the original events happened, in Rwanda’s capital Kigali.
This too shows how and where documentary theater can have its effect. It comes up against limits when documentary material develops in the direction of docu-fiction or docudrama. Interestingly, this possibility does not seem to be the current focus of docu-theater. Exceptions prove the rule: Andres Veiel, for instance, researched with Gesine Schmidt a murder that had a neo-Nazi background and developed from a 1,500 page interview protocol the docudrama Der Kick (The Kick).
Since its premier in 2005, Der Kick has stood as a lonely exception in the world of current documentary theater. Too rarely do theater-makers dare the development of factual events into fictive scenes. As a big plus on the side of reclaiming reality, they can enter that they have made previously unknown realities of life visible and found compelling forms in which to present them. But the new documentarists shy away from crossing the line into the fictional.
The author is a freelance drama and literary critic for the "Süddeutsche Zeitung", Berlin "Tageszeitung" and "Theater heute". From 2003 to 2007, he was a member of the Selection Committee of the Mülheim Dramatist Prize, and from 2007 to 2010 of the jury of the Berlin Theater Meeting. Since 2007, he has been a jury member for the Else Lasker Schüler Play Prize and from 2012 on he is again a member of the Selection Committee of the Mülheim Dramatist Prize.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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