Reality Bites

In conversation with Helgard Haug and Miriam Yung Min Stein

Von Saumya Ancheri

16.01.2009 / the bengaluru pages

Rimini Protokoll with its three core directors – Helgard Haug, Daniel Wetzel and Stefan Kaegi – has been recognised as leaders and creators of the theatre movement ‘Theatre der Zeit’ (Reality Trend) in Germany. Haug, Kaegi and Wetzel were awarded the German DER FAUST prize for theatre last November for their plays that make a theatrical collage of real-life stories. Their latest play, Black Tie, directed by Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel, explores the black hole of origins experienced by children adopted internationally through the real-life story of Miriam Yung Min Stein, a Korean adopted by a German family. Slim, with Asian features, growing up was traumatic for Miriam as the initial basic question of physical difference in a largely Caucasian country burgeoned into longing for a sense of belonging. She researched into her past for three years before she met Helgard Haug. As the lights went up after their performance in the city, Helgard Haug and Miriam Yung Min Stein spoke to Saumya Ancheri about bringing life to the stage.

How has the experience been, sharing your story with ‘Black Tie’ to make a political statement against international adoption?

MIRIAM: It’s been weird sharing my story with so many people but it is necessary to be radically subjective, to help adoptees from Korea and India find a voice. When I recently visited South Korea for the first time, I stayed at a hostel subsidised by the government for returning adoptees. Even though we all looked the same because we were Korean by birth, we stuck to our own nationalities – Germans or Australians or otherwise – because of the cultural differences. I discovered that I was one of the luckier ones, even though I had such a tough time.
Girls are abandoned in Korea because of the tendency to prefer sons. All these mothers remember their children everyday for 30 years and wonder where they are. I strongly feel that the identity of biological mothers should not be kept a secret from their children. Adults looking to adopt should seriously reflect if their intentions are deeper than feeling good about themselves. We seldom see what children adopted by celebrities experience when growing up.

HELGARD: I can understand the desire to adopt, but in the larger picture, it has political and business ramifications. Parents may give up their children thinking, “They will have a better life somewhere else,” but that may not be the case.

Countries have increasingly multi-racial populations today. Do you foresee the same problems for young international adoptees today as what you experienced while growing up in Germany in the 1970s?

MIRIAM: Being a person of colour, it was more complex then. Germany is predominantly a white country; most of my friends are bi-racial. It’s an idealistic goal to mix races until the only difference is fingerprints; in reality, it’s hard to achieve.
We’re not over the problem yet. There is a lot of psychological pressure on adoptive parents about their children who are psychologically damaged without any of their doing. They may not know what they’re getting into when they adopt, and once they do, they may not want to face it. Families that adopt children from other countries usually have very high quality homes and very high expectations; they want everything to work. It’s a setback when the child doesn’t give them everything they want. It’s a modern custom to teach Korean to a child adopted from Korea, but what if the child doesn’t want to learn? Identity is something you question in your adolescence. Diversity is important in a country but not in a family structure.

Has writing the play given a sense of closure or is the quest for identity still a black hole?

MIRIAM: The quest for one’s identity is universal; adoptees have a higher urge to research and analyse. There will always be a black hole; I think it’s important to listen to these voices that question. I don’t believe happiness is permanent. There are happy moments, but the more people say there is such a feeling, the unhappier you will feel. I’d say you must embrace what you have. Going to Korea and writing this play, I’ve learned how important it is to live in the present. My nationality is German but there is also Asian in me; I like both.

What inspired Rimini Protokoll’s unique “theatre of experts” where non-professional actors narrate their own stories instead of text-based dramas?

HELGARD: We wanted theatre that made us want to be a part of it. We’re not interested in theatre as critics, but to confront the traditions of theatre. We wanted to see real stories on stage. In our first work, elderly ladies talked about being Formula 1 drivers in their past. We had people visit companies and observe people at work. It is interesting to not pretend; you can watch people taking off cables and say, “that’s theatre”. Life and art are melded: you may see a street scene that you want to frame or you may go to an art show and simply not be inspired. It depends on the connection you feel. ‘Radio Muezzin’ was based on the impending replacement of muezzins by a single radio broadcast in Cairo. ‘Cargo Sofia’ took audiences in freezer-trucks in several European transit centres.

You’ve explored reallife stories in Vienna, in Belgium, in Kolkata and are currently working on Istanbul in ‘Landsmann Sein’. What stimulates such a wide palette of performances?

