By Roland Schimmelpfennig
There’s a widespread notion that the world is round. We’ve toured the world,
we’ve traveled from Beijing via Baghdad and Tripoli and Accra all the way to Tierra del Fuego
and back again via Cali and Tijuana
and Pittsburgh and Nova Scotia and Spitsbergen, we were in the deepest rainforest
and way up on the roof of the world, and we balanced on an invisible rope above the ocean,
we’ve seen the world,
- and the truth is:
No, the world isn’t round, it’s flat like a disc, and we all have to beware of the edge of this disc, because anyone who falls over the edge
falls into the void -
from “Half the Moon / Roland Schimmelpfennig”
Writing about theatre is something that’s never come easily to me.
Writing about theatre strikes me as difficult in the same way as writing about music or about a painting. No description can do justice to the “real” sensory encounter with art, and in the case of a theatre performance there’s also the particular charm and complication that “real” and “unreal” can’t be completely separated from one another.
During the pandemic, there’s not much room left for the “unreality” of theatre. The pandemic is hitting theatre hard. Everything in the pandemic is “real” – illness, contagion, danger. Anxiety. Respiratory distress. Death. There’s a strong desire to respond in the theatre to this overpowering, oppressive reality through poetry, invention, the art of storytelling, but at the moment the state of affairs largely makes that impossible. As a place for encounters, exchange, utopias, sensory enlightenment and hope, theatre for now exists only virtually.
In Germany there’s been no theatre for months. The theatres are closed.
Something has thus come to pass that seemed to me just about unimaginable. I had always considered theatre one of the few art forms that can withstand pretty much anything, since you need almost nothing to make theatre, besides actors and a text or a story – and the audience. You don’t need a stage, or lights, or even electricity. Theatre can happen at any time and in any place, I used to think. But no, that’s not the case.
When people can no longer congregate, that’s when theatre is done for. Congregating: that’s the very thing, I’m realizing more and more during the pandemic, that gives theatre its real meaning. Experiencing, sharing a story together.
Theatre has many facets. Sometimes it’s a bourgeois or even elite institution, and often it degenerates into nothing more than disposable entertainment. But meaningful theatre is clearlymore than that: it’s a social art form. Since its beginnings, theatre has been an expression of community. It’s a place for dialogue. People perform for other people. People share a moment, a thought, an emotion. In the theatre, people don’t stare at a movie or TV screen or a telephone on which images are moving, images you can stop, let run on or simply turn off.
Theatre is alive. No “streaming” can replace it.
When I have to write about theatre, I often seek refuge in a more narrative form, trying in that way to avoid the issue. I often find theatre theory wearing, because theatre is about practice. Theatre deals with people, not with systems, not with technique, and in the long run no system or technique or dogma or theory will succeed in coopting theatre. Theatre is about telling stories, in an infinite variety of different ways.
Theatre texts travel from head to head, from mouth to mouth and ear to ear, and in the process they’re constantly changing.
Wherever they show up, in whatever place or time, they always materialize in a new and different form.
A film captures images and phrases in a fixed form.
Theatre releases the images and phrases – and sometimes they fly all round the world.
But in order to set out on that journey from coast to coast, theatre needs translations.
The pandemic brought with it all the lockdowns, and the lockdowns brought with them loneliness and isolation.
Long before Corona, Jayashree Joshi in Mumbai and the Goethe Institut’s South Asian network had been planning for me to travel to India for meetings and workshops with the women and men translating a whole series of my plays into Marathi, Hindi, Urdu, Sinhalese, Tamil, and Bangla.
Besides all manner of detailed questions about language, ultimately the aim was to focus on the central aspects of theatre: congregating, exchanging. The communal development of ideas and language. Dialogue. What a beautiful, splendid plan. A dream.
I had been very much looking forward to meeting and working with this large team of participants, but suddenly the pandemic made the plan unfeasible. There it was: the reality of the pandemic, threatening the fragile utopia of the theatre.
In the end it was decided that the translators‘ workshop would take place online. There was no alternative.
There were test meetings online. I learned how to use the appropriate program or platform, my internet connection became unstable – of course – at the key moment, either I couldn’t be understood or I couldn’t hear anything.
So I bought myself a headset, and I bought a yellow something- or-other cable in order to avoid possible fluctuations in my wifi signal strength. I asked all the other people in my apartment not to stream any films or download large files during the online meetings, because I was afraid that otherwise the internet connection might crash.
I thought I was prepared.
On the first official day of the workshop I got up at 8am, made coffee, and went through all the questions I’d been sent one more time. It occurred to me that it might not be so easy, in an online video meeting with about thirty participants and eight plays in six languages, to stay on top of it all.
