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Essay
The Final Performance

Empty Stage / Roland Schimmelpfennig
© Shutterstock

In "the Final Performance," Roland Schimmelpfennig muses on the importance of theatre and the impact of the global pandemic on the community of the stage.

By Roland Schimmelpfennig

A man is standing alone on the stage of a theatre. The stage is empty. At the back, on the high, bricked backwall of the stage house, an illuminated sign above a fireproof metal door: EMERGENCY EXIT—but the door is closed, locked. 

A few set pieces are left behind, leaning against the back wall to the left; perhaps Romeo and Juliet was performed here last night. Or The Broken Jug or some other play, maybe even one of mine. Until recently, that’s how I used to make a living: from the performances of my plays. 
empty stage

 ..only light left on stage and in the audience is the emergency lighting.

Left and right on the work galleries, high up above the stage, hang countless lights. On both sides, numbered wire ropes lead up to the ceiling of the theatre, the so-called “fly loft”, from which large flats can be lowered. Until now, anything was possible on this stage, it could change into a Scottish heath for Macbeth or into Faust’s study, or even into an abstract white cube as a metaphor for the world: on the boards of this stage anything, everything, was possible, because all the world’s a stage, according to Shakespeare—but the only light still on are a few neon lights, the so-called “work lights”. Or maybe the only light left on stage and in the audience is the emergency lighting.
 
The man alone on stage is in his early fifties. The man is sweating slightly and yet he’s shivering. His gestures are erratic, nervous, the man can’t stand still—he walks back and forth and runs his hands through his sweaty hair, over and over again. The man coughs a little, he tries to suppress the cough but can’t shake off the irritation in his throat. The lonely man on stage would like a sip of water, he steps to the edge of the stage and turns to the audience, “Does anyone,” the man wants to say, “Does anyone have a sip of water for me”-, but then another coughing fit overcomes the man, he tries to cover his mouth with his hand at the last moment but the coughing fit is too severe, the cough nearly tears him apart, and now the man needs to sneeze on top of it. He now alternates between coughing and sneezing, the man on stage is losing control over himself. 
 
This could be the starting point for a great comedic scene. The first few audience members are realizing that this is in fact merely a macabre, totally exaggerated performance. A horror scenario about a respiratory infectious disease, straight from the famous Theatre du Grand Guignol. A few single laughs. A few louder laughs from the audience. Every time the man wants to say something, he is overcome by coughing or sneezing, and the audience’s laughter grows louder and louder. 
 
But then: “How appalling and distasteful! Out there, people are dying—out there, people are risking their lives to save us,” an audience member in the 7th row shouts, gets up and leaves, banging the doors. The rest of the audience in the sold-out house is now laughing louder and louder, a liberated, almost hysterical laughter, some people even cry from laughter—at least, that’s what it could be like. 
 
But that’s not what it’s like, since there is no audience at all. 
The house is completely empty. Theatres are closed in Germany and Europe, soon perhaps even worldwide. Pandemic.
empty street

 “We’re all in freefall”

However, if spectators were still (allowed to be) sitting in the orchestra, then the man on stage, early fifties, would finally say: “I’m scared. I’m in freefall and I’m scared of hitting the ground. I’m so terribly scared that I can’t even put it into words.” And after that it would get quiet in the packed theatre, which in reality is completely deserted. Nobody is laughing now. 
“I am in freefall”, says the man, who’s suddenly standing like a stand-up comedian in the beam of a single light, “We’re all in freefall”. 
 
At this point in the text, the man opens his arms wide, as if falling from the sky—or, perhaps, that’s what the man might be doing if the evening in the theatre could really take place, but it no longer can. “Nobody knows what’s coming,” says the man in the beam of light. “I no longer have an income. Everything is breaking down. Without help, I can get through this for another 90 days, but then what? What if the city gets closed down? If the lockdown happens. Of course, the lockdown will happen. Why hasn’t it happened already? What will happen to us? And what should we live off?”
 
The theatres in Germany are officially closed until after Easter. The number of those sick with Covid-19 and those under observation is still growing exponentially, which strongly suggests that the theatres in Germany will remain closed for a lot longer. Most recent news: “Berlin Theatertreffen Cancelled.” This would have been in May, two months from now. All current performances are cancelled. The curtain—or, “der Lappen” (the cloth), as German theatre folks like to call the wondrous piece of fabric that separates the reality of the audience space from the magic on stage—stays down; even though among theatre people, just like among circus folks or any other performing artists around the world, that one ultimate rule applies: The curtain must come up, the show must go on—even if we’ve just fallen off a rope or came down with a cold. We live off playing and none of us can afford taking a break. “Freelance” theatre artists aren’t people who can put money aside, our income isn’t enough. The show must go on. This rule is now no longer applicable. Standstill. No show anymore. The nightmare of each theatre-maker is here. All those who until now have been independently working in drama, music and dance-theatre or circus and variety shows, or anywhere on and behind the stage, without a permanent position but only temporary guest contracts and performance fees—all those “independent” artists lost their livelihood overnight and will be dependent on government assistance very, very soon, within a few weeks. Rent, health insurance and phone bills need to be paid continuously, let alone groceries for the family.

Because the theatre isn’t about the undead but about the living...

