There’s a peculiar phenomenon sweeping American television. It’s like reality TV, but I don’t mean competition shows like Top Chef (2006–ongoing), or half-scripted dramas such as The Hills (2006–10). The new trend is for shows about real people – often in remote parts of the country like the Alaskan tundra or the Louisiana bayou – who have highly specialized, usually blue-collar jobs. I’ve seen series about gold miners, motorcycle fixers, ice road truckers, deep-sea fishermen and duck hunters. These shows mix documentary-style footage with cutaway monologues that reveal dashes of drama in the subjects’ daily lives.
The collision of the real and the performed was a central interest for Rimini Protokoll long before it was a staple of mass entertainment. Stephan Kaegi, one of the Berlin-based theatre collective’s founding members, staged Peter Heller spricht über Geflügelhaltung (Peter Heller Talks About Poultry Farming) in 1997, when he was still a theatre student. As its title suggests, the performance featured a poultry farmer who showed slides and talked about the technical aspects of his job for an hour, followed by questions from the audience. Kaegi foresaw the potential in bringing people like Heller – who the group always refer to as ‘experts’ – into theatrical scenarios.
To me, whether it’s duck hunting or poultry farming, the combination of specialized knowledge with personal life-stories is inherently compelling – a window onto worlds I didn’t know existed. I marvel at the strange truths of people’s lives, while wondering how true these depictions actually are. Likewise, Rimini Protokoll’s experts’ professions – magicians, morticians, statisticians, politicians – are so specific, how can their monologues be faked? Yet, the fact that their skills are being presented to an audience – sometimes inside the theatre, sometimes outside of it; sometimes for a large group, sometimes for just one person – casts a different light on their narratives. In Rimini Protokoll’s works, everyday activities, like my job, or yours, become inherently theatrical. It’s up to us to parse the scripted or the staged from the confessional tone of these non-actors and their occasionally ‘unscripted’ moments. This format begs the larger question: when does life become performance? Can anything that takes place before an audience, even an audience of one, be conceived of as theatre? How can we access, or assess, the truth or authenticity of a persona being portrayed for us?
It’s these soluble boundaries between theatre and life that provide the stages for Rimini Protokoll’s works. Unlike conventional theatre, we’re not plunged into the fantasy of artifice, a narrative arc, or enthralled by the skill of an actor embodying a role from a different time or place. The fourth wall is constantly broken, but, conversely, so is the ‘reality effect’ that results.
The three author-directors who make up the variable, somewhat nomadic collective of Rimini Protokoll – Helgard Haug, Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel – met at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies at the University of Giessen, a school known for its avant-garde approach to theatre. As Wetzel explains it, they weren’t taught the skills of conventional theatre, even if they had wanted to be. For several years before they began collaborating, the three directors worked separately. Kaegi put a dog on stage, then the poultry farmer, and in 1995 Haug and Wetzel (together with Marcus Dross) decided to incorporate two firemen, who were required to be present at one of their shows, into the production. Their ideas eventually converged in 2000, when they decided to work with residents of the retirement home next to the university. The result was Kreuzworträtsel Boxenstopp (Crossword Pitstop), starring four women in their 80s and 90s performing monologues that compared the process of aging to the maintenance of Formula 1 cars.
Kreuzworträtsel Boxenstopp was the first of some 70 projects and productions by Rimini Protokoll over the last 15 years, with their members working in different constellations. After the elderly women, the directors continued to collaborate exclusively with ‘experts’: teenage boys, trash collectors, truck drivers. Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 2009) intertwined the biographies of an elderly Berlin magician, Uri Geller’s lawyer, an Icelandic journalist deployed to Iraq, and an ex-KGB agent who ‘saved the world’ from nuclear disaster. On the surface it might be hard to tell what they have in common, but their monologues bear serendipitous commonalities on issues of magic, illusion and misdirection.
The directors work closely with their collaborators to develop their scripts, in a process somewhere between oral history and ghostwriting. ‘We try to find techniques which scrape off as little as possible of the liveliness of their telling,’ Wetzel said, in a 2008 interview.1 Their protagonists are rarely in dialogue, and as they address the audience they simultaneously manage audio-visual presentations and handle props, acting almost as stage managers and crew. ‘We never teach them how to make theatre,’ Wetzel explains. ‘Actually, we’re very interested in the resistance they bring to the conventions of performance, often quite unconsciously’.2
The result is not always seamless. One feels the discomfort of the experts on stage, which puts the audience on edge but also heightens the ‘reality effect’. The performances can be something akin to a fearful public speaker giving a TED talk, magnifying the possibilities of what can ‘go wrong’ on stage. On the other hand, they sometimes select experts whose jobs inherently involve the act of ‘showing’. For Lagos Business Angels (2012) they sought out people interested in forming business connections between Germany and Nigeria. The entrepreneurs’ 11-minute presentations were given to small groups as the audience rotated around dedicated spaces in the HAU in Berlin. Frank Okoh explained how he ships scrapped German vehicles from Hamburg to sell the parts in Lagos; Oluwafemi Ladipo urged us to buy his bespoke shoes and Frieda Springer-Beck, surrounded by folders full of paperwork, told how, after losing her life savings to a Nigerian phishing scam, she left Germany to establish an anti-fraud office in Lagos. Their deliveries were somewhere between storytelling and impassioned sales pitches.
