There’s a scene in John Cassavetes’s film Opening Night (1977) – about an ageing stage actress – in which we see the protagonist, Gena Rowlands, talking offstage. In real life, Rowlands and Cassavetes were married. Standing in what could be their living room, she turns and walks through a door. The camera pans and we realize she’s on stage in front of hundreds of people, speaking to the man playing her husband: Cassavetes. We no longer know whether their dialogue is real or staged. That threshold – opening a door to a new, questionable reality – is something I’ve always wanted to explore in my own theatre productions.
Like Opening Night, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) deals with acting, directing and the entanglement of real and staged emotions. Actor Lou Castel plays Jeff, the director of the film within the film, and Fassbinder’s alter-ego. Fassbinder himself, who always did things two steps removed, plays the film’s production manager. For Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970), Fassbinder and co-director Michael Fengler had the actors improvise, based on loose scene descriptions, and filmed the results. For my 2014 stage adaptation of the film at the Kammerspiele in Munich, we used the original script but asked people working at the theatre – technicians, office staff, ticket sellers, backstage assistants – to record the text in a sound studio. Then, masked actors performed the scenes to the playback of these recordings. The scenes comprise the very normal everyday activities of Herr R.: driving his car, talking to colleagues, having dinner with his wife and son. But, by using the playback, this recognizable reality suddenly felt strange, like looking in a distorted mirror.
Fassbinder had a specific way of working with actors, arranging them in tableaux vivants with stylized gestures and ways of speaking. Especially in his early films, such as Katzelmacher (1969), it doesn’t seem like acting at all – more like a bodily implosion or standstill. There are no facial expressions or gestures to underscore the emotions, and it approaches something deadpan. Often, it’s as though the actors don’t know how to move their bodies, as though simply being a moving, talking human is a strange and abstract thing. This state of not being able to use or express yourself – to have a mask, to not know how to use or move your body – has been a very important influence for me.
In film, you can transport viewers into a completely different space simply by opening a door. This same characteristic also attracts me to video games. The first video game I played was sometime in the 1980s. It was very basic, just this strange little man walking from room to room. I can still remember the feeling of fascination, like Alice down the rabbit hole: what lies behind the next door? This is something I’m trying to find out using spatial transitions in theatre.
Seeing Christoph Schlingensief’s Church of Fear (2003) in Amsterdam was an important experience. He dealt with political sectarianism, feelings of fear and his own experience of cancer, which he channelled back into works such as Church of Fear and Mea Culpa: A Ready-Made Opera (2009), made shortly before he died. For a time, Schlingensief was director at the Volksbühne in Berlin – a theatre with a highly political self-image, particularly concerning divisions between former East and West Germany. I’m closer to Schlingensief’s work at the end of his life – when he went to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso – than to his earlier political actions. I read Schlingensief’s diary and thought: how do you prepare yourself for sickness and death? It will come: how do you deal with that?
Death is a huge part of theatre, but we’re afraid of it: it’s taboo. At the Ruhrtriennale, I did a project called Orfeo (2014), subtitled ‘An Exercise in Dying’. A friend of mine died of cancer three years ago. We were at directing school together in the Netherlands. He got sick and died very quickly – an experience that made a huge impression on me. Things happen in your life, but you can’t always express them right away.
Before death is illness – a subject I turn to in the context of our Western world. We don’t know how to sleep anymore. We don’t know how to eat anymore. We don’t know how to be born and we don’t know how to die. What does sickness mean and what does it tell us now? Cancer is something that eats you up from inside. It’s something that is also endemic to the systems in which we live. It’s not just any sickness, but the one many of us fear the most.
For Women in Trouble, which premiered at the Volksbühne in November 2017, I looked at the representation of illness in today’s culture. I took a journey through the internet, putting together various sources and using them as text: YouTube videos where cancer patients tell their stories, Ted Talks on ‘How I Survived Cancer’, blog entries and cancer treatment prescriptions.
Death is a huge part of theatre, but we’re afraid of it.
The play is about an actress, Angelina Dreem, whose life we follow as she gets sick, dies and is born again. On the Volksbühne’s constantly revolving stage, the play tracks Dreem as she passes through different rooms and experiences everyday situations: rehearsals, performances, private moments that could also be scenes from a film – depending on which reality or medium you are in.
For me, Dreem’s story is a hero’s journey: a myth, like the Odyssey. Myths are stories people return to time and again because we find ourselves asking the same questions time and again. I think of theatre as a ritual. You have to go back to its roots, to the force that stems from being in the same room with a group of people. Something happens within these bodies that is very specific, almost shamanistic. As a director, you have a certain responsibility which comes with that.
I also thought it was important to tell the life of an actress on a stage that has been so dominated by men. In its previous iteration, the Volksbühne was known for privileging a potent, explosive form of theatre. Following the model established by Bertolt Brecht and Heiner Müller, the Volksbühne has been critical of ‘immersive’ theatre. However, I think the lack of immersion is also an illusion. My own approach is the opposite: quiet, slow, with bodies that hardly move or speak. Schlingensief himself would leave the Volksbühne. It was a theatre with big personalities and names – mainly men. Come to think of it, I don’t know of any woman who directed anything there. Which is truly insane.
Main image: Christoph Schlingensief, Mea Culpa: A Ready-Made Opera, 2009, performance documentation. Courtesy: Burgtheater Vienna; photograph: © Georg Soulek
Susanne Kennedy is a theatre director based in Berlin, Germany, and an associate director of the Volksbühne, Berlin. In 2017, she was awarded the Europe Prize Theatrical Realities. Women in Trouble premiered at the Volksbühne in November 2017.
First published in Issue 192