The ultimate form of audience participation

How Daimler’s annual shareholders’ meeting became a real stage performance

05.04.2009 / Tagesspiegel

Recently in the Schaubühne, audience members found on their seats a large cardboard box on which there was a note: “Dear fellow citizen, take out a pencil, an arrow, a folded A4 piece of paper and a pad of yellow adhesive labels of this box.“ As the performance began, the audience was to make themselves paper crowns.

Beginning an evening with the collective unpacking of playthings is nothing unusual in the independent theatre scene. In recent months theatregoers in Berlin have made face masks, stars out of straw, and party decorations. According to the programme, Schaubühne guest performance group Turbo Pascal, by instigating handicrafts in a kind of citizens’ initiative model experiment, want to get people to think about democracy.

Performance duo Signa provides much more room for creative audience participation for the price of the ticket, reconstructing entire dictatorships or psychiatric hospitals over several hundred square metres, in which theatregoers can then run riot in free improvisation as hobby-ethnologists or borderline patients. Signa‘s theatre simulation also made it into last year’s ‘Theatertreffen’ theatre festival. Anyone wanting to catch up on the experience of dictatorship with sex appeal could for 25 Euros buy themselves into the artificial city of Rubytown, be bawled out by actors in military uniform and have strippers strip for them in a peepshow. It’s cheaper than for example satisfying Cold War nostalgia in a Swiss hotel chain that specialises in special karaoke sessions in a former nuclear bunker, or going to Leipzig‘s School Museum to be reprimanded by a GDR-socialised teacher as a ‘class enemy’ in a real-socialistic retro-lesson. This weekend Signa‘s latest project “Die Hades-Fraktur”, which simulates a sect-like ‘secret club’ with dodgy gambling and women imprisoned in back rooms, premiered in Cologne.

Audience participation theatre is of course nothing new. Just a century ago, the Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti came up with adventurous proposals for turning theatregoers into (involuntary) cast members. “Glue is smeared on a couple of seats causing spectators to stick fast, thereby provoking general hilarity... A single seat is sold to ten people, resulting in jostling, wrangling and fighting“, he wrote in his 1913 manifesto “Variety Theatre”.

New, however, is the vehemence with which independent theatre groups in particular outdo each other in creating exemplary art-sociotopes, which can usually be recognised by the phrases ‘interactive’, ‘social sculpture’, ‘active participant’ and/or ‘computer game played live’ in the accompanying dramaturgical instruction leaflet. The audiences of these plays usually find out more about how theatre directors of the Google generation imagine a dictatorship or a psychiatric hospital than about actual dictatorship or psychiatric hospitals.
Given the fact that all the performances that politics, society and the individual stage everywhere are hard to top with naive, dramatic model experiments, the funnier and more intelligent strategy of audience participation theatre must now definitely lie in turning the tables. Instead of creating a kind of Second Life as a play area, you take reality and put a theatrical frame around it.
And that’s exactly what Rimini Protokoll’s trio of directors does. Daimler AG’s Annual Shareholders’ Meeting will be held in Berlin‘s ICC next Wednesday. Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel have declared this very real event to be a stage production by the simple expedient of them, with institutional links to HAU, inviting just on two hundred theatregoers to attend. The ‘theatre spectacles’ thus distort the real act, almost rendering it recognisable. Through this ‘lens’, the shareholders’ meeting is revealed as what it is - comparatively undisguised: a production. The self-presentation ritual of a corporation, with the ineluctable insight that ‘Life’ is bigger than ‘Theatre’.

No theatre would be able to afford the theatricalisation strategies seen here through Rimini’s ‘spectacles’. These begin with the contingent of expensive hostesses in the local metro station and don’t end with the well-appointed backstage area, where back office ‘prompters’ try to anticipate all imaginable questions to the management in advance, so as to be able to later pass the answers, legally correct, down to the front as required.
Direction – so it is stated in the accompanying programme compiled by Rimini Protokoll –is carried out solely by the Daimler Investor Relations Team. In the ‘starring roles’ we see among many, many others “Dr. Dieter Zetsche as Chairman of the Board of Management, Jürgen Grässlin as representative of ‘Kritische Aktionäre Daimler’ (the ‘Daimler’ section of the ‘critical shareholders’ organisation’), 8 to 10,000 participants as attending shareholders“ and “180 young, good-looking women and men as hostesses/hosts”.
What the often-invoked epic theatre theory claimed for acting – that the actor is not Hamlet but emphasises more or less ‘finger-wagging’ that he is playing him –Rimini Protokoll performs tacitly in a funny and subversive about-face on their own initiative with the cast of this ‘real theatre’. The differentiation between a person or group of people and their social role means that we constantly come up against the gaps where the performance gapes.

Theatre these days can hardly be more political than Rimini‘s Daimler ‘Annual Shareholders’ Meeting ‘, although the suspicion that they have derived creative benefit from the crisis should be allayed. The directors‘ collective already had the idea of declaring everyday performance rituals in general and a annual shareholders’ meeting in particular as theatre performances years ago. An attempt long before the financial crisis with the Henkel annual shareholders’ meeting in Dusseldorf failed, because the action was more than unwelcome to the corporation and the risk was too great for the producing theatre against this background. When Rimini Protokoll then began buying Daimler shares in the service of art – this time without letting the company in on their plan – the crisis in the car industry, the Opel bailout, the car scrappage bonus and short time working hours were all still unimaginable.
With its Daimler ‘Annual Shareholders’ Meeting’, Rimini has also revolutionised the audience participation theatre genre in an unusually clever way. Annual shareholders’ meetings are not public events. Only shareholders are admitted. They can however transfer their participants’ and voting rights to other people, so Rimini in advance not only called via e-mail lists for participants to buy shares (and repaid the transfer costs) but also sought out shareholders who would transfer their invitations to them.

For the approximately 200 theatregoers now participating via these Rimini channels in the ‘play in five acts’ this means that they are in reality not just spectators, but at the same time, whether they want to be or not, shareholders, or official shareholders’ representatives – and therefore cast members – with all the associated rights and obligations: from voting rights, through to the right to be added to the list of speakers (and then also to actually step up to the microphone), up to the right to the buffet food.
While in the ‘theater of simulation’ the cast childishly ‘plays’, very real events are influenced here. There will be a “Briefing on the Annual Shareholders’ Meeting” with experts in HAU on Monday evening. During the annual shareholders’ meeting, Rimini will organise specialists to explain incomprehensible processes in the foyer and participants will also be able to call up the speeches of ‘leading man’ Dr. Zetsche on the annual financial report from last year and from the year before on their mobile phones. At last, real audience participation.