Refugees Kammerspiele Transforming into Welcome Theatre

Travelling puppets: performance of
Travelling puppets: performance of Paradise Mastaz by the Hajusom ensemble | Photo: Lutz Saure

The Münchner Kammerspiele are devoting their attention to the issues of refugees, arrival and asylum with the Open Border Congress; the theatre is transforming into the Munich Welcome Theatre. Dance and theatre projects and films for and with refugees supported by the Goethe-Institut are also involved. By Pepe Egger

The makers of the Open Border Congress call it “a conversion project”; conversion as in the transformation, the repurposing of the Münchner Kammerspiele, its premises and possibilities, into a diversified establishment for exploring the subjects of flight and forced migration.

Many Munich residents will not be surprised, they have read so much already about the new artistic director of the Kammerspiele, Matthias Lilienthal. They say he wants to fuse the theatre with the present, not just by treating or taking up the present in theatrical performances, but by going “out into the city,” or bringing the city into the theatre.

So it’s only logical for the Kammerspiele under Lilienthal to approach the perhaps most urgent issue of the here and now head-on, pell-mell, by not merely addressing the topic of refugees in a play, but by turning the entire theatre inside out, making the entire place a Munich Welcome Theatre. It is also a reaction to the fact that it was here in Munich in recent weeks that a very large number of the refugees arrived in Germany.

The Open Border Congress, curated by artists Björn Bicker and Malte Jelden, means to investigate how refugees can be involved and allowed to partake in the theatre – and the arts and culture in general. A correspondingly large part of the programme from 16 to 18 October consists of discussions (on refugee protests, immigration policy and the role of cultural institutions in the immigration society), lectures (on Europe’s border regime and about how to put together a refugee theatre troupe) and documentaries (about Eritrean refugees in Chiemgau or escapees in Greece).

Migration is the norm of human existence

There will also be any number of project presentations by activists and volunteers revealing the creativity of a grassroots welcoming culture: refugee radio, peace panels, cafés, bike shop, furniture production, the social cooperative Bellevue di Monaco and a to-be-founded Silent University.

Yet there is also theatre in the narrower sense, for instance by the ensemble Hajusom from Hamburg, which says of itself: “All performers carry their personal maps inside them, for them migration is the norm of human existence.” They will perform Paradise Mastaz, in which puppets travel from West Africa to Germany as tourists or migrants until their strings become entangled (17 October at 5 pm and 18 October at 3 pm).

Or the dance workshop supported by the Goethe-Institut Rêve en noir en blanc, a dream in black and white, in which young refugees develop a piece together with acting students from the Otto Falckenberg School. The series of workshops is supervised by Taigué Ahmed, a former member of the national ballet of Chad who also offered dance workshops and performed in the refugee camps of Chad in 2005 (18 October from 11 am until 4 pm).

Taigué Ahmed will then talk with refugees about the possibilities, triumphs and limits of cultural work in a panel discussion entitled Cultural Relief organized and moderated by the Goethe-Institut. She will be joined by Pınar Demiral (Her Yerde Sanat/Art is Everywhere), Maren Niemeyer (Forum on Culture and Humanitarian Relief, Goethe-Institut) and Wolfgang Hauck, director of the Bavarian stilt theatre group Die Stelzer, who have been working with refugees in eastern Turkey since 2014 (18 October at 4 pm).

Seeking mental and physical balance

Wolfgang Hauck and Pınar Demiral will be able to tell first-hand of their Goethe-Institut-sponsored cooperation in a refugee camp in Nusaybin in eastern Turkey. There, in the camps of the Turkish Emergency Management Agency, Syrian, Yezidi and Iraqi refugees are safe and supplied with the essentials, but have no future prospects.

Here, a stilt is like an attachable stage. As soon as someone on stilts appears, they create a theatrical space about them and, for a moment, another world in even the most dismal surroundings.

But it’s not just about entertainment. Wolfgang Hauck describes how the wobbly and unstable stilts contribute to psychological stabilization in adolescents who suffer from trauma disorders. Walking on stilts forces them to concentrate completely on their physical balance thus supporting their mental balance as well.

Here the theatre is far removed from the proscenium stage and red curtain, and ventures into the bleakness of the camps. But perhaps this is where it works the most. Hauck reports about how the first ten participants that he trained in Mardin, Turkey have already taught more than 25 other young people. One of them headed back across the border to Iraq with five pairs of stilts to continue the work and share his experiences in the refugee camps there.