Politics in Independent Theatre

The Politics in Independent Theatre Festival is the guest of changing cities every three years. It will take place in Freiburg from 13 to 23 November 2014.

“Dschingis Khan”, Monster Truck & Theater Thikwa “Dschingis Khan”, Monster Truck & Theater Thikwa | Photo: Ramona Zühlke In the short time during which the eight jury members searched for productions to invite to the Politics in Independent Theatre Festival, freedom was a contested good on the edges of Europe – and surely also a matter of interpretation. In the Ukraine, the government was overthrown and the Crimea annexed by Russia in the name of freedom. From northern Iraq to Syria, the Islamic State, which seems to be above all a radical counter-project to the liberal societies of the West, was expanding with sinister brutality. And also in Europe itself, liberal forces found themselves hard-pressed by the gains of right-wing populists in several elections. Why is it again attractive to place freedom on the line?

With the proposal of the theme “freedom”, Freiburg, or more precisely the city’s independent theatres Marienbad and E-Werk together with the municipal theatre, successfully applied to host the festival Politics in Independent Theatre (PiFT). Thus the festival, initiated by the Federal Agency for Civic Education, enters into a cooperation with a city theatre for the third time – in view of the growing overlappings of the established and independent scenes, a reasonable decision, which moreover makes it possible to reach a larger audience than could a purely off festival. Larger stages, however, call for larger productions, which the traditional German-language theatre scene does not often provide. The PiFT therefore has adapted itself to what has become the usual supra-regional and international festival profile.

Freedom for what?

But back to freedom – which none of the fifteen invited productions expressly takes as its theme. Nevertheless, each of them throws critical light on a facet of the concept, which particularly in the Western tradition is understood to mean primarily freedom for something (in contrast, for instance, to freedom from needs, drives and emotions): freedom of education and to practice a cultural, sexual and religious identity, to make decisions for yourself (for example, in respect to education and work, mobility and consumption) and to take part in political processes.

Of this freedom many can only dream. For instance, in the Moldovan-German co-production Dear Moldova, can we just kiss a little bit? by Nicoleta Esinencu and Jessica Glause, homosexuals and their families relate what life is like in a homophobic society, while Bela Pinter’s almost classic drama Our Secrets tells of Hungarian society of the 1980s, infiltrated and extorted by agents of the state security services, and alludes to the influences that have shaped the mentality of Hungary in recent decades.

Refugees from the south have set out in search of a better, freer life, and the EU agency Frontex has sought to ward them off at the coasts of Europe. In Hans-Werner Kroesinger’s documentary collage FRONTex SECURITY, five performers let the rhetoric of the protectors of affluence melt in their mouths. The voices that are heard in the dark, aestheticizing dance piece Sfumato by the French choreographer Rachid Ouramdane are also those of refugees, who storms, floods and tsunamis have forced to seek a new start. They are the collateral damage of a ruthless exploitation of resources, of which the West is no longer the only culprit.
Even where freedom is enshrined as a fundamental right, however, it remains in part utopian. With his transgressions of taboos exhibited in display cases placed in public space and entitled Ceci n’est pas, the Dutch performance artist Dries Verhoeven scratches once again the myth of tolerance in societies of diversity, while in Genghis Khan the performance group Monster Truck and the Berlin theatre Thikwa play with the expectation of the audience that mentally handicapped actors can convincingly portray nothing but themselves.

Freedom from what?

In Rimini Protokoll’s Qualitätskontrolle (ie. Quality Control), Maria-Cristina Hallwachs, who was paralyzed from neck to the toes after an accident, presents herself and her life, which depends on the costly round-the-clock care of medical equipment and nurses. This paradoxical condition of apparent maximum bondage and simultaneous luxury Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel propose for reflection: when does a life become not worth living? Is there a question of economic proportionality? Who decides about the value of a life?

The young directors Corinne Maier and Milo Rau, both from Switzerland, which was heavily represented at this PiFT, also chose biographical perspectives to understand broader phenomena. In Past is Present, Maier has the performer Anne Haug observe the Berlin-based documentary film-maker Shaheen Dill-Riaz keeping in touch with his global patchwork family: in footage from a visit to his parents in Bangladesh, in Skype sessions with his son and ex-wife in Warsaw, and his siblings in Sidney and New Jersey. Every freedom has its price: Shaheen and his brothers and sisters have sacrificed the family peace for the sake of their self-realization. And in Western Europe too, as Milo Rau shows through the personal stories of his four middle-class actors in the psycho-séance The Civil Wars, freedom is only a thin veneer that can scratch very quickly and lead people to make decisions against it.

Freedom, we clearly see form this edition of PiFT, is a reversible figure. Almost everywhere that it can show gains, there are also losses. Theatre, especially independent theatre, naturally tends to concentrate on the latter. Chris Kondek and Christiane Kühl, for example, set their sights on the recent NSA scandal: after seeing the part performance, part installation Anonymous P., positively no one in the audience will any longer believe that his mobile phone is unhackable. In Not my piece, the performer Martin Schick tests sundry techniques of so-called “post-capitalist” sharing and exchange, only to bring home in the most entertaining way that the conditions of exploitation thereby remain the same. In Sylvi Kretzschmar’s sound collage Esso Häuser Echo (ie. Esso Houses Echo), singers rap a minimalist requiem on the gentrification of the Hamburg district of St. Pauli, and together with Basel’s Junges Theater Sebastian Nübling stages playfully, but with profound seriousness, Simon Stephen’s Morning, a play about radical solitude, which is especially hard to bear precisely when you are free.

Good that at least Doris Uhlich’s naked meat-shaker (more than naked) and Gintersdorfer/Klaßen’s Chefferie form happy collectives for the duration of the performances – completely free, and even if only of clothes or post-colonial ascriptions.