I sat down at my computer, opened the program, and then the computer crashed.
This was at 9:52, eight minutes before the workshop was due to start.
I began to sweat, and at the same time I felt cold.
At 10:01 the computer rebooted.
The program opened up. I clicked on a button, and then I found myself in a virtual meeting room.
I was alone.
I knew I couldn’t be alone. I waited.
Everything was quiet. No sign of anyone besides me. And no one came.
I discovered another meeting room. This meeting room had the same name as the room I was in, but I couldn’t enter this one. I wondered how it was possible for me not be able to get into a room I was already in.
I found within the program a way to create a third room, but that room was identical with the one I was and and wasn’t in. It was a room in the room in the room, and I immediately left it, only to immediately enter it, since it was identical to the empty room I had been in before. It was dark. It wasn’t dark. A really long corridor of identical rooms appeared, like in a hotel in which all the rooms have the same number.
Hello, said a woman’s voice. I reply “Hello,” but she doesn’t seem to be able to hear me.
What do we do now? asked the voice after a while.
I don’t know, I said.
I can hear him but I can’t see him, said a man. I don’t know if he can hear me. Hello?
Hello? I asked again.
I can see him but can’t hear him, said someone else.
Who’s that speaking? answered yet another voice.
My phone rang, but when I answered, all I heard was crackling. The world disintegrated into tiny magnetic fragments without number.
I stretched out my hand as if I was kneeling on the bank of a river.
I could see everything and nothing. And then suddenly they were all there:
Amitra Dhara and Romit Roy and Sunanda Basu and Parthapratim Chattopadhyay and Subroto Saha and Pratima Shekhawat and Namita Khare and Kamal Pruthi and Ishani Joshi and Nidhi Mathur and Shailesh Kumar Ray and Shiv Prakash Yadav and Mrunmayee Shivapurkar and Prasad Pakti and Sunanda Mahajan and Milind Sant and Jayashree Joshi and Ashani Ranasinghe and Hem Mahesh and P. Seralathan and Lalitha G. and Ramu Ramanthan and Mansi Bapat and Barbara Christ and Hamsavahini Singh and Syed Salman Abbas and Sadique Raza Khan and MD Khalid and Mohammad Uzair.
And we were in Mumbai and Berlin und in Kolkata and North 24 Parganas and Birbhum and Delhi and Gaziabad and Pune and Solapur and Colombo and Chennai and Rajasthan and Muzafarpur and Prayagraj and Pashchim Bardhaman and Aligarh at the same time.
Outdoors: rocks, stones, bushes. Goats with bells round their necks.
The clock has stopped. The TV is playing with no sound. More shadows than images. At the same time the radio is turned on. It’s 11am. It’s 11:30. It’s noon. News.
Looking out of the window:
Look at me, she said. What do you see? How old am I? How old are you?
The sound of an engine in the distance.
What’s the point in waiting? Don’t wait. We’re not allowed to wait. Are you waiting? You have to stop waiting, she said.
On the radio, they always tell you the time, all day, so tht we think something is continuing, but time, what’s that supposed to be? Who came up with it? It’s a complicated thing, I’ve given it some thought. There’s no such thing as time. There’s just the beginning and the end of a thing, and the end is simultaneously the beginning of something and the beginning an end. Everything goes round in circles.
The goats with the bells. She shouts something through the window.
There’s no such thing as time. There’s only stasis and change.
We were in the same room and simultaneously in thirty different rooms. The room was at once small and large, it had green walls, it had blue walls, it had white walls, there were bookcases with glass doors, and colourful curtains, it was cold, it was hot, behind an open door I could see snow – or I thought I could see snow, a shaft of sunlight fell at an angle through a barred window, someone was sitting in an open square with nobody else around, it could also have been a roof, I could hear cars, dogs barking, birds twittering, a call to prayer, music, phones ringing in the distance. A child laughed.
We talked about musical instruments for which there are no names in our language – that’s how far apart we were.
We heard how a German nursery rhyme might sound in Urdu and Bangla. We got goose pimples. We applauded.
The cricket in Before/After can’t be called “cricket” in Marathi or Tamil, even though the creature has long legs everywhere.
What’s to be done? Suddenly there are fireflies and butterflies and ladybirds buzzing around the room. We were coming up against the bounds of what’s possible (though we’d been doing that all along), and then we crossed over those bounds with great ease, as distorted audio signals wailed down the yellow cable and at times we couldn’t see anything besides square dots, and for an anxious moment we spoke into the void only to then be reunited, pleased and happy, like after a journey on a raging current, though we hadn’t moved an inch. We marveled – almost as if we were in the theatre. We laughed.