Open World Festival
The Utopia of Peaceful Coexistence

„Hipster the King“, director: Thanapol Virulhakul
„Hipster the King“, director: Thanapol Virulhakul | © Christian Houge

Since January 2015, Tilman Gersch has been the new artistic director of the Theater im Pfalzbau in Ludwigshafen. At the end of February he organized a newcomer festival, which devoted six days to the issues of migration, otherness and exclusion with thirty-nine events. With much-travelled guest performances, participatory projects and a fête, it took a stand on the burning questions of the day.

It started whimsically and a bit innocuously. Volker Staub’s sound collage Ludwigshafen Sound Surround rhythmically merged living musicians from Korea, Togo and Turkey on the spot with sounds of the industrial city on the Rhine. This was one of the four citizen participation projects of the international Open World Festival. In another, the director Regina Wenig collected “voices from the edge of Europe” among the German-Italian citizens of Ludwigshafen so as to come closer to the “Lampedusa feeling”. And together with young people and other adults, the dramaturge Luise Rist developed the theatre workshop Mahala International for people with experience as refugees, which offered a low-threshold out-reach to Syrian war refugees, victims of political persecution from Egypt, Roma from Serbia and Albania, and refugees from Eritrea und Somalia in front of the Pfalzbau. They are new citizens of Ludwigshafen and naturally more familiar with borders, exclusion and the blurring of borders than with the German language. Their first, tentative steps on the workshop stage were moving; the search for a common language, comic misunderstandings not excluded, was full of hope. The same was true of the public fête, which depicted the musical and culinary diversity of the city and its people, who come from 140 nations, and to the concert programme (mainly in English) of the Muslim world star Sami Yusuf, who spiritedly called for peaceful coexistence.

Otherness, migration and exclusion

Wolfram Lotz's „Die lächerliche Finsternis“ (i.e. The Ridiculous Darkness), director: Dusan David Parizek Wolfram Lotz's „Die lächerliche Finsternis“ (i.e. The Ridiculous Darkness), director: Dusan David Parizek | © Reinhard Werner But of course the festival was primarily about theatre: numerous German and European premieres in the theatre hall, in the Studio and in the Glass Foyer of the theatre without its own ensemble depicted the wide range of issues concerning otherness, migration and exclusion. Things here were then also darker. For example, the opening night with Oliver Frljic’s impressive work Aleksandra Zec about the eponymous Serbian schoolgirl who was executed in 1991 by a militia during the Croatian War of Independence. Being, allegedly, “different” also cost ten immigrants their lives in the NSU assassinations. Elfriede Jelinek’s cynical-eloquent courtroom polemic about Beate Zschäpe, Das schweigende Mädchen (i.e. The Silent Girl), came to Ludwigshafen from the Munich Kammerspiele. A no less prominent guest performance was that of Wolfram Lotz’s Die lächerliche Finsternis (i.e. The Ridiculous Darkness) (director: Dusan David Parizek) from the Academy Theatre of the Vienna Burgtheater, invited to the 2015 Berlin Theatre Meeting and premiered in Germany at the Pfalzbau: a sarcastic journey of German soldiers to the crisis areas of the world, where the prevailing conditions are no less disconcerting than the views of the latter-day colonialistic helpers.

The festival, under the brilliant curation of Jürgen Berger, Bernd Jestram, artistic director Gersch, Daniel Richter and Barbara Wendland, was marked by the presentation not only of major German success productions on the themes, but also of independent theatre and small format works from other European and non-European countries.

In the documentary bilingual production Erdbeerwaisen (i.e. Strawberry Orphans), the Staatstheater Braunschweig and the National Theatre “Marin Sorescu” of Craiova jointly reported on the situation of abandoned Romanian children, whose parents are compelled by economic necessity to hire themselves out as cheap labour in Western Europe. And in Ich rufe meine Brüder i.e., I Call My Brothers) by the Tunisian-Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri, the independent Frankfurt Theaterperipherie showed how mistrust, suspicion and radicalization can disastrously combine into a witches brew.

Identity and home

“El mal Gusto” “El mal Gusto” | © Rogelio Orizondo Debates on otherness and exclusion and the search for identity and home, as the festival programme showed, are a universal theme. In Hipster the King and I am Thai, the Thai dramatist Thanapol Virulhakul showed us twice, quite humorously, how open he considers the reputedly so sunny world of his homeland really to be. In his solo performance Virginian: The Body of Mickey Mouse, Virulhakul’s countryman Ghandi Wasuvitchayagit tells Alessandro Baricco’s story of the eternally homeless ocean pianist. The Cuban-German theatre production El mal Gusto from Havana, likewise with the support of the Goethe Institut, also came to Ludwigshafen. In it, two Cuban exiles return to their old homeland to liberate their countrymen and thereby most entertainingly run into mainly their own limitations.

“Knowledge of the other enriches us and makes us more beautiful”, said Tilman Gersch at the opening of the festival, and he is right: to recognize the other, and to respect in it what seems foreign to us – this is the humanistic aspiration to which the first edition of the Open World Festival impressively paid heed.