Cultural scene

Realities of Life – How the Theater Is Responding to the Theme of “Migration”

Kevin Rittbergers „Kassandra oder die Welt als Ende der Vorstellung”, Wiener Schauspielhaus, © Alexi PelekanosGerman municipal theater is increasingly taking up the theme of “migration”, but is often shy of doing this in the usual form of narrative theater.

In recent decades Germany has been the site of the co-existence of cultures. But not least because some Germans have failed to grasp their that country is an area of immigration, there is a great uncertainty in dealing with the approximately 15 million fellow citizens whose parents and grandparents were not born in Germany.

It such a situation it is to the credit of the independent theater scene and the municipal theaters to have developed texts and theatrical forms with which they tell of life marked by migration. In the last few seasons, hardly a German stage has failed to equip their repertoire with such plays. It is striking that by far the majority of these are concerned with the co-existence of Germans with immigrants from Turkey or other Muslim countries.

“Integration” is a slogan to which the Ballhaus Naunynstraße in Berlin has responded since 2008, seeing itself as a “crystallization point for artists of migrant or post-migrant positioning”. At present the Ballhaus is the home address of what has been called “post-migrant theater”. For the rest, especially theaters in cities that have had high rates of immigration in the 1950s because of offers of jobs in industry have taken up the consequences of labor migration.

Labor migration

The logo of Creative Factory, MannheimAn example: Mannheim’s labor market is dominated by BASF, and on the artistic side the independent theater Creative Factory has concerned itself with the lives of Turkish young people while the Mannheim National Theater has likewise taken up the same theme again and again. Towards the end of the 2011/2012 season, for instance, the National Theater is presenting the project Mosaik (Mosaic), a “tour” through a Mannheim whose pace of life is set by the Koran.

This is only one of many examples which shows that theater makers have now found access to stories about labor migration from the far reaches of Anatolia. If critics have nevertheless said that this is still too little, as has Ankara-born Nurkan Erpulat in panel discussions, then it is clear that they don’t mean the plays or projects themselves, but rather that actors, directors and stage designers of Turkish origin have too little part in such productions.

Distribution of migration

Ballhaus Naunynstraße; photo: Lutz KnospeNurkan Erpulat staged this year’s Play of the Year, Verrücktes Blut (Crazy Blood), at the Ballhaus Naunynstraße and his criticism hits the mark insofar as the proportion of employees with immigrant backgrounds in the theater is in fact small. The interesting question of why this is the case is worth considering. And another question poses itself if we cast a glance at the distribution of migration in Germany.

Just under a quarter of migrants living in Germany, that is, nearly four million people, are ethnic German immigrants, primarily from the former Soviet Union. The next largest group, amounting to 2.6 million people, are immigrants of Turkish origin; and almost half a million people come to Germany via the Mediterranean from Africa and often live there illegally.

Poverty-driven migration

If we correlate the repertories of German theaters with these figures, it is striking that just the world of the largest immigrant group is least represented on the stage. There are practically no texts, productions or projects on ethnic German immigrants, apart from exceptions such the Rimini Protokoll’s Bodenprobe Kasachstan (Soil Sample Kazakhstan). And the second observation we must make is that, though theaters want to deal the question of poverty-driven immigration to Europe from Africa, they find it difficult to do so.

The problems that may be lurking here can be seen in Kevin Rittberger’s Kassandra oder die Welt als Ende der Vorstellung (Cassandra, or the World as the End of the Performance). The author and director did his research in southern Spain. It is there that poverty immigrants land up who use Gibraltar as the “bridge” to Europe. Rittberger’s subject is the feeling of hopelessness which afflicts these people after their first steps on European soil.

Narrative inhibition

„Über die Grenze ist es nur ein Schritt“ by Michael Müller; premiere: 14. Januar 2011 in the Utopia-Mobil-Bus, director: Johan Heß; © Oliver FantitschRittberger’s text, however, which was invited to the 2011 Mülhein Theater Festival after its world premier at the Vienna Schauspielhaus, seems as if it were overshadowed by the question whether such a subject can even be got at with the usual means of narrative theater. The play is intelligently done and presents the starting-points of refugee stories while at the same time broaching the narrative inhibition to which the theatre is exposed in the face of such stories.

In his Über die Grenze ist es nur ein Schritt (It’s Just a Step Over the Border), Michael Müller takes a completely different approach. The dramaturge at the Hamburg Junges Schauspielhaus tells the story of Dede, who with his mother and sister has fled from Ghana, via Algeria, to Germany and now lives illegally in Hamburg. The premier was convincing not least because it showed that such a theme can be approached quite well by narrative theater.

Jürgen Berger
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.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
December 2011

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