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Being foreigners unites us

Free spaces are in-between spaces – often little niches at first, until they grow bigger and bigger and develop into real realms of freedom. In my field, the theatre, the free, shared creative space of the development of a play or project has to be reinvented, redeveloped, reclaimed in every single work.

By Jan Bosse

Allied Aliens: Thinking about Realms of Freedom

For the "Milano meets Oslo" segment of the Goethe-Institut’s European Freiraum project, I was invited to stage a play about Freiraum called Allied Aliens with Liv Hege Skagestad at Den mangfaldige scenen in an unusually short time – less than a day – with the actors Camara Joof (Ghanaian-Norwegian) and Sarah Camille Ramin Osmundsen from Oslo and Modou Gueye (Senegalese) from Milan.

My Freiraum experience in Oslo began with a meeting at the Goethe-Institut in dark Oslo – where I found myself plunged into the middle of Grønland, eating reindeer ham and elk meatballs at the Goethe buffet.

There is basically no “recipe” for the production of theatre. As in cooking or any other craft, well-picked “ingredients” are certainly key to the success of the overall results. “And yet the spark that turns a dish into a real treat for the palate (to stick to the culinary metaphor) – this Promethean spark is not divine, but man-made”.
Freiraum Architecture Photo: Malva Nieto © unsplash More an inquiring witness than a director

Am I the right person for this project? A middle-aged bourgeois white male theatre director from Germany? Maybe I am, if only because the audience is more like me than I care to admit. My questions are not the ones the actors on stage would ask each other if they were alone. It’s being foreigners that unites us.

In this Goethe-Institut project, I saw myself more as an inquiring witness than as a director. But then it turned out that a firm structure was badly needed after all in order to select from this variety of different stories and to sort, arrange and string the material together for a theatrical presentation of our encounter, to elevate the conversation beyond the purely personal dimension. The highlights turned out to be three original verbal compositions: a Norwegian song, an English poem and a Senegalese rhapsody.

We sought not just to scratch the surface, but to tell each story in a way that hints at the profusion of other, untold experiences and thoughts, the biographies of people’s whole lives, replete with dislocations, pain and sorrow. To open up the space in the minds of a white European audience. Questions that raise more questions, responses and stories that arouse curiosity and the desire to inquire further. And yet a secret remains. What is told is only what wants to be told, what needs to be told.

Modou talked about the everyday racism he encounters in Italy, where he is often addressed in the familiar “tu” form in shops, in cafés: "Cosa vuoi?

"I say ‘Lei’ to you,” he responds to them, using the polite form of address, “so please say ‘Lei’ to me.” Sometimes he simply laughs at the rude, contemptuous question, which usually takes the wind out of their sails.
Open window on an skyscraper Photo: Chris Barbalis © unsplash Names tell of belonging

Names as symbols of identity. The Kurdish woman running the workshop stressed the importance of names, of recognizably Kurdish names, that daily tell of their belonging to this landless displaced diaspora.

Rosina, our Italo-German translator from the Goethe-Institut in Milan, recounted how her father insisted on naming her Monika. Her mother was appalled: "Much too German!" – All right, then, same as Grandma: Rosa! – "Oh, no! Rosa?! Then at least Rosina, please!"

And then the terrific Turkish-Norwegian documentary filmmaker talked about how she uses her Turkish name when, say, interviewing Islamists, and leaves her Norwegian marriage unmentioned in these delicate situations.

But this stirring, exciting evening ended in violence. A woman suddenly began ranting at one of our actors, heaping racist insults on him that were more asinine and clichéd than even the worst possible script, and eventually physically attacked him, sticking a lit cigarette in his face, while he remained bewildered but completely calm.

None of us could believe it. We couldn’t stand the thought that this of all evenings, this little project that had opened up so many spaces, uniting us in such elation, should end in such bad theatre, in a real-life drama.

And this very incident goes to show why the Freiraum project is essential and must go on. So I'm looking forward to the sequel at the end of November in Milan!