HELGARD: It’s often by invitation. Sometimes even if it is a great story, it doesn’t work out. We have partners we like to work with repeatedly. Goethe Institut gives us chances to go to cities and research and develop plays. We work with the state theatre in Germany for funding. We apply for grants, so we make the concept one to three years in advance. Two or three of us commence on research, which we do off and on during the year. The pure rehearsal period is usually three to five weeks. We may show a play every month in a different city for two years; some plays are performed only once. Black Tie was harder as the focus was on one person. It gave us the chance to work longer – six weeks were spent on meetings and rehearsals.
Helgard, your initial works of documentary theatre explored the lives of several people; ‘Black Tie’ has been criticised for being one-sided. What made you decide to shift the focus?

HELGARD: With Das Kapital, we had a big group of people with different opinions and political statements working together. In Black Tie, we have one person who tells you she will use the word “I” 276 times. Why should I ask a person to be many-sided; art can be very flat if the focus is not sharpened. It was the issue that made us decide to keep it as a monologue. We wanted to do a biography as a play; we wanted a person who did not have all the information about her past within her reach, so there is that blank space that allows for fiction. Miriam had published a book and we’d also heard of her. There is a chemical reaction that comes with hearing a story, even if you are not of the same opinion as the narrator.

How do you sustain the spontaneity and authenticity of the
juxtaposition of real stories beyond the first few performances?

HELGARD: One of us is always with the group; working to liven it up. This is the ninth performance of Black Tie and the problem isn’t there. But with our staging of Das Kapital, where 8 people told their stories with Marx as the common thread, from the 60 runs, some evenings would be really boring – it’s like bad acting, only worse, because you don’t have the tool to rely on. So we always try to do something new, to include something about the city we’re touring. How do you tell what is authentic in a story, given the tendency to exaggerate or censor when it is about you?

HELGARD: People we work with have an attitude of “why me?” They say “I’ll tell you my story, but give it to someone else to perform”; they’re not looking for attention. They think their life is boring; we have to convince them otherwise. As soon as we’re convinced, we become a pain until they say “yes!” Ultimately, people agree because of the wish to have an adventure. There is a need to train them to keep their naturalness onstage. But often the audience forgets that the performers are not actors but telling their own stories. Your plays bring social issues centre stage, encouraging the audience to participate in real discussions. How has the audience response been across countries?

HELGARD: I haven’t had much experience with Indian audiences, but with the plays we’ve showed here, I got the impression that people strongly engaged with topics, which is the same in Germany. People get the humour and irony in our stories. In 100% Berlin, only one person was cast. He proposed one participant from his group of friends who in turn chose another, and so on till we had a chain reaction of 100 Berliners with controls on nomination based on surveys done by the Berlin Brandenburg Statistics Office. Based on ‘Yes/No’ questions, they re-formed into various groups and the audience was amused and awake the entire time. We asked them about all kinds of things: had they been in prison, their political engagement, did they pay for their ticket when using public transport – questions that are interesting for the society you are part of. You pick ten people you’re interested in and follow their decisions; you ask yourself “Where would I go and who would join me in this?” In Vancouver in 2010, The Winter Olympics, we hope to get the whole audience to participate in this. We had an open-mike session too, and people asked their own questions on politics, lifestyle… one person stood alone for his question: “Do you pee in the swimming pool?” but I’m sure many more in the audience did!

‘Deadline’ was staged at a theatre that was soon to be closed and involved four speakers who encountered death on a daily basis. What was the response like?

HELGARD: The audience reaction was very strong because death is more taboo in Germany than it is in India. In Calcutta, people carry the corpse through the streets but in Germany, it’s kept out of the focus. Now there is a stronger movement in Germany to keep the corpse for a while at home, to give the soul the possibility of flying away. The medical side deals with death in a technical way; there is a whole industry on burying the body. There was emotional interest as well as the industry to consider when we made the play, so we had to go everywhere for research. You wonder, “How would I like to die? How did I react when someone died?” The theatre in Hamburg that was about to close down, in which we gave the play’s first performance, was very small, it could seat only 90 people. It was sad
and the close atmosphere made everyone face it for a moment.

‘Call Cutta’ which engaged audiences in India and abroad with a call centre in Kolkata brought attention to how the Indian performer has to hide his identity at work. Taken with the anti-international adoption stance of ‘Black Tie’ is globalisation an alarming phenomenon we pay too little attention to?

HELGARD: We don’t want to criticise globalisation; we’re globalised artists. In Call Cutta, we re-used something created by companies for the arts. By re-using it, by questioning international adoption in Black Tie, we want people to re-think the negative effects of globalisation.


Black Tie