Just as they redefine what an actor can be and who can be one, Rimini Protokoll expand the idea of the spaces where theatre can take place. To do so, they strip away most of the conventions of traditional theatre until just one or two essential qualities remain. Staging a production may be as simple as re-framing everyday eventsin the political or corporate world by inviting an audience to witness them. For Annual Shareholders Meeting (2009), for example, they acquired seats at the annual shareholders meeting of the mega-corporation Daimler, and invited an audience of 150 people to join the 8,000 attendees witnessing the day-long presentations. By this move, the lights, staging and speeches of Daimler’s Investor Relations Team became theatre. The entire perception of the meeting was shifted: Daimler even refused to cooperate with the project, presumably fearing it would expose the artifice of their presentations. ‘These [highly representative] spaces can also be used as a sort of plinth for things and people that one is no longer accustomed to perceive,’ said Kaegi.3
Rimini Protokoll’s work has been labelled ‘documentary theatre’ but their method reveals things about the world not by reportage, but by turning a spotlight on individual stories or social microcosms to represent wider populations and global phenomena. ‘We believe that theatre can be used as a tool to analyze reality’, Kaegi explains.4 Originally staged at the HAU in Berlin in 2008, 100% Berlin has since been replicated in 20 cities. Ostensibly the structure is simple: 100 people are chosen to represent a statistically accurate sample of a city according to demographics such as gender, age, marital status and birthplace. The script comprises questions posed to the participants: ‘who reads statistics?’ ‘Who lies?’ The action is dictated by their responses, as they indicate their answers by holding up ‘ja’ or ‘nein’ signs, or moving from one part of the stage to another, while a screen projects a bird’s eye view so the audience has a clear visual representation of the ‘data’. Statistically, it’s close to a ‘real’ portrayal of a city; it shows the node where the individual coincides with the collective. But it also reveals where he or she departs from us again.
Rimini Protokoll not only create a correspondence between spectator and performer but choreograph their work to reverse these roles. For Call Cutta in a Box: An Intercontinental Phone Play (2008), they rented a corner of a call centre in Calcutta, India, whose employees worked night shifts calling the US, UK, Africa and Australia. Working with these employees, they created a loose script which was used to initiate conversations with individuals in designated offices abroad who would receive a call. In an hour-long one-to-one conversation, a connection was formed and performed between call-centre worker and the ‘audience member’ thousands of miles away. After chatting freely for a while, at some point, the caller would convince their partner to perform for them, by singing or dancing. Call Cutta transformed what would usually be a business interaction into a personal exchange, where the proscribed salesperson became a director. I imagine this created the feeling of a spontaneous encounter – like befriending a stranger sitting next to you on the plane – but one that becomes less comfortable when you realize you’re the performer, and the script has been choreographed for you.
Their latest work, Situation Rooms (2013/14), first staged at the Ruhrtriennale in 2013, is their most complex production to date. Audience members are given an iPad featuring a series of 20 videos, each narrated by a different expert who guides you around a 20-room structure. What links the protagonists – including an Indian drone pilot, a Pakistani lawyer who represents citizens harmed in drone strikes, a Congolese child soldier and a German photojournalist, among others – is their close involvement with weapons. Situation Rooms gives us a view of armed conflict from multi-perspectives and multiple authors. This kaleidoscopic approach makes the theatre space itself, and your place in it, confusing and unstable. As you listen to the sometimes harrowing and surprisingly frank stories of the Mexican drug gang member or the cafeteria manager in a Russian arms factory as they walk through the same rooms as you, your gaze moves between the iPad video and the spaces you’re in: replicas of a cramped apartment, a weapons lab, or the office of an arms dealer. Rather than an immersive in-screen experience, the staging constantly reminds you of your own body as you negotiate between the video and your physical surroundings.
Situation Rooms comprises an incredibly complex choreography of encounters, glances and gestures that seem to intersect almost by chance: in the videos, the ‘chief protocol officer’ places a model of a German Leopard II tank on a table; later, a politician fighting against German arms exports silently removes the tank to a shelf. You’re asked to adopt various positions by your expert guide, such as how to take cover in an ambush or the correct stance when shooting a gun. On the way, you’re instructed to interact with other audience members: when being guided by the surgeon from Doctors Without Borders, you stand above an operating table upon which an audience member playing a Syrian refugee lies. The encounters are eerily symbolic: the photojournalist instructs you to peek around a corner just as another audience member is being instructed by the professional marksman to take aim at you. As the doctor urges you to flip through photographs of the victims he treated in Sierra Leone, the German army officer stands passively by. At the same time, you have to keep reminding yourself of the rather unbelievable fact that these videos were filmed in the close hallways and cramped rooms of the very theatre structure you are in – the experts playing out the same interactions.
The convergences are carefully choreographed by the directors, but they have the impact and effect of reality. Situation Rooms makes you an audience to war, not by elevating it onto a stage but by making you negotiate your way within it, and, by this implicating you in its machinations. Rimini Protokoll’s works give you a model by which to visualize reality: like life, but life once removed. As Wetzel puts it, ‘authenticity is what you aim for, but the theatre is not an authentic situation.’5 By framing lives – both of their protagonists and me, the presumed spectator – within theatrical parameters, I’m drawn closer, which gives me a feeling of discovery, even magic. But the conventions of theatre keep me at a distance, from which I can contemplate the truth, authenticity or illusion of those discoveries.
Rimini Protokoll is a team of author-directors who are based in Berlin. They have won numerous awards including the Excellence Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival for their latest work, Situation Rooms. Situation Rooms will be performed this summer at La Villette, Paris; Schauspielhaus Zürich and Kampnagel, Hamburg.
1 Peter M. Boenisch, Other People Live: Rimini Protokoll and their ‘Theatre of Experts’, Contemporary Theatre Review, volume 18, issue 1, 2008
3 I try to speak about reality, interview with Patrice Blaser, January 2004, http://www.rimini-protokoll.de/website/en/article_2572.html
4 Johan V. Bendsten, Tonight’s Show: Capitalism Performing Democracy, grasp.dk, 18 December 2012
5 Interview with Daniel Wetzel, Berlin, 26 February 2014
First published in Issue 14