Unlike in the movies or in prose literature, dystopian visions are rare in the theatre. Pandemics typically break out in movies, not in plays. The cinema has always been teeming with dumb zombies and global viral outbreaks. Why has this genre never reached the theatre? Because the theatre isn’t about the undead but about the living, about us and all our fears and hopes and longings. The theatre, no matter where, whether in Bamberg or Berlin, in Munich or Vienna, in Würzburg or Kiel, is a place where life is celebrating itself, where people meet because others play for them, because through the text and the stage, society enters into a dialogue with itself, shares something, and that is, to describe it with one word, simply great. Theatre—whether state-funded or independent—is the opposite of isolation. 
 
This space, this age-old institution, an essential part of our cultural identity, has now been lost to us, until further notice. 
 
And that’s despite the fact that the theatre seems almost indestructible, since it needs nearly nothing—no roof and no electricity, theatre unlike radio, tv, film and the internet is something like an analogue dinosaur and a bird of paradise at the same time: charming, rude, with bad manners, vain, at times pompous and hollow, but sometimes also terrifyingly sincere and honest and necessary, and while it’s very old school in its basic concept it is also a relevant contributor that is consistently moving modernity forward. 
 
Theatre is often unpopular, especially in dictatorships, since theatre tells stories—and stories are about changes. Theatre is important. It’s difficult to turn a theatre into a streamlined, hugely profitable enterprise. It can make a profit but as a mirror to society it must also be allowed to take risks, otherwise it degenerates. Theatre needs protection, and the people who make theatre need protection, or else society ends up in the entertainment desert, which is exactly what Covid-19 is now doing to us. 
 
The virus takes over the regime, and the rules of this regime mean the end of the life we know in this country. The virus is sending us home—confining us to loneliness, if not even to full-on quarantine. From now on, getting together is verboten.
 
Of course, people continue to seek community, thus, they stumble through the internet. We check the news every twenty minutes. We share touching or moving or funny or outrageous things on Instagram or Facebook: in hospitals, facemasks and disinfectant gels were stolen, even from a pediatric oncology ward. Someone tried to buy masses of toilet paper, but the cashier won’t let them. Someone uses the funny word “bekloppt”, a slightly quaint term for “being nuts”—haven’t heard that one in a long time. Someone allegedly tried to buy 50 kilos of flour. Has he thought to buy the yeast too? In Italy, people are out on their balconies making music together. All of Madrid simultaneously applauds the city’s medical personnel at ten at night. Many people are crying. For a lot of money Donald Trump wants to lure a—potential—German vaccine manufacturer to the US. And other than that? Stocks are plummeting, the stock exchange is closed down. Flying foxes may have transferred the virus to humans. Or bats. What are flying foxes again? Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft seem to have made an alliance in the hereafter. Everyone is endlessly swiping their cell phones and waiting for the first symptoms: a sore throat and fever. 
football field

 No more soccer.

No more soccer. The clubs in Berlin are closed now, which should have happened much sooner. The curve of infections is going up. The global pandemic trumps all other topics. Just yesterday, we were still discussing climate change and the murderous right-wing radicalism in this country. We were still talking about the massacre at Hanau. 
 
Everyone is scared, some more than others: some put up a front of defiance or irony, for some others it’s already a matter of life and death. 
And everybody is suddenly faced with a very personal question of: WHAT HAPPENS IF? What if the supermarkets run out of supplies—no, no, no, there’s no need to worry, the supply chain is not in jeopardy, the basic food demand in Germany is covered by 100 percent, we’ll always have pork and potatoes, that’s possible, sure, but: the shelves in the supermarket were pretty bare just now. The only product that’s apparently not that popular, even in light of a viral pandemic, is a particular kind of short egg noodles. 
Here’s an interesting phenomenon in Berlin, northern Prenzlauer Berg area: the more expensive the supermarket, the emptier the shelves. Rewe: empty shelves. Lidl: you get everything.
 
Fear of impoverishment is far from unusual among independent theatre-makers. Everyone needs a plan B for an emergency, when savings aren’t enough. Freelancers and the self-employed don’t receive unemployment insurance. Everybody asks themselves: what happens when the bank account is empty?
 

The theatres are closed.

 Whoever is able to do so, must stay home. Maybe we’ll also have a lockdown, just like in France, Italy and Spain. Probably. Most likely. “Closed”, it says on the doors of my favourite cinema down the street. The world turns into an archipelago of loneliness. The virus sends us all into the desert of streaming services. Mostly men with weapons, everywhere. Ben Affleck and Mark Wahlberg destroy or save the world simultaneously, only Jean Luc Picard is even nicer than he’s always been, and a “Troglodyt” slices open Kurt Russell’s belly with an axe cut from a bone and sticks a red-hot bottle of schnapps directly into his liver. We’ll have to watch out and be careful, very careful. 
 
Complete silence in the packed house. Only occasionally, someone is coughing quietly.
“Thank you,” says the man in the only light to the audience, “thank you for everything. It was nice being with you. With all of you. I hope we’ll all see each other again soon. Take good care of yourselves.”
And then, we hear an angry, defiant, encouraging, life-affirming, supportive, thundering applause—but it isn’t directed towards the man on stage but towards the theatre as such, and to its audience. Or: maybe we would hear an angry, defiant and life-affirming applause, but in reality the empty theatre remains silent. And it will remain silent for quite a while. The desperate man is standing in a ghost theatre. Nobody is here. Not even he himself